FAQs About Freelancing

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Question: I recently started writing op-ed columns, for a local newsweekly. I would like to try getting my work published (either the same pieces I write for the weekly, or new ones, or both) in various other newspapers or magazines. Where are these mysterious places where one might get "picked up" for an op-ed column or two, or more?

WEN Answer: It is extremely rare when an "unknown" writer (meaning non celebrity, non byline journalist from a major newspaper, non established book author) gets "picked up." To get your column syndicated, you will need to do the spade work yourself - contacting syndicates or newspapers themselves (if you decide to self-syndicate) and offering them sample columns.

Question: What restrictions are generally placed upon publishing "previously published" work?

WEN Answer: It all depends on what rights you sold the first time. If you signed away all rights or a work-for-hire agreement, then you can't do anything with those op-ed pieces. If you did not, then you would offer other papers second rights or one-time rights or whatever you and they agree upon.

A good source for information on how to proceed is Successful Syndication by Michael Sedge. It's an older book and may be out of print, but has some good tips in it so you may want to look for a used copy. You will also want to check out Gini Scott's article on this site.

Question: Setting fees for freelance corporate projects: Regarding the fee schedules I have seen in popular books about freelancing, does your geographical location influence what you should charge? I live in Springfield, Missouri and wonder if these figures are more applicable to freelancers in other larger cities. I don't want to scare my new clients to death with outrageous prices, but I don't want to undervalue my work either.

WEN Answer: Yes, freelance business writing fees do vary according to geography and market, the same as lawyers' fees and plumbers' hourly rates. In Florida, for example, established writers in the Orlando and Tampa areas based fees on $50 an hour for several years. Yet at the same time, one of our members in Miami was getting $100, and some in Fort Lauderdale were at the $75 hourly rate. But a Fort Myers long-established writer said $35 an hour was tops in Southwest Florida. One way of setting business writing hourly rates is to base it on what other professionals in your area charge. For example, one writer sets his hourly fee the same as the hourly fee his  local psychologist charges. Another writer says her fee for an hour's work is about the same as a local General Practitioner's charge for an office visit. These would likely be different between New York City and Clarkson, Nebraska, for example.

Question: If a magazine publisher purchases an article for "first North American serial rights" and I wish to subsequently sell the story elsewhere, just what am I entitled to sell: the article as I submitted it or the article as edited by the magazine and as it appeared in print? I am concerned about a story of mine that received my byline. The editor of the first purchasing magazine changed the order of some of my paragraphs and rewrote some of my transitions. Otherwise, the article was submitted as I wrote it. Also, if the article as published is sent, does it have a better chance in the market place than a double-spaced original?

WEN Answer: When you sold first N.A. serial rights, you sold that magazine the right to use your material once and to publish it before any other periodical does. Once they actually publish it, you may do with it as you choose; it's yours. If you want to change it in any way you can, including incorporating some or all of the edited changes and making additional changes. When you resubmit the piece for reprint sales, send it it in regular manuscript form (this gives the new editor room to make his or her own changes) and tell the editor where and when it was published before. (Some writers send a tearsheet of the original article, and offer to send a manuscript version if the editor is interested.) Usually, a professionally edited manuscript is tighter and more polished than the original; plus, after the ensuing time has passed, you will probably see additional stylistic changes you'll want to make.

Question: A magazine has accepted one of my stories on speculation. In the writers guidelines, it says they buy all rights. What exactly does that mean? Can I still re-sell the article, or does the magazine get ownership? And if I want to offer other rights for sale, how do I go about that? I have only had written communication from the editor.

WEN Answer: All rights means they own it — you can't use it or any derivative of it ever without their permission. However, under the copyright law as we understand it, you cannot transfer all rights unless you sign something specifically transferring all rights to somebody. Just because a magazine states in their guidelines or an editor tells you that's what they buy, it isn't a done deal until you sign on the dotted line. Other rights can be simply stated, since they are not so permanent.

If you do not want to sell all your rights, and you receive something to sign to that effect, simply write or call the editor and say you do not sell all rights to your material, but if they could tell you how and when they expect to be using it in the future, perhaps a compromise could be worked out. Frequently, magazines don't really ever reuse material; they have a lawyer who has put together their contracts. Or, if they do bring out an annual reprinting their best stories, or if they have a Web site, perhaps you can say, sure for a small extra fee, you'll be happy to extend them those extra rights, as long as you retain the rights to the material.

Question: If I sell all rights, does that mean I can't use any information in the article?  For example, let´s say my article is about the investigation into a murder and the trial leading to a conviction. If I sell all rights, can I write articles for another magazine about what makes someone a killer and use this murder as an example? Also, when I submit my manuscript, should I include a line saying "rights for sale:" and then what I want to sell? Do you think I would be better off
selling all rights or trying to work something better?

WEN Answer: To quote from copyright attorney Ellen Kozak (Every Writer´s Guide to Copyright and Publishing Law), "There is no copyright in facts — which means you can write a totally different article based on the same research. A caution, however: The test for infringement is access plus substantial similarity. If you wrote the original piece, there can be no doubt of your access to it. So if your second piece is substantially similar, you would be guilty of infringing the copyright of the publication to which you sold all rights.

"Of course, it's easier to resell the same work than to rewrite, and it's much easier not to have to compete with your own work, which someone else would then have the right to sell. Therefore, the safest thing you can do is never sign anything that calls your work a `work-made-for-hire´ or which transfers all rights if you can avoid it, and to negotiate modifications, if at all possible, when you can't."

On the upper right hand corner of your first page, where you give the word count, a line or two below the word count, simply state "one-time rights" or "First N.A. Serial Rights" or whatever you are offering.

It is ALWAYS better to try to negotiate rights other than all rights.  Talk to the editor. They may only want an exclusive for a certain period of time, or they may want the right to republish it in an annual, or on their website, or wherever. Each of these times should be negotiated and given separately, with separate payment for each, even if it's a nominal amount.

Question: If I have not sent in copyright registration to the U.S. Copyright Office for a story, how do I indicate on the story when I submit it to publishers that it is copyrighted, merely by virtue of my having written it?

WEN Answer: It is copyrighted as soon as it is put in fixed form (on paper, on film, on disk, on the web, on tape). By stating what rights you are offering on the upper right corner of the first page (First N.A. Serial Rights, Reprint Rights, One-Time Rights, etc.), you also let the editor know that you are the one who holds copyright ownership.

The best place to get Copyright information is directly from the Copyright site at www.copyright.gov. They have a "Frequently Asked Questions" page; you can download registration forms, and lots more.

Question: I'm a former newspaper features writer trying to break into freelance magazine writing. I've heard magazine editors can be dismissive of  newspaper writing, but all I have are mainbar front-section newspaper feature articles with color art, so this question (which I've been unable to find answers to elsewhere) is very important to me. How do magazine editors prefer to see such clippings? Flat and pristine in a simple artist's folder (the kind with a clear plastic front) or just folded up and stuffed in the same envelope as the query letter? I have to shrink these clippings down a bit and keep them in color, so it's rather expensive, making this question doubly important.

WEN Answer: First, don't assume all editors look down on newspaper writing. All a magazine editor usually wants to glean from a clip is how well you write and in what style so he or she has some idea of whether your style might "fit" in his or her magazine. When preparing clips, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the editor is extremely busy and has tons of mail to go through. The key is to make it as easy as possible to look at your clips. They usually don't like anything bound or attached with anything more permanent than a paper clip. They like to quickly shuffle the pages, skim a few paragraphs, and get on to the next envelope.

So it's usually best to cut and tape onto plain paper any articles of a size different from the typical magazine page. Reducing copy to make an article fit easier is great as long as a person probably wearing glasses and possibly with tired eyes can read it. The artwork is not usually of interest — unless you are dealing with the photo editor, and then you would be better off taking original photos to a shop with a color copier and copying the photos themselves.

As for the number of clips, three separate articles are usually sufficient. And I wouldn't necessarily send them along with each and every query. If an editor says he or she wants to see them, fine. But I've heard several editors say that all a clip does is tell them how well a piece has been edited; and that they can tell more about how well a person can write and communicate from the query letter itself. So if the guidelines, directory listing, or former correspondence don't tell you to send clips, you might send a query and offer to send clips if that editor would like to see them.

Also, nowadays, the most convenient way to let editors and potential clients see your clips is to post them on your website or post links to websites where your articles appear. Keep in mind that if you do not hold the rights to your material, you will need to get permission to post it.

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