What do editors do when they get laid off? (Or, if you prefer, leave to “pursue other options.”)
Bad news for freelancers: There’s going to be more competition than ever. Heads are rolling in the publishing industry even more than they normally do this time of year. (Holidays = layoffs, didn’t you know?) The carnage seems to be coming early this year, and it’s across the board, judging from recent posts on Media Bistro as well as several writer’s organization newsboards I read regularly. (Sorry I can’t cite specific stats to specific sites due to confidentiality policies. So take the numbers I’ve compiled below with a grain of salt, but heed the overall trend, which is glaringly obvious no matter whose numbers you use. Bottom line: It’s ugly out there, and it’s getting worse.)
Conde Nast is cutting back on both print and Internet staff positions, letting go of dozens of staffers in its Internet division, which includes such well-entrenched and well-trafficked sites as Epicurious.com. Forbestraveler.com was reported to be closing up shop (although you wouldn’t know it to visit the site: Chances are they can keep rotating content and collect ad revenue well into the future. A big “darnit” from me, since it was one of my new markets this year and I liked the editors there). (11-17/08: Update on Forbestraveler.com: There are conflicting reports about its demise. There have been layoffs, assignments in process have been canceled, writers have received notes from editors saying the on-magazine has ceased publication (I’ve seen copies), and I myself received a note from an editor that they are not accepting queries. However, the official line is that Forbestraveler.com is still up and running, if curtailed for the time being. So let’s put a hold on that death knell and hope they make it through….Until and unless they do, though, it’s probably not a promising market.)
And on with the list: Active Interest Media, which publishes Yoga Journal and Backpacker, is letting go 10 percent of its workforce. Time Inc. has cut at least 15 editorial positions at Entertainment Weekly. Even old stalwarts like National Geographic and The Economist Group are affected; both cut out a dozen staff. And a raft of newspapers have cut back, eliminated, or are consolidating their travel sections.
Most disturbing to me are the cutbacks at –and sometimes, the downright failure of — major Internet sites. You’d have to be living with a bucket over your head not to know that print is suffering, but a lot of us writers have been looking to the Internet for new opportunities, new markets, new ways to connect with readers, new income streams, and more control of our work. If well-funded well-visited sites chockfull of advertising are sinking, who IS making money on the Internet? To paraphrase an oldie but goodie, and with apologies to Frank Sinatra, “If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.” (And haven’t we been through this before? Remember the first sound of the Internet bubble popping? To me it sounded a lot like the sound of paper being shredded, as thousands of dollars of stock options turned into packing material and fire starter.)
Meanwhile (speaking of shredded paper): Pink slips are falling like confetti, and editors newly liberated into the freelance life are trying to figure out who and what and how to pitch in an ever tightening market.
From a freelancer’s POV, we’ve got a bright side/dark side thing going when editors join our ranks:
Dark side for freelancers: Not only are these editors more competition, but they arrive with a head start. These are people who have current contacts into all the markets WE want to write for, and current info about editorial needs and plans. And many of them are highly skilled, with good access to sources and an inbred understanding of not only the publication they recently worked for, but also its competition.
Bright side for freelancers: These newly minted freelancers (at least, some of them) will learn how hard it is to wait months (yes, months) to be paid for work they did well outside the realm of short-term memory. They will learn how frustrating it is to be assigned 1000 words on subject X, write it, then have another, more senior editor — someone with whom they’ve never even communicated – decide that really, she wants 500 words on subject Y. They will learn that a buck a word really doesn’t cover the time it takes to do seven interviews, two rewrites, and a tweak or two on a 500 word piece. And they will learn that no, you can’t expect a writer to shell out $2000 or $3000 or $4000 and a few days of time to go examine a new luxury hotel, forbid them from accepting any comped airfares, rooms, meals, or cups of coffee – and then ask them to sell all rights to the resulting story for $500. (If you’re a travel writer, you know what I’m talking about. If you aren’t, no, I am not making this up. And if you are an editor who forbids writers from taking press trips but you don’t pay expenses, let alone pay a fee that covers the cost of the trip: Yeah, I get the thing about supposed objectivity (more on THAT in another post) –But how exactly do YOU justify asking your writers to pay for the privilege of working for you?)
Okay. Everybody breathe. I’m off my soap box. For now.
An even brighter side about editors taking a ride around the pond in the leaky little boat we call freelancing: Most editors-turned-writers will jump ship and turn back into editors as soon as the luxury cruise ship called “Staff Job” sails back into their home port. Once aboard, they’ll be pampered with 401(k) plans and health insurance and sick leave, until their voyage on the dinghy known as “The Freelancer” becomes just a dim memory of misguided and thankfully finished adventure. And that will leave us freelancers where we were before – bobbing in their wake, watching them sail away, and hoping that perhaps a few of them will remember what they’ve learned about the care and feeding of freelancers, while they gorge at the all-you-can-eat midnight-buffet.
At least, we can always hope.
And by the way, no, I don’t wish I was on that staff job cruise ship. My little freelance dinghy suits me just fine. I know how to work it, and it hasn’t sunk yet.
Meantime – and on a serious note — I wish these editors the best. And I KNOW their jobs aren’t easy. I was a magazine editor for two years and a book editor for five — so yes, I know what life is like on the other side. (Selfishly: I know I NEED editors — not only to buy my stories, but to help me make them better. The copyeditors who have worked on my 12 books are my personal heroes.) We freelancers know that one of the great benefits to our work is that it’s unlikely that we lose ALL our markets (our paychecks) at the same time. That’s not true for ANY employee, except for tenured professors and people in the civil service. Job security is a thing of the past and personally, I can’t think of anything more terrifying than being employed and solvent one day and out of work the next. This is a difficult time of year in a difficult economy. Cross fingers it soon passes. For all of us.