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Great Opportunity? No! By Ellen Scolnic

An experienced writer knows how to ask the right questions. Not just “Is your new movie a comedy, Mr. Hanks?” But questions like: “Do you pay on acceptance or when the article is published?” or “How long to you estimate interviewing the participants will take?” and “Is this contract for one-time only publication rights?”

I’ve been a writer for more than 15 years. My jobs have ranged from public relations projects for a science-related company to feature articles and fund-raising appeals for a large day care agency. Since becoming a mom, I’ve worked freelance, concentrating on feature writing for national magazines and local newspapers. But enough resume, my point is to show you that I am an experienced writer. And even an experienced writer can have trouble knowing the right questions. This is especially painful when it means losing out on work.

A month ago, a friend with whom I’ve co-authored a book (I’ll do like Angela does and call her “J” ) was offered what looked like a great writing opportunity. A calendar/activity guide for families was launching their website in our city and they were looking for an editor.

At first glance, it seemed like a big job. The writer/editor would be responsible for not only keeping the calendar of family-friendly events up-to-date, but also for writing, enriching and editing the additional content of the website. This content included write-ups of local institutions, businesses and attractions in categories like kid-friendly restaurants, best kids clothes shops, area playgrounds etc. My friend J, who is a more seasoned writer than I, called and asked if I’d be interested in applying for the job and splitting the work. We’ve worked together well in the past, so I told her it sounded great.

Our contact at the company, (I’ll call her Ms. X) emailed us back that we sounded perfect for the job. We were impressed with her credentials. She told us she had worked at Family Fun magazine, Nickelodeon and other well-established, respected media outlets. She had been working on the website for several years and they had an ambitious roll-out plan for additional cities, lots of subscribers and corporate advertisers. She wanted us to submit a writing sample. We were to write a guidebook-type entry. I wrote about a small, local amusement park. J reviewed an unusual Chinese restaurant in our town. We also had a chance to practice using the website’s unique software, a kind of track editing system. J and I edited each other’s entry (our usual tandem writing practice) and emailed them off.

As we emailed back and forth with Ms. X, and looked at their websites already operating in other cities, we began to have a lot of questions. Some of our questions were related to the scope of the writing they expected from us, (e.g. how many category lists were average; how far a geographic area would we be expected to cover, etc.). We also had questions about how the site expected to make a profit. It was presented to us as a two-tiered system, with some information on the website available for free and more in-depth entries available only to subscribers. The money would come from subscriptions to the website.

Together, J and I discussed the mechanics of the site. We’re both moms. Would we pay to subscribe to a site like this? We asked our friends, would they subscribe? Why would someone pay for information that could essentially be found in local newspapers? How would the website information – our writing task – be different from the weekly calendar that was already provided on-line by our local tourism office? Were there enough Internet savvy parents in our area to support a computer based service? And we kept coming back to the fact that we were unsure how we – the writers – would make any money. Our fee had not yet been discussed, but we had questions about the site’s finances. Ms. X had told us that they did not have any “sales staff” hired yet. Would we be responsible for soliciting new subscriptions to the site? Were they asking us to write, edit and compose the website and then also be in charge of advertising? What about the “discount subscription” option we had seen listed on the site? We decided that it would be a good idea to talk with the other editors, women who were currently doing the job in other cities.

Maybe you’ve guessed that this is where the moral of the story comes in. We spoke with two of the editors on the phone. One was a single mom, holding down another job during the day, writing for the website at night. She used phrases like “labor of love” and “learning a lot on the job” when we asked her if she enjoyed writing the website. The other editor told us that she had been doing the website for 2 ½ years, but had not made any money yet. She told us that she was told that she wouldn’t earn anything until the number of subscribers in her city reached 1,000 – and it was at 32 so far!

As my writing partner and I were in the thick of these emails and phone calls flying back and forth between us and the editors, I received an email from Ms. X. She regretted to inform me that “the focus for you seems to be on the money rather than the experience and service.” She inferred that we were more interested in money than writing and she thought we were not suited to the job, if we wanted to be paid.

After first commiserating our shock that one of the editors we had spoken with had tattled on us immediately, J and I were angry. What had looked like a great opportunity had turned out to be another writing for free “opportunity.” We were angry at the tone Ms. X had used with us – insinuating that us – and our writing – would be inferior simply because we did not want to work for free. I was annoyed that Ms. X had turned the tables and dissed us – before we even had a chance to evaluate her offer – and question her about the site’s financial arrangements. J was angry that the head of the company – a woman – seemed to have no qualms about taking economic advantage of other women. We assumed that Ms. X was earning money somehow in the operation, yet it seemed she was not paying her editors nor would she divulge the complete financial picture of the company. We never found out who the advertisers were on the site, what the “discount subscriptions” we had read about were and how the corporate sponsors they hoped to enlist would figure into the picture. The more we looked at the full scope of what we had been asked to take on, the more we were convinced it was not a valid business proposition. J even thought it was a kind of franchise, pyramid scheme operation! And yet we still felt terribly disappointed and disheartened.

So can we glean anything positive from this experience? As freelancers, we are in charge of our own business. Because we are writers, sometimes we tend to focus on the “words” (and rightly so) but like any job there are other factors to consider. Sometimes that means turning down work when you feel it isn’t the right kind of work. Not only with regard to payment, but each assignment includes the people you will be working for and with, the scope of the job, the content of the writing, etc. Don’t feel guilty about asking questions. A reputable business will be happy to answer them – and not get annoyed or defensive when you talk with current employees. And lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself when you do the right thing.

Ellen Scolnic is mom to three kids and a writer whose work appears in local and national publications including Parents magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Jewish Week, Today’s Family, American Woman and others. She’s the co-author of The JPS Dictionary of Jewish Words.