I have a book called Writer's Market, which lists thousands of magazines published in the United States; it's an essential desk reference for freelance writers. In it, I discovered a magazine which I'll call, for the purpose of maintaining its privacy (for reasons you'll soon see), Widget Collectors of America.
Now, it just so happens that I know someone who --for purposes of this blog post--collects widgets, and in fact I have written about this person ("Mr. Hobbyist") for a newspaper in the past. I've got lots of extra interview material that has never been published, and photos for which I have the publishing rights, so like anyone does who has taken Freelancing 101, I attempted to make more money out of the material I already have, and pitched a story to Widget Collectors of America. I made it clear that I've already written about Mr. Hobbyist but would create a new story with different interview material and updated information (so as to avoid copyright issues).
The following is the exact email I got back:
What you propose would indeed likely be a good fit for our magazine, but I probably have to pass because our freelance budget has been so severely constrained over the past two-plus years that I am certain that whatever I could pay would be inadequate/insulting. We were never lavish in our author payments, but now the tough times have pushed us to levels such that we only handle a fraction of the number of freelance pieces that we used to feature. And this is not me playing hardball in a shameless attempt to elicit an agreement to a niggardly figure; I truly am embarrassed by what we could pay and so merely decline without making my chagrin official.
That was the saddest-in-the-funniest-way response I've ever gotten!
OK, since you were honest with me, I'll be honest with you: I've already got so much material from when I did the [previously published] interview, that didn't make it into [that] story -- plus a few updates from when I visited [Mr. Hobbyist] recently to take photos [of his widget collection] -- that I could write up a new story in under 2 hours, tops, without even talking to [Mr. Hobbyist]. If I have to talk to him, or visit again, add MAYBE another hour or two, depending on if I walk there or take the bus.
When I charge by the hour, I charge $xx per hour. You do the math.
Game back on?
Mr. Editor replies:
Sarah ... I wasn’t going for sad and funny, but I think I often get there without really trying. It’s probably the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves these days. Everything we accept has to be based on a finished manuscript, but given your credentials I doubt there’s much chance I would be disappointed in what you provide. I’d be happy to look at something and would make every effort not to embarrass myself with a proposed payment, taking into account the parameters of your e-mail below. I am actually horrible at math, but not so much to be left out in the cold on this one. I would have to hit you up for two or three pictures of your choosing as well.
I appreciate your not actually calling me any unflattering names.
It's OK. I won't bite.
If I were writing on a new topic I'd be walking away, but I've got all this material already, so I may as well make a little more money off it, instead of no money.
So, with the understanding that you can't officially guarantee to buy my story, how many words do you think would work best for a submitted draft?
Pictures are no problem.
At this point he called me, even though I'd said in my email to please always call before x pm his time, because of the time difference. I told him it's OK, I obviously am not asleep because I'd just sent him an email. He said "Oh, my God, I would have felt so bad! I'm so sorry. Etc." I said "really, I'm not a scary person. Have other writers actually called you names?" He mumbled something that suggested to me that he's getting flak from readers because the publication is getting smaller and smaller.
Anyway, we agreed on a word count, and I'm planning to spend no more than 2 hours on it because he can't officially promise to publish it, and I have no idea if he plans to pay more than 2 x [my hourly rate]. I am confident I can get away with this because, frankly, I'm a good writer. And I may as well risk the 2 hours because, frankly, with the economy as it is, I don't have enough other work.
The crazy part was when he told me that Widget Collectors of America is a weekly publication. How is this man supposed to find enough material about Widget collecting to fill a magazine about it every week?
Sarah: Really? Given your focus, I'd have thought that a monthly would be --
Editor [resignedly]: Just peachy. That is correct. But I can't convince the higher-ups of that.
Sarah: I'm sorry for your plight.
Editor: It's OK, I've elicited enough sympathy from you.
Geez, Louise! If ever there was a candidate for non-prescription drugs, it is this guy! He and his situation are so sad!