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The Future of Freelance Journalism, Part 2B: Print Is Dead. Long Live Print!

by David Page Oct 28, 2010
More notes, quotes, tweets, distractions, practical links for how to get $$, and at least one sturdy resolution from the now long-ago but not quite forgotten confab at Stanford University.

**Nb. If you missed Part 1, start here. Part 2A: Sweaty Balls is here.

Friday, June 18, 12:45 PM, Old Union Courtyard, Stanford University

WITHOUT THE DISTRIBUTED DEADWEIGHT OF LEMONADE and chicken salad sandwich wedges, the red plastic tablecover finally submits to the breeze, bearing cups, plates, crumbs, cookies, and assorted cut fruit pieces in a westerly direction, off the table, away from the fountain.

I’ve been chatting with Carolina Miranda, former staff reporter at Time Magazine, now a prolific freelancer, travel writer, blogger, USC Annenberg Fellow, and contributor to numerous Lonely Planet Latin America titles. She’s based in Brooklyn, and has flown all the way across the continent in hopes of hearing big ideas. She hasn’t heard any yet.

“There’s been a lot on what we should do to market ourselves,” she says. “But how does all of this actually change the nature of the job?”

We pick our garbage off the lawn, deposit it appropriately, then walk across to the bookstore for a cup of coffee. She talks about her passion for Lima — versus Cusco — and about visiting the Louisiana Gulf Coast in the days immediately following the rig explosion. We discuss the relative disadvantages of taking a meager contributor’s fee on a Lonely Planet title versus taking an even more meager advance against potential royalties on an independent guidebook. We talk about the dearth of low riders in Española, New Mexico, once reputed to be the Low Rider Capital of the World. She tells of a Canadian woman she met there who had a shrine to the Virgin of Fátima in her trunk. It wasn’t full redemption, but it was some consolation.

This is not vanity, I tell myself. This is work. This is how I must make a living as a writer.

Somewhere along our trajectory I realize two things: (1) that when you say “Men’s Journal” most people hear “Men’s Health” (which fact will further convince me that there are no longer enough substantial differences between those two magazines); (2) that this Carolina woman happens to be none other than the @cmonstah I have been following (and occasionally retweeting) since earlier this morning when I discovered the running side commentary at the #ffrl hashtag. (Later I will learn from Carolina’s LinkedIn profile that she was once named by The New York Times “one of nine people to follow on Twitter.”)

2 PM, Stanford University Bookstore

In lieu of going back for Digital Ventures: Which One Will Become Your Best Client? (in the Cardinal Room) or Google for Freelancers (in Nitery 209), I decide to check the bookstore’s California Travel section to see if my Yosemite book is there. It’s not. I go to the customer service desk and ask the amiable work-study staffer to check the computer. This is not vanity, I tell myself. This is work. This is how I must make a living as a writer.

I spent a day once riding around LA with a pre-eminent book marketing guru by the name of Ken Wilson. We took his car. I appreciated the air conditioning and the lack of toddler detritus on the floor. We drove 100 miles (at $.50/mile). From Santa Monica to Pasadena to Encino and back, we visited 13 bookstores, almost entirely Borders and B&N’s (there is in fact a slight difference between the two, I learned).

The whole thing cost me $475, including mileage. My reasoning (and questionable math), in the absence of further financial contribution by my dear and ever-shrewd publisher, ran something like this: if the adventure somehow led to the sale of 335 copies of the book (at 7.5% of cover price) I would break even. If not, I would at the very least learn something of inestimable value about the businesses of publishing and distribution and retail.

Ken calls it Grassroots Guerrilla Marketing, which basically means you, as author, go to every bookstore you can find. You check the shelves. You make sure your book is there, that it’s in the right section, and that there are at least three copies of it. (Apparently, a raft of retail studies has shown that the likelihood of selling a particular title decreases exponentially below three copies.) Then you’re supposed to introduce yourself to the store manager, maybe give him or her a free copy if you’ve got one on hand (apparently even bookstore managers like getting free books), and offer to “sign the stock.”

Again, you say to yourself (as Ken does), this is not vanity. This works in two directions: (1) studies have shown that autographed books are more likely to sell than those that are not autographed (especially if they have a fresh “Signed Copy” sticker on the cover and are accordingly positioned to catch the attention of shoppers); and (2) signed copies that don’t sell cannot be returned to the publisher (and are therefore more likely to be positioned to sell by the retailer, who would prefer not to eat the cost of the book). Thus, everyone wins.

Finally, if your book’s not there at all (or if there aren’t enough of them), you are to hover next to the manager at the computer while he or she orders three copies of your book and thereby brings the stock (and the balance of the universe) up to date.

“Remember,” Ken explained, “it’s in their interest to sell your book as much as it is in yours.”

Ken described the process as one might an avalanche waiting to happen: you trigger a certain number of orders from the regional distribution warehouse, which in turn triggers an even larger series of orders from the publisher and… I guess at some point people start actually believing that the thing might sell, can sell, that it should be sold (i.e. positioned to sell).

Ken is a pro. He does this all the time, with first-time hacks and literary celebrities alike, and always with great flair and aplomb. He’s done it for the likes of T. Jeff Parker and Josh Ferris. Sometimes (as in those latter cases) it’s even on the publisher’s tab. The bookstore managers love him. “Who have you brought us today?” they’d say when we walked in, looking me over, gauging my celebrity potential.

Late in the day I crawled back into my vehicle, pumped the gas and caused it to catch fire, firm in the knowledge that the world was mine. If I worked it right, I now knew, I might even be able to pester my little regional guidebook right onto the LA Times’ non-fiction bestseller list.

It was an idea Ken had planted, the actual potential of which I was soon able to confirm. “If you can sell enough books at 2 or 3 of the stores who report, in the same week, you can hit the local bestseller list,” explained a friend who happened to be the president of the biggest independent bookseller in Southern California. “No one knows how many it takes. Some weeks our bestselling non-fiction book might only sell 25 copies.”

In my case it may not have been the best week to play such a game. In teetering stacks on tables near the entrance to every bookstore in America were copies of a new book called Eat, Pray, Love, and another called Three Cups of Tea, plus not one but two bestselling memoirs by a hip new presidential candidate by the name of Barack Obama.

“…and the Southern Sierra Nevada,” I say to the staffer at the Stanford bookstore help desk. “By David Page.”

“Sorry,” he says, raising his eyebrows in disbelief. “But we can order it for you.” Then he looks at me, curiously, pauses, then says, “Are you the author?”

How does he know? I think. Then I realize I’m wearing a nametag from the conference: David Page. Fucking idiot.

“That’s cool,” I say. “Thanks for checking.”

3 PM, Clubhouse Ballroom; The Big Dig: Reorganization and the Future of Investigative Reporting

We’re hearing about the decimation of regional magazines and alternative weeklies. “When we’re talking about the overall number of boots on the ground in investigative journalism,” says Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief of Mother Jones, “we’ve lost more than we’ve gained.”

Which isn’t to say, she explains, that there isn’t still money out there for investigative reporting. There is. It’s just that in these times it’s less likely to come from magazine publishers and more likely to come from non-profit outfits like ProPublica, or in the form of grants and fellowships scratched together by the enterprising writer on his or her own.

@TheStripPodcast: Tons of $ coming into nonprofit journalism according to @rosey18 and @clarajeffery. Encouraging. #ffrl

In my head rings the sage voice of my lunchmate, from an earlier tweet:

@cmonstah: …future of freelancing: writer has to cover own expenses, mags simply pay writer’s fee.

Jeffery’s biggest concern, it seems, is not so much how to get the stuff paid for but rather how to beef up the quality of what comes in. “Investigative reporting has long suffered a deficit of narrative flair,” she says. “The need to be taken seriously leads to seriously depthless prose.”

4:30 PM, Outside Nitery 209; Restoring Yourself and Journalism, Too: Fellowships and Grants

I can’t bring myself to push into the crowded session on funding and fellowships. Instead, I install myself on a very comfortable sectional sofa just outside the door, within cord’s reach of an electrical outlet. Exchanging pleasantries with several other conference goers, I kick back, watch the Twitstream, and bookmark three exciting (and intimidating) funding possibilities, each in the name of one or more dead journalist:

1. The Dick Goldensohn Fund
Amount: typically “a few thousand dollars”
* “Dick died of a heart attack at age 39 in 1985. Since he had been a fearless investigative reporter, the Fund makes small grants covering research, reporting and travel costs to freelance journalists working on international stories. Facility in English is a requirement.”

2. The Alicia Patterson Foundation
Amount: $20,000-$40,000
* “In memory of Alicia Patterson, editor and publisher of Newsday for nearly 23 years before her death in 1963. Winners are chosen by an annual competition. The competition opens in June; all entries must be postmarked by October 1. Applications are accepted from U.S. citizens who are print journalists with at least five years of professional experience.”

3. John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Journalism Program
Amount: Range of full-ride fellowships and respectable stipends for mid-career journalists
* “Since its creation in 1950, the foundation has invested more than $300 million to advance journalism excellence and freedom of expression worldwide. Our priority grant-making areas: Digital Media and News in the Public Interest, Press Freedom and Freedom of Information, News and Newsroom Diversity, and Journalism Training and Education.”

5:30 PM, Outside Nitery 209

A young woman of decidedly modern heritage (South African, Argentinean, Jewish, Southern Californian) reaches across the ottoman, hands me her business card. “Let’s do this thing,” she says, “because this is what we do.” If I had a business card I’d give it to her. But I don’t. I should have some printed, I think. There’s an elegance to the custom that somehow isn’t replicated by the electronic exchange of Vcards.

@cmonstah: “I think I need a cocktail fellowship. #ffrl

@JessicaDuLong: I’m so there, dude. RT @cmonstah: I think I need a cocktail fellowship. #ffrl

@whit_richardson: I second the need for a cocktail fellowship #FFRL

@davidtpage: yeehaw! RT @cmonstah: I think I need a cocktail fellowship. #ffrl


Coda: Print is Dead. Long Live Print!

October 26, 8:25 PM, Mammoth Lakes, CA

I HEAR MY DOG BARKING IN THE DISTANCE, probably at a bear, or at the dancing moonshadow of a fir bough. Or maybe he’s just cold, sitting shotgun up there at the front door, and wants to be let in.

I decide, finally, all these months later, to skip over the rest, all those small moments that together (thanks more to the notebook than the brain) make up the lingering essence of certain days past — the smell of eucalyptus, the popping of dry leaves beneath my bike tires, the tequila, the microwave calzone, the phone message from my dad about how he’d sliced off the tip of his finger (“they’re trying to save it,” he said), the self-doubt of bonobos, the curious late-afternoon glow on the Bay as seen from the westbound lanes on the San Mateo Bridge, the man in the pickle suit and basketball shoes tripping the light fantastic on the corner of East Yosemite Avenue in downtown Manteca.

The upshot of the thing: business models are in flux, old outlets are giving way to new, or evolving to accommodate and take advantage of new technologies and social realities; producers and purveyors of consumer artifacts continue to spend huge amounts of money to get those products in front of the people who might buy them; savvy publishers continue to scramble and devise new ways to get and broker the attention of their readers; talented writers and journalists continue to find and write captivating stories (the unstoppable ones even making a living at it); and our collective thirst for those stories abides — as it will for as long as we, as a species, can hang onto our sentience — very much undiminished. As Mark Robinson, Articles Editor at Wired put it back in June, “Our culture has a couple thousand year history of need for narrative.”

From what I’ve seen etched into the basalt above ancient, now-dry Pleistocene seas, I’d say it goes back a lot farther than that. But the point’s well taken. The trick, from a journeyman writer’s point of view, is how to exchange the hard-labor of crafting stories in symbols for an adequate quotient of food, shelter, knickknacks, toys, fuel and intoxicants. And down the road to be able to look back at the work he’s done, after earthquakes and floods, the clamor of the marketplace (5 Genuine Experiences! 10 Affordable Exotic Destinations! The Last Great Undiscovered Waterfall!) and all other manner of human folly and delusion, and see that it — the pile of rocks he’s made beside the road — still stands as a waypoint for travelers. Maybe even one worth a $27 annual subscription and a certain number of metric tons of (duly offset) carbon emissions.

“Probably my least favorite extracurricular activity is hanging out with people who want to talk about the death of print, the death of journalism, the death of books, the page, the word, the word count, the industry, the whatever,” freelance guru David Hochman wrote the other day on UPOD, his eminently useful and inspiring forum for freelance writers. “These conversations are at best annoying but also unhelpful.”

So what the hell, let’s bring together some interesting companies, with products we use and ethics we respect (and money), let’s pull together the best writers, photographers and illustrators on the planet, and let’s make a kickass new travel magazine. Why not? Who’s with us?

Print is Dead. Long Live Print!

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