broadsideblog

Scheherazade 2.0

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, entertainment, journalism, life, women on November 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

She’s the legendary woman who saved her own life, night after night, by telling a story to the king who would otherwise kill her:

The king lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story. The king asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was not time, as dawn was breaking. So, the king spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. So the next night, Scheherazade finished the story and then began a second, even more exciting tale which she again stopped halfway through at dawn. So the king again spared her life for one day to finish the second story.

And so the King kept Scheherazade alive day by day, as he eagerly anticipated the finishing of last night’s story. At the end of 1,001 nights, and 1,000 stories, Scheherazade told the king that she had no more tales to tell him. During these 1,001 nights, the king had fallen in love with Scheherazade, and had three sons with her. So, having been made a wiser and kinder man by Scheherazade and her tales, he spared her life, and made her his queen.

Anyone who hopes to earn a living as a writer — whether of books, blogs, journalism, fiction, marcom, advertising — knows the sort of daily pressure she felt.

You gotta have a fresh story!

Here’s a recent New York Times piece about Contently, a new intermediary between people who want to tell their corporate stories and the writers who might have the skill to do so. The site offers access to 27,000 (!) writers — 8,000 of whom have been deemed “pros” because of their experience. (FYI, I ‘m not a Contently user or provider.):

Three young men — Joe Coleman, Dave Goldberg and Shane Snow — started the company in 2010 after the rise and crash of so-called content farms. They believed there was room for a company that enabled high-quality stories told on behalf of commercial clients, what is now known as branded content.

Over the years, this content has had an unsavory reputation — most have been infomercials masquerading as editorial content. But the bar has been raised by companies like Red Bull, whose incredibly popular extreme sports videos almost make it seem like a media company that sells beverages on the side.

Contently, which grew out of the TechStars incubator program in New York, developed a roster of writers and journalists for hire and a software application that helps companies tell their own stories as well. Three years later, the company has raised $2.3 million in financing, developed a roster of 27,000 writers, grown to 24 employees and has 40 Fortune 500 companies among its clients. Some of its customers include American Express, Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo.

When you walk into the Contently office in SoHo, as I did on Tuesday, you can’t help noticing the large slogan on the wall: “Those who tell the stories rule the world.”

Let’s be accurate, if pedantic.

Those with the money to pay people to tell the stories rule the world.

The actual tellers — those “content providers”, even the elite 8,000 (is that possible?) — are contemporary Scheherazades, running faster than ever before to pay their bills, to stay alive financially another day.

It's all content, baby!

It’s all content, baby!

Contently pays its writers between 50 cents a word and $1/word.

Let’s put that into context:

If you’re hired to produce 1,000 words at 50 cents a word, you’ll earn $500. At $1/word, $1,000. Few content buyers want a 10,000 word opus, no matter who you are.

So if you were able to get $1,000 worth of work every single week, (no vacation, no sick days, no holidays), you could potentially earn $52,000, year before taxes.

I suspect that competing against 7,999 others, even in the cool kids’ labor pool, would likely mitigate against a steady five-figure income.

The other dirty secret of becoming a “content provider”, (which is what all journalists are, too, really), is that a wage of 50 cents to $1/word is what top journalists were paid in the 1970s, when I started writing for a living.

I think we all know that gas, groceries, health care and most other costs of living are not what they were in 1979 or 1985 or even 1998…

Before the crash of 2008, the top magazines were offering $3/word or more — so a 3,000-word story could net you a nice $9,000; I once snagged a $6,000 check from Glamour for a 2,000-word story at that rate.

These days? Most experienced writers I know are working twice as hard for half the income, many re-inventing ourselves in every possible direction to earn additional revenue.

I spoke this week to a friend who’s been working for four years as a staff editor — these days a good long run —  at a national magazine I subscribe to and had hoped to do some freelance work for. Their parent company, Hearst, is moving the entire operation from New York City, (where most employees have a partner or spouse working as well), to a regional Southern city to save money. My friend’s wife has a terrific staff media job, one not easily re-acquired in that other city, that’s for sure.

The editor in chief has already quit. I suspect most of the staff will as well. I’ll be very curious to see what the new staff produce, while crossing my fingers for those about to lose their jobs.

Disruption, change and flux are the order of the day.

So, sit back, relax.

Let me tell you a story…

PLEASE SIGN UP FOR MY NEXT WEBINAR — LEARN TO THINK LIKE A REPORTER — 4:00 p.m. SUNDAY NOV. 17 AT 4:00 P.M. EST.

DETAILS AND REGISTRATION HERE.

  1. I tried a few content generating websites, and at fifty cents a word I would have been happy to keep at it in comparison. I was offered a nickel a word and had to earn $20 or more before they’d pay. The articles they requested were product reviews and ended up taking an extensive amount of research before I could generate content I was happy with submitting. So, in the long run I logged some information and realized I was making just about $2.75 to $3.00 per hour. I may be an amateur compared to some, but even my time is worth more than that. I won’t be generating any more content for that site, and I’m still just short of making that $20 pay-point.

  2. The comparison to Scheherazade was interesting. Growing up, the Arabian Nights was one of my favourite books. Of course, I did not know about the morbid sub-text at the time.

    • It is a similar feeling of saving your life with every story. A non-writing freelancer won’t survive long!

      I loved the Arabian nights too…

      • I like that observation–we might envision living well sedately writing a best-seller a year Instead of Bugs Bunny running across a rope bridge with the boards falling off into the ravine right behind him as he goes. But you used Scheherazade, whose stories were wonderful, but even she couldn’t tell a story so good that it got her a three-day weekend. Of course, she got the Happy Ending, which right before that was where the comparison broke down. Maybe we just don’t value a good story enough–we seem to be putting up with all this “content.” I never lived on a farm, but I can imagine what they referred to as content was not what they put on their cereal in the morning.

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