In many respects, these are heady days for Nautilus, the highbrow science and culture magazine launched precisely four years ago this weekend. Traffic to its original website is setting records, its print edition has been well-received, and in its short existence, the magazine has earned numerous awards for its design and its journalism, including two National Magazine Awards — arguably, the industry’s highest honor.
More recently, it drew laurels for an essay by Cormac McCarthy — the first piece of nonfiction that the legendary novelist has ever published — and the magazine’s publisher has suggested that a major new partnership with a science organization is in the works.
For all the good news and accolades, however, murmurings within the science writing community suggest that not all is well at Nautilus. Rumors of delayed or entirely absent payments to the magazine’s fleet of freelance contributors have reached a crescendo, as have complaints that editorial staff continue to solicit work knowing that the publication may not be able to make good on promised fees.
One Nautilus freelancer, who asked to remain anonymous because thousands of dollars in fees are still pending, received a note a few months ago directly from the magazine’s publisher and editorial director, John Steele, offering assurances that the funds — which were for a feature that the magazine published last year — would be on their way by the end of January. That deadline came and went without payment, the freelancer said, and follow-up emails to Nautilus have not changed things.
“It’s sad,” the writer said, “because we need science publications that pay decently — if they actually pay.”
Linda Marsa, a Los Angeles-based journalist, had more success. Marsa wrote a piece last fall, submitted an invoice, and didn’t get paid on time. On Facebook, she learned that other writers were experiencing problems too. Frustrated, Marsa sent what she describes as a “stern” email to her editor, as well as the finance manager, the publisher, and a member of the Nautilus board.
That worked, and her payment arrived roughly a month overdue. When I called Marsa, she was surprised and upset to learn that the problems were continuing. Describing her editor at the magazine as “a gem,” Marsa said she’s nonetheless disillusioned and does not plan to write for the magazine again. “I’m really sad I’m not going to get to work with him again,” she said of her editor, “but this isn’t right.”
In a phone call with Undark, Steele, the Nautilus publisher, acknowledged that the magazine “has been running on fumes for the past six months,” and that it was behind on payment for many of its writers and illustrators. “We feel horrible about the way the situation has dragged on so far,” he said….