When we start out working as writers, most of us think that means we’re going to spend our time writing. It can come as a shock when we find ourselves spending so much time marketing ourselves and our work, sending in proposals, queries & outlines, researching editors & agents, rewriting, and doing accounting. The real shock, however, comes when you have to become a collection agent.
For the most part, I’ve been lucky. The magazines I’ve dealt with have been great to deal with. But there have been a few exceptions, two of which I’ve mentioned briefly on this blog before.
The first step in collecting money is setting expectations. Make sure that you have negotiated payment terms in advance and that you have them in writing. Some small publications may not have contracts, but you can discuss the terms in email so you have a written record. Know whether you’re being paid on acceptance or on publication. This makes a big difference.
“On acceptance” means that you will be paid when the editor agrees that your article is done and meets the magazine’s expectations. Actually, it’s no guarantee that your check will be cut that very day — only that acceptance is the trigger for generating your payment. You may get it in a week or in a month.
“On publication” means that you’ll be paid when the issue of the magazine or newspaper containing your article hits the newsstands. Given typical lead times, you may well be turning in an article in July that’s intended for publication in December. Being paid on acceptance means probably receiving your money in August. Being paid on publication means more like January. Or possibly never.
This brings up another contract issue: the kill fee. For a writer being paid on publication, a kill fee guarantees that you will still get paid something (usually a third to a half of the full fee) if the editor decides not to use the article after all. To me, it’s a danger flag if a magazine that pays on publication refuses to put a kill fee in the contract.
I’ve had hundreds of articles published, and have only had serious problems getting paid twice. Once, I decided it wasn’t worth it. The other time, I decided to do whatever it took to get my money. Here are the stories:
A kill fee would have helped
In 2004, I was invited to write a guest column for a Canadian medical journal. As a freelancer, it’s always nice when someone approaches you instead of the other way around. I was excited about the opportunity to break into a new market and about the subject of the article, so I got sloppy on the contract and accepted a deal with no kill fee. I wrote about 700 words on the quality (or lack thereof) of medical information on the Internet from a patient’s point of view.
Between the time I wrote the article and the time it was scheduled to print, the magazine was sold. The new owners didn’t want to use what I wrote. Even without a kill fee in the contract, it’s often possible to get something after the fact, but I was hampered by new owners who were disinclined to pay for work commissioned by someone else and by the fact that I was dealing with a magazine in a different country.
A killed article can also be sold to another publication, but I had no contacts in the market so I pushed it onto a back shelf. Eventually, I just published it in this blog.
Being a pest to get paid
Another example where the magazine approached me instead of the other way around was a now-defunct computer hacking journal called Blacklisted! 411. I wrote some of this story in a blog post entitled Finding buried treasure—that you buried! The rest of the story goes like this:
The editor, Zachary Blackstone, emailed me about an essay that I had on my website. We chatted back and forth and I told him about some content I had written for a book that wasn’t going to happen. Two of the chapters from that book would make fine feature articles for his magazine: The Origins of Phreaking and Hacker-Phreaker BBS Stings. After a bit of negotiation, I told him he could run the essay free if he paid for the other two. All was well.
I sent him the two articles, and after he checked the word count, he told me that he’d pay $1,125 for them. The essay ran first, then Origins of Phreaking. I expected a check within 30 days, but it didn’t come. A string of emails with Blackstone followed, during which payment was processed and didn’t happen. While this was going on, the next issue came out, with my BBS Stings article in it.
Promises continued (I wrote a lengthy description of the dispute including email excerpts on Writer’s Weekly’s “Whispers & Warnings”) and I grew more and more concerned about getting paid. Blackstone stopped responding to me, and all of my research failed to come up with a physical address. Everything was P.O. Boxes.
Clearly, it was time to step up the game. First, I placed the articles on my personal website and added this paragraph to the beginning of each:
I went through the magazine and collected contact information for all of the other authors and sent them emails asking if they had been paid for their work. Most didn’t respond. A few said that yes, they were having trouble getting paid. Several said they had donated their articles without expecting to be paid. Nobody said that they were paid promptly.
Then I hit paydirt. I found out that they had reserved an exhibit table at a huge hacker conference called DEFCON. I went to the appropriate newsgroup online and posted this:
Apparently, that was the straw that broke Blackstone’s camel’s back. I received an angry phone call asking, “If I send you a cashier’s check by FedEx, will you shut the f*** up?”
“Will you take all that crap down?”
“You know perfectly well I can’t take down posts to Usenet newsgroups. I will, however, take down the other notices and make it public that you’ve paid me.”
I had my money the next day.
Postscript: A few years later, I happened to come across a website created by one of Blackstone’s former staff members, Israel Torres. He dedicated this entire website, http://www.blackballed411.org/, to describing the issues he had with Blackstone.