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” if you’d like to read it) 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 PO 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:
WRITERS BEWARE!!! Blacklisted! 411 claims to be a paying market, but they have not paid me for the articles I wrote for them. The editor-in-chief, Zachary Blackstone, told me on March 8, 2004 that payment of my $1,125 had been authorized and a check would be on its way shortly. All I have received from him since then is excuses. If you have a telephone number or physical address for Zach Blackstone or Blacklisted! 411 magazine, please email me as soon as possible! Thank you.
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:
Anyone going to DEFCON? I can’t make it this year, but I understand Blacklisted! 411 magazine is going to have a booth. I’m a professional writer who wrote some articles for them, and they owe me over $1,000. The editor-in-chief, Zachary Blackstone (***@comcast.net) promised payment on March 8, but has delivered nothing, despite using my articles as cover stories in the past two issues.
If anyone has a physical address or telephone number for Blacklisted! 411 or Mr. Blackstone, I’d appreciate hearing from you.
If you’re going to DEFCON, please stop by their booth and ask them why they don’t pay their writers.
If you’re a writer, STAY AWAY from these folks.
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.
It’s a rather surreal experience. Here I am, going through a bunch of my writing archives looking for a book proposal template, and I stumble upon an old proposal from 2005. I remember coming up with the book idea. I remember doing the research and sending out proposals. What I didn’t remember was actually writing a few chapters of the book to include in those proposals.
Sometimes, looking at my old work is exciting. I found a 20-year-old magazine with one of my articles in it, read the article, and thought, “Hey, I’m good!” Other times, it’s the opposite. I was looking for some clips on a particular topic and came across one of my old articles. I actually cringed. I couldn’t believe someone actually paid me for that and published it.
Today’s experience is different. The proposal I found was for a book about the mathematical side of poker. As I read through these sample chapters, I honestly don’t remember writing them. But I like them! I have two other projects in the works right now (the Myths & Legends of Tea and another Who Pooped in the Park? book that I’m not talking about yet), but I do believe I’m going to come back to this idea.
The advantage of being a packrat
Everywhere you turn for advice these days, people are telling you not to be a packrat. Simplify your life! Throw away your old junk! If you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it!
It’s different when you’re an author. You never know when that old idea that went nowhere might be exactly what an editor is looking for. Having a book or article turned down repeatedly can sap your enthusiasm. That’s what happened to me with this book on the mathematics of poker. After having it shot down a few times, I gave up and filed it. Now that I go back through my notes (you do keep notes on your old projects, right?) I feel my enthusiasm returning. I’m going to finish up what I’m working on while this percolates in the back of my head and then blast it back out in a different format.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Once upon a time, I wrote an opinion piece about computer hacking. I didn’t find a market for it and this was before the days of blogs, so I stuck the article on my website. Lo and behold, it became the most popular page on the site, by a pretty hefty margin. The more emails I got about it, the more I thought I should turn it into a book about hacking and phreaking. I put quite a bit of time into the book, but I had a full time job and I ended up shelving it for a while.
Technology inexorably marches onward. While the partially-completed book sat untouched, it became swiftly more obsolete. When I came back to it, I just couldn’t bring myself to start my research over from scratch. But re-reading it showed me that the history section was still relevant and still interesting. When a computer hacking magazine called Blacklisted! 411 contacted me and asked to reprint the essay from my website, I made them a deal: I would turn that history section into two feature articles. If they paid their going rate for those two features, they could have reprint rights on the essay for free. They jumped at the offer, and I ended up making $1,125 from that “useless” manuscript.
The moral of the story
It’s not enough just to keep your old notes, articles, essays, manuscripts, poems, proposals, and ponderings. You need to go back and look at them every now and then. Think about whether any of it has suddenly become relevant. Perhaps that magazine you just wrote an article for might be interested in one of your old unsold pieces. Perhaps that editor who sent the “we don’t want this but keep trying” rejection might like one of your old ideas better.
Don’t just archive your old stuff on a CD, either. You will never get around to loading that CD back up and looking at it. You also might lose it. The dog might eat it. Keep those files on your hard drive where searches will pull them up. You might be surprised at how you end up finding one.