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.
I have been pretty lucky as a freelance writer. There have been very few times that I haven’t been paid for my work. In one of those cases, I was approached by a medical magazine in Canada — it’s always nice when they call you — about doing a guest column for medical professionals about online medical information. The editor and I discussed all of the details: pay, deadlines, bylines, residual rights, and so forth. One thing I forgot to bring up was a kill fee.
You guessed it. When I finished the column and submitted it, nothing happened. After a few months, I was informed that the magazine had been sold and the new editor wasn’t interested in my column. Since it was a relatively small amount of money, the magazine was in another country, and I had no kill fee in the contract, I never collected a dime from the column. It’s been sitting on my hard drive for the last nine years or so (I save everything), so I decided to post it on my blog.
I hope you enjoy the article. If you want another story about my lymphoma experience, take a look at Rodeos, beer, and cancer.
I found an odd lump on my chest. Neither my family doctor nor the dermatologist he called in had ever seen anything like it. They took a biopsy, and called a few days later to tell me I had an appointment with an oncologist. It was a frightening time, but I assumed it would be a melanoma, and they would simply cut it out and send me on my way. I was wrong.
The oncologist informed me that I had a dermal large b-cell lymphoma—it had manifested in my skin rather than my lymph system. He took a bone marrow biopsy, and recommended immediate monoclonal antibody and chemotherapy treatments. I left his office reeling from the news. I walked out with a little informational pamphlet about lymphoma, a fistful of prescriptions, about a half-liter of barium sulfate for the next morning’s C-T scan, and a bloodstream full of Demerol.
I’m not afraid of anything I understand, but I knew nothing about lymphoma, Rituximab, or CHOP. I hadn’t checked into a hospital since I was seven years old. I was downright terrified. My immediate mission: find out everything there is to know about this cancer in my system and its treatment methods.
I knew I’d lose the hair on my head, but what about body hair? Would I be able to keep food down? Would I lose a third of my body weight, as a friend did when he went through chemo in the 70s? Were there new, more-effective anti-nausea drugs or would I have to use medicinal marijuana, as he did? With my ravaged immune system, how could I protect myself against infection when I worked on my ranch?
The pamphlet was only mildly useful. It was just too generalized. So I turned to my usual resource for first-line research: the Internet. I found a whole lot of highly technical information that was probably wonderful for an oncologist, but useless to me. I couldn’t understand it. I also found thousands of Web pages written by patients and their friends and families. Nice, but of questionable accuracy. There just wasn’t much to be found that met my criteria: it had to be authoritative, understandable, and comprehensive.
Had I been suffering from a common disease with a well-understood and long-unchanged course of treatment, things might have been different. Dermal lymphomas, however, are rare, and monoclonal antibodies are still becoming established as mainstream treatments. There is a lot of conflicting information online, and it’s very difficult for a layman to determine which information is truly authoritative.
Medical patients simply can’t get all of their information from friends, phone-in radio shows, and newspaper columns. We can’t rely on what some unknown author keyed in to their personal Web site—even if there is an “MD” after their name. Our lives are on the line here.
Medical journals are written for medical professionals, and that is as it should be. The information is carefully vetted and peer-reviewed. There is a crying need for trained medical professionals to produce a body of peer-reviewed medical information written for laymen, with a meaningful stamp of approval on the individual articles.
It would not be necessary for all of this information to reside on a central Web server, nor for a single administrator to oversee it. All that would be required is a central directory or search engine for information carrying the aforementioned stamp of approval.
I ended up getting the information I wanted. I used up a lot of my chemo nurse’s time (she’s not only an RN, she’s a cancer survivor), and asked my oncologist many questions. I read articles online and in magazines. I got data from cancer support networks. Eventually—that’s the key word—I learned about my disease and its treatment. But that was no substitute for what this scared and lonely patient needed the afternoon of my diagnosis: fast, clear, information I knew I could count on.