Reprinted from the Dec. 2010 issue of The ASJA Monthly.
When I first moved to the small mountain community where I currently reside, my neighbors were exceedingly curious about my source of income. Young and single at the time, as far as they could tell, I stayed home all day, never went to work, yet somehow continued to pay the mortgage. Finally, at a Ruritan Club meeting, a local teacher gathered enough gumption to ask me the question we freelance writers often dread: “So what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a writer,” I replied.
She smiled, “Yes, but what do you do for a living?”
I have often wondered if that general notion that one cannot seriously be a writer is not an unconscious force behind the troubles freelancers frequently have with getting paid, particularly with getting paid on time. How many times when checks from publishers have failed to arrive promptly have I been tempted to pick up the phone, call my editor, and ask her how she would feel if her employer decided not to pay her one month? Countless times.
But after a decade of earning my bread as a writer, I’ve learned a few things about getting paid, one of which involves never losing my cool and telling that editor what I really think of her persistent “misplacement” of my invoice.
As a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ grievance committee, I am all too well aware of the most common payment issues affecting freelance writers—the publications that withhold payment till “acceptance” and then draw out the process of acceptance by six months (and sometimes even years); the magazines that happily accept your assigned article and then ask you to, “oh by the way,” sign their newly developed work-for-hire contract before they can process your check; and then the ones who are in tight financial circumstances and try to get off without paying you…ever.
Whether you’re a writer or entrepreneur of any stripe, some of this probably sounds familiar.
Over my career, I’ve experienced all three scenarios and then some. The good news, however, is that I have never not been paid. Perhaps you are shaking your head in disbelief at this point. But it’s true, and the secret is actually quite simple: I’ve always acted like a businessperson. No matter how passionate you are about the work you do, whether it’s writing or custom embroidery, you can’t lose yourself in the joy of the work to the degree that you set yourself up for grief in your pocketbook.
The concept of “how to get paid on time” begins long before you submit your invoice to your editor or client. It starts with knowing the financial stability (and payment history) of a market before you sign that contract and then negotiating clear payment terms as well as kill fee clauses that won’t leave you in the lurch if things go horribly wrong. And if things do go wrong and that check hasn’t arrived within 30 days of your article or project submittal, follow up promptly, not six months later. The longer you wait to pursue payment, the less professional you look as a writer, the more likely the publication will try to take advantage of you, and the more certain they will feel you won’t pursue legal action against them.
Nine out of ten times I’ve experienced an overdue invoice, a quick reminder to my editor at the 31-day mark has done the trick. How much grief can be avoided just by running a tight ship. And if that simple action fails, prompt escalation of the matter will often work wonders. Sometimes something as simple as carbon copying my lawyer on a request for payment will turn the situation around in a week or less. How, you may ask? It’s simple: if you take yourself seriously as a businessperson, so will your editors, publishers, and clients.
I didn’t become a writer because I like doing accounting. Bookkeeping is my least favorite part of the job. But doing it well has kept me afloat when plenty of other freelancers have found themselves sinking.
A case in point: two years ago a freelance photographer with whom I worked on a project for a high profile regional magazine called me up in a state of concern. The publication was long overdue on paying both of us. For me, it was a contract dispute. The new editor of the magazine was trying to force me to sign a work-for-hire contract ipso facto and withholding payment until I’d done so. I rarely give away all the rights to my work, and I wasn’t about to start for a relatively small fee of $1,000. Knowing the magazine had planned my article for the next issue and that the press deadline was less than a month away, I chose to hold my ground, telling the editor I felt I could easily withdraw my article and sell it elsewhere. The photographer didn’t feel so lucky and when I advised him of my strategy, he said, “That’s great if you can afford to hold on like that.”
Since both of us had been due payment almost nine months earlier, I replied,
“I can’t afford not to.”
And it’s true. Too often we writers, fearful of where that next paycheck is coming from, allow ourselves to be abused for the sake of money that might come at some indefinite future point. How much better it is, however, to work for markets that value their contributors, pay them well and in timely fashion, and continue to provide more work. Why continue to give your precious efforts to a market that doesn’t honor them? It doesn’t make economic sense.
I don’t know if that freelance photographer ever got his due. I hope he did because his beautiful photography was published two months later alongside my article, and it was done without me having to sign a work-for-hire contract and within two weeks of me sending a polite but firm letter to the magazine’s publisher. Needless to say, it’s not a market with which I choose to work anymore.
I devote my time to markets that respect me as a professional and pay their bills on time. How did I find these wonderful publishers and clients? By process of elimination, of course. It’s an ongoing process, however. Stop paying me on time and treating me with the respect due to a professional who acts like a professional, and I’ll stop writing for you. Simple, yes, but it’s something we writers need to remember the next time we’re inclined to take an assignment with that major national magazine just because we want the byline…without doing our homework on the magazine’s financial health, payment history, and treatment of freelancers.
Of course, it’s also important to return the favor to the people for whom we work: meet deadline with clean and accurate copy, be courteous and professional, and do it all with relentless consistency. Do those things, and the best editors of the best paying publications will beat a path to your door…guaranteed. And they’ll remember just how much they liked you (and want to earn your continued contributions) when that bill comes, too.