Readers Respond to Jean Sorensen’s Question: “I have a question for your readers. Why do freelancers not see themselves as suppliers? I find it astonishing that many wait, and wait quietly, to be paid by publications for work done. They do not bill with interest after 30 days. Doesn’t your phone company bill again with interest after 30 days…”
As both a free-lance writer and editor, I see both sides of the charging interest after 30 days issue. As a writer, I agree that our work has value and theoretically we should be treated the same as any vendor. But as an editor, I find this nickel-and-dime mentality annoying and if someone started to charge me interest if their payment was delayed beyond 30 days, I’d quickly find a new writer who was more flexible.
I think the bottom line here is to know the policies of the publications you deal with and learn to work within those parameters. The key is to have adequate cash flow. I work for several trade publications and know quite well what the payment policy is for each of them. Thus, I’m able to figure out what check is arriving when and plan my cash flow accordingly. It is only when someone varies from the usual pattern that I make the call about my check, but I don’t start charging them interest because of the delay.
Am I getting paid beyond the 30-day limit? Yes, usually I am. But I feel as long as I know the policy and it isn’t too out of line (most pay on publication and have deadlines of 45 to 60 days before publication) then why not work with it, rather than against it?
By working with the policies set up by the publication, I know my editors view me as a cooperative and professional free-lancer, not a pain in the you-know-what who is looking to make a few extra cents beyond the agreed-upon price. And, as a result, this “humble” writer has plenty of business coming her way.
– J. Friedrick
Charging Interest Should Be “Last Straw” Strategy
There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of charging a penalty or interest for late payment. I have worked for magazines that, in their contract, deduct a small amount from the fee if the article arrives past the deadline. However, I think you would need to let the magazine know of your policy in advance (just as you agree to the penalties in advance with a credit card company).
I suspect most magazines wouldn’t go for this, and I see this as more of a “last straw” strategy than an ongoing business practice. In my first go-around with a new client, I wouldn’t try to negotiate a late payment penalty. I think this is a strategy I would hold out only for chronic late-payers who I am willing to lose as clients if they don’t agree to a penalty.
If cash flow is a problem, I think a better strategy would be to offer a discount for quick payment – make it a positive thing rather than punitive. This notion, in my experience, generally flies better with corporate clients than magazine clients.
Contact the Comptroller About Late Payments
Ah, yes, (late payment) is a problem. They enrich their cash flow at our expense.
I once sent an e-mail to a new Internet publisher: “How much do you pay and when?” I’ll admit that was a little terse, and I got my hands slapped by the publisher. But it turned out that the pay was peanuts and not worth bothering with, anyway — which is why I was terse to begin with. (The “publisher” was just a dumb amateur playing pro.)
In the past, I always wrote to the comptroller when I wanted my money — and I was ALWAYS paid immediately! So that could be a big, helpful tip! I think probably a lot of editors are sloppy with little details like paying writers. Circumvent them!
I am also a notary public in addition to being a writer and am kept busy signing up people in refinancing loans, etc. I am also kept busy dunning these “signing services” to collect past-due funds. (Hey! Maybe I’ll take my own advice and go to the comptroller!) I’ve been waiting since May for one to pay me. They think I’m going away, but I’m not!
Joyce Megginson Kircher
Interest Clause Must Be in Your Contract
The reason that phone and credit card companies charge interest if a bill isn’t paid promptly is because it is written into the contract. I certainly agree that too many freelancers “have become too humble about their position in the publishing chain.” Nonetheless, if you plan on trying to charge interest for late payments, you’d better write a clause to that effect into the contract. Asking for interest payments, when they weren’t agreed upon up front, is more likely to elicit a derisive laugh than any extra money.
If You Can’t Pay Writers Within 30 Days, Get Out of the Industry
Bravo, Jean, for bringing up two important issues facing freelancers: our lack of business sense and the way we allow ourselves to be treated as the lowliest of the low in the hierarchy of the publishing industry.
However, I don’t think the tendency towards long payment lead times is particular to writers. For instance, my husband owns his own electrical engineering company and many of his clients, including (international corporations) require up to 75 days to pay. Yes, this is using someone’s labor, knowledge, and money, interest-free, but it has long become the standard of doing business. Even 9 to 5ers are in a similar boat. Whether or not they get paid weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, all get paid after they perform their job duties.
Still, I believe writers do get the short end of the stick for many of the same reasons you mention. Most of us do not think of ourselves as business people who perform a service. Writing, for some reason, still has this air of mysticism, of artiness around it, and many writers are just thankful for the opportunity to see their words in print. Payment, well that’s lagniappe. And as long as we continue to think so, publishers will take advantage of us.
The solution is to get a contract with each and every job you perform even if you sell a short story to a small University Press. Ask in writing for a short contract that states estimated publishing and payment date. And do not accept a payment lead-time that goes beyond 30 days after publication. If a publisher does not have a track record of paying on time (it’s pretty easy to find out), don’t do the work. Period. Waitress. Teach a class. Stuff envelopes. Do anything to pay your mortgage but don’t accept an unfair contract. Imagine if X magazine could no longer find writers who would be willing to work for payment over 30 days after publication. Wouldn’t they have to change and stick to a new payment policy?
If you don’t get paid on time, take the client to court or contract with a collections agency. And broadcast your treatment on every writer’s website you can find. In other words, act like a businessperson, not a dog skulking around the campfire waiting for whatever scraps the masters of the publishing industry deem fit to toss your way.
Now, I can hear the editors out there balking: ‘But we can’t afford to pay our writers. Competition is too stiff. People don’t read anymore.’ Too bad. Publishing, like any other business, is based on the principles of survival of the fittest. Only the best, most savvy should survive. Hundreds of magazines pay their writers 50¢ a word and above and pay on time as well. Low paying markets have their place only as training grounds for new writers. But no matter what the pay, there is never a good excuse of not paying a writer at least 30 days after you use his or her words. If you can’t, you’re not cut out for the industry. Go grow corn instead.
Anyway, I think this is an issue that more writers need to face. Thanks, Jean, for bringing it up and thanks, Angela, for giving me a chance to vent.
Angela’s Two Cents
I wholly agree with Rena above. Publications that can’t afford to (or simply don’t want to) pay writers within 30 days of publication should not be in business. I wholly disagree with the editor in the first letter above that claims she won’t work with a writer who charges interest. If she can’t pay a writer promptly, causing the writer to resort to interest charges, the writer should be shunning her instead.
Asking writers to be “flexible” and “easy to work with” doesn’t feed these writers’ families. Asking writers to be more flexible than other professionals and to not charge interest or to wait several weeks or months for payment is also unfair and unacceptable. This prevailing mentality is disrespectful of the very people who provide the content that keep your readers coming back for more.
If you treat writers like bottom-feeders, you will only attract the lowest quality writing. And, it will reflect in your publication. Readers will stop reading, advertisers will stop advertising and, eventually, you’ll stop publishing. Treat writers with common human decency and pay them in a timely manner (the way you want to be paid) and you will succeed in this industry.
-Angela Hoy, Publisher