Why is it so much easier for freelance writers to secure contracts with start-ups than with established blockbuster magazines such as Vanity Fair, U.S. News and World Report or MAD?
The main reason, I reveal with disgust, is that whereas the blockbusters will definitely wind up paying you, the start-ups very well may not. The correct attitude to assume when a supposedly upcoming title asks you to work for it is that of extremest suspicion.
In fact, if anybody asks you to write for a magazine not yet existent, you should behave as though you were a child and they were an adult stranger offering you candy. But to clarify now; in these situations, you must be your own mommy, establishing with greatest imaginable protectiveness the intentions of the adult stranger.
How is an aspiring publisher like an ill-intentioned stranger? Don’t make me laugh! In any number of ways, a publishing hoodlum can profit from your written work without ever paying you; don’t let them tell you otherwise (believe me, they will try). One business model (aka thieving scheme) that publisher-crooks just absolutely love runs like this; They’ll set up a sham title, complete with glitzy website. Let’s say the sham name is Fabutabulous magazine. They’ll communicate with you, the freelancer, about all their fabulous plans for Fabutabulous! They might even offer to pay you a relatively high rate. You get all (whoopee!) excited when they give you a contract. You finish your work by the deadline, but surprise, surprise; they never pay you. What are they doing with your work? They are putting it with nice imagery, but without your name, into PDFs and showing it to potential advertisers as examples of what will be in an upcoming magazine. Yet Fabutabulous is not the magazine name they’re telling those potential advertisers. A potential advertiser might for example hear that the magazine will be called Dazzling Coastal Callings. Or Fashionista Gardens. Or Miami Luxury Doghouses. Or The San Francisco Gossip Gazette.
The point here is, the rip-off publisher can show your work to different potential advertisers all over the country and beyond, take money from them without ever running any of their ads, and also never, ever pay you. It’s easy for these bandits to continue perpetrating their publishing industry crime wave because the criminal justice system simply is not organized to stop this kind of theft. Each rip-off of a freelancer and/or advertiser is considered a contract violation and therefore a matter for small claims and/or civil court. Rots-o’-ruck collecting on a judgment.
Rule number 1 to avoid getting ripped off by a start-up:
Ask to see the purported publication’s standard writer’s contract. If they don’t have one but are offering you an assignment, remember; you are the child about to get victimized and they are the stranger offering you candy. Are you going to be a trusting little darling and say yes? I hope not.
Rule number 2:
If the start-up publisher does have a standard contract, but that contract does not specify a timeline for your payment, then it’s Adios y buen viaje!, Spanish for Good riddance to bad rubbish. It isn’t that the publisher “forgot” to put a timeline for your payment into the contract; it’s that with malice aforethought, they left the payment timeline out.
You can go ahead and try to negotiate a payment timeline; after all, a contract is not chiseled in stone but is rather, at first, a starting point for negotiations. However, one phrase that your contract absolutely must include is “Acceptance shall occur no later than (fill in the date) and then payment shall occur no later than (fill in the date), regardless of the acceptance status.” (Remember, they could claim the piece was never accepted – and/or never published – as a way to never pay you, and that would be legal unless you protect yourself with a firm payment date in your contract.) You can of course agree to be paid in one month, eight months or one year, but the contract must specify the date by which you are to be paid. Note that I tend to believe, any start-up well-enough capitalized to actually launch will be able to pay you within one month of accepting your article.
Should you ever ask for money up front when writing for a start-up magazine? There are problems with doing so. Paying up front is not the industry norm. Therefore, demanding up front pay can work against you in establishing a good, long-term relationship with an editor, because if they have a payment routine in place, they don’t want to have to remember exceptions to that routine. The standard writer’s contract shows whether they have planned a routine payment system. If they have not, they are suspect!
Be careful not to enter into a lot of back-and-forth communications with a start-up magazine regarding a potential assignment prior to knowing if it will agree to a satisfactory payment timeline in your contract. You risk growing too attached to the developing assignment, which can cloud your judgment regarding the publisher’s trustworthiness. Your main take away from this article is that if a start-up publisher has good intentions and is well-organized, he/she will, with no fuss, show you the planned magazine’s standard writer’s contract and that contract will stipulate your specific payment timeline.
Scott Rose has been robbed by dozens of deadbeats, yet he is not cynical, nor does he have any capacity for irony. He is the author of two delicious novels; Death in Hawaii, a satirical mystery, and Mr. David Cooper’s Happy Suicide, which concerns a New York City advertising executive assigned to a condom account.