I Should Have Known Better… and So Should You! By Laura Bell

I know of no other profession where members accept work assignments without finding out when they get paid. Paid on acceptance or paid on publication used to do the trick, but no more. The world of writing has gotten more complicated.

I use to pride myself on asking more questions than most until an embarrassing incident snuck up on me in June. After 30 years in the business, I should have known better.

I had just finished submitting an op-ed piece to my distribution list. Sat down; took a breath; and the phone rang. Yes, “I just sent you that piece. You’re going to buy it.” (A great big silent scream of, yea, I am going to published here!) The editor asked me to write one additional paragraph, which I did in about five minutes. I sent the addition back in and that’s when things started going wrong.

Her next email told me that they pay, ugh, $150. I didn’t care at the moment. I just wanted my byline in that paper so much I couldn’t think straight. Attached to the next email were: a vendor agreement, a writer’s agreement and a W2.

It didn’t occur to me until several days later to find out if they paid on acceptance or publication. I had a friend who had written for the same pub for years. She assured me her checks came very quickly. I finally discovered that was true because she was turning in copy for a section that ran every week. No, they paid on publication, declared my editor, when I questioned her. There was nothing in the writer’s agreement that mentioned when one gets paid. I have found this be true several times this past year.

I did try to find out when the publication would happen. She hemmed and hawed and said it would be ëabout a month or sooner.’ Well, two months went by and I heard nothing. I got her to answer the phone one more time. “I told you I would call you.” The tone was annoyed. I finally started emailing the managing editor and got nothing. I faxed and got nowhere still. Finally, on the suggestion from a friend, I sent a certified letter to the CEO of the parent company, return receipt requested. Finally, the editor called. She apologized all over the place and claimed she was having trouble making the ëstory more linear.’ But, not to worry, the payment had been put through.

It didn’t occur to me until after the call that if she really saw this as a problem she would have mentioned it the first day. It was another week of back and forth with the accounting department before the money ended up in my bank account.

This could have been avoided if, after receiving the contract, I had demanded to know when I was getting paid. I have dealt with other publications that paid on publication and they were forthcoming as to the publication time. This type of attitude is not acceptable. We don’t have to hand over our creative work to anyone who comes along.

If that wasn’t enough, just last week, I had a writing friend call and tell me that a national publication she had been trying to get into for years accepted a query. She found herself so overwhelmed that she didn’t ask the right questions. This was to be a very lengthy article. She neglected to read the writers’ guidelines where it outlines that first articles are all $250 no matter what the length. The guidelines don’t bother to mention that all first articles were on-spec.

She wanted this article published so bad that she was willing to go along with the conditions. She has been in the business for 15 years.


On receipt, immediately examine the writer’s agreement. If it doesn’t discuss payment terms, don’t agree to it until you have the terms of payment defined in writing.

Ask for details for payment turn around. If it is truly payment on acceptance, how long before it goes to the accounting department? How long do they take with it? Do they only write checks on certain days? You get the idea. The payment date, or something specific indicating an implied payment date (one week after receipt, etc.), should appear in writing in your contract.

If payment is on publication, insist they insert a “or within __ weeks of acceptance” clause (a date agreed on by both you and the editor). Explain to the publisher that this clause is being used with increasing frequency by contractors because writers aren’t responsible for a publication’s schedule or article assignments and articles occasionally end up in limbo for months or years. If the editor balks, or tries to tell you the clause isn’t necessary, you should consider that a red flag. If they’re so sure your article will be published on schedule, why would they refuse to sign a contract stating you’ll get paid on or around that initial proposed publication date?

Refuse to be intimidated if an editor sounds bothered by your requests. Editors get salaries and most have a hard time relating to freelancers. But, you can bet they know when they’re getting their next paycheck – to the day! Why shouldn’t you?

We are business people just like all the other vendors publications deal with. We provide a professional service and deserve to be treated as such. The more confidence we have in how we deal with editors, the happier we will be in our chosen profession.

Laura Bell has been a published freelance writer since 1979. Her byline has been in the Los Angeles Times, Small Business Opportunities, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Jose Mercury News, the Pasadena Star News, and many more. She writes business advice for anyone interested in business: https://www.bellbusinessreport.com