Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 10
March 6, 2008
Yes, we're back. And I'm going to continue this series as things occur to me, which may or may not be often. If you don't know what I'm talking about, the first nine parts started sometime in February 2008. Check them out.
Anyway, today I want to talk about an unpleasant little aspect of writing for a living called "pay-on-publication."
Essentially it means what it says. You write something and you don't receive a check for it until after the publisher publishes it.
I don't do as much magazine writing as I used to do. It's a brutal way to make a living as a writer because you have to be such an idea generator and unless you're working for top national mags, the pay is so-so and the publishers constantly act as if they're going to go belly-up without a moment's notice--they don't usually, but they act like they will. Whether they just behave that way to justify their crappy pay rates and policies is up for debate.
Anyway, in terms of most writing there are about three ways to get paid for your work (aside from say, ransom or stick-up notes). They are:
1. Pay-on-publication. You write it. The publisher holds on to it until it's convenient for them to publish it (or convenient for them to pay you for it), then you get paid sometime after that.
2. Pay on acceptance. You write it. It gets turned in. They say, "It's good" or "we need some tweaking" and you do whatever is needed, they cut you a check and they publish it whenever they please, but you don't really care any more because the money's in the bank.
3. Advances and installment. This applies to books, both fiction and nonfiction, but also often to higher paying writing gigs for corporations and businesses. I've done it both ways and it's not a bad way to go, although the first time you get money upfront for something you haven't written yet can be a bit disconcerting, now you owe them. I've been doing business reports for the last 2 years or so, often long ones, and I generally get 50% upfront upon signing and the rest upon completion. I've got one new client that broke it into three parts--about 1/3 upfront, about 1/3 upon turning in a detailed project outline, and the remainder when I finish. Also, not a bad way to go.
I don't think it takes a real genius to figure out which way you want to go, especially if you're trying to do things like buy groceries, make car and mortgage payments and keep shoes on your children's feet, not to mention download tunes to your iPod, buy books and take warm tropical vacations complete with alcoholic beverages that come with little umbrellas in them.
Early on in my career I did a lot of pay-on-publication. Memorably, one of my first paid writing pieces was for the late, lamented The Armchair Detective. I wrote a nice little article on Paul Levine and the murders in his books. It was titled "A Miami Way Of Death" and it paid a whopping $35. The problem was, they weren't paying until publication and they held the article in manuscript form for over a year before they published it and paid for it.
It's not always that way, of course. I've worked for some magazines that say, "We need the article by March 15th so we can get it in the April issue." You're reasonably assured to get paid sometime in April or early May. (Actually getting your money as a freelancer is not quite as reliable as the rising and setting of the sun, however. Part of your job description from time to time is "collection agency.")
Generally speaking, these pay-on-publication mags tend to be lower-paying, lower-to-middle publications. Undoubtedly, if you start writing, you'll end up doing some work this way. My advice? Work to get away from pay-on-publication toward anything else. It'll take time, but hopefully you'll get to a point where these types of publications are the exception, not the rule.
I've got two magazine-type publishers I still regularly do work for, mostly to keep my hand in on an area of writing I might return more aggressively to some day (or not). The irregular income is, of course, nice as well. One pays on publication, the other pays more or less on acceptance.
The one that pays on publication has been annoying me lately (hence the idea for today's post) because it's no longer clear when work I do for them will actually get published. I just turned in an article yesterday, but they already have two of mine "in the hopper" that I wrote last year. Obviously, it's not a great way to run a business, doing work in one year and not getting paid until... well, whenever. Also, when he came back with editorial requests, I found my first response was, "I'll see what I can do," and my second response was a pointed, "When will you be publishing the other two articles?" I know he expects me to write a couple more this year, but frankly, why would I? I've got to do some work from which I can rely on the income.
Of course, early on, you don't have much choice. You go where the work is and a lot of it will be pay-on-publication. That sucks. The solution is to do a lot of it so there's always money coming in--from somewhere. The obvious problem is that you don't know how much or when. That can be something of a stressful situation.
I could go on about the others, but this is long enough for now. One thing I would like to point out. On your invoice, you might have a line like, "Please submit payment within X number of days of receipt of this invoice."
I thought I had something like this on my invoice, but just double-checked and note that I don't. When I pull together contracts, I make sure I get paid within 30 days of signing or completion of portions of the work or whatever. Some writers and/or business people do 21 days or 15 days or even 10 days. If you try to get your money in 10 or 15 days, in my experience, you're delusional. Good luck with that.
Here's a way to think about pay-on-publication. Suppose you go to a store and buy a bed. You tell them, I'm not going to pay you until I actually use this bed. I'm not going to use this bed for a couple months. Okay?
Not likely to work, is it? Yet that's exactly what pay-on-publication publishers are asking you to do.