By W. H. “Chip” Gross
One of the unsavory secrets of magazine freelancing—or any freelancing for that matter—is that, at times, you’re not paid for your work on schedule. Chasing down those pesky payments can be a hassle, but it’s a skill you must master. Or go hungry. Here is a four-step formula for making that task easier.
Step one: Make a list
When an assigned story or photo of yours goes out the door to an editor, write down the name of the magazine, the title of the story/photo, and when it was sent. That way, you have a ready reference of who owes you money. If the check does not arrive close to when expected, move on to step two. But before you do, make sure you’ve read the magazine’s writers’ guidelines, noting their payment system. Is it upon acceptance? Upon publication? If you have payment questions, ironing out those details with an editor when a story is assigned is easier than after the story has been published.
Step two: Check on the check
If payment is overdue by several weeks, don’t be afraid to ask about it. But be polite and professional, making your inquiry through the editor who assigned you the story. Such an e-mail could sound something like this:
“Hi, Mike: I haven’t received payment yet for my assigned story (Shooting Elephants with Water Pistols), published in the September 2009 issue of Pachyderm Monthly. Would you please check on that and let me know where things stand? Just want to make sure the payment is in the pipeline. Thanks…”
Keep in mind when making your inquiry that most editors don’t pay the bills at their publication. They simply forward a payment order to their accounting office and assume payment will be made. If it’s not, they usually don’t know about it, so don’t take your frustration out on them. A gazillion bad things can happen between the payment order leaving the editor’s desk and the check ultimately being written and mailed.
Again, always be polite and professional, giving the editor every benefit of the doubt. How you handle such a situation could very well determine whether you sell another story to that editor or publication. In fact, handling a late-payment situation well can actually help you build credibility with an editor.
Step three: Keep the pressure on
So what happens if a publication still does not come through with your check? Consistent, weekly e-mails or phone reminders to the editor should be your next step. And no matter how frustrated you may become, do not resort to threats or name calling. Remember, your integrity—as well as theirs—is at stake. Be persistent but not obnoxious.
Step four: Involve OWAA (if necessary)
Finally—and this should be your last resort—if after several months your check has still not arrived, and communication between you and the editor/publication has broken down, it may be time to turn to OWAA for help. There is strength in numbers, and one of the benefits of joining a professional writers’ group such as OWAA is having the organization intervene for you in a sticky situation.
“OWAA headquarters regularly helps members with business disputes, including slow-pay and no-pay markets,” OWAA Executive Director Kevin Rhoades said. “I’ll need records of all correspondence regarding the issue with the publisher, including signed documents, e-mails, all written correspondence, and proof that materials were shipped showing date(s) sent and received, if applicable, i.e. transparencies, manuscripts.”
Rhoades went on to say that, assuming the affected member has not burned his or her bridge with the other party, OWAA will likely be able to help. In fact, OWAA is successful about two-thirds of the time in re-opening doors for payment, or for the member to have his or her property returned.
“Legal action should always be the last resort,” Rhoades said. “Before going down that road, consult with OWAA headquarters. If we believe it’s unlikely we can help resolve the dispute, we’ll put the member in touch with OWAA’s legal counsel so the member can learn more about rights and venues for recourse.”
W. H. “Chip” Gross (www.chipgross.com) is a veteran magazine and book freelancer from Ohio, and also a past OWAA board member.
Want to read more on this subject? Check out Kevin Rhoades’ article, “How to get paid.”