From unpaid to paid—and warning others

Early this year, I agreed to write a short article for a magazine. It’s nationally distributed but not one I’d done business with or even looked at before meeting an editor. She didn’t offer a contract, so I asked for one—then, because the terms were so bad throughout, I consciously opted not to sign it. With a one-page article, could anything really go wrong? This one time?

The magazine didn’t pay on acceptance. Then it didn’t pay on publication—cash-flow problems, I was told. In all, it took three months, 10 emails, one phone call, and one letter through the U.S. mail before my little check finally arrived. For me, this was as much about the principle as the principal.

What worked? Persistence, politeness, and appealing to the higher-ups’ better nature rather than resorting to threats. This was a practical matter on the part of David here: Small-claims court wasn’t worth it, and I didn’t even have a contract to wave. So I fell back on some clichés from childhood …

—Don’t promise more than you can deliver.

—You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

—If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Turns out this was the same method advised by some Reddit users, one of whom suggested resending “the exact same, polite e-mail. Don’t change a word, don’t make threats, just inquire as to when you’ll be receiving payment. It’s always worked eventually. But, be prepared to just never see the money. At least you can be annoying for a while.”

What’s next? Naturally, much as I like the clip and am happy to add the title to my resume, I will never write for this magazine again. (Not that I’ve been asked.) Now comes the obligation to warn fellow writers.

First, I sought advice at an SPJ chapter meeting. This led to a discussion of SPJ’s need for an online assembly of “bad guys,” clients and companies that members have had trouble with. As usual, the problem with this idea is legal liability. Members brought up a business that got a bad review on Angie’s List; the business fought back and won, and apparently now it’s harder to tell who the bad eggs are. Potential customers have to read between the lines and think the worst of businesses that aren’t listed.

The Editorial Freelancers Association often sees warnings come up on its members’ Yahoo discussion list. Also, if the miscreant was an advertiser on the job bank, administrators want to know. (The same was true of the late Washington Independent Writers.)

ASJA long had a service called Contracts Watch, which I recommended to students. Some of its warnings and other information, such as what some outlets are paying and what their contracts are like, are now in the members-only section of the ASJA Monthly. The group’s Grievance Committee can help with problems as well; errant publishers may respond better to a whole organization than to one freelancer.

The Absolute Write Water Cooler has a section called “Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check.” At present it has more than 200 pages of threads, most with gripes about agents, publishers, and publicists. These threads have thousands of views apiece.

If you belong to a writers group that meets in person, you’re unlikely to run into the legal-liability problem when discussing a problem client. Your warning won’t go as far as it will online, but it will get through to fellow writers who can ask you for details and share their own stories. As other pithy sayings advise, a word to the wise should be sufficient—and offers a warning to others as you would want them to offer a warning to you.

Addendum, October 28. Aha! The magazine has just announced its bankruptcy filing and plans to concentrate on its online presence. Guess that editor wasn’t lying about cash-flow problems. A story in The Root quoted a writer’s tweet, which said in part, “I did 3 stories for them 3 months ago. Now they say they are bankrupt and can’t pay me!” I’m glad I persisted and got my minuscule check in time.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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