Sunday, November 23, 2008

Freelance Writing: Writers Beware!

Life can be tough for the freelance writer. It takes a lot of hard work to gain contracts to earn a decent living. So, the last thing you need is to fall victim to a company or publisher who fails to pay for the commissioned writing services you’ve provided.

When you become a self-employed writer, you need to be aware that there are companies out there, some unscrupulous, who commission writers then fail to pay. At the same time, there are publications (often new ones) that hire writers to undertake work before disappearing without explanation or apology, let alone payment. It’s a sad fact that magazines and publishing ventures do fold or experience financial difficulties and, if this happens, there appears to be little a writer can do except try selling any completed material elsewhere.

Failure to be paid for commissioned work is a problem affecting beginners and established writers alike. It seems to be rife in the creative world and yet wouldn’t be tolerated in other industries. The problem is that although you could pursue payment via the legal system, it’s not often cost or time effective for us writers nor practical if the company concerned has disappeared or gone bankrupt.

As an established writer, I’ve encountered three incidents of being commissioned for work by publishers who failed to honour payment in the past year. These were all genuine publishing companies too! One involved a newsletter publisher who decided to wind down the venture without notice and failed to pay the substantial amount owed. Another concerned a national magazine publisher who commissioned a feature then changed their editorial direction. The last one happened recently. The editor of a new green magazine commissioned me to write an article then promptly disappeared!

Where the national magazine was concerned, I managed to negotiate a kill fee (50% of the agreed fee paid for commissioned work). This was duly paid. The newsletter publishing company made a token fee but didn’t honour the payment arrangement. As to the green magazine, it must have recycled itself as I’ve not heard anything since! It’s obviously infuriating when commissions fail to pay but if no resolution can be found, the writer has no choice but to move on.

To reiterate, these were all genuine publishers – not unscrupulous companies deliberately out to deceive or treat writers unfairly but publishers who were experiencing financial difficulties or a change of situation which, unfortunately, created an adverse knock-on effect. What we writers find intolerable though is when such publishers / editors fail to communicate when they can’t pay. It’s far worse, in my opinion, when we are left wondering. I would certainly be more understanding if an editor / publisher explained a problem rather than having to endure the `not knowing’. This way, writers can move-on and decide whether to re-write the work or sell elsewhere.

Safeguarding your Writing Business

The incidences of writers being treated unfairly seems to be on the rise. As writers, we need to do all we can to protect ourselves from unscrupulous dealings and safeguard our work against theft and non-payment. You may already have procedures in place but, if not, here’s what you can do:

1. When you gain a commission do some research and establish who you are working for.

2. Make sure you have the company’s full contact details. If not provided, ask for names and postal address.

3. Keep copies of any communication that has taken place such as letters of commission and offers of payment.

4. Carefully read the terms of any contracts / writers agreements. Do not accept or sign such an agreement until you understand and agree to the terms. Read the small-print. Make sure you are not giving away `all rights’ to your work (unless you want to do so in lieu perhaps of a higher payment).

5. Don’t be afraid to discuss payment. Remember, you are offering a service as a writer. You are providing your time, expertise and skill. You are also using your equipment and utilities to produce the material. Even if you are writing for sheer joy and to be published, at least cover your expenses and make sure you are paid fairly for commissioned work. You are doing yourself and other writers a great disservice if you don’t!

6. If you are undertaking a substantial amount of work for an unknown publisher / company, ask for an advance payment.

7. If payment is late, submit a professional reminder (the Freelance Writers’ Business Kit has sample letter templates which you can use).

8. If the publisher / company admit to experiencing financial difficulties, don’t get angry! Try to negotiate a settlement fee or payment arrangement.

9. More difficult is if the company who has commissioned you to produce material disappears seemingly without trace. Try to follow up using the contact information you have. If you fail to resolve, move on! Record it as a loss / bad debt in your accounts (ask your accountant for advice). Revise the material, if possible…recycle it and look for a new market.

10. If you suspect a company has published or used your work without payment or permission, the company could be in breach of copyright. You can take legal action and will need to gain professional advice.

Sometimes, a commission can fall through for reasons beyond your control. Magazines fold, editors’ move on and companies can have unexpected financial problems … that’s part of the course and you should anticipate this can happen at any stage of your writing career. Although demoralising, don’t dwell on it. After over 20 years’ in the writing business, I’ve found that the best way to deal with such situations is to quickly move on and focus on turning a negative into a positive. There are always other opportunities and more successful outcomes!

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