Waiting for DOLLAR$

Imagine this: You find a nice formal outfit at a local clothing store, but instead of whipping out your credit card, you tell the cashier that you’ll pay for the suit should you ever actually wear it.

Sounds silly, right? But that’s the same situation writers face when they’re offered assignments from magazines that pay on publication instead of on acceptance.

That’s why both the National Writers Union and the American Society of Journalists and Authors urge writers to reject pay-on-pub contracts. “We encourage members to negotiate contracts that stipulate payment on acceptance, not publication,” says Dian Killian, NWU journalism division organizer and director of the Publication Rights Clearinghouse. “Numerous problems can arise otherwise.”

For example, in the wake of the attacks in New York and Washington and the anthrax scare, many publications threw out their editorial calendars to accommodate pieces on homeland security and letter-opening tips. The delayed articles might still appear in print some day, but that’s little consolation for writers holding pay-on-pub contracts.

Even without delays, publication lead times are often six months or more, and that’s a long time to wait to get paid. What’s more, if you sell first print rights, you can’t sell reprints of an article until it’s been published, curtailing your money-making power even more.

Paying on acceptance

Magazine editors who pay on acceptance—that is, after the writer’s work has been received, read and deemed to meet the terms of the agreement—say they’re concerned about fairness to writers. “Since Family Circle maintains quite an extensive inventory of accepted articles, I think it would be unfair to withhold payment until we publish,” says Deputy Editor Nancy Clark. “Once a writer has successfully completed an assignment, he or she should be paid as promptly as possible.”

Pam Chwedyk, editor of the much smaller trade publication Minority Nurse (circulation 40,000 vs. Family Circle‘s 5 million), agrees: “We’re quarterly. When a magazine is published that infrequently, it becomes necessary to pay on acceptance. If we bump an article, it’s [an] unfairly long amount of time for a writer to wait.”

Paying on acceptance also helps keep a magazine competitive. “If a magazine wants to attract and continue working with the best writers, it has to be writer-friendly,” Chwedyk says. “Paying on acceptance is one way to do this.”

There are benefits to the magazine as well. “Prompt payments keep our books clear,” says Mary Chollet, managing editor of Well and Healthy Woman, an online monthly. “We are pleased to pay our writers as soon as their submissions are accepted and/or edited.”

Paying on publication

Magazine editors who pay on publication cite practical reasons. “I can accept articles for [my newsletters] in one day that total over $1,000,” says Angela Giles Klocke, editor of monthly newsletter The Writing Parent and The Writing Child, published three times yearly. (Both have online components.) “I operate on a shoestring budget and rely on advertising, sales and my own writing sales to pay writers. There’s no way I could pay for all the articles in one lump sum.”

At Adbusters, an 85,000-circulation bimonthly, the issue is practicality. Senior Editor James MacKinnon says paying on publication helps his magazine work with new and emerging writers. “We often work with people to develop their initial idea, take a new approach, or extensively fine-tune the writing; other magazines would simply dismiss these writers as nonprofessionals. At what point, in a process like the one just described, is material ‘accepted’?” he says.

Other editors say they don’t want to pay for something they may not use. At custom publisher Imagination Publishing, Senior VP-Editorial Director Rebecca Rolfes says clients get approval over manuscripts and designs. “At any point, they could decide to pull something or change something,” she says. “That almost never happens, but it is an option for them which would leave us with having paid for something we then could not use. Kill fees are, of course, part of our contract, but we can’t tie up our editorial dollars for articles that clients may want to drop or hold until later.”

The writers’ side

Editors may have reasons for paying on publication, but that doesn’t make it any easier for writers who accept such contracts. After all, as the name implies, if your article never makes it to publication—even through no fault of your own—you won’t see one sou (or maybe you’ll be stuck with a kill fee).

In a discussion on our Web site’s Forum page (www.writersdigest.com), writers shared their opinions.

“One real problem with pay-on-publication magazines is all too often they are really pay-on-lawsuit publications,” James A. Ritchie of New Castle, Ind., wrote. “Having said this, if the [publication] is reputable and doesn’t hold a story forever before publishing it, then yes, I have and will continue to write for [such a magazine]. But whenever possible, stories and articles are first offered to pay-on-acceptance magazines, which means pay on pubs usually receive second-tier material. Barring this, they receive reprint material, and for this, pay on pubs can be good for any writer.”

Publications, like any other business, have to make choices, says freelancer Allan Lynch of Nova Scotia, Canada. “One of the choices is which supplier is more important to them? Is it the office supply guy or the writer? It bloody well should be the writer—that’s why readers buy the magazine. A freelance writer is cheap labor. We provide the story idea, do the research, supply our own office space and technology, and we don’t add to their employment costs in terms of healthcare, unemployment insurance and pension schemes. Fast payment for work is the least the publication can do.”

William Adams of Springfield, Va., says he’d consider offering reprints to pay-on-pub magazines. Beyond that, he says: “Pay on publication is an unethical way for publications to maintain a full inventory of articles on a wide range of topics in case they may need to use such an article in the unspecified future. Too often the editors have no intention of using the article and are stockpiling them as a risk mitigator in case they need an article quickly.”

What to do

If you do decide to write for magazines that pay on publication, take these steps to protect yourself:

To Learn More

Check out these sources to learn more about the issue of payment:

  • The National Writers Union (www.nwu.org) offers FAQs, contract advice, etc.
  • The American Society of Journalists and Authors (www.asja.org) has the latest news, including a “Contracts Watch” section.
  • The annually updated Writer’s Market (www.WritersMarket.com) features a “How much should I charge?” section..
  • Negotiate. Perhaps the magazine will be willing to bend the contract for you—it never hurts to ask! “I always, always negotiate, and it often works,” says Monique Cuvelier, a business and technology writer in Burlington, Mass. “I simply explain what an inconvenience it is to have my pay rolling in half a year after I did the work, and that it’s my policy to be paid 30 days after submission. It’s only fair.”
  • Get a firm date. If the editor won’t change the pay-on-pub terms, ask her to include the expected date of publication in the contract so that you have some idea of what your cash flow will look like in the future.
  • Ask for a kill fee. Imagine researching, writing and revising an article, and then getting nothing because the magazine changes its editorial focus or drops your article for another reason. Make sure the agreement includes a kill fee. Twenty-five percent is standard, but the higher the better.
  • Lessen your risk. You stand less of a chance of getting burned (and any burn will hurt less) if you stick with familiar, established magazines or limit the amount of time and research you invest in work for new, untested markets.
  • Diversify. Writing for a few pay-on-pub magazines won’t make your financial situation sticky if you can rely on a steady influx of checks from publications that pay on acceptance.

    Pay-on-pub contracts may not be a boon for writers, but for some writers in some situations, they can make sense. Play it smart, negotiate and don’t plan your budget around pay-on-pub assignments—and you can profit from writing for these magazines.

    This article appeared in the July 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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