Red Flags for Writers

You’ve probably seen articles that tell you which words and phrases to avoid at restaurants if you want to stay healthy—words like “crispy,” “golden fried” and “closed by the Board of Health.” Well, writers also have words they should steer clear of when reviewing assignments and contracts.

EXPOSURE. “We don’t pay,” the editor says, “but think of all the exposure you’ll get!” As a smart friend of mine says, people die of exposure. Ask yourself: Will having your byline in this magazine bring fame, riches and paid assignments from other publications? I’ll answer your question with another question: Do you know the names of the writers who wrote the cover stories this month in Vogue, Reader’s Digest or pretty much any other newsstand magazine? If not, you probably can’t expect an article in a nonpaying magazine to get you noticed, either. Say “no thanks” to the editor who asks you to write for exposure, and use the time saved to pitch paying markets.

GREAT CLIP. This is a corollary to the “exposure” gambit: “We don’t pay, but an article in our magazine will make a great clip!” Do you know how many clips you need to snag a paid assignment? Zero. I started out in 1997 with a copy of Writer’s Market, a 1,200-baud modem, no clips (unless you count a review of a dialectology tome in an academic journal) and no clue. My first assignment, from EEO Bimonthly magazine, paid $500. Now I had rent money and a clip that helped me move up to newsstand magazines. It never occurred to me to work for free and no one asked me to.

ALL RIGHTS. If a contract says an assignment is “all rights” or “work for hire,” that means the magazine owns your article. You’re not allowed to resell it, post it on your website without permission or read it aloud in the privacy of your own home without protective goggles.

I’m sometimes a slacker when it comes to fighting for article rights because often I don’t bother to find reprint markets for my work. But recently, an editor at a magazine I wrote for several years ago e-mailed to ask for my address because they reprinted one of my articles and owed me half the original fee: $750. I earned $750 just because I didn’t sell all rights to the piece. I learned my lesson and you should, too: Ask the editor if you can change the contract to “first North American serial rights,” meaning the magazine has the right to be the first to print the article in the United States. If they insist on “work for hire,” “all rights” or other rights, ask for more money.

STARTUP. It can be exciting to discover a magazine startup. “A new magazine!” you say. “I’d better warm up my keyboard and churn out some queries before the other hopefuls clue in to this golden opportunity.”

Hold up. According to Samir Husni, chair of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi and owner of MrMagazine.com, 62 percent of new magazines from 2007 have already failed. Moreover, I’ve heard too many stories of writers who worked for startup magazines only to end up without a check when the publication suddenly folded. It almost happened to me—I bowed out of an assignment when I noticed that a new magazine’s topics seemed all over the place. A few months later, a forum I frequent was full of writers complaining that their checks were late and the editor was ignoring their e-mails.

Some writers avoid working for a new magazine unless a company with a good track record publishes it. They know they can always pitch the magazine later—if it survives.

ON SPEC. If you write an article “on spec,” it means you write it up, and then the editor reads it and decides if she wants to buy it. If the editor rejects the article, you receive bupkis. This is opposed to “on assignment,” in which the editor assigns you a story and offers a contract after approving your query. Editors with an on-spec policy explain that they want to be sure of a writer’s abilities before committing to pay them. But your well-written query letter should be all the proof they need—especially if you bolster the query with published clips and a paragraph about your credentials. Ask the editor to consider offering you a contract with a kill fee, so you’ll at least receive a percentage of the payment if the article isn’t used.

PAY ON PUBLICATION. Being paid for an article after it’s published is kind of like picking a suit at a department store, bringing it home and paying for it only when you actually wear it. Sounds silly, yes? In addition, sometimes publication dates—and therefore your checks—are pushed further and further into the future. If you like to pay your bills on time, ask to have the terms changed to “pay on acceptance” when presented with a POP contract. If you can’t do that, ask the editor to include the publication date in the contract so you at least have some assurance as to when your check will arrive.

Don’t hurt your chances of getting published by not sending agents what they want. Consider:
Guide To Query Letters

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