I tend to believe that prevention is the best cure for a whole raft of problems in life, including hypothermia, jet lag, and deadbeat clients. I’m not going to claim that every deadbeat wears a neon sign, but some of them do give us plenty of warning. It’s our job to heed it.
- Keep tabs on your regular markets. If you write regularly for a few publications, look for signs about how healthy they are: Check a magazine’s ad pages carefully. Note if the magazine is thinner than usual (That means one thing and one thing only: Its ad revenue has been dropping). The most useful comparisons are annual: ie, compare this December’s issue to last December’s issue.
- If it’s a new-to-you market, evaluate it carefully before you pitch (or accept an assignment that finds its way to you). Again, the answer is in the ads, not the editorial: There should be plenty of four-color full-page ads at the beginning and end of the book. Too many part-page B&Ws is a bad sign, especially at the front of the book. You should recognize the names of many of the advertisers: In a general interest magazine, look for the big consumer names that do a lot of print ads. In a niche market, look for the leading manufactureres and players in the particular field. For regional markets, look for the upscale names in your area. The ratio of ad pages to editorial should be at least 50-50 — financially healthy magazines have even higher ad-to-editorial ratios.
- If the magazine looks suspiciously robust, go ahead and be suspicious: Many struggling newcomer magazines (especially to luxury and high-end niche markets) give away lots of free glossy ads to major name advertisers in order to get the ball rolling and try to appeal to a certain demographic. If you’ve never heard of “Hamptons Millionaire” before, check how long its been around and find out its PAID circulation (Free distribution to doctors’ offices doesn’t count). Read through the gloss — and the hype. Just because they are trying to appeal to millionaires doesn’t mean THEY have any money to pay writers with. One hint: If the quality of the editorial material is shoddy. It’s hard to pin down, but there’s a fly-by-night aspect to the combination of superficial poorly-edited editorial with high-gloss ads.
- Join a group, professional association, or list-serve — and network, network, network. Ask for feedback and experiences from your colleagues.
- Then heed what you hear: The American Society of Journalists and Authors has a confidential warning list and an e-bulletin board where members can share information: I am always astonished when fellow members complain about ill treatment from a publication that other members have been warning us about for years. A single complaint may be a fluke, but if you see the same complaints about slow pay or no pay or capricious kill fees or payment on acceptance morphing into payment-on-whenever-we-feel-like-it, then you’ve only yourself to blame for taking the gig.
- Notice when payment patterns change: If you’ve been happily working for a client for a while, you might overlook the fact that payments are dragging a bit. Don’t keep writing! Most writers are reluctant to play this kind of hardball, but I’ve got no problem saying :”No money no workie.” If you’re already owned $1000 bucks for one story, how is it in your best interest to write another story until you’re paid for the first one? Is their owing you $2000 bucks somehow better than them owing you $1000 bucks?
- Be wary of new ventures — they often fail. This is especially true of Internet ventures, because the start-up costs are low enough that virtually anyone can do it. I ask for references from other writers, or work my networking contacts before accepting a gig from a start-up these days. Partial advance payment on signing a contract might be another way to go when dealing with a start-up with no track record. (I haven’t tried this; if you do, and are successful, PLEASE let us know how it goes — it’s probably only a viable strategy if a company comes to YOU, rather than the other way around).
I will relate one story about avoiding bad markets: I had been hearing for many years how a particular major magazine dealing with outdoors topics had a terrible reputation among writers (although a golden one among award judges and the literati). They delayed payments, paid on publication rather than the promised acceptance, killed stories mercilessly, and generally made writers’ lives miserable and their stories unrecognizeable. I didn’t have any direct experience with this publication (When you usually have enough work from markets that don’t do any of this, you aren’t inclined to pitch them with a huge PIA factor). But the magazine is prestigious — high profile and high gloss — and it was represented at a recent conference I attended. So I sat down for a meeting with an attending editor.
The first thing I said was, “Well, I wanted to meet you because we work in the same interest area, but I have to tell you that I haven’t pitched your magazine because I’ve heard that you guys are difficult to work with and don’t have such a great reputation for paying writers. So I’m glad to have the chance to ask you about that myself.”
The editor was visibly taken aback. (Shocked! Simply shocked!) Not because the information was wrong: She easily admitted (and this is a direct quote), ”If you want to get paid promply, this may not be the best market for you.”
To her, the shocking thing was that we writers talked about this stuff. She wanted to know where I had gotten my info. (No can do: Confidential lists and relationships. But I did tell her I’d heard this info from many different sources over a period of many years.) She honestly seemed surprised that slow pay would be an issue that would concern writers.
I find it difficult to believe that this was the first time the magazine had been called on the carpet for its payment laxities. But I also know that we writers tend to moan and gripe among ourselves — and then accept contracts and treatment we KNOW we shouldn’t have any truck with, without addressing the issues with the people who are hiring us.
Which makes it our own damn fault when the magazine does to us what they do to everyone else.
As it turned out, this editor didn’t seem to think that anything about the magazine’s payment poilcies was going to be changing anytime soon. And I never did follow through with a pitch. I doubt I ever will. But I am still reading complaints about them from my colleagues.