Freelance Writing – the Pay on Publication Trap

waiting_chequeLike many writers, I can turn my hand to many different types of writing. I write fiction and non-fiction; books and articles; blog posts and PDF guides. Writing articles is a good way to earn bread-and-butter income while you are working on a longer project, like a novel. However, if you write for magazines, you need to be wary of the pay-on-publication trap.

I got caught when the publisher of a national magazine switched from pay-on-invoice to pay-on-publication. For several years, I had written articles (all commissioned) with the agreement that when I sent the final article – plus any accompanying photos – I would also send an invoice. This invoice would go into the system, and sit in in Accounts until the calendar flipped over to the following month. In that month, it would move one step forward – into the to-be-paid queue. The cheque for the article would then be sent out in the first week of the following month.

At best, I was paid within around five weeks. At worst (if I submitted an article plus invoice within the first few days of a given month) it might be 7- 8 weeks.

Fast forward to a couple of articles that were commissioned last year. In July, the request came via email: could I write an article on so-and-so? Deadline: ASAP, but by mid-August. Sure, I said. I submitted the article on August 13, along with an invoice. Given my understanding of the way their Accounts system worked, I expected a cheque in the first week of October.

Meanwhile, in September, the same magazine requested another article: could I write a piece for a special issue? Again I said ‘yes’ and submitted it on October 2nd – with the invoice. This cheque would lob in, I thought, in early December: handy for Christmas.

October came – but the cheque for the August article did not. I left it until mid-October to query the magazine, thinking that if there had been a delay it might arrive in the second week… but no.

To my astonishment, the (new) Deputy Editor informed me that “…we generally pay for the article at about the time that it’s due to be published”. Moreover, she wasn’t sure when the article would appear; it would be “a few issues yet” before it was published. (I’m paraphrasing, but that was more or less the information.)

To say that I was annoyed is an understatement. To change the goalposts in this way without notifying a regular freelancer was, I thought, pretty weak.

Since then I’ve exchanged emails with the Deputy Editor and with the Accounts personnel to whom I was referred. Today, six months after I sent the original invoice, I finally opened my mailbox to find a cheque. Hallelujah!

One down, one to go: the article for the Special Issue. When I last spoke to Accounts, about five weeks ago, I was advised that the invoice would be paid “one month after the on-sale date of the issue it is featured in” – and also that they had “not yet placed that article so the invoice has not yet gone to accounts”.

In other words, that.special issue has not even been slated for publication yet. The article is therefore in limbo: it may or may not ever be published.

And that’s why I have, in the past, opted not to write for any magazine with a policy of ‘pay on publication’. They can hold any article until they feel like using it; if they never use it, you never get paid. You should check a magazine’s payment policy before you do the work and meet their deadlines. Some magazines have a ‘kill fee’ (they’ll pay you a smaller sum if they don’t use the article); many do not.

Unless they change their policy, I don’t plan on writing for this magazine again. If I agree to write an article to a deadline and submit it on time, I think it’s fair enough to be paid for my efforts in a timely fashion.

Six months from invoice to payment? Nope, far too long to wait.


Freelance Writing – the Pay on Publication Trap — 4 Comments

  1. Hi Marg, I agree with you one hundred percent! Having worked in that field for 20+ years I haven’t seen any improvement in the payment systems. The few good ones are a treasure, the rest can be a nightmare!
    It makes it very difficult for new writers to break into the freelance scene if they haven’t lucked onto a pay-on-invoice company very early. And I’m sure some editors use the pay-on-publication as a means of assessing the writer’s skills and like a piggy-bank of stories that can be pulled in to fill a space.
    You can work with it if you know in advance, but not being notified of a change of that magnitude is at the very least, inconsiderate.

    • Hi Bev,
      I’m not surprised to hear that you agree, as an experienced photojournalist! What bugged me was that they suddenly changed the payment method – a market I THOUGHT could be relied on defaulted to the dreaded pay-on-publication. Ugh.
      I’m well aware that things are tight in the publishing world these days, and pay-on-publication means that publishers have (as you say) a nice little store of articles ready when needed, without having to pay for them.

      Imagine if all your markets were like this, and you worked for weeks on articles without any idea of when you might get paid. (Of course, the other danger is that a lot of magazines are closing their doors. You can get REALLY caught.) Pity about things like the mortgage and food on the table…

      Guess that’s why I advise not having all your eggs in one basket, if possible. Ghostwriting can be a really good gig if you work with regular, reliable clients who are fair with payment.

      Oh well, back to the computer and the latest writing deadline… 🙂

  2. Hi Marg, I quite agree with you, having learned my lesson the hard way. Even though I was told up front that this magazine would be slow to pay, I decided to go ahead – thought it would look good on my resume since I was just starting out. Anyway, it took over a year before I received payment. One of the problems is that you can easily forget after all that time whether they paid or not. Unless of course, you keep meticulous records.

    • Hmmm… I’m willing to bet there are quiiiite a few of us caught like this! (Although it might be worth it to gamble as you did, starting out, because it’s a plus for your resume. But who knows, they could be relying on writers thinking like this!)

      Over a YEAR??? That’s bad. Did you have to chase them to get the money or did they send it to you when they decided they were ready?

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