Flakey editors: the norm?
June 6, 2012 5:28 PM   Subscribe

Are flakey editors and publishers the norm?

This afternoon, I was fired from a writing gig for calling my publisher out on her excuses for not paying at the contractually-agreed time. I've been writing for them for 6 years; it was an ongoing problem. Last year I left another writing gig for similar unreliable-editor reasons, that was after 2 years of dealing with editorial flakiness regarding deadlines and so forth. Both are more complicated, long stories, but on my end come down to me doing what's asked, and then editors and/or publishers dropping their end of the deal.

Part of me is mad at myself for losing paid gigs, but I also feel I should be able to expect the editors and publishers to live up to their ends of the bargains when I'm filed on time and under wordcount and of acceptable quality. I'm beginning to think this is just the way things work is in the writing industry and I need to just buck up and deal with it.

So, writers, is this just a "paying my dues" thing until I get more established, or am I just finding crappy places to write for, or is this just the Usual in the publishing world and I should learn not to shake the apple cart? Or something else entirely? Should I be worried that I'm burning bridges that will hurt my future hopes as a writer?
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It's certainly been my experience that publishers are less stringent about their deadlines and commitments, no matter how stringent they are about their freelancers' and creative employees' deadlines and commitments. Of course this is not OK, but there's a reason "the check's in the mail" is a standard joke among writers and photographers and illustrators.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:39 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have been on both sides of it and I am sad to say that your experience is common. As an editor I always have tried to be as straight with my writers as possible and have fought my publisher to get people paid. As a writer, I have been put in even-more-severe-financial-straits-than-normal by clients who can't seem to pay on time or who just plain steal my labor. I guess the reality of the situation is that freelancers are the last people in line to get paid. You gotta keep the lights on, keep the health insurance premiums paid, pay the rent, and pay your actual employees, pay yourself, and if there's any money left over, you pay the freelancer.
posted by vibrotronica at 5:39 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a translator rather than producing original copy, but otherwise I suppose there's a similarity. I would say of my pool of regular clients, only one or two pay promptly but I don't recall deadlines being used as an excuse if I delivered as agreed. Is the flakiness them shifting the goal-posts? Again, can only think of one or two instances where I might have been called to ask for something earlier than originally agreed if possible and no great objections if it wasn't, and certainly no post-hoc attempts to claim I missed a deadline I didn't.
In sum, late-payers so much par for the course that I consider someone who will eventually cough up a good client; deadlines have always been deadlines and never been given a run-around on them.
posted by Abiezer at 5:40 PM on June 6, 2012

I think overall, yes, what you are seeing is pretty much the norm. I've written for places where I was never paid, or where the ad revenue was so uneven that my pay was always extremely late - but it did come, eventually - and for places that were pretty much on time. I am currently writing for a venue where the check ALWAYS arrives exactly twenty-two days after I invoice - so it is possible, but that's the exception.

Sometimes they lie because they HOPE that ad revenue is about to come in so they can cut you a check, and sometimes they lie because they are bad at business things, and sometimes they lie because other people are lying to them, and sometimes it's to string you along because they are assholes. I try to decide which one of those it is, and then decide if it's worth it.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 6:10 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was an editor up until last year. I don't want to say anything that suggests I'm minimizing your frustration, but depending on who your clients are there's an awful lot that can go wrong in the invoice cycle. If it helps to hear this, it's probably not personal. I don't know what "calling out" your publisher entailed, but based on my own experience as a freelancer, what I heard from freelancers who worked for me, and what I saw as an editor, I don't think that's an adaptive strategy because slow pays are the norm for whatever reason.

For eight years, I worked for a poorly managed Web outfit. Invoices were handled sloppily: The writer would submit the work, wait for the editor to tell them the work had been published (acceptance didn't count under our terms), then submit an invoice. The editor would hand the invoice off to an executive editor, the executive editor passed it to the EiC, then the EiC bundled it all up and sent it to payables.

I saw cases where an invoice would disappear between one of those two points in the process and it would take FOREVER to straighten out. The editor would forget, and wouldn't want to admit that to the freelancer. Or the EE didn't get the mail from the editor. Or the EiC lost one of the EE's spreadsheets. It was an incredible, awful mess. Some EEs had enough juice with payables that they could stomp up to the clerk and make her FedEx a check, but there was so much dysfunction that few people were ever willing to step up and complain bitterly, because everyone had screwed up at one point or another.

I got so frustrated I honest-to-God learned how to program Rails applications just so I could write my own tracking system and generate "where the hell are my writers' checks?" reports I could send up to my boss.

When my writers came to me and told me a check hadn't arrived, I did my best to run it down quickly. When one went missing because of me, I fell on my sword and started begging people to expedite the correction of my mistake. So my writers generally stayed civil with me, and that helped me continue to be their advocate when the system failed or was teetering on failure. If my interactions with writers had involved a lot of "callouts," I would have been considerably less interested in keeping them around, because there was very little I could do besides document and verify everything at my level, and there were two levels above me I had no control over.

On a happy note, kind of:

We were eventually sold off to a company with an incredibly efficient invoicing and payment system. All assignments were created, fulfilled, invoiced and paid from a central, Web-based application. If a writer forgot to invoice for the month, they were actually hassled by management because there was a paper trail on every assignment. If an editor let an item sit unaccepted, management could get a report about slow-moving items. Payments became much more prompt (within 30 days of publication became the norm, vs. an average of 70 days according to the app I wrote and my freelancers helped me track payment with). On the other hand, all that efficiency meant the MBAs could reach into the system and periodically cancel blocks of assignments if margins were tight and a quarterly earnings report was coming up. My next-to-last month there, they obliterated assignments people were working on because the system told them no content had been committed yet, and so they weren't obligated to pay kill fees. One of my freelancers lost several thousand dollars in invoices. I saved a few more because I learned what was happening and got on the phone with my people, telling them to get SOMETHING into the system before midnight so they could at least get kill fees.

Two takeaways from that episode:

1. My freelancers salvaged a few thousand apiece because we had a friendly relationship and I wanted to help them and was willing to stick my neck out a little.

2. Even under the best managed, most prompt payment system I've ever seen, freelancers were still the ones who took it in the teeth.
posted by mph at 6:13 PM on June 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

mph pretty much has nailed my experience at various places.

To add to my frustration, when I submit invoices they go into a black box in an office in another province. I get quarterly reports about my budget but no line-by-line items so if I see my budget claims I have (globally) spent under what I believe I have submitted -- 2-3 months after submitting it -- I have to guess by the amount and start emailing people to see if they got paid.
Usually the first I hear that an invoice has gone missing is when the freelancer gets in touch with me.
posted by Zen_warrior at 6:35 PM on June 6, 2012

I've worked on both sides. I worked for a publisher that worked with some of the best writers in our field and had an unofficial policy of yanking them around on their paychecks until they quit asking for so much money, which usually meant they went to write for other people. Our roster of former writers makes up a "who's who" of thought leaders in the field. If we'd just paid them on time, we'd have had an amazing publication. But we didn't because there were always more people waiting to work for us and get yanked around and as a bonus, they were cheaper.

On the freelance side, half to three quarters of my time is spend checking in with publishers, making sure they didn't lose a manuscript, making sure they got my revisions, making sure they got my invoice, making sure they intend to PAY my invoice, making sure they actually did send it upstairs to accounting, making sure they actually did send it upstairs to accounting THIS time, making sure accounting didn't have any problems with it, making sure accounting actually did pay it, waiting for the check to arrive, then actually cashing the damn thing. I spend more time herding people around than I do the work I am contracted for.

Basically, this is one of those instances where when they are a day late, they will disappear for weeks or months and then pop up like "Oh hi! You sent me an invoice? I must not have seen it! Or the 30 emails and 3 phone calls you sent me about it!" But if you miss a deadline by an hour, it's YOU'LL NEVER WORK IN THIS TOWN AGAIN. I'm exaggerating for effect, but you get the idea.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:41 PM on June 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes. Totally normal. Good for you for calling out your publisher!
posted by waldo at 7:41 PM on June 6, 2012

I work for a publisher, and your experience is normal at my employer. I work hard to keep my contractors busy and motivated, but I don't have any influence over the check run schedule. That can make it tough on both sides. Tough for the person waiting to get paid, and tough for me trying to get completed assignments from disgruntled authors and developers.


We're creative people, not always the most organized category of human.

Finding a relationship that works is a tricky process, no matter if it's business or personal. I find that some of my freelancers who've made poor matches with me, it's like a dating situation. The perfect person is rare. You build rapport and trust over time. You make adjustments.

For an example, the freelancer who was a bad match had higher standards for everyone else's behavior than he did for himself. He'd send material in late, incomplete, or substandard and still expect to get paid in full on time. One person demanded to be paid half up front (perhaps this is common in some places; my answer was "I'm not hiring a hit man").

Then there are the excuses. "My email is down." "I sent you a Fedex instead of putting the files in dropbox." "Didn't you get it?" "I already signed this contract." We've all made them. I have. I know I've done wrong and can't bring myself to admit it, so I justify. This happens on both sides. I say things like "I know I was supposed to send you the completed topic list on March 23, but more outlines are still coming in!" One of my Subject Matter Experts told us she had a brain tumor. No kidding.

This is much longer than I intended. What I'm trying to say is what you're experiencing is normal. If you find somebody who's not a goofball, somebody you can work with? Love them, and remember how special that is. You're special to them too, you know.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 9:29 PM on June 6, 2012

I've also been on both sides of this, and while I won't necessarily commit to payroll fuckups being the norm, they're certainly regular enough that I can't really do freelancing as a career and have always needed to find staff jobs. When I've been an editor, I've fought hard to get my people paid on time, but also had to be stuck in those weird conversations with the publisher where they're dealing with advertiser revenue not being there and trying to figure out who can be strung along without jeopardizing the long-term health of the publication. (That's something that made me a lot more sympathetic is having a staff job that was about half writing, half scut work that included making collections calls to get the mag paid.)

So, yeah, part of it is paying your dues — finding out what publications pay on time is part of establishing a professional identity. But you can also help by bringing gentle persistence, the same way that you have to do when pursuing sources, where you're firm but helpful. It'll end up with you happier and paid more often.

(I'll also just toss out a note that for all the deep, structural fucked-upness of Hustler and the other LFP properties, their one good quality is that they pay a dollar a word and pay upon shipping, which means that they're months ahead of anyone else. If you've got a knack for writing hacky left-wing bullshit or hacky sex writing, I'd encourage hitting them up for gigs.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:10 PM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

This post indicates that no, you're not alone.
posted by mephron at 1:01 AM on June 7, 2012

From the OP:
Since this seems like the norm, what about the second half of that question: "I should learn not to shake the apple cart?" How should a writer deal with these sorts of things? Should I have just continued to suck it up and accepted lies and being ignored?

(Also, money isn't the only thing: accepting articles then acting like they never accepted it when asked why it wasn't published, not responding to emails, not acknowledging submitted pitches or articles, and other non-money things are what's annoying me, too.)
posted by jessamyn at 6:27 AM on June 7, 2012

To your follow up, that's kind of an intensely personal question. Some people freelance _because_ they can fire clients and continue to find work. Some people are content to establish their inner zen.

I know that as an editor I've messed up communication at times, although I always work to get better at it. I was at a 2 hour meeting this morning and when I got back I had 197 messages waiting for me in Outlook, which I am now procrastinating about (for 3 more minutes). Once Upon A Time there were assistant-level people to do some of this work but they're all gone now, yet I am responsible for more stories than ever.

I am not whining; I am grateful to have a job, to get to work with great freelancers, and when I drop the ball I get frustrated and angry with myself and resolve to do better. When my company drops it it's maddening. I want to be a good place for their work and effort. On the other hand, I need them to respect my time too. Bad pitches, insistence on knowing exactly when something is running (we move material around a lot if it's evergreen - but we pay on acceptance so at least people are paid) or critiquing the stock photos I can afford is going to move someone to my high maintenance folder.

Some people are burnt out; some are thoughtless; some are fantastic; some have weird issues with spreadsheets...no one is going to be able to tell you about your particular publisher. It sounds like you're done with that and keep looking for better work. Freelancing does involve these kinds of issues. How you decide to deal with them is kind of a part of the balance in your life.
posted by Zen_warrior at 11:05 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

what about the second half of that question: "I should learn not to shake the apple cart?" How should a writer deal with these sorts of things? Should I have just continued to suck it up and accepted lies and being ignored?

I thought some of the things I said in my initial response made at least implicit: Calling people out, depending on what you mean by that, isn't going to make your situation any better, because often times the people you are dealing with are also hostages to a dysfunctional organization.

As much as it is not cathartic and not satisfying to hear, yes, learn to not upset the apple cart.

In fact, let's be even more clear: Accept that you cannot control the apple cart by force of personality or because fairness and justice are on your side. You can't upset the apple cart. You're a freelancer.

The bulk of the control you have in this situation lies in how you choose to respond in the face of your relative powerlessness (and the powerlessness of many of the people you'll be dealing with). An adaptive response is to pick your breaking point and then choose to break gracefully, because in that choice you are also choosing how you'll be remembered, and that could matter some day. I can tell you something about every writer I worked with on over a dozen sites over a ten year span, including how they dealt with slow pays and how they treated me, specifically, when things got frustrating for them:

The guy who said he'd take my company to court then make sure the venue was in Connecticut so he could schedule "discoveries" that would force me to fly in from Oregon every week? I'm sure that was emotionally satisfying for him, but he became legend among an editorial team that — since then — has had someone working in every single tech publication of note. Last time I saw him online, it was for a small town newspaper that published his musings about the birds and squirrels in his backyard and how that had something to do with Democratic mismanagement of the economy. Having worked small town newspapers, I'm guessing he was doing it for $25 an item.

The woman who put up with us screwing up her checks for three months straight? She acted like she believed me when I said I was doing what I could (which is good, because I was), and explained once she had her check in hand that she simply couldn't afford to work for people who paid as slowly as we did. I hated to see her go because she was good, but she had a point and she didn't make it personal. She's one of the ones who got away, and I can tell from her LinkedIn profile (and just stumbling across her byline now and then) that she's done better than us over the years. If I were still in the business and could credibly promise her that my employer wouldn't screw her over on her invoices, I'd try to get her back in the bullpen in an instant.

None of this is fair or just, but even if the bulk of the respondents here are wrong and invoice dysfunction is not common, it's still a risk you run when you're not on the payroll.

Personally, I eased into my freelancing career. I didn't quit my day job until I knew I could survive a few months with what was in the bank. So I guess that's one response, too: Decide if you can afford to live this particular life, because there are probably few cases where the payables desk is more reliable than a direct deposit from ADP's payroll services division.
posted by mph at 11:13 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since this seems like the norm, what about the second half of that question: "I should learn not to shake the apple cart?" How should a writer deal with these sorts of things? Should I have just continued to suck it up and accepted lies and being ignored?

(Also, money isn't the only thing: accepting articles then acting like they never accepted it when asked why it wasn't published, not responding to emails, not acknowledging submitted pitches or articles, and other non-money things are what's annoying me, too.)

Honestly? I'm not trying to be rude, but if you can't handle this level of flakiness, you probably shouldn't rely on writing as your primary source of income or you're just going to have a heart attack. It's okay. I have been freelancing full-time for a while and just got approached about an in-house gig and I'll probably take it if it works out because it means I don't have to scramble to find business every few months and I don't have to worry about how to make rent if the check vanishes or a major contract pulls a "Oh we forgot to pay you? Gawrsh!"

As for what to do, well, when you find the rare editor/publication that is reliable and pays on time, you never, ever make them mad. They're more precious than gold. One contract I do now is basically scutwork, but the check always arrives within a 3 day span of the 15th and everything always happens when they say it will. You learn the art of gentle nagging and how to track down their office/home number when they ignore your emails for a month. You learn Zenlike patience and an appreciation for the sheer terror of watching your bank balance hanging precariously. You get a spouse with a stable, regular income. When you decide I Can Bear It No Longer, you depart with grace because they may land somewhere with a budget and fast-moving accounting department.

It may not even be them. Writers frequently think I'm flaky, but I'm usually waiting for whatever they want to know to be routed to the one English-speaking person in the company I'm freelancing for and they work European hours and take European holidays, which means in an emergency, it will be at least 12 hours before you hear anything and may be a month if they're on one of those European "everyone disappear for a month" holidays. I had one client disappear for a month and the only time I heard from him was when he caught a cellphone signal going over the Andes (no, really!) and called me to see what was up in the 2 minutes before he started back down the mountain.

You can make this the hill you want to make your stand on and you will be right, in principle. I'd bet even a lot of the people you work with that annoy you would agree with you. The bigger problem is that you don't go into publishing if you're a sane businessperson, you go in because you love it, and that isn't something you can change.

(To be fair to editors and publishers, writers can be flaky, too.)
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 5:43 PM on June 7, 2012

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