Dear Aliya: The magazine won’t pay me. Now what?

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From my InBox:

Dear Aliya:

This is for that section on your blog when you give advice. I am so mad. It’s been a year. And a magazine that I wrote a story for still has not paid me. I have called, emailed and sent snail mail. At first, they just kept saying one more month. And now, no one is even returning my calls or emails.

This was my first story for this magazine. And it’s a national publication. I know that all magazines are going through it right now. But I’m pissed. It’s not like I don’t need the money.

And how come they can’t even reach out and give me the real deal on what’s going on? That is so disrespectful to me.

Now what do I do? They owe me 500.00. Which is nothing to them. But it’s something to me.

My friends have told me that if I try too hard to get the money back, I won’t be able to write for the magazine ever again. I’m just starting out.  I don’t want to lose this connection. But it’s been a year and they have not assigned me anything else anyway.

Have you ever been in this situation? What did you do?

Signed,

Broke in Brooklyn

My (extended) response to Broke…

Dear BIB

Yes, I’ve been in this situation. More times than I care to recount. I’ll just tell you about two.

Back in 2000, I started writing celebrity profiles and music reviews for a well-known, mainstream fashion magazine. The money was good. The work was coming in fast. And I loved the lush, high-fashion look of my clips. I interviewed Missy Elliot for them. (She told me she belonged to Janet Jackson’s fan club and used her lunch money to buy stamps so that she could write Janet and Michael a fan letter ever single day. She met Janet years later and said, “You never got any of my letters? Are you sure?” And that made me crack UP.

Anyway. So all’s going well. I’m writing for the magazine we’ll call Blush. And then, the payment for my Missy story was 30 days late. Then 60 days late. Then 90 days late. The editor did stay in touch with me. She told me they had a money crunch. She then told me I would get paid immediately–IF I agreed to another assignment.

I said sure. And a few days later, I got my check for the Missy story.

This went on for months. They were late with payment on the Missy story. Then the editor offered to pay me immediately—if I agreed to write another story.

Now I was in my first year of full-time freelancing and I wasn’t sure I would be able to pull it off. So I wasn’t about to rock the boat. But the stories at Blush were beginning to pile up and they were not able to keep up with my payments.

Meanwhile, I’m seeing the editor-in-chief and the owner/publisher of the magazine in Us Weekly and on television, looking fabulous at various events. And I’m haggling with the editor over which story I’ll be paid for this month?

I realized what a fool I’d been. I was making deals, allowing them to work me to the bone and not pay me?! I know my editor and her higher ups weren’t making deals to get paid! They got their checks on time. I was an idiot to settle for anything less. I had been so blinded by the idea of stacking up more and more clips that I was allowing myself to be disrespected.

Finally, I’d had enough. When the editor called and asked if I’d do yet another assignment in exchange for getting paid for ONE of the stories I’d already done, I turned her down.

At this point, the magazine owed me almost two thousand dollars. (I’m fuzzy on the exact amounts. But it was in that range).

I wanted all my money. And I was done writing for Blush.

And suddenly, I couldn’t get anyone on the phone. No one returned my emails. It was a ghost town over there.

I was torn. I knew I could put in a claim in small claims court. But when word got out, would other editors think I was troublesome? Would it be worth it?

I’d have to find out.

But first, I put in a call to Keith J. Kelly, a media columnist for the New York Post.

“Mr. Kelly, I have a story for you,” I said. “I’m a freelance writer for a magazine that will not pay me.”

“Talk to me,” Kelly said.

I told him my story and the very next day, his column had the headline:

FASHION MAG ON HARD TIMES.

And there I was, quoted on what was going on at Blush. There was a quote from the publisher, who denied being behind on any payments. He said she would “look into” my invoice. But he said he was sure that it had been paid.

Ha!

I marched right downtown and filed my claim in small claims court. When I was done with all of the paperwork, they gave me a little slip with a court date. I was told that the magazine would receive the court date as well.

They must have. Because I got a check two days later. Shipped overnight. And it wasn’t a payroll check. It was just a check, like the one you have in your checkbook right now. That joint was hand-written and signed with a regular ball-point pen.

The next day, the editor called me. She apologized for all the drama. And she assured me that there was no bad blood. She told me she would continue to assign me stuff.

And I never heard from her again.

I pitched her a few stories. She didn’t respond to my emails.

She soon left the magazine and went to another magazine I wrote for. I reached out to her there as well. She didn’t respond.

So, there you have it.

Maybe I should have taken a loss on the two thousand dollars so that the editor wouldn’t have to deal with the drama? Maybe then we’d still have a professional relationship today? And I’d recoup my money plus more?

Maybe.

But I think I took the right route. Freelance writers often get shafted. We have no real protection. We give away our product and then have to wait until after it’s been published to get paid. So what recourse do we have?

It’s a tough industry and we’re a one-man army! We have to do the creative stuff and we have to be the accounting department as well.

Early in my career, I let a lot of things slide in the hopes of building relationships. And that worked for me—to a point. But there does come a time when you have to fight for yourself—and know that if they kick you to the curb, it’s their loss.

If I were you, I’d keep the money and the work separate. I would not ask the editor anymore about the money. It’s out of her hands. Call the office and ask for Accounts Payable. Hound them instead. Meanwhile, if you still want to write for the magazine, you should be pitching stories to the editor who assigned you the first story.

I have to be honest, if I continued to get work, I probably wouldn’t flip out over the first check. That’s only if I was just starting out. Now if you write another story and don’t get paid, that’s another story…

I wanted to share two stories with you. But I’ve run out of time. Check back tomorrow. I’ll tell you about the time I wrote an entire BOOK and didn’t get paid one red dime. (Not one. And I’m still pissed off about that. And if I see dude in the street, I’m clocking him in the jaw. Okay. Not really. But maybe.)

Dear readers: How would you advise BIB in this situation? Fellow freelancers in any industry: have you ever gotten shafted on payment? How did you deal with it? How long do you wait before you act?

BIB and I would love to hear from you….

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14 Responses to “Dear Aliya: The magazine won’t pay me. Now what?”

  1. aqua Says:

    Great advice Aliya. Broke In Brooklyn, keep trying to get your money but funnel some of that energy into getting assignments from mags that pay, on time.
    Back in ’03, ’04, I was writing heavy for The Source. but then at a certain point they just stopped paying. The number I was owed crept into the thousands and calls to Accounts Payable started with assurances that I would get my money to eventually no replies (note: I NEVER got my money). I was still good with my editors but they were basically like, “It’s out of our hands.”
    So I went extra hard at the querying and pitching and managed to break into XXL and Vibe and a bunch of other outlets since writing for The Source for free just wasn’t in the cards, anymore.

  2. Alisha Says:

    This happened to me with a local magazine I’d been writing for. The payment wasn’t that much, but it was the principle. Before I could receive a check, the editor was hounding me about more stories. I did them because I needed the money and the writing was easy. For my first payment, I sent an email, then left voicemails for the editor and I received no response. Eventually, I called the accounting department and the guy said it was put in the mail weeks ago. Wouldn’t you know, I received a check two days later, which meant they’d just sent it off. To top that off, my name was mispelled, so I couldn’t cash it. The office was near my job, so I walked up the block with the check and told them the issue from Day One. I stood there as the processor (or whoever he was) put my contact info in the system correctly. After he assured me I wouldn’t have this problem again, I told him, as well as the editor that I would be picking my check up from then on.

    I sent the editor an email thanking her for clearing everything up. All has been well, as I just got a call to pick my check up yesterday.

    That only works for a local mag though. As far as regional and national pubs, I haven’t had a problem. I was sent a check for an incorrect amont, but called my contact and she got on it immediately. I had a check for the balance in my mailbox the next day.

  3. Alisha Says:

    I meant *misspelled. I hate that word. Oh, the irony.

  4. ak Says:

    aliya: this is a great service to readers. i wish this had been around when i was starting out.

    broke in brooklyn: it’s sad that this happened with your first clip. but it’s a good lesson to learn. since i’ve been on both sides–as an editor at mags that played with people’s money and as a successful freelancer for nine years–i’d like to offer my two cents. sorry in advance for the length:

    re the wronged writer/editor dynamic:

    -editors are very often powerless and clueless about the inner workings of accts. payable depts. sometimes they really don’t know what’s up. once an editor finds out about shady or disorganized accounting practices, she or he will likely feel embarrassed and guilty that they can’t get their writers paid without drama.

    -i haven’t met an editor yet who maliciously penalizes a writer for going after their money. what i have seen–and done–is avoid writers who misdirect their anger, call incessantly, get rude or accusatory and threaten to sue.

    re what to do now:

    -as hard as it may be, don’t take it personally. don’t think of this within the context of respect or disrespect of you or your work.

    -use email rather than telephone calls. email creates a paper trail and allows recipients to digest the situation and check their records without stuttering on the phone. also, it’s easier for you and everyone else to pull up emails than it is to dig up/recall telephone convos.

    -for the $500 you’re owed: try telling your editor something like, “i’m thinking this payment thing is out of your hands, and i hate to be a nudge. but i do need my money. can you tell me who in accounts payable i should contact and how long it should take for them to respond?”

    -ask people for dates. if someone says, “you’ll get it in 30 days,” respond, “ok, just to clarify: on june 26th, you’ll put my check in the mail, right?”

    -in the future, before you write a word, find out how and when writers get paid. in an email, ask your editor: “do writers get paid upon acceptance or publication?”

    -if they pay on acceptance, ask him or her to break that down. does “acceptance” mean when the story is on page? when your editor signs off? when the editor in chief oks it? when it’s been edited, factchecked and sent to the printer? also, find out what happens with your payment if the story gets held or if it’s not pegged to a specific issue.

    -if you editor doesn’t know the answers immediately, politely tell him/her you’re willing to wait for them. a good, smart editor who values quality writing will understand and get the info for you.

    -BE ORGANIZED with queries about your money. keep a record of when you submitted your invoice/contract, what paperwork you’ve signed, who you’ve sent it to, etc. the more info you can give an editor or point of contact, the better.

    -if there’s an editorial assistant or junior editor handling the money aspect, treat him or her with respect and consideration. that will take you a long way.

    -know that sometimes you may need to write for places that are shaky on when you’ll get paid. factor that into how you manage your time and plan your budget.

    overall:

    if your editor penalizes you for seeking out your money, she or he will throw you under the bus in other ways. that’s not someone you want to write for anyway.

  5. Del Says:

    Nytba, you know all about my current situation.

    For everyone else, there is a national magazine that owes me $2k. They are several months behind in paying me. My story is very similar to the others. I was so gung-ho about getting my very first clip, that I didn’t even worry about the money. I did so well with that assignment, I got assigned another story. Then another. Then another. Soon, I had amassed all these clips and had not gotten one cent. I didn’t want to rock the boat and risk ruining the relationship I built with the magazine/my editor. But I bit the bullet, and crafted a well-worded email pretty much asking where the eff is my money? The editor felt horrible about my not being paid and apologized and said she’d get right on it. Two weeks later – nothing! What’s more, I noticed that as soon as I started inquiring about my check, I stopped being assigned stories. My worst fear had come true!

    I decided to reach out to the operations manager. I sent an email with my past due invoices attached, asking when I could expect payment. A few days later, I got my check. The next month I sent in another invoice, and got another check. Hey, this is working…or so I thought. Here I am two months and 5 invoices past due later, an unhappy man. All I can do now is keep waiting and continue checking in with folks. Sometimes I get a response, sometimes I don’t. I feel like I will get the rest of my money. I just don’t know when. But I’m glad I spoke up for myself. Had I just sat around twiddling my thumbs, I would have never gotten paid anything. As for writing for the magazine again, I’m over it. I got my clips and moved on. In fact, I’ve already gotten a byline in another national magazine, and yes, they paid me!

    Piggybacking off what AK said, I think it’s really important to keep a cool head through out the entire process. No matter how foul they are for effing with your money, at the end of the day, you still have a reputation to uphold. The editor I sent that nice email to can easily be working for another magazine next week. And she’ll remember my great attitude and how well I governed myself despite the situation, and perhaps start assigning me stories under better financial circumstances. Or at least I would hope so.

  6. la negrita Says:

    Very helpful entry. And great comment, Del!

  7. Jackie H. Says:

    Wow Aliya,

    That took some cajones! Thanks for the post…pretty sure many of us of had similar experiences especially now…

  8. Tanisha Says:

    I have had a check bounce from a publication but luckily as soon as I notified them they quickly sent a new one and paid my bounced check fee. When I first started freelancing I had a very popular rap magazine ask me to write for them FOR FREE for three months. This was to be my “probationary” period to test me out. In return for a fast turnaround on the articles I was assigned, I would be given first choice on future “prime” assignments. I gave the offer some thought and asked a few fellow writers for their opinions. In the end I decided to ask for this offer to be put into writing and the editor declined. I think it all worked out because doing assignments for free with no guarantee of paid work in the future just didnt sit well with me. I definitely believe in building and nuturing relationships with editors and paying ones writing dues. I also believe at some point you have to put your foot down, even if its softly, and gets what you deserve. (Or are owed)

  9. ak Says:

    omg. write FOR FREE for a PROBATIONARY PERIOD? that is unheard of. absolutely insane. there’s a difference between paying dues (e.g. doing an internship that would equip you with skills and a line for your resume) and essentially paying someone to write for them (time=money).

  10. fayemi Says:

    Start up mags with newbie editors and publishers are good for stiffing you and I’m hardcore about my business with them. One start up mag tried to stiff me and I march by behind right up to his office with his staff and everyone there, aired him out and made him sign a check on the spot. (after weeks of giving me the run around) I’m sure he only did it because he felt embarassed being put on blast like that. But that’s not the way to handle business either. At that point, I really didn’t care about what the publisher thought about me, I just wanted my money. I wrote half and edited half the articles in the magazine. He even wrote a story himself and had the nerve to put my name on it.

    The Source though was just infamous. A contract with them meant nothing at a certain point. But after not getting paid for one assignment I never accepted another. I wasn’t about to let them rack up a tab on me.

    There are certain mags and projects that I willingly contribute to, knowing they can only afford to pay a small amount. In those situations the editors are honest about what they can afford to do and there are no false expectations. I went through a whole doing it “for the love” period for long time. I’m over that. I’m over magazines too. Now I’m focused on writing erotica, studying and perfecting my craft. You can’t allow yourself to be exploited for a check ever. Especially, when you know your dope. I’m also really big on working with people with good reputations. If someone has a bad rep, I will pass.

  11. jovi Says:

    Not a writer but feel your pain. As ASK suggested, try writing for them again, if you don’t get paid then go to small claims.

  12. cherryl Says:

    i feel ya pain broke in brooklyn, and everyone else here. i too wrote something for the source and never got paid. those jigs are notorious for that.

    at the time i vacillated between being excited to have a clip in the mag, then being pissed at the editor who suggested me for the assignment cuz then i was thinking…i chilled with dude on some community organizing isht, and did he just play me like that when he knows where i’m from?

    like i’d be some eager eyed ghetto chick just dreaming of the chance to write for the source…all the while knowing in the back of his mind that they weren’t ever planning on paying me?

    my check was little too – $450. and like you it is small, but not to me.

    and the bad part is this was the first time i had not gotten paid for an assignment. little hole in the wall mags always paid me on time and looked out in other ways.

    i still cannot quite get over the fact that after calling, emailing and all that jive isht they just won’t say anything to me about it.

    i can’t get in touch with the editor of the piece, cuz she left the mag the friday i turned my piece in – prolly cuz she wasn’t getting paid either.

    now i walk around with a grudge about it – like yeah i can say i wrote for x mag but is it like everyone thinks i’m a trick cuz they know x mag didn’t pay me?

    they played me – hard. i feel like a part time sucka.

    i read this mag my whole life and dreamt of having a byline in it…but dreams are just that and sometimes they are simply meant to live in the space between the time you close your eyes and open them again.

    but some people like me think we can force dreams to exist out side of that space, and that’s when the problems begin.

    i say we do like hip hop weekly and march on the beetches.

    they just done this to too many for all of us to take this lying down. class action anyone?

  13. Michael A. Gonzales Says:

    Wow…can’t believe I missed this entry. Indeed, this is one of the few professions where folks think it’s cool to leave you hanging on for months without paying. Maybe they should try walking out of Nobu without paying the bill or stiffing Bloomingdale’s on that new outfit.

    One magazine, let’s call them Latina, refuses to work with me again, because I was pissed that their check was taking so long; and, this is from somebody I considered a pal.

    “Maybe we just shouldn’t work together again,” said this former friend, after I told her I was upset that payment was taking so long. God forbid an editor or magazine accountant NOT get their weekly wages, but us freelancers should merely be content with the clip.

    Maybe the next Con-Ed/Verizon/credit card bill I get, I’ll send them that clip and wonder why I’m sitting in the dark with no dial tone.
    .

  14. Michael A. Gonzales Says:

    Pay the Writer by Harlan Ellison: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

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