Stalled, killed or otherwise not used
What's a freelancer to do when an assigned article sits and sits without pay?
Published: February 7, 2011
|When a top national newspaper accepted my query, I was delighted. I la-bored over the piece, then sent it off on schedule. It was a time-sensitive article on spring yard work, so once the ground began to thaw, I awaited its appearance in the paper.|
Spring turned to summer with no sign of my article. Inquiries yielded the same response: tight on space, but they’d use it “soon.” Because of the topic, I knew “soon” would not be until next spring. Finally, not wanting to miss the chance to market it elsewhere, I pressured the editor for a firm answer. When he couldn’t give one, we settled on the kill fee. So after almost a year, I had only a portion of the contracted payment, no clip, and a whole new insight into protecting my work.
It’s a reality for many writers: You hold up your end of the assignment, but your piece goes unused. Causes can vary from tightening page counts and shifts in editorial focus to poor planning. How can you prevent your work from going into hibernation? Here are some tips.
Best case. Stick with your payment terms. Alexandra Owens, executive director of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), stands firm that writers should always negotiate for payment upon acceptance.
“It’s unacceptable to wait for payment,” Owens says. “Payment on publication opens the door for never getting paid. If a writer’s piece—through no fault of their own—isn’t used, why should they accept a tiny percentage?”
When negotiating payment on acceptance, be sure to nail down the terms of acceptance. Kimberley Isbell, staff attorney with the Citizen Media Law Project at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, suggests including a timed provision. “It’s a common contract term. Include something such as: ‘Upon receipt of the article, you have two weeks to accept it, reject it, or request a re-write. Failure to reject or request a re-write within two weeks shall be deemed acceptance of the article, upon which payment is due.’ ”
The time you allow may vary based on the article topic, a publication’s reputation, or the writer’s preference, but usually two to four weeks should suffice.
Kill fee: friend or foe? A kill fee is a percentage of the contracted rate to be paid a writer if a piece is unused. It’s less than ideal, but many writers agree that sometimes it’s better than no payment.
When Deborah Jeanne Sergeant of Wolcott, N.Y., was contracted to write about a series of cookbooks, she was thrilled. “Before I could see my completed piece go to print, the publication folded,” Sergeant says. “I received a 30 percent kill fee. On one hand, I was happy to receive something for my work, but I was disappointed to miss out on the byline and the full fee.”
If you want to work with a publisher who will not agree to payment on acceptance, a kill fee can be one way to protect yourself. Always negotiate the highest rate you can—at least 50 percent, preferably more. Include a timed provision, after which the kill fee kicks in. This prevents your article from being held too long, making it difficult for you to market it elsewhere. “To maintain a good relationship, notify the publisher ahead of time if their deadline is approaching,” Isbell says.
Caught without a paddle. Every writer does it sometime: In the excitement of an acceptance from a favorite publication, you never worked out a formal contract. Now, the editors have quietly held your piece for six months.
“Wait a reasonable amount of time,” Isbell advises. “Then, contact them in writing. Ask for written assurance of their acceptance within a set amount of time. Tell them if they do not provide this, they repudiate all rights to the article and you will take it elsewhere.”
While e-mail is OK, Isbell suggests a letter is best. “Paper and formal language will get their attention. An intelligent editor will recognize your intentions and will act, or perhaps consult with their in-house counsel.”
Your editors have a desk full of articles to deal with. If yours gets pushed to the back, it’s up to you to bring it back to their attention. Study the terms of your contract, then check in regularly until you bring it to closure.
Finally, know your rights. Look online at ASJA’s “Rights 101” article, at www.asja.org/pubtips/wmfh01.php.
Debbie Swanson is a freelance writer living north of Boston.