Getting published is one thing, but getting paid can be an entirely different matter. Historically, many magazines have paid for items on publication. So if you write an article for the August issue of a magazine (back in March, and submit it in April) you will be paid for it in August. Some magazines pay 30 days after publication, which could mean payment may not arrive until September.
There’s a growing trend for newspapers to do this, which is causing many journalists financial difficulties, making it harder to earn a living. Newspapers are news-led, which means their features are tightly linked to the news agenda too.
If a writer is commissioned (which means the publication has specifically requested the journalist/writer to undertake the job) then, because of the news angle, there’s often a tight deadline to adhere to.
If the piece is published promptly, ‘payment on publication’ (POP) means payments generally arrive quickly afterwards. But what if a piece is not used straightaway?
If an editor decides to hold onto the article for use at some indeterminate date in the future, under POP, the journalist is not paid, even though they’ve done all of the work and delivered the material on time. Some journalists are seeing their work being held onto for many months, if not longer.
Historically, commissioned work has been a better way to secure a living as a journalist, because even if an editor decided that (through no fault of your own) they no longer wanted to use your commissioned piece, the writer would still be offered a ‘kill fee’ (usually 50% of the original commissioned piece) in recognition of the work the writer had undertaken. And kill fees still exist.
But if a writer has delivered their article, and the editor wants to hold onto it for possible publication in the future, then the kill fee doesn’t apply. Kill fees only come into play when a decision is taken not to publish a piece.
POP means that some journalists are now experiencing the situation where they are delivering the work (meeting all the editor’s requirements) but not seeing their work in print, or knowing when it will be used. But because the editor hasn’t killed the piece, payment won’t take place until after the piece has appeared in print … whenever that may be, leaving the writer in financial limbo … and sometimes in debt.
Many journalists are now campaigning to get POP changed (you can sign the petition here: CHANGE.ORG).
If ever you are commissioned to undertake work, always ask:
- when will payment be made for your piece? (If it is payment on publication, ask if you can change this to payment within 30 days after delivery – most invoices are paid 30 days after receipt, so you submit the invoice at the same time you submit the article. If you don’t ask you don’t get.)
- when the piece will be published.
- what the kill fee is.
- for bigger commissions, you may be able to negotiate an upfront, part-payment, at least to cover some expenses.
There are still some publication who pay on delivery, rather than publication, which I find extremely useful, and if you can get regular work from the same publication that insists on POP then the regular submissions can help with the cashflow.
But payment on delivery, rather than payment on publication would be a much fairer way of dealing with journalists’ contributions. After all, who commissions a plumber to install an en-suite bathroom into a guest bedroom, but only offers to pay for it when they have guests come to stay six months later, and first use those facilities?