By Vivienne Pearson

The problems with the practice of payment on publication

Imagine you’re a shop owner. A customer buys a bag of coffee beans to use with their home coffee machine. Instead of handing over $30 as they leave the shop, they say they’ll pay once they’ve used all the beans.

They’re happy with their coffee beans, they explain. It’s just that they don’t want to spend funds from their coffee budget until they’ve drunk every last drop. It’s easier for them, you see.

If they use the beans within a few days then come back to pay immediately, that might be manageable for your shop’s cash flow but, even then, it doubles your bookwork and creates uncertainty that adds to your already stressful business life.

But what happens if they don’t finish their bag of beans for months? Or if their partner also buys beans that week so they got too many. Of, if they decide to go caffeine-free so simply don’t need coffee anymore?

If you replace customer with editor, the business owner with a freelancer, and the coffee beans with an article – while potentially a little stretched – this analogy shows the problems with the practice of payment on publication.

Writers* understand their stories can’t always be published soon after they’re submitted. And also that editors need to prioritise and balance their content and workload. (* This same issue applies to photographers, audio engineers and other freelancers who contribute to our media landscape).

However, if a freelancer has submitted a work to a standard worthy of publication, they should be paid then – on submission – not when the planets align for the story to be published.

When a delay between submission and publication is small, payment on publication can be manageable. But, it’s not uncommon for stories to not see the light of day for weeks or months, especially for print.

It can even be years. I’ve had stories delayed – for reasons that have nothing to do with the story quality -– for up to 18 months. I know writers who have had to wait even longer.

That’s a heck of a long time to wait to be paid.

Some publications do pay on submission. To those, I say thank you. Fortunately, payment on publication seems to be a culturally-ingrained practice that is lessening over time.

Current practice seems to vary wildly, both between publications as well as between editors within the one publication. And, even from the same editor depending on the writer.

For those who think that payment on publication is the only option, consider the world of content and copywriting (a topic I discussed in my last MEAA Freelancers blog post), where standard practice is to not write a word until 50 percent of the overall project cost is in the writer’s bank account. For those who write freelance for media, imagine what a difference that makes to your sense of being valued, your motivation and to your cash flow.

When writing for media, I suspect I’m not alone in tending to wait until publication before invoicing when it’s the first time I’m working for that editor. For subsequent stories, I then ask for payment on submission. But this is not ideal. All writers need seek new outlets for their work, so payment on submission (or acceptance) should be standard whether it’s your first or fiftieth time writing for that editor.

There are more than enough variables in a freelancer’s finances, without adding in the vagaries of publication timelines.

Here are the many reasons why payment on publication is a broken model:

1. Payment is already precarious for freelancers

Writers often operate on a ‘pitch-by-pitch’ basis with success rates not guaranteed even for experienced writers. It’s not uncommon for commissioned stories to take weeks to write (or even longer for investigative pieces). Even once an invoice is sent and received, it can take weeks to get paid.

There are more than enough variables in a freelancer’s finances, without adding in the vagaries of publication timelines, which are totally out of a writer’s control.

2. Payment should happen as close as possible to when work is done.

A good principal of any labour market is that payment happens as close to the actual work as possible. Known quantities of delay can be managed but unknown and uncontrollable variables, like when a piece is published, is not reasonable in any field of work.

3. The practice contributes to poor freelancer mental health

Being owed money for work already completed is stressful. Not being able to pay rent or bills, despite having been working, is stressful.

Unsurprisingly, payment on publication is a contributor to freelancers’ poor self-esteem and mental health, on top of day-to-day financial stress.

3. A piece of writing is not an ‘on consignment’ good

There is a business model that is similar to payment on publication. It’s called ‘on consignment’ and mainly happens in retail. A wholesaler supplies a number of the same product to a shop. After a period of time, the shop pays for those items sold and returns any that weren’t sold. This model can work for items that are produced in a standard fashion and have no use-by date. A piece of writing is neither of these things.

5. The practice makes it more likely that stories will never be published

If a publication hasn’t yet paid for a story, there’s less at stake if it’s not published before it’s longer timely, or simply gets lost in an overflowing inbox.

If a story has been paid for and doesn’t get used, thought the writer still has to deal with not having the expected byline, at least they are not out-of-pocket and don’t have to face asking for a kill-fee (see an upcoming blog post on this topic).

6. More stress and monitoring for freelancers

Until a story is published and paid, it remains on the mind of a writer. They’re understandably keen to see their byline and they may be in contact with case studies and experts to let them know when their contribution is published.

The time and energy spent doing this sort of monitoring this should not be underestimated so it’s unreasonable to add in waiting for payment.

7. Responsibility for updates

Until a story is paid, the responsibility for any updates needed as a result of publication delay sit more strongly with the writer.

I’ve had pieces held over so long that major updates were needed. (In one memorable case, a key person had died of old age in the interim – he was aged in his 90s when I interviewed him but, even so, it was well over a year later that he died).

If a writer has both submitted and been paid, then the responsibility for checking about updates rightly sits with the editor. And, a writer will feel more able to ask for additional income should this work warrant it.

8. Payment on publication contributes to the power-imbalance

When you are owed money, you are in a position of lower power so are less likely to stand up for other rights.

9. Poor payment practices contribute to lack of diversity

Payment on publication deters good writers from pitching important stories. And, it makes it essentially impossible for anyone without some other type of income support to consider freelance writing.

This practice is one of many factors that contribute to a worrying lack of diversity in whose voices are being represented in media.

10. Writers are not responsible for a publication’s budget

Sure, it would be far better for my personal budget if I only paid for my coffee beans once I’d used them all (and not pay for any ‘wastage’). But that’s not the way the world works.

In business terms, a freelancer is a supplier to the business that is a publication. No matter how progressive or social-justice minded a publication is, if any single person is making a single cent from its existence, then it’s a business.

What payment should look like

I call for the practice of payment on publication to end. For it to be replaced by payment on submission (for commissioned stories) or acceptance (for pieces sent fully written, on spec). And, when a piece is complex or involves lengthy work, payment should be partially upfront and then in instalments.

I call for the practice of payment on publication to end.

By calling for this, I bear no ill-will to editors who currently pay on publication. Editors are not necessarily the decision maker and, even if they are, many are so experienced in the field that they are totally used to the culture and may not have questioned it.

I know a couple of very experienced freelancers who have assumed payment on publication is non-negotiable.

All I ask of these long-term freelancers and editors is that they take a moment to consider the problems with the practice of payment on publication. And, then, make change a priority.

MEAA is unique in that freelancers, staff journalists and editors have the scope to work together on improving rights and conditions for everyone. (And, let’s face it, every editor and staff journalist is one budget cut away from making their living as a freelancer).

Let’s all understand that payment on publication is an outdated norm that is damaging to media’s diversity as well as freelancers’ financial stability, self-worth and their ability to continue to offer their work to publications and, ultimately, readers.

* This blog refers to freelance writers and journalists, however the same issues apply to freelance photographers, audio technicians and other valuable contributors to our media landscape.

Vivienne Pearson is a freelance writer whose writing lives at viviennepearson.com. She joined MEAA’s Freelance Committee in the hope of seeing pay and conditions improve for media freelancers.

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