So you're not going to believe what happened to me on this freelance assignment ...

In my 13 years of being a full-time freelancer, I’ve seen a lot — a lot of good of course, and I still think this can be the best job in the world. But I’ve also seen a lot of ways that publishers try to treat their writers like dupes, dopes or chattel.

My recent best/worst story: A well-known outlet reached out to me to write a feature. I was flattered, but had some big concerns about the contract. Their lawyer told me they couldn’t negotiate my contract because they just wrote too many contracts a week, and it’d be hard to keep track of any changes.

So I’m supposed to give away all the rights to my work and agree to shoulder the magazine’s legal costs should it be sued over what I wrote — even though the contract also gave the magazine the right to make any changes they wanted without my approval?

Get outta here with that.

I asked a few other writers for their best/worst stories, which are below. You could read it as old-fashioned vent, but our stories are also a way to get these things out in the open, and learn from how we handled them, even if we handled them wrong (I’ve got one more story of my own at the end).

We don’t pay — but you’re past due

Writer and editor A.C. Shilton had just about had it with a publication that owed her $1,350, despite a year of contacting editors and accounts payable at that publication. And then “they auto-renewed my subscription,” she said. She was angry — who wouldn’t be!?

But then because she refused to pay, the magazine took her to collections.

Lesson learned: “Fight for money that’s missing or late immediately,” she said. A big part of the problem was that the person who should have signed off on the invoice left the publication, and no one left cared to figure out how to get her paid.

She also paid the subscription bill because she didn’t want her credit to be affected. “I know accounting and subscription sales are two different departments and not at all in communication,” she said. “But it just felt like this small, petty thing I could do because the situation in accounting seemed so hopeless. You can feel rather powerless in this business, you know?”

The problem: A three-hour tour

Jennifer Goforth Gregory, a freelance technology content marketing writer and author of the upcoming book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer, didn’t think much when a client set up a half-hour call at 5 p.m. East Coast time. The assignment was ghost writing an article for an executive based on the West Coast, and editing the first draft shouldn’t take that long.

At the start of the call, the client asked her to log into his screen-sharing program to share her screen with everyone on the call. “We then went line by line and he had me revise each sentence in real-time so that everyone could see my writing while four people critiqued it all. It was the most nerve-wracking experience of my career.” The half hour turned into three hours of agony.

Lesson learned: Stand up for yourself. “When they requested me to edit in real time, I should have said that wasn’t the way I was able to do my best work,” she said. She was given the job through a content agency, so the next day, she called her contact there and explained what happened. The agency wasn’t mad at her — at all. In fact, they stood behind her. They told the client that wasn’t the way they should work with their writers, and told Goforth Gregory that if it ever happened again, to politely end the call and contact the agency.

Your money’s on vacation

Writer and author Chris Illuminati had a good relationship with a client who paid on the same day every month. It wasn’t pocket change either: His monthly payment from this client is usually over $2,000.

And then one month: nothing. The excuse from the client was that “the accounts payable person went on vacation,” he said, so he’d have to wait. “Yeah tell that to my landlord.”

Lesson learned: Illuminati wound up saying nothing because he didn’t want to burn a bridge, but he said the experience was a reminder that “never expect anything to go the way you plan.” “Don’t bank on money being there on time, jobs always being steady, editors sticking around or websites to last forever. Live your professional life like any day the other shoe could drop.”

Over disclosure

Editor, author and writer Joy Manning got an assignment at a new-to-her publication, and soon after the requisite W9 and direct deposit forms to go along with it — except the forms weren’t blank.

“They were completed by other freelancers. So for these two other writers, I now had all their info including Social Security numbers, bank rounding numbers, account numbers,” she said. “I was floored. The editor’s response was basically just ‘Whoopsie!’”

Manning turned down the assignment. “I knew I couldn’t trust them with my own info,” she said. She also contacted the freelancers whose information she was given to let them know happened.

Lesson learned: You can be careful about protecting your own information, but that doesn’t mean the people you write for will take the same care. Manning immediately got an Employer Identification Number, which you can use on tax forms instead of your Social Security Number, and set up a separate bank account that she uses for direct deposit to put layers between her and any possible sloppy publishers.

Too much for too little — and too late

Writer and author Anna Goldfarb had a steady gig at a website where the pay wasn’t great, but okay enough for her to keep working with them.

“About four months into writing for them, they asked me to start inputting my articles directly into their content management system,” she said. “It was a clunky, buggy Wordpress-esque setup. It crashed often, which would erase the content I was writing.”

At first, she thought them giving this her extra responsibility was a sign that they wanted her to be part of the team, but then the process became an ordeal, especially for the okay pay. “Just using the CMS system added hours to my workload,” she said.

So she quit, sending a polite and professional email that another writer helped her craft. She had two stories due in the next two months, and she thought it was more than enough time for them to find another writer, especially since this was for a website and the stories were generic, evergreen stuff.

“I was bombarded with two top level editors demanding to know specifically why I was leaving,” she said. “It's the only time I've ever bailed on an assignment but the reality was I'd rather spend my time writing for a higher-paying pub.”

Lesson learned: You don’t need to work for publications that offer too much hassle for too little pay “Pull the plug as soon as you realize it's not a good fit,” Goldfarb said. “In this work, time is money and the longer I stayed with a lower-paying publication, the more my wallet took a hit. Not every gig is a forever gig, and it's essential to know when it's time to move on.” 

The killer kill fee

I wrote a 2,000-word piece for a new to me publication that was both getting a lot of buzz and offered a hefty fee: $2,500. I was expecting some edits back on the piece, but instead the editor told me she loved it but were killing it because the magazine had assigned too many stories on dogs for the spring.

I expected to get the full $2,500 fee. After all, the story was being killed because of their lack of organization, not because of anything that I did.

That’s not how she saw it. Instead, she offered me half my fee, saying that if they killed it because of something I did, they’d have paid me nothing because they’d have considered me in breach of contract. She also rationalized her decision by saying the story was so good that she assumed it would find a home somewhere.

That’s not how kill fees work — at all. I was furious. But I had just gotten out of the hospital from a bout with a kidney stone and was still in enormous pain, and didn’t have the will to fight it, and capitulated.

Lesson learned: A few. First, negotiate the kill fee. Unfortunately, the kill fee clause in the contract was written vaguely enough that they could do whatever they wanted. Obviously, I will never write for that publication again, but I will be taking close look at kill fee clauses from now on.

Second, never try to deal with tough financial talks when in medical distress. I should have waited until I was back to myself, but by the time I was feeling better, this was already over.

And third, never ever assume editors know how freelancing works. This editor didn’t care that she’d just taken $1,250 out of my pocket. Also, the idea that it would easy for me to sell this story to another publication is ludicrous. I have spent hours trying to find the right publications, the right editors at those publications and then crafting a pitch and explanation as to why a fully formed, 2,000-word feature about what happens to our pets after they die. It hasn’t happened yet, and I’m about to give up because I’m just throwing good money (because time is money) after bad.

But hey if you want a 2,000-word feature on what happens to our pets after they die, get at me.

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    Jen A. Miller

    Jen is a veteran freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Runner's World, CIO.com, Allure, DETAILs and Women's Day, among others.

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