Friday, 22 July 2011

Writing for free: experience or exploitation? (Part two)

So, I stopped writing for the non-paying indie music magazine, whose cover stars became increasingly A-list as the ads became increasingly numerous. I decided that I deserved to be paid for the time and trouble I was taking interviewing, transcribing, writing, re-writing, editing, subbing and submitting (on time) my copy, so focussed my efforts and energies instead on magazines that rewarded their writers with something more tangible than prestige and pride (which are nice but don’t pay the rent).

Having built a portfolio by writing for a variety of websites – yes, for free, but magazines still retain a much better and more profitable business model than websites – I was extremely happy when I got my first offer of paid work from another magazine. It was only £20 for a short review, which I probably more than spent that night on travel to the event and alcohol, but it was a paid job – better than nothing, which is what the other magazine were offering for my labour.

This in-turn eventually led to being commissioned to write short interviews and then, a dream of mine for many years, full-blown features. I have to say I was ecstatic to finally receive payment for all of the hard work I was putting in. The problem was, it wasn’t that straightforward.

I interviewed musicians and wrote and submitted copy but getting paid for it was hard to say the least. The terms of each commission, which I naïvely accepted, were that payment would be made within 30 days of the issue going OFF sale. With lead times on magazines being around five weeks anyway, plus the four weeks the issue is ON sale, this equated to not being paid until over three months after the copy had been submitted.

Unfair? Yes. And, as I’ve since discovered, also illegal. Under UK law invoices must be paid within 30 days of being issued, otherwise interest is due (see here for more information from More unfair though was the fact that even this three month rule was not respected by the owner of the magazine. The unpaid invoices mounted up until I was owed around £500 and then, the magazine folded. When I say folded, the magazine didn’t miss an issue, just merely carried on with the same name with the same Managing Director but under a different publishing house name – a bizarre, somewhat unfair quirk of British law. I lost the money but was assured by the MD that I would be recompensed by the editor giving me more work.

After much thought, and legal advice (there was no way I could get the money owed to me) I decided I would continue to write for them and the editor did put more work my way to make up for what I had lost.

The close working relationship I shared with the editor once more came into play when, once again, the publishing company went under (again, not an issue missed) and I was one of the few writers that the magazine paid in full to keep me on board. Lucky for me, my hard work and professionalism had been recognised enough by the editor to want to keep me. (Incidentally, the editor was always professional and produced a fantastic magazine - how do so many poor MDs get such great staff?!)

But once again, invoices have gradually piled up, the amount owed has spiralled upwards and my countless emails to the MD have gone unanswered. Now I find myself in the position of having to take one of my clients to court for unpaid invoices. And it is this that inspired my change of heart: the indie magazine I once wrote for were open about their non-payment of writers, which, while unfair for a popular, well-known publication, is surely more honourable than offering money and then not paying it?

I noticed recently that the indie magazine had placed (no doubt very expensive) ads above every urinal in men’s toilets at major train stations across London. But while they may still be taking the piss, at least they’re being honest about it.

Originally posted on on 22 July 2011.

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