Happy New Year - Now Sod Off

January 2, 2014

Freelancing often feels like this. Highway 375, Nevada, 2006

A long-standing New Year's resolution of mine is to get at least three new clients. Between those whose magazines or websites close down entirely, those who have less space to fill or budgets to pay out, and those that decide to cut out freelance contributions and/or payments completely, there's always some attrition - and even if you just do one piece for a new client, it's a big help to know that you have another outlet you can turn to if the right idea happens along at the right time. So normally, come early January, I'm thinking about how to get new work: yet no sooner has 2013, easily the worst year in my entire career, bid its unlamented adieu, than I'm reading an email from someone I've worked for before, telling me I won't be doing so again. The reason? Because I'd had the temerity to ask for the money they owed me.

I'm not going to name the title, the publisher or the editor concerned, and I'm not going to publish the email correspondence here. The corporate email footer text tells me the emails are confidential and the property of the publisher. And in any case, what's important isn't the specific detail of who and where, but the general point that applies to any and all activity pursued under the banner of freelance journalism. All I'll say is that the publication is a UK national newspaper. 

The backstory, then, as concisely as I can manage:

Last April I pitched an idea to an editor I'd worked for in the past, and they commissioned a piece. I did the work as agreed, and delivered it by the deadline and to the right length. It didn't run, because of a lack of space in the print edition of the paper, caused largely by a downsizing in the number of pages due to reduced advertising income. The article was an interview with a musician, the release date of their album was missed, and no subsequent singles or tour dates were announced to which publication could sensibly be pegged. I checked in with the editor a couple of times through the year to ask if it was likely the piece would run, and was assured it was still in their plans. I also pitched some other ideas, none of which were right, and were politely declined. 

Just before Christmas I thought I'd ask about getting paid, because it had been getting on for eight months, publication seemed highly unlikely, and if they did decide to print it I'd likely need to do some significant rewriting to bring the piece up to date. I was told that the piece wasn't going to run and that I'd be paid a "kill fee". A couple of days later a remittance advice email arrived, informing me that I'd be paid roughly half of what I'd expected for the piece. That money was paid in to my bank account between Christmas and New Year. 

Today I emailed the editor to ask for the remainder of my fee. I was polite, as I always try to be. I pointed out that I'd checked in the agreement I'd signed with this publishing company some years ago, and found that I hadn't agreed to receive lower fees for work that was supplied in good faith but not used through no fault of my own, and mentioned that I simply couldn't afford to accept a reduced payment when I'd done everything required of me under the terms of the commission. What I didn't say, but would have if I'd wanted to come across more aggressively, was that paying me a reduced fee under these circumstances amounted to a breach of contract. But why stamp my feet and shout when being constructive and polite ought to be enough? 

The reply was a surprise. As I say, I'm not going to republish it, but I'm going to quote part of one sentence. After "Dear Angus," the first words were:

"Since it is highly unlikely I will ever be commissioning you again..."

I've had these kinds of conversations before, but never with this result. The editor went on to offer a further payment, almost doubling the kill fee paid, which I have accepted. That will be the end of the matter as far as we're both concerned. But it also appears to be the end of my working relationship with this title, and I still don't fully understand why.

It is important to point out, as I did when replying, that I know that this title and this editor have had reductions in their pagination and budgets, so I was only ever going to be a very occasional contributor at best. But their decision to link a loss of almost every conceivable future work opportunity with my legitimate, reasonable and politely worded request to be paid what I was owed seemed calculated to give the impression that any supplier of written work who queries an underpayment is risking their livelihood by doing so. It was as if this was some sort of passive-aggressive attempt to use freelancing's precarious unpredictability as a mechanism to co-erce freelances into accepting underpayments.

This simply would not happen in most other areas of life. If I buy some bananas from the supermarket but forget to eat them and they go off, I can't go back and demand a 50 per cent refund on the grounds that I didn't use them after all. If I commissioned a builder to build a garage, only to find that I'd lost my license and no longer had a car to park in it, I wouldn't expect them to accept half the agreed fee. If the work done is substandard or unacceptably delayed, that's a different matter - and if I'd been told my piece wasn't up to par, or if I delivered it after the agreed deadline, then I could hardly complain if the client chose to withold all of the agreed fee: after all, I'd have been the one who had breached the contract in that case.

Earning a living from freelance journalism has never been more difficult. More people are reading more words than at any previous point in human history, thanks to digital media and the internet; but fewer and fewer readers are accustomed to paying to do so, so publishers' incomes are declining, and the first and easiest place to cut costs is the freelance budget. We have no guarantees of future work, we only get paid after delivering something that the publisher contracts us to deliver, and we can be plugged in to their systems only on those occasions when our skills or expertise are required. They don't pay us a retainer (in most cases), and only use us when we have something they want; we pay our own tax, phone and utility bills, buy and maintain our own equipment, and don't take up any space in the office so the publishers can own or rent smaller premises. The up side for us, of course, is the freedom to pursue subjects we're interested in, and that becomes a win-win because the publishers can access our expertise and contacts for the price of a single piece, rather than paying us a salary and only really using our full capability on a handful of occasions in the year. 

I'm not complaining: mostly this works out well, and I'm willing to accept an overall lower income if it means I spend as little time as possible doing stuff I'm not particularly interested in. I'd like to think that the main ultimate beneficiaries of this are the readers, who get to read things by me on topics I know and understand well, and am enthusiastic about covering - whereas if I managed to get a job on staff of a newspaper or magazine, I'd obviously have to spend more time filling gaps and covering topics that fell towards the outer edges of my expertise. And I'm also not arguing that freelance journalists ought to have some kind of divinely ordained right to a living. All I'm saying is that when we do some work we should be paid the agreed fee, and not be made to feel like we're risking our careers if we are forced to ask politely for what we're owed. 


Angus - this is horrendous. Sadly, I think it's far from unique. I've certainly been through similar situations, as have colleagues.

A big fire-bun-dem to the buffoons you dealt with.

posted by: Rob Boffard: 2 Jan, 2014 22:33:28

That sucks. Good luck this year, Angus.

posted by: Sean Meade: 3 Jan, 2014 15:15:34

Makes you sick to the pit of the stomach with frustrated rage at such immorality and high-handedness sort of posing as the high ground - how could you be so awful as to ask for what you're entitled to, Angus? But, as a fellow freelance, thanks for standing up to the pressures and pursuing it. We really are scuppered if we stop insisting on fair and legal treatment. And now I'd suggest we have to take aboard that the economy is improving, the media is getting a bit of it and wehave to do that thing that Ed Milliband goes on about and, essentially, ask for more in order to start catching up financially and closing that gap between percentage pay increases (if any) and inflation. Freelances matter - paying the bills and then the bigger stuff regarding our place in society and the economy.

posted by: Phil Sutcliffe: 4 Jan, 2014 12:51:14

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