A Publisher’s Perspective of Freelance Payments

By Simon Rogers

I’m a small publisher. I’ve been publishing roleplaying games for ten years usually in the traditional model – that is I pay people to write and draw stuff, and it’s usually work for hire. So, I’ll pay a word rate based on the writer’s experience and the amount of work we need to do to get their writing up to scratch. This varies between 3-6¢ a word, and you can guess who gets top whack. While I try to build on-going relationships with freelancers, many writers have produced one-off work for us. Some projects make money; others don’t; either way the freelancers get paid.

More recently, I’ve engaged writers on 50% of net margin, mainly for Trail of Cthulhu PDFs, and some of these are indie names you’ll recognise, for example, Graham Walmsley, Jason Morningstar and Bill White. Clinton and Bill have also produced their own games (not work for hire) which I am publishing on the same terms. They retain copyright. The effective word rates of these projects varies between 2¢ and 9¢ a word, averaging about 4¢ I’d guess to date.

My approach is to give the senior writers final say over their project, so if Ken or Robin tell me I’m wrong, I’ll abide by their judgement. Likewise, if Jason told me he wanted his ms unchanged, it would be. Usually, but not always, people suggest their own projects, and I just OK them. That way I get enthusiastic writers writing about the stuff they love.

I set out the conditions of employment (which are in effect a contract) when I first engage their services, although there have been times when I haven’t done this adequately.

I don’t like subjecting writers to the vagaries of publishing deadlines, and I try to accommodate writers’ needs. So people might get paid on submission of first draft (if they specifically ask or the playtesting takes more than about 60 days) or on final ms, (if everything goes smoothly). I tend to pay a bunch of invoices at the end of each month. I am very happy to receive reminders – in fact I encourage it. I will almost always pay a writer who asks early, or even give a trusted writer an advance if they want it.

I am super-cautious and rarely work with negative cashflow, so I have money to pay for stuff. I think I’ve once had to ask a freelancer if I could delay payment for a month. If I had to pick someone to get paid late it would be (in descending order)

• Printers
• Other suppliers
• Freelancers
• Beth

So where do I fall down? I’ve no doubt that somewhere on the internet there are a couple of freelancers with a reasonable grievance that I haven’t paid their invoice from three years ago. Why? Disorganisation, invoices filed as spam or deleted and no reminder emails. Most importantly, no attempt to contact me by phone, skype, facebook or DM on twitter. They are most likely small invoices. (If you are such a person, let me know.) Other things which make it less likely I’ll pay on time – being Russian and asking for a bank transfer which I try and fail to do, having my checks not reach your address for the third time, or not sending me a proper invoice. One freelancer emailed me on the day their cheque was due and threatened me with legal action. I was on holiday, and should perhaps have sent it out before I left, but I was quite surprised at the vehemence. I picked the phone up, and the matter was sorted. I later learned that said freelancer had been badly stiffed by another publisher, and felt very strongly about deadlines.

What happens if a writer cocks up or delivers late? I just put it down to experience and try to find another way to get the work done. I do try to cut them some slack – sometimes they are going through hard times personally, and it’s not like I’m paying big bucks. I don’t put in penalty clauses, for example. The very worst sin any freelancer can commit is the silent treatment – no doubt the same feeling you get when you email publishers asking for payment. If I ever did get in a position where I couldn’t pay, I hope I’d have the decency to speak to the freelancers concerned to let them know and work out a plan. My stupid US bank charges silly money for epayments, so the US postal service can cause issues. I have to cancel about one in twenty checks.

So in summary – if you are a freelancer who wants to be paid:
1. Find out what the terms of employment are.
2. Send a professional invoice in good time.
3. Send reminders.
4. If you aren’t paid, within a reasonable time pick the phone up. Get a commitment. Put said commitment in writing and email it.
5. Talk privately to other freelancers. Is it you, or is it everyone?
6. Send a proper debt-collect-y letter before you consider going public.
7. If you don’t get paid, consider your motives for going public: get money, get revenge or protect other freelancers from making the same mistake you made. These are all reasonable motives, but be sure you know which is driving you. One freelancer performed a ritual curse on the publisher concerned.

I am very happy for freelance writers who have worked with us to tell me what’s it’s like from their perspective, either in person or on this thread and how we might improve.

I could also talk about how people end up writing for us.

And do ask any questions.

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