Writing markets should disclose payment schedules up front

Years ago, SF author James D. MacDonald coined Yog’s Law – Money flows toward the writer. It’s a handy mantra to warn off those who consider paying reading fees or other out-of-pocket expenses thinking it will help get their work noticed. What the rule doesn’t address is exactly when the money will flow. I’m proposing a an implementing rule (because it already has corollaries) for that law.

Yog’s Rule – Money flows toward the author, as soon as possible.

 

For short fiction authors, who write on spec, magazines offer two broad types of payment schedule – on publication, and on acceptance.

Payment on publication:it’s simpler to state than to practice. The writer is paid only once the story is published. In the interim, the story is generally locked up tight. It can’t be sold elsewhere until it’s published, and probably not for some time after that. The writer, however, has no control over when the publication will happen, or even whether it will happen. A properly drafted contract will have a maximum retention period, but some don’t.

Payment on acceptance: this one is easier. The writer is paid when the story is accepted. There will usually be an exclusivity period, but it is the publisher’s responsibility to use the story within that period. If they don’t, a properly drafted contract lets the writer keep the money.

That all seems pretty clear – for the publisher, payment on publication reduces risk and conserves resources. For the writer, payment on acceptance offers predictability, frees up a story for reprints, and puts money in your pocket.

Unfortunately, the rules are written by the publishers. As a writer, all you control is where to submit your stories.

As a writer, I currently have two stories pending publication. They’ve been accepted; we’ve signed contracts. However, the stories were accepted months ago, and I still haven’t been paid. I won’t be until the stories are published, but I have no idea when that will happen. In other words, the story’s locked up, but I have nothing in my pocket in exchange. It’s frustrating.

As publisher, I decided early on that I would follow a payment on acceptance model. My publication contract contains a 6 month exclusivity period. If I can’t publish the story in that time frame, the author’s free to sell it again. If I don’t publish it at all, they keep the money. Why? Because once they sell me the story, the writer’s work is done. Everything else is on me as the publisher. Of course, I’m grateful if the writer helps promote the story and the magazine – that helps both of us. But if they choose to stick the money in their pocket and sit by when it comes out, that’s their right. Publication is my job, just like payment is. I get to set the terms, but that doesn’t mean I have to fight for every tiny advantage. I want my writers to be happy. I bought their stories; likely that means I want them to come back with more. I want their friends to come back with stories of their own. The best way to make that happen is to treat them right.

So what to do about it?

If you’re a publisher, think about how you’re paying contributors. If it’s not on acceptance, think about why. Put some actual thought into what it would take to move to an ‘on acceptance’ model. If I can do it in a magazine run on a minuscule budget, chances are you can too.

If you’re a writer, think about giving payment schedule more weight in your evaluation of potential markets. It doesn’t have to be an ironclad rule – if one of the big pro venues says they’ll pay you later, take the offer. But for anyone else, think twice about the one that pays later. For example, I’ve put the two venues holding my stories on my ignore list. Once the stories are out and I’m paid, our interaction will cease. Of course, payment terms aren’t obvious upfront at all venues. So here’s one more thing you can do:

Write to Duotrope and Submission Grinder – ask them to add a field for payment schedule. Venues could choose among payment on acceptance, payment on publication, something else, or unknown. We’d all be better informed, and it might generate some healthy competition.

It’s not necessarily easy for them to do, though it’s probably easier at the more automated Duotrope than the more personal Grinder. But if enough of us ask, they may think it’s worth the effort. Contact Duotrope and Grinder via the below links:

You might say something like this:

Please add a field to each venue listing that indicates whether payment is on acceptance, on publication, something else, or unkown.

If you have other ideas, feel free to add them to the comments below.