One of the strange things about selling stories to newspapers, magazines and TV is that you can go out for all the meals with editors in the world – but unlike other industries, it won’t really matter whether that editor likes you or not…
Let me explain further. You can be the nicest writer in the world, a sweet person who is absolutely delightful to every editor you come across – but if you don’t come up with the goods (the story) you might as well forget working at national level. Because a nice person who doesn’t come up with the story or fails to make features work won’t be commissioned and you therefore won’t make any money.
On the other hand, if you’re an editor on a publication hoping that seasoned freelancers, agencies, journalists and agents will email you first with that great exclusive then I am afraid you must be nice. And being nice doesn’t mean taking that journo you value for the occasional pizza (while that is nice) it means ensuring you are fair. That means not changing the brief after you have received the piece and when someone has done the job – provided you with a story and photos – you pay them the agreed amount.
Because if you don’t pay then in my view there is no point in giving you any more features – and any exclusive stories will go to others first. And you know what no stories means? It means you don’t get the glory at the features conference, the rival gets what you wanted, you have to explain to a higher up editor why you didn’t get it and well, if that carries on and you continually don’t get the stories, then you might eventually not even have a job…
Why am I writing this post? Perhaps it is some problem with budgets but recently I have noticed a few editors (those with smallest budgets) and there is a certain large publishing website (yes, you, you know who you are!!) that takes the smash and grab approach. Smash in, grab the story – agree any old payment to keep the journalist selling the piece happy – and then conveniently forget to pay. If and when eventually you do get round to paying, you ‘forget’ the rate you agreed in the first place and quote some old cobblers of a rate.
The point is – and this is something all national publications (and editors working in them) need to guard against – getting so big, so puffed up with your own influential self worth and thinking you are so amazing that you can treat the people who supply you with the very life blood of your publication with contempt. ‘Oh chuck that person £40 plus £10 for the photo… they must be happy with that. Surely! After all, they should be grateful they are getting paid at all!’
I presume Tesco used to feel self important like this. This is before Tesco – that supermarket we all used to shop at – began reducing milk to a pittance of a price to entice us back from the likes of Aldi (honestly cheap) Asda (budget) and Waitrose (expensive but at least they don’t try to con us with bogofs we don’t want). Tesco were once the big ‘I ams’ but suddenly a few people got fed up with their over-inflated ideas of how much we all depended on them for our groceries and left… and then there was a stampede to those other supermarkets I’ve mentioned.
With national publications it works slightly differently of course. Readers don’t go away immediately but they need to be fed a good supply of stories to keep them happy. If you stop getting the stories – because you don’t pay your contributors (or make it difficult to squeeze their payments out of you) and too many contributors decide it is all far too much hassle to send stuff – then you will eventually have a problem (no stories which could ultimately mean less and less readers…)
Similarly if you’re the sort of up yourself ‘forgetful’ editor (tiny budget, who only has three pages max to fill a week and yet is always ‘sooo busy’) who says, ‘I’m so sorry! I forgot we agreed that price so I gave that piece you slaved over for weeks, with the brief I changed at whim making you do extra work and which I published over two pages and was congratulated by the editor about (and which got lots of traffic to our website) what I felt it was worth! So sorry but I thought in the end it was worth less than the fee we agreed… I know you might be disappointed. But if you feel strongly about it I can see if I can put through a top up fee which you might eventually get paid…’ – then don’t be surprised if the jungle drums go round that you are a fool of the first order, an oik to deal with and best avoided (I always wondered why you never progressed higher than filling those few pages – now I know…)
Going back to my original question. What happens when publishers don’t honour payments? Well, if a freelancer, agent or journalist isn’t paid – and they find a better way to spend their time is to sit in their front room watching repeats of Come Dine with Me (at least you get a laugh out of that) than press the send button on their computer to you – then don’t be surprised if those stories dry up. Note to anyone freelancing from someone who has done just that for 30 years – if someone doesn’t pay then do not send them any more articles as there is no point in writing if someone does not pay! The stories will of course still be published – but that editor can enjoy reading them in a rival publication.
Luckily at Featureworld we are fortunate to work with some fantastic editors who truly do value their contributors fairly and always ensure they are paid – such as News UK (which publishes The Sun for example), the Mirror group (including the Sunday People) and all the women’s magazines. But others – mentioning no names! – well, I’m afraid you could do better…