Mark Terry

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Absolutely Most Important Thing You Need To Know About Writing For A Living

October 20, 2008
And yes, that is a long title. But here it is:

The money doesn't come when you want it to.

If your only work experience is working for someone else, there's a very high probability that your paychecks always have arrived on time. ALWAYS. For instance, say you are to receive a paycheck every other Thursday. That's when you get it. Not Friday. Not the following Monday. In fact, I would guess that if you were expecting your check on Thursday and you didn't get it, you'd raise holy hell with your boss.

One of my long-term clients that I am contracted to work with for seemingly the rest of eternity (it was a 5-year contract) is annoying me a bit right now. The work was approved near the beginning of September and I'm supposed to get my check within 30 days--per the same frickin' contract--of that approval. When I hit 30 days, instead of dicking around and waiting like I sometimes do when this happens, I contacted the exec director and she was apologetic and said she'd get right on it, something got mixed up. I still haven't gotten that check, although I'm hopeful it will come in today's mail.

In the case of this particular client, I'm pretty sure I know what happened. They've put in some new procedures for approval, the exec director is leaving the position and training the new person, and typically because of the nature of the organization, once they cut the check they have to mail it to the organization's treasurer to get her to sign it and mail it to me.

I'm sure the money will come soon and I hope I don't have to go back and nag them.

But the fact is, when you're a freelancer--whether like me or as a novelist--the checks just do not always come when you expect them to--or need them to.

In fact, for novelists, my impression of royalty checks and statements is that for most book publishers their accounting schedule seems rather loose and wide--which makes me wonder about their accounting practices in general, but that is a slightly different topic. Publishers may pay you quarterly or every six months, but when in that six-month period you can actually expect a check is sometimes a mystery.

And besides, in the case of books, the accountants send the check to your agent who may or may not do his/her banking immediately for a variety of reasons.

Being a freelancer, you've also taken on the role of bill collector and sometimes it's a role that just sucks dead bears. Really. And have I had some clients that I never got the money from?

Yes. And the amount of money you're out can do a lot to tell you how much time you're going to spend going after it. I did some work for a company this summer where we could never quite agree on what the hell they wanted, and she told me the work was only 25% done and I told her that I couldn't go any further without actually having more feedback from the company. And I invoiced for the work I'd done and that was it, and since it was only about $300, I didn't follow up because, honestly, it was a losing cause. They were full of shit and I should never have taken the job to begin with. My suspicion is the person I was working with was a website person, not a copywriter, but she'd been hired to do the copywriting and the website design, and when I started leaning on her for company feedback on the website copy, it backed her into a corner because she'd never told the company she was outsourcing the copy. (And she further annoyed me by never answering my questions about what she actually wanted, which is why I felt I was 95% done and she apparently felt I was 25% done).

I don't know if that's the case, but I'm pretty sure it is. Live and learn, I think. I'll be very cautious about doing that kind of work ever again.

There's only so much you can do to alleviate this kind of problem, but I do have a few suggestions.

1. Be careful with your clients. As you progress, you'll hopefully develop an instinct on which ones aren't trustworthy and won't do work for them. Start-ups, for example, are often a problem. Companies not used to working with freelance writers are usually a problem because they have no clue how things are supposed to operate and you're the one who has to educate them about it. There are some real morons out there that value writers less than the person that waters their office plants. Typically their job postings will say something like, "looking for top-level, experienced, expert writers. Pays $10 per article." Look, if you're desperate, okay. Otherwise, steer clear.

2. Make sure you have multiple sources of income. I often wonder about one-book-a-year authors, particularly if they're not bestsellers. If you're making a nice living of, for instance, $70,000 a year, or even $100,000 a year (minus 15% for your agent and about 28% for taxes), and you're totally dependent on money that only comes a couple times a year, how screwed are you if that big check for $30,000 is 6 weeks late? My guess? Very screwed. So having some fallback income somewhere--short stories, screenplays, magazine articles, a teaching gig, etc., might be a good idea. In the last year or so my income has tended to come in big chunks and in 2009 I'm sort of giving myself the goal of adding some clients that bring in regular income, even if it's not huge, in between the big chunks, because if you go 2 months without a paycheck, it pretty much sucks.

3. Don't quit your day job. I mean, really, if this is something you absolutely can't live with, then you should think about keeping your day job and writing on the side, because this is just the nature of the beast.

4. Find a well-off or well-employed partner or spouse and keep them happy.

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

OMG, yes this is so true. I turned in a manuscript to one of the biggest of the biggies (on a book I haven't even announced on my blog yet) . . . in July. I have yet to get my other half of my advance.

My agent always cuts me a check same-day as he gets my advance or whatever. So he is great. But the publishers take FOREVER.

When I was working more as a book doctor, I sometimes had to wait but not too often--I also always insisted on retainers. In any case, I had one really big client and they got a new in-house editorial director and she let 99% of the freelancers they had go--with no warning. They were 20% of my business. Having been screwed that way before, I make sure that I have x amount of novels in the pipeline, x amount of freelance writing, and x amount of editing or indexing. The ratios vary . . . sometimes it's mostly novels, and sometimes as when waiting for rewrite notes or whatever, it will be more magazine writing. But I know to SURVIVE (and I mean survive . . . in this economy especially) I have to be diversified. I don't have a spouse for back-up on income in that sense. Or medical benefits. But I will gladly elope George Clooney, should he ask.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yes, George has a villa in Italy... just one of the perks...

My agent seems pretty good, too. Publishers, not so much.

9:16 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

DH has an MBA, which I secretly think is a useless piece of crap. He sees everything theoretically, such as, theoretically, we're going to get X amount this month...

That thinking cost us a lot of money.

Then there's some strange math that happens. Say I'm owed $1,000 in May, but I don't get it until August, right? Well, somehow, by the time we get to August, I'm $2,000 in the hole, instead of $1,000.

Oh! And then sometimes it costs money. Like one family owed me $1,000, and they told me they were paying me $500. Well, let's just say that LATE $500 cost me $500!!

It's true, what they say: you have to be at least a couple months ahead. Once you get paycheck to paycheck as a self-employed person, you're not just screwed: the screwing keeps going on and on like an endless stream of dominoes falling.

I shoulda moved to LA to be with DH and his job, instead of the other way around. Oh well.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

There is a sense, not so much paycheck to paycheck, I guess, but of running on a treadmill. You're always running to stay ahead or at least to stay on top of things.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I have jobs I work on, off and on, for six months per project so I'm getting paid 7 months after I start. If you are freelancing living week to week is out. You have to be able to put some money aside as a buffer or else you'll be in crisis mode all the time.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

A couple months ago I was in a bind and I applied for a gig and it probably would have been a good gig to take, but it was for market research reports and unlike the other companies I have done these for, they didn't pay advances or a third or half upfront, but paid upon completion and then added royalties. I felt like I had to decline simply because I didn't want--at that point in time--to get tied down to a demanding project that wouldn't pay me anything for three or four months. I needed month in the next 4 to 8 weeks, so I was focusing on paid-on-acceptance articles I could turn around fairly quickly. Sometimes you just have to make those types of calculations.

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