Forgive the long post. This is not the big announcement I alluded to last week. That's coming soon.
As a freelancer, I have gotten used to serving as my own in-house accounts receivable department; for every job that I do, the only way I'll get paid is if I write up and invoice and submit it to the company for which the work was performed. While a full-time, salaried employee of a company gets paid every two weeks or so and can depend on the security and convenience of direct deposit, a freelancer can go weeks or months without a paycheck, only to occasionally reap what feels like a windfall when payments for a job done finally come in.
The end of the year is approaching and I'm currently trying to make sure I've reconciled the work I've done with the money I'm owed. So far everything seems to be adding up, with one glaring exception: Stag and Groom.
Don't be confused by the title, which in America might suggest a magazine that can only be purchased after presenting proof of age. Stag is a British colloquialism for bachelor and the magazine is the first devoted exclusively to weddings from a male point of view.
As many of you may know, I occasionally wrote for the British magazine and enjoyed some coffee with the publisher when I was in London in April 2004. I contributed a number of first-person accounts of the wedding planning process and had submitted a piece about my bachelor party when I received this email from Nick Hutchings, the magazine's editor, in May 2005:
Subject: Stag and Groom
Date: May 4, 2005 5:03:39 AM EDT
Hope you're well. We didn't run the Las Vegas piece in the end. I have always liked to the tone of your writing but I have some concerns about the relevance of an American groom's diary to a British audience. Bearing this in mind we're going to discontinue the series, but I will pay you the full rate for the Las Vegas feature. I will speak to [Y] about this today. And in no way should this discourage you from submitting other feature ideas.
Stag and Groom
Wedding Style For Men
Of course I was disappointed, but Nick's e-mail was so nice and diplomatic that I understood his editorial decision entirely. It was also generous of him to offer me the full rate for the work I had sent him. Although the articles I did were reworkings of my blog postings, I spent a considerable amount of time polishing each piece so that I could change the conversational tone of blogging into something that would work better in the less forgiving arena of print, and I appreciated his offer. (Most magazines offer a "kill fee" for unused writing that typically isn't more than fifty percent of the regular rate for published pieces.) I sent this email in response:
Subject: Re: Stag and Groom
Date: May 4, 2005 9:39:25 AM EDT
That is completely understandable. As for future feature ideas, I'd love to contribute to Stag & Groom in any way possible. If you have any plans to do an article on Stag weekends in New York City - a great destination considering the favorable exchange rate - I would be happy to help with such a piece.
My address is below, so please send payment as quickly as possible. It always takes a while for the funds to clear into my account.
I've enjoyed working with you and everyone at Stag & Groom and hope I can continue to contribute.
All the best,
(CitiBank holds international checks - or should I say, "cheques" - for about four weeks after deposit before releasing the funds. Just one more way for them to make money off of the float, I suppose.)
A reasonable reaction, no?
One month passed and I did not receive my payment from S&G. I sent a quick email to Nick with the subject "Just checking in..." and wrote one line: "any progress on this?" Nick sent this reply:
Subject: Re: Just checking in...
Date: June 7, 2005 12:26:15 PM EDT
Hi Doug our accountant is on email@example.com, Isuggest you check with him.
I could fill you in on every other email that went back and forth, but let's just say that I never heard from the accountant over email. Chris Hanage, the magazine's publisher, did respond once, but only to say "Sorry its been a bit manic. Will look into it and mail you back." That was in June. I never heard from him again.
And thus began months and months of what can only be described as a complete blow off. Now, it's not unheard of for magazine start-ups to have financial problems or to even defer payment of their writers until more advertising dollars can be raised, but the complete and utter lack of communication on the part of Stag and Groom's management left me frustrated. Email after email remained either unanswered or replied to with empty promises that someone - an accountant at an AOL address, an editor, a publisher - would look into what was going on and get back to me. In July, following the London Tube bombings, I sent an email to the staff expressing my best wishes for their safety and made no mention of my payment, which felt so trivial in the face of such a tragedy. I did email a few weeks later, but received the same sort of vague promises I had received before. Remembering that I had enjoyed working for the magazine, I even broke from pestering them to fill them in on the status of my book, figuring the editors and publishers of a wedding magazine for men would be interested in a wedding book for men. I never received a reply. (The smallest violin in the world is playing a sad song just for me, I know.)
I was always on my best behavior in my emails. Even when I expressed my frustration to Nick or Chris it was always peppered with a bit of (hopefully) humor. I explained the very obvious to them both: I wasn't exactly getting on a plane, flying to London, hailing a taxi, walking to the S&G offices and demanding payment, at least not with exchange rates being what they were. Stag and Groom had me, if not over a barrel, then over an ocean.
Finally, in September I received a letter from a financial officer with Stag and Groom. I won't reprint it here, but in summary it explained that the magazine had been having some financial difficulties, publisher Chris Hanage had resigned (amicably, I believe), and the magazine was restructuring. My reaction was simple: while I could understand why the idea of publishing a bimonthly wedding magazine for men was a tad ambitious and perhaps not the wisest of business plans, none of this was my problem. I did wait about one month before contacting Nick to at least give them some time to get their publishing house in order, but I still expected to be paid.
I received one final email from Nick on October 4th telling me that he would speak with the accountant "this morning." You won't be surprised to hear that I never received an email from anyone at Stag and Groom again.
The amount of money that Stag and Groom owes me is hardly important; in the grand scheme of things it won't change my tax bracket status one way or the other and I won't have to sell our possessions to make rent this month. But whether they owe me one dollar or a million (or one pound or a million) an agreement was made, and in writing no less. Once I've made a promise I tend to follow through, even if circumstances change. (Especially if such a change is not the fault of the person to whom I made the promise.) Still, I've wasted enough energy sending emails that go unanswered to deal with this anymore.
I write this story only as one of many that litters the experience of freelance writers. Craigslist and other marketplaces for freelancers of all stripes are bursting with postings cautioning against deadbeat companies who have stiffed people for far more than I am owed. In the future, I'll rely less on trust and emailed promises and more on ink-signed contracts where possible. Such are the lessons a novice freelancer must learn.
Although I initially poked some fun at Stag and Groom when I learned about the magazine, I've since spoken highly of my experience with them, posting each time I had an article printed, which I imagine gave them some publicity given the targeted nature of magazines about grooms and once singularly-focused nature of my blog. In fact, if you Google "Stag and Groom", my site comes up in the results second only to the magazine's official site itself. (Which, interestingly enough, is a dead link.) I can't say how long it will take for this post to replace my other post as Google's second most relevant search result.Posted by Doug at November 5, 2005 06:05 PM