When Payday is Publication Day

You’ve gotten some good news: Hypothetical Magazine wants to publish your newest piece, and will pay you a reasonable sum for it.

Congratulations! But pay close attention to the terms HM offers you—and if it wants to pay you on publication, don’t agree to it.

Publishers often try to pay writers on publication—or, as we say in the business, on pub—for the same reason that many of us don’t buy winter coats until late fall. We don’t want to spend money on something that’s going to sit around unused for weeks or months. We’d rather hang onto the money until we can turn it into something of immediate value.

But agreeing to payment on publication can create big problems for you. If a publisher hangs onto your piece for weeks, months, or even years without publishing it—regardless of the reason for the delay—it owes you nothing. Meanwhile, if the publication has acquired first rights (i.e., the right to publish it before anyone else), your piece is legally tied up, even as it languishes in inventory. Worse, if the publisher eventually changes its mind and chooses not to publish your piece at all—perhaps after sitting on it for many months—it owes you nothing but the return of your rights.

In short, being paid on publication can be a setup for exploitation and disappointment.

What can you do about this? Plenty.

First, you can ask to be paid on acceptance—i.e., within 60 days after you deliver the piece and the editor accepts it for publication. Many publishers that initially offer payment on publication will pay you on acceptance if you ask. This can mean getting paid weeks, months, or even a year sooner.

If your editor says, “Sorry, we can’t do that” or “We have a strict policy of always paying on publication,” you still have a good bargaining position. Say, “Well, when do you plan to publish my piece?” If the answer is, “In four to six months,” respond this way: “Fine. Let’s do payment on publication or within six months, whichever comes first.” The great majority of editors will happily agree to this arrangement.

This simple change completely alters the publication’s legal obligations to you—from paying you if and when it publishes your piece to paying you by a specified deadline, whether or not it publishes your piece at all.

What is a reasonable deadline? For newspapers and websites, 4-6 months out; for magazines, 6-10 months; for books, 8-12 months.

If the publication is buying first rights, your contract should also specify a second deadline—the date by which it must publish your piece, and after which it loses the right to do so. Without such a deadline, your piece could get stuck in unpublished limbo indefinitely.

If your contract doesn’t have such a provision, ask to add one. Typical publication deadlines are 6 months for newspapers and websites, 9-12 months for magazines, and 12-18 months for books.

What if there’s no formal written agreement, but only a simple oral understanding (“We can offer one-time nonexclusive rights for $400; will that work for you?”)? Follow the advice above, but also send the editor an email confirming the terms. For example, “This email confirms the oral agreement we made earlier today. Hypothetical Magazine will buy one-time nonexclusive rights to publish my piece, ‘The Good Example,’ in print periodical form. HM will pay me $400 on publication or within six months, whichever comes first. If you agree to these terms, please send me a very brief email confirming that this outlines our agreement.”

Publishing your work is a good thing. Getting paid for it is better. And getting paid sooner rather than later (or not at all) is a very worthy goal.