SimonSays had a good idea (thanks!) and I'm going to enact it here. This is a thread where people can weigh in about how to spot warning signs and how to figure out whether a publisher/agent/etc. is legit or not, AND what you can do if you've already encountered a deadbeat.
I'd particularly like to hear from the following people on this thread: Victoria, Ann, Bobbi, Dave, James, Hapi...
I'll start with an article I wrote for Writer's Digest:
Beating the Deadbeats
By Jenna Glatzer
A watched mailbox never contains a check. That’s why I tried to avert my eyes and act real nonchalant when I happened to dash out to the mailbox three seconds after my friendly postwoman left. I was waiting for a check from a well-known women’s magazine.
The mailbox seemed to taunt me day after day, purposely delivering extra bills instead of my much-belated check. I was pretty sure I heard it snickering as I walked off, deflated.
The Very Important Editor who assigned the piece was not bothering to respond to my e-mails asking when I could expect payment. The Overworked Assistant did respond, but only to assure me that my money was coming. As much as I wanted to believe her, I was living in fear that my neighbors were going to catch me openly weeping next time the mail disappointed me.
I’ve had to hunt down my payments from publications more than a handful of times. But I’ve learned how to succeed, without ever landing in court. Here are your options:
Send an invoice. Be sure to invoice with every article you write. Ask the editor if she prefers invoices to be sent by e-mail, fax, or postal mail. Your invoice should include all of your contact information, your Social Security Number or tax identification number, the title of your article, word count and date you submitted it, assigning editor’s name, and amount owed to you.
Contact the editor. After at least a week’s grace period, call or e-mail and politely explain that payment is late, and ask if she’ll check on it for you. With any luck, the editor will talk to accounting and your check will be sent in the morning. Be aware that the editor may be completely in the dark about what goes on with writer payments, or of the financial situation at the publication. When I worked as the editor of an e-zine, I had no idea that the company was about to go bankrupt and that writers weren’t being paid. I dutifully sent invoices to accounting, and when writers complained of late payments, I was assured that they would be “taken care of.” So if contacting the editor doesn’t work...
Invoice again. After another ten days, it’s time to mail a second invoice, marked “overdue.” On the outside of your envelope, write “Attn: Accounting Department,” or “Attn: Accounts Payable.” Note on your invoice that payment is expected within 10 business days, and send it certified mail. (Keep track of all your correspondence!)
Call the accounting department. If you still don’t get paid, call and ask to speak to someone in accounting, and again, politely but firmly state that you still haven’t received payment. If this person tries to stall by saying you’ll be paid in “the next cycle,” or won’t commit to a date, let him know that if you haven’t received payment in one week, you will file a complaint. You don’t have to be specific; many people cry wolf and threaten lawsuits, but those on the receiving end know how unlikely it is that writers will actually go through with it.
Hold further articles. If you have a deadline coming up for another article for this publication, explain to the editor that you can’t submit your next piece until you’ve been paid for the last one.
Investigate. At the same time, do some digging on the publication:
·        Post your warning on writers’ message boards and e-mail lists. Ask if other writers have had trouble getting paid by this publisher. If so, did they eventually get paid? (How?) If not, what tactics have they tried and how long has payment been overdue?
·        Media Post (www.mediapost.com) is full of industry gossip and insider information about changes in the publishing world. You’ll have to register (it’s free), but then you can search their “Media-Knowledge” database to find out what’s been written about the publisher lately.
·        Media Life Magazine (www.medialifemagazine.com) will also give you the dirt on popular magazines. When Penthouse’s publisher declared bankruptcy, major women’s magazines “took a beating,” and Biography magazine was dramatically scaled back, Media Life splashed it on their website for all to read.
·        Folio: (www.foliomag.com) is the “magazine for magazine management,” and it reports on magazines that are in trouble in the United States and abroad. If you were writing for U.K.-based Dennis Publishing’s computer magazine division, you would have learned here that they were cutting the number of freelance writers in half.
·        Wooden Horse Publishing (www.woodenhorsepub.com) e-mails a weekly newsletter to subscribers announcing changes in the magazine world, including shut-downs, staff changes, and frequency changes.
Take it to the top. If you discover that a magazine may be going out of business, your best shot is to go straight to the publisher—and fast. If the company declares bankruptcy, even though you may be listed as a creditor, chances are that you’ll never be high enough on the list to get paid. You want to strike before the company gets bankruptcy protection.
Contact writers’ associations. If you’re a member of the National Writer’s Union (www.nwu.org), you can take advantage of their free grievance assistance. Send an e-mail to the grievance division at email@example.com, and a volunteer officer will review your case and possibly contact the deadbeat on your behalf. More than once, I’ve gotten paid after simply sending a final demand letter saying that I would be turning the matter over to the National Writer’s Union’s grievance department. If you’re a member of other writers’ associations, ask if they can do anything to intervene.
Contact Writer’s Market staff. If this publication is listed in the Writer’s Market, alert the editors to the problem at firstname.lastname@example.org, and they will attempt to contact the publication to resolve the problem. (They may also omit this market from future editions to save other writers from this hassle.)
Consider legal action. It’s rarely financially worth it to sue; you’ll wind up spending money on court fees, lawyers, and travel, and even if you win, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever get paid. But it’s up to you if you feel the principle outweighs the financial gamble. Before running out to file your case, contact the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (arts.endow.gov/artforms/M...VLA.html). This is a network of lawyers who have agreed to answer legal questions and provide pro bono assistance to low-income artists (yes, that includes writers). If you’ve dug up other writers who’ve been stiffed, you might look into a class action lawsuit.
Even if you know you won’t sue, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice lawyer-friend send them a letter on your behalf. Some writers keep publishing lawyers on retainer for just this kind of purpose. You could also hire a collection agency, most of which don’t charge you until they collect your debt (they’ll take a percentage of the money).
Get creative. Freelancer Don Vaughn once called directory assistance to get an editor’s home phone number after getting no responses to his invoices. At home, this editor was forthcoming about what was going on behind closed doors, cluing Don in on an important tidbit: The publisher was about to run for Congress. Well! Don headed straight for his fax machine and sent an invoice with a threat to tell the press about how this Congressional candidate was treating poor writers. “It was an extreme measure, but it worked,” he says.
My all-time favorite creative measure to get paid comes from the Net Wits, one of my writing groups. When a member had trouble getting paid by a magazine, each member was asked to send a postcard every day for a month with four words on it: “Please pay Kim Lane.”
Threaten bad publicity. If sweetly pestering doesn’t work, use mild forms of blackmail: “I’d hate to have to post this on AbsoluteWrite.com’s ‘Bewares Board,’” you might write. “73,000 writers subscribe to their newsletter, and if I don’t receive payment within a week, I’ll have to alert them.” No magazine wants bad press.
Keep the editor on your side. Remember that it’s rarely an editor’s fault when you don’t get paid. Sure, every now and then an editor just forgets to submit an invoice or to clear an article for payment, but if you’ve already given her a reminder that you’re waiting for payment, work with the assumption that she’s not to blame. When the e-zine company I worked for quit paying writers, I got a series of nasty letters from writers. It made me feel awful. As soon as I found out what was going on, I stopped making assignments (I couldn’t do it in good conscience until I knew writers were all being paid) and wrote entire issues myself under various bylines, free, just to keep the publication going in the hopes that they’d catch up and pay back the writers they’d stiffed. In the end, the company cheated me out of three months’ salary and left many writers in the lurch.
You don’t want any editor to remember you as the nasty writer. Editors hop from one publication to another with surprising frequency, so even if you’ve already decided you’ll never work for Magazine X again, don’t burn bridges by telling off your editor. She may very well wind up at Magazine Y next month, and she’ll remember. And beyond that, editors talk to other editors. Chandra Czape, deputy articles editor at Ladies’ Home Journal, says that her seven best friends all work at women’s magazines. Do they talk about writers? You bet. Think carefully about your correspondence and if you’d be proud to have your editor talk about it.
Don’t give up. Working for a deadbeat publisher opened my eyes. Those who kept after them without losing their tempers often did get paid, while those who kicked and screamed or said nothing got left in the dust. Hang in there, and don’t let anyone get away with breaking a promise to you.
Avoiding Potential Deadbeats
There are many warning signs that a publication may be in trouble, such as:
1. Other writers have complained about them. Check websites such as Absolute Write’s Bewares Board (pub43.ezboard.com/fabsolutewritefrm11), Writer Beware (www.sfwa.org/beware), Preditors and Editors (www.anotherealm.com/prededitors), and Writers Weekly (www.writersweekly.com/war...ings.html) to find out if there have been complaints against an editor or publisher.
2. There have been major layoffs or high turnover at the company. Suddenly, top editors are gone and their former assistants are in their places.
3. The pay rates have decreased: You’ve been offered significantly less than the rates you’ve seen in writer’s guidelines or the Writer’s Market.
4. The magazine is being published less frequently—going from a monthly to a bimonthly format, for example.
5. They’ve switched from a “pay on acceptance” to a “pay on publication” policy.
6. They don’t offer you a written contract.
7. They ask for your work on spec.
8. They offer a percentage of their ad revenue, a pittance each time someone clicks on your article on a website, or any other such non-guaranteed payment.
9. It’s a start-up publication. Consider all magazines risky business until they’ve been around at least a year; most new magazines go out of business before the year is up.