Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

Mushroom Farm

Tonight I am keeping company with an exceedingly geriatric and wheezy pair of dogs, as the writing career continues to stutter and stall.

There’s a magazine to which I used to contribute on a pretty regular basis.  I believe it still ranks as the highest-circulation horse magazine in the United States.  It’s aimed at amateur horse owners and beginner riders, so the content is generally pretty basic, but the production values are high and the pay, okay (as in, I haven’t been offered a raise in about 10 years but its rates are pretty much par for the course for ‘nag mags’).

One thing I always found irksome, however, was their Pay on Publication policy.  Not that this is a rare thing in my little lagoon (though apparently outside of niche markets, it is the exception rather than the rule and makes mainstream magazine writers scrunch up their faces at me in various versions of being appalled).  But given that their editorial calendar is decided a year in advance, and the gap between my deadline and the magazine landing on newsstands can be four to six months, with payment 30 to 60 days after THAT … well, that was getting a little old for me, so a few years ago I reduced my commitment to them to one or two articles a year.  Cuz, to my intense bewilderment and frustration, I still have not been able to get Rogers to put my cel phone bill on hold for half a year at a time …

This year, I had only a single assignment lined up for them.  I proposed the topic back in May of 2011.  They assigned it to me in June of that year.  They wanted the article at the end of August.  In 2012.  For publication in December.

Seriously.  I have magazines who expect a 48 hour turnaround on six-interview, 3000 word magnum opera, and then I have this.

I neglected to enter it on my phone’s daytimer (actually I’m not sure I could, it was that far ahead) and thus it completely dropped off my radar.

Luckily, I did at least put it in my mostly-useless Outlook reminder thingy.  Can’t imagine why; I never do that.  So a week before the deadline, my computer made a disconcerting chimey noise it almost never makes, and I was alerted to the imminent requirement to toss together yet another witty, insightful, gripping, yet approachable essay on how to dote on your senior horse (who may or may not be as wheezy and infirm as the canines with whom I am currently cohabitating).

Disaster averted.  And yet, another loomed on the horizon.  While I had been compliantly lining up interviews and compiling background info, rumblings began.  Rumblings from fellow contributors to this same magazine.  Most of whom contributed more frequently than I do, and thus had their ears to the train tracks, or something.

Hey, doesn’t really matter whether it’s a storm or an oncoming train you’re hearing.  Either way, not exactly inspiring news.

Turns out my fellow contributors have not been getting paid.  Not even on the usual ‘four-to-six-months after you send in the completed article’ schedule.  Just, you know, not.

Turns out, the parent company of this magazine has put itself … well, how can I put this delicately.  Up shit creek without a paddle?

Said parent company owns a whole (if you’ll pardon the expression) stable of magazines, in addition to a book publishing division.  If it trots, crawls, slithers, flutters, undulates, swims, or sheds, they probably have a magazine about it.  Or did.  Cuz some of these titles are starting to disappear.  It’s kind of a weird parallel universe extinction thing.

Meanwhile editors are promising the non-payment thing is all just a temporary glitch. Don’t worry, be happy.  Keep writing for us, you promised you would, we’ve got a magazine to put out.  And we were gonna pay you last week, honest we were, but it was a payroll week and you should be just so very, very glad and relieved that all the editors here are still able to make their car payments.  Hang in there.

It’s hard, sometimes, to remind yourself that the editors are not the Snidely Whiplashes in this scenario.  They have undoubtedly been given directions from On High, as to what they can and cannot disclose to their freelance contributors.  Heavy on the cannot.  And as tiny shreds of info do come to us, it has begun to look more and more as if the editors are currently existing, against their will, on a mushroom farm.  There is definitely fungus among us, as they say.

Especially spore-rific was the announcement early this week that one of the parent company’s other horse-related titles had declared bankruptcy and locked its doors.  All staff caught completely by surprise and unable to retrieve their favourite coffee mugs.   Picture puff-ball mushroom being stomped by shod Thoroughbred hoof.  Ouch.

So my dilemma is this:  do I bust my chops to fulfill my obligation to this magazine?  Factors in favour:  loyalty, tendency to want to meet my commitments, possibility that all this will sort itself out and that there will be more business for me down the road and a gold star on my forehead for having kept the faith.

Factors against:  It’s looking pretty fucking likely that I will never see any money for this article.

I’m grateful that I am not quite as screwed here as some of my colleagues, who are owed four- and five-digit amounts at present.  I’m grateful I’ve been so determined not to put all the proverbial eggs in one basket that I’m only fringe-angsting over this.  But at a time when more and more titles seem to be dissolving, evaporating, or imploding, it’s scary.  Between this, and the markets which still exist but for which I will no longer write because they’ve been total asshats to me, I find myself now babysitting pleasant but neolithic dogs in order to not-quite survive.

More on other weird and occasionally degrading odd jobs in a future rant.

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13 thoughts on “Mushroom Farm

  1. Nag mags may come & go, but there will always be geriatric dogs who need you.

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  2. Didn’t your dad at one time tell you to switch to writing erotica? Maybe it is time…

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  3. Great images, Karen! Paul Simon in the chicken suit is a pretty good analogy for freelance writers at this point in publishing history. A group of chickens floating without oars or a motor in the boat in the first image would be perfect.

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  4. Awesome take on the situation Karen.

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  5. Excellent diatribe. Sadly, you have summarized the current situation for freelancers much too well. I wonder how much of the problem stems from those who refuse to treat themselves as a business and the publishers as their contractual clients?

    Due to everything that you have described, combined with having been ill for almost five weeks and therefore having no work and no potential income, I am also hoping to build up my strength and find some other source of $$.

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  6. Tough question. Follow your gut feeling 🙂

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  7. well, at least you have a bunch of followers here that can enjoy your rantings with some sympathy i should add, the world seems to be standing itself on its head at the moment, i thought that the north American situation was better than the European disaster.. seems like i was seeing too much green on the other side

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  8. If you made an obligation……that should be your guiding light in this in”stall”ment. While they may mess around and not pay you, at least you can hold your head high and say YOU kept YOUR word! One more article and then put them on notice there will be no more until you are paid.

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    • That was my inclination, too, Dan. Felt a little better about it once I decided that, should Magazine A tank, I can at least shop the article around elsewhere. SOMEONE might pay me eventually.

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  9. Time to make some bold decisions I fear….tummy rumbles need more than fresh air and promises.

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  10. I agree with Dan … you made a commitment and should honor it! The magazine already has a “full plate” of trouble, a “no show” on article’s they were counting on will make it doubly difficult for them to set things straight. It isn’t about the money … it’s about sustaining YOUR reputation!

    Even if things do fall apart for the magazine the publishers, editors, and staff are likely to find employment or other ventures, certainly in the publishing industry, and perhaps in the equine industry! You never know what might come back to haunt you. I can’t imagine you would want a tarnished reputation to be a concern in the years to come.

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