Freelance writing is not lucrative, generally. There are some publications that pay well – particularly if the piece runs in actual print – but overall a person trying to make a living on freelancing is going to have to piece together a whole bunch of $500-and-under checks. Big name writers probably don't have to worry as much, but nobody freelancing is ever truly financially secure. Imagine you're getting $2000 per piece – which, trust me, would be very rare – and you'd still have to crank out nearly two dozen pieces to hit the median household income for one year. That's a lot of pieces. That's not going to happen.

It is universally true, then, that freelancers live with financial stress. This is especially true of the vast number who, for a combination of professional and personal reasons, live in places like NY or DC. Just hitting the rent every month can be challenging. It is not hard to envision situations in which freelancers need money urgently. Let's just say that one checks the mailbox more aggressively than people who get a regular paycheck.

So it stands to reason that publications that drag their feet in paying freelancers develop very bad reputations very quickly. "Don't submit to X, it won't send your check until next year" gets around. In a lame stab at fairness, it's worth noting that this is usually (but not always) because said publication is on the brink of financial collapse. Nonetheless, people deserve to be paid for the work they do in the amount agreed upon. If the magazine is so hard-up that it can't honor commitments to its labor force then it needs to figure out a different business model or go under.

Given that freelancers are not paid much and often find themselves "a little tight" as the saying used to go, media companies are increasingly turning to services that turn getting paid into a payday loan scenario. You can have the money (which, to emphasize, is money the contributor has already earned by providing the agreed-upon service) now, but only if you give Shady PayCo a huge cut of it – 10 or 15 percent, minimum. From what I've read, not direct experience obviously, I understand that such arrangements are not uncommon in industries where people do day labor like construction.

Of course Shady PayCo argues that there is nothing predatory about this because the freelancer can wait to receive the full amount in 60 or 90 days. In fact it is a textbook example of the predatory practices of the financial industry. One publication I've submitted to used to handle its own accounts payable, and never, not once, did it take them longer than 30 days to pay me. Some publications like Dissent or The Baffler pay essentially immediately upon receipt of the invoice. But the financial appeal of having Shady PayCo handle it (which incidentally probably cost someone at the publication their job) saves a few bucks on the balance sheet.

But let's not kid ourselves, Shady PayCo isn't waiting to receive the money from X. It has the money and it's just holding it hostage for 60 days. To see if you, the contributor, are desperate enough to let them keep 15% of your payment to access it now. So we've come to the "Pay someone a decent chunk of the money you've earned for completing work in order to let you actually have the money" stage of capitalism. Here's your paycheck, but you gotta pay us before you can have it.

Since I still hold a regularly-paid job for a few more months, I can wait it out. Once that's not the case, it isn't difficult to see scenarios in which I, or anyone else, needs that money urgently enough that they're going to get that 15%.

This system clearly is working well and is indefinitely sustainable.

28 thoughts on “I WANT YOU TO WANT ME”

  • 3rd party payment and invoice submission like this happens in manufacturing as well. Many manufacturing corporations are also starting to use a 3rd party to evaluate their vendor’s safety programs. If my small company wants to make something for the big guys we get the honour of paying a huge yearly fee plus spend hours of your own work time submitting our ‘safety programs’ into their software so a bot can scan it for the correct words. There is even a 4th party that will happily sell you prewritten safety programs to ensure you pass the bot screen. As a safety consultant myself, I’m not in the least bit sure of how all of this is actually making anyone more safe, but I very easily see how it is making lots of money.

  • In the 1920s, you could run a car company this way. You'd order parts from suppliers, payable in 30 days. You'd slap the cars together and ship them with a sight draft attached to the bill of lading. To unload, the dealer had to sign a check authorizing payment. When the check cleared, the money went to the suppliers.

    I get the impression everyone has always done stuff like this. The golden age of check kiting might be over, but there are still all sorts of scams.

  • My very creative and witty squeeze is a cartoonist. Well, maybe a lapsed cartoonist is a better description because he simply refuses to engage in the waiting game to be paid for his cartoons. He'd been there/done that. He had tried the freelance cartoonist bit in the 90's and it was a gigantic pain in the ass. So when his last paying gig for the college newspaper dried up, he put his pens away. Which is a pity because he'd be killing it right now.

  • But Ed, in the meantime you get the "exposure" from being published! That's worth a lot, no? You're lucky to be getting paid for just writing stuff.

    OK, snark off in case it wasn't clear. But I was going to say, yeah, this is a business model in other fields, too. Several years ago, I lived in Santa Fe and there was an AM Air America station that I would listen to. There were a lot of interesting ads, interesting not because I wanted the products or services, but in the sociological and cultural sense just because it was different products and services, PSAs too, that I wasn't aware of. There was one that did this for small retail businesses for their credit card charges. The company would advance the cash for the retailer's CC receipts for a percentage. Exact percentage unstated in the ad, of course.

    I found this stunning. VISA and MasterCard, etc. and the banks that issue them can't pay in a timely fashion? The ads implied that the retailer could wait 90 days or more. So, not only does the retailer have to fork over a percentage of the sale just for the privilege of accepting the cards, they have to fork over even more to get their money sooner. It certainly eliminated any small desire I might have had to own a retail business.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    I'm mostly resigned to having day jobs so I can do what I want creatively. It beats the opposite trade-off.

    As for journalism that threatens the powerful and requires months of tenacious full-time reporting, I can't see much future for it except as the hobby of guilt-ridden trust-fund kids.

  • This is a variation of the problem and not new. I worked for a subsidiary of an investment bank that required employees to use their personal credit cards for business travel expenses. The reimbursement process was such that there was no way to submit the travel expenses and get reimbursed before the credit card bill was due.

    There was no procedure for getting a trip advance. Essentially employees were providing no interest loans to the investment bank. What are you going to do?

  • Hey Ed ~ I feel for ya, so I’ll happily buy the first two rounds if you get thirsty and don’t mind going to Small Bar or whatever in the neighborhood.

  • I think it was Philip Dick's _Ubik_ where the hapless main character was broke, and he couldn't afford to make a phone-call. (All phones were pay phones.) And he couldn't afford to use his own toilet. (All toilets were now pay toilets.) He tries to leave his apartment but he can't — he doesn't have the money to pay to open his own apartment door.

    (Have I mentioned we're all living in a PKD novel now and forever?)

  • Once upon a time I did some low-level work for a photography company. When they hired you, you were issued a debt card that they would automatically direct deposit your pittance into. On the face this seems more efficient and probably saves them countless hours of payroll for employees that generally only work for 6 weeks. The kicker was that the cards had a steep transaction fee. And a steep withdrawal fee. And a steep transfer fee. And a steep cash advance fee. I think I basically lost 10% of my pay to this card company. I’ve heard Panera Bread uses a similar system now, I’m sure more and more companies will see the kickbacks, I mean the light…

  • I became a freelancer in June when the company where I worked pulled a couple of things that I decided I couldn't live with; money's been tight since but I'm still happier than I was.

  • I spent years writing regularly for distance-running magazines, which by about 2010 was very much like writing about proper VCR care in and after 2003. It was never lucrative — I'll get a check for $600 for a recent piece sometime before the next Olympics, and this'll be my biggest haul in this niche in at least a decade — but, even if magazines in general aren't quite dead, running mags are a moribund industry, soon to attain Weekend-at-Bernie's status.

    One way in which I have been able to survive as a freelancer, in addition to being child-free, is writing SEO-heavy science content for a company that amasses "prefab" articles of 400 to 2,000 words in a variety of categories to other Web entities, some of which are heavy hitters (e.g., , CNBC, HuffPo). I'm given titles to choose from and asked to write to those titles specifically (e.g., "The Role of Viagra in Triple Homicide"). This has turned out to be startlingly lucrative, at least by freelancing standards (I can make in excess of $1,000 a week). They may well have a need for econ/poli-sci stuff or other areas you'd be great at. I can give you more info if you want — go ahead and e-mail me. It may not be the kind of shit you'd use for clips, but there are lots of upsides and it's actually vetted by attentive editors before they post it.

  • So many different variations of the gig economy. So many additional schemes to hold folk's earnings hostage. Not quite sure why we bother, except that to turn our attentions and energies elsewhere would result in the almost immediate collapse a numerous institutions of (former) value.

  • Safety Man: many states use the debit card system for unemployment funds now. The individual gets dinged each time he or she makes a withdrawal. It's fucked and a half.

  • mothra,
    Yeah, spot on!
    It takes a really twisted motherfucking sociopath to dream-up a way like that to add broken glass and pumice stones onto the shaft they're stickin' up poor people's already bloody and raw asses.

    I'd suspect Stephen Miller was behind it.
    But he's been busy being the really twisted motherfucking sociopath behind breaking-up immigrant brown families by separating children from parents, all while gleefully sending asylum-seekers back to wherever they came from – even if the return means near certain death.

  • Sigh…I tried to supplement my art career by doing freelance articles (and the occasional assigned piece) reviewing and reporting on the arts..all publications were slow pays. Once, I “traded” ArtPapers magazine for an add requesting artists to come forward to speak confidentially about the abuse, fiscal and otherwise, they had received from galleries, and patrons. There were enough for me to write an article for that publication called “The Economics of dysfunctions: the Artist Gallery relationship.” (I think ca.’96)Like me, many had been ripped off, paid slowly, partially, had had work lent out and used to decorate the gallery owner’s home…One Atlanta gallery in particular had a terrible reputation: and he would go down for fraud in 2017:”https://burnaway.org/art-dealer-bill-lowe-pleads-guilty-withholding-artists-payments/..When my partner lost her job in thAt year, I went back into construction because , though I was making money, the lag time and uncertainties of getting paid was unacceptable with having kids to feed…

  • I've been on both ends of the freelancer situation.

    I've dealt with freelancers throughout my career, mostly for companies that paid them embarrassingly shitty fees. One in particular was mortifying, because they never paid on time. The publisher apparently believed that if an issue didn't make money, she didn't owe the freelancers who worked on it anything. So I had to deal with angry emails and calls from writers who were getting stiffed. I felt like a deadbeat, only without the pleasure of having bought something I couldn't afford.

    Then I got forced into freelancing myself, a situation from which I only recently escaped. Most of my clients paid in 60 days, which was a pain in the ass. Thankfully, it wasn't anything more because I'm single, with relatively low expenses and a good chunk in the bank. But I can see how someone with a family or who was just living check to check would suffer.

    I never heard of this "we'll pay right away if you take less" bullshit. What an utterly brazen ripoff. I hope the Times and HuffPo are good and embarrassed, but I'd be surprised if Huffpo is–don't they usually expect writing for free?

  • Mothra: I imagine you know already, some states limit withdrawals to $25. Of course it's to help the recipients avoid extravagant spending, right? So they end up having to pay many more of those fees.

  • Well-paid socialist says:

    @mothra – I had a friend who received either disability or unemployment through the state of California, and they use a debit card system administered by Bank of America. It took me about 15 minutes to figure out how to get the full value of the payment off the card into a bank account. (You were allowed one withdrawl per month to a bank account at no fee, but it was buried in the small print of the web site that was in turn buried in the small print in the card's "user manual.")

    I can only assume that the card is massively profitable for BofA, and they kick back some of the (what I can only assume are obscene) profits to California to "defray the cost to taxpayers" or some such nonsense. Because there is no way that a debit card system is cheaper to run than using the ACH system to do direct deposit to recipient accounts.

  • This Guy Again says:

    When I was on unemployment, I was given a B of A debit card linked to an unemployment account that I couldn't write checks from. In the spirit of allowing me to pay rent, B of A let me transfer my unemployment payments to my personal checking account for only $3 per week.

  • I want you. But usually you just make me want to be an undergrad again and take your classes. You probably mentioned it in some post I missed. Why will you be depriving the future of America of your wit and insight?

  • I dealt with a couple of regional publications who had some interest in my photos. In both cases they neither used nor returned the images (still film and paper, back then) until I threatened legal action. That was enough for me. Galleries are worse, imo.

  • schmitt trigger says:

    "I want you want me". Perhaps the most famous song from that central Illinois rock band: Cheap Trick.

    From 1983 to 2010 I also did some freelancing, but I always had daytime job.
    After 2008, the last publication I wrote to (From Australia), offered magazine subscriptions as payment.
    All the US ones had either gone bankrupt or would simply not pay.

  • I work in translation, and the bottom-feeder translation agencies also make translators wait 30-90 days for payment (even though, of course, almost all of their clients and my direct clients pay up front). I don't accept work from these agencies, so I've never heard of these "pay to get paid" schemes in the translation industry, but I wouldn't be surprised if they existed.

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