The publishing industry was hit hard by the pandemic, especially print media like magazines and newspapers. There’s a saying: the way to make a small fortune in publishing is to start with a large one. It’s never been truer than it is now. Advertisers slashed budgets and turned from physical, print materials to digital ones, and many never came back.
And with looming inflation, often the first department to get its budget cut is marketing. It’s a tough world out there.
Therefore, as a freelancer, it’s hard to decide what direction to take. I want print magazines and newspapers to survive. They are where many of us started and besides nostalgia, they historically pay well. But what happens when advertisers don’t pay, you don’t get paid, and the publication disappears? Or even almost does?
A small group of other writers and I just experienced this firsthand, and there are lessons to be learned from both sides: the freelancers and the publications who hire us.
A Word Before We Get Started
First of all, I want to say that this post will name names: for the writers, I won’t name them without permission, but for the publication? You bet I will. Mistakes were made, but some of what transpired (as you will see) was far from accidental. Everything from deliberate deception to what could (and possibly should) be considered fraud occurred, all because of a financial panic that should have never happened.
The results were painful for several authors, and as I write this, I cringe at the additional time I am pouring into a project that in the end actually cost me money to do. But I feel like the story needs to be told. In part, this is so no other writers or editors fall prey to those who are responsible. Second it is because this is not a unique circumstance. Freelancers deal with this all the time, and there are some things you can do to beware and hopefully avoid many of these situations in the first place.
If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you want to know what happened, so we’ll dive in with that first, followed by advice and lessons learned. Warning: this is a long one, a little longer than what I would normally post here, but if you are a freelancer or even thinking about becoming one, it’s important.
How it Started
A good friend of mine worked as an editor for Strategy Magazine out of Chicago as a contributing editor. When she had to leave for personal reasons, she recommended me for an editing position, at first as an associate editor, and then things changed. More on that in a moment.
To be clear, there are several Strategy Magazines out there. This one lives (or did, at last check) at www.strategymagazines.com . It’s a quarterly magazine, and it’s been around since 2008-ish. The last article on the site was April of 2021, so clearly this year’s articles have not made it to the digital site.
This part is important as well. The magazine is run by Mary Mnatsakanyan and Marco Cabello. I only share their names here because of the circumstances surrounding the events you are about to hear about. While blame was passed around throughout, the primary contact, and where the deceptions appeared to originate came from Mary. I’m unsure whether this was a game of “good cop, bad cop” or not, but it certainly seemed that way at times.
The simple fact is that if they cannot make Strategy work and continue operations (more on that in a moment) it’s possible they would close up shop and start another publication. If they get the issues we had resolved and establish better cashflow, otherwise they are not horrible people to work with. But when it comes to money, freelancer beware.
Anyway, I went to work for the magazine, and at first, everything was fine. But there were some red flags money wise.
- When doing editing work, you could submit invoices monthly or every two weeks, your choice. Payment was supposed to be net 30, but as accounting was outsourced, your first payment “could take longer.”
- For article writing, you couldn’t invoice until a final approved word count was given to you. Then same deal: net 30, first invoice delayed.
- The article approval process was not clear. Even when as an editor I signed off on the article as good to go, there seemed to be an additional process. For some, this is because the interviewee or the advertiser needed to approve it (in the case of “paid profiles.”) But in others, it was much murkier. Writers sometimes waited a significant amount of time for “approval” before they could even send an invoice.
- Payments were made via wire transfer. Usually I like this: payment is instant and secure and free of fees. However, as the names at the “accounts” email kept changing, I became concerned about who might have my banking information.
- In short, I would have preferred an accounting system where I could invoice through QuickBooks or Square, where my information was secure, even though it would mean higher fees. It would also make invoice tracking easier on both sides, or so it seems to me.
But to each their own, right? They’d been doing this for a while, so surely, they had a reliable system in place. But that turned out to not be the case.
The next red flag came with what was termed “invoice delays.” Besides the initial invoice delay, which I never fully understood, there was another “processing delay.”
So for those not familiar, direct deposit is amazing in the digital age. Once your account information is on file, a deposit can literally take seconds anywhere around the world. A company in Australia pays me this way: an invoice can be paid in minutes, not days. So when there is a processing delay, it is either:
- A flawed accounting system, or a large company where the right person needs to sign off. For larger invoices that might make sense? But a few hundred bucks (or in some cases less)? That problem is in the process.
- There is no money in the account. The only time a wire transfer does not go through is if there are not enough funds to cover the withdrawal in the sending account.
- One exception. You might have issues if you have an obscure, small bank or credit union who might hold deposits for a certain period. However, even in that case, transactions usually show as “pending” in your account dashboard.
It turned out that, although there was some deception attempted in this area by the mysterious “accounts” company and apparently from Mary herself, when we discovered the truth, the delay was due to the second reason above. There was no money to send.
Remember what I said at the beginning about the large and small fortune? It comes into play when disasters happen like this one.
The Events that Transpired
So, here’s what happened. Several authors who had written articles for the magazine, and me, the editor, received promises of payment which were then broken. One was issued a statement allegedly from Citizens Bank showing a date and amount she would be paid for an article written.
As is natural, as writers were not paid, they contacted me, the editor, to determine what was going on. Unfortunately, since I too was not being paid, I didn’t know. I couldn’t answer their questions, so I started asking other writers questions. Which turned into a series of group emails to determine what in the world was going on.
Then the date of the scheduled transfer for one writer came and went. No money. The writer had a phone conversation with Mary, who told her the money had already left Strategy’s account, and they couldn’t do anything about it. When the writer told Mary she knew this was happening with other writers too, the tone of the conversation changed entirely.
Suspicious, she went to her bank to see if she could get to the bottom of things. Her bank (Chase) called Citizens Bank (the bank strategy used and where the transfer allegedly originated. There was no record from Citizens of any kind of transfer in the writer’s name, or in the amount she was promised. Chase showed nothing on their end, pending or otherwise.
The transfer never even started. The “notice” she was emailed was either deliberately fabricated or never went through because there was not enough money in the sending account.
According to both banks, it never happened. And both Mary and “Laura” the alleged accounts person at the time insisted that it had happened, and money was in the ether, already on the way.
But that wasn’t true, as we discovered later. The rest of us received promises with many invoices 60 days or more overdue. We stopped working, talked via email and in many cases over the phone, and worried.
What was happening? Were we being ghosted? Would we ever get paid at all?
Then, after a series of group emails and specific timed requests, and at least one writer contacting an attorney to see what action could be taken, Marco stepped in.
What Really Happened
Marco Cabello came in head bowed in humility. “Quarter 2 has been especially bad,” he told us. “Advertisers have not paid invoices on time, and we are waiting for those before we can pay. Please be patient.”
This was an excellent approach. Although we as writers count on payments to be timely and on time, we are also human, and we know what it is like to be broke. In the advice section of this article, we can talk about ways to prevent this very thing, but we understand. Honesty goes a long way.
Deception had us not only concerned, but ready to take action: blog posts like this one, contacting the Writers Guild, the Authors Guild, and the Freelancers Union were all top on our list. Not only do we want to get paid, but we didn’t want other writers or editors to fall into the same trap.
And Marco stayed in communication. Before he jumped in, emails seemed to be ignored, and there would be days with no communication at all. And the “accounts” people seemed to rotate almost weekly. When Marco got involved, we didn’t hear from them. Only him. And his answers were straight ones.
He was transparent about finances, sort of, and we all got calmer. There was only one issue: there are industry standards for what kind of late fees should be paid to freelancers (and what they are entitled do by law, see below) when this type of things happened.
Long story short, we did finally get paid, but despite promises of additional payments, we got 5% (most of us) added to our invoices for our trouble. Not only was this not up to the industry standard, but it didn’t nearly cover the hours we spend chasing our payments, and the stress that caused us.
Nevertheless, some kudos at least to Marcos. We will not be working with Strategy again (see below) but at least we came out with something, which is more than I expected at one point. I expected to not get paid at all.
It’s not a great feeling.
Letting Go and Being Let Go
By the point when we finally got paid, two things had happened. First, I had already decided that even if everything was made right and we did get paid what we were owed, I would not work for Strategy again. The time, energy and stress of chasing payments literally held no appeal for me. I need dependable clients who pay on time with no worries.
Second, I had told others of my decision as well, but encouraged them to make their own decision about what was right for them.
But I didn’t get the chance. The writer who got the “notice” of payment that never happened had already been told that she would no longer be working with Strategy. Not that she would have anyway, but she’d been not-so-gently let go, as if somehow she had been at fault for demanding on-time payment.
The same happened to me. Almost as soon as I got “final payment” I got an email that I would not be working for Strategy anymore, and then my email at strategymagazines.com stopped working almost immediately.
This “letting go” of us troublemakers who demanded to be paid was planned.
The thing is, as people, I liked both Mary and Marco. This isn’t personal. I still like them both. I just no longer trust either of them.
All that aside, let’s turn from the bad that happened to the lessons learned, and what freelancers can do to protect themselves.
Laws Protecting Freelancers
Most importantly, you must understand that every state has different laws when it comes to freelancers and independent contractors. Depending on what has transpired and what evidence you have of those events, criminal charges can apply when someone does not pay you.
In our case, we had emails that proved what we had been told, and in at least one case we had conversations with two financial institutions backing up our claims. We had some phone conversations and Zoom conversations, but they were not recorded (and depending on your state laws, you may not be able to use these unless both parties know the call is being recorded).
Should we have been forced to take legal action, we would have had a pretty strong case. But lawyers are expensive, right? Well, yes and no. Some organizations will provide you with an attorney at no cost to you, including organizations who support and advocate for writers. Most of the time a phone call, email, or letter from one of those attorneys will keep things moving toward rapid resolution.
But we would also have been fighting for much more than those original invoices. For example, in New York, once an invoice goes past a certain point overdue, you as a freelancer can sue for double the amount of the invoice. You can also potentially sue for lost income if the publication “lets you go” without additional cause or even if they threaten to do so. It’s a method of intimidation that’s not legal. In those cases, you can sue for expected wages if you were given the impression that you and the publication would continue to work together.
How much does that equal? Well, you can sue for “anticipated wages.” If the magazine paid you $2,000 a month for articles written or editing services, you can sue for a year’s wages, or $24,000, plus double your original invoice that went unpaid. Now, that isn’t enough usually to get a lawyer excited about your case, but if you have five writers with the same case, well…
Also, certain organizations and non-profits are set up just to protect writers in cases like this. Even a small case can earn huge publicity, and hashtags like #paythewriter can send such instances viral. For a publication, it can mean bankruptcy or at least a real struggle to bring in new writers and editors to make the publication happen at all.
In short, there are legal choices for you when you find yourself unpaid, lied to, or even just ghosted. But a better tactic, one I usually follow but did not exercise this time? Prevent this from happening in the first place.
Ways to Protect Yourself and Your Income
Before I leave this tome of a blog post, I want to offer some hope. There are things you can do as a freelancer to protect yourself, and the only reason I did not this time was because of the reputation of the magazine. So that is step one: no matter what the reputation of the publication you are working for, follow these steps. Every. Single. Time.
If I had followed my own advice this time, this blog post would be about something completely different.
- Be sure in all cases you have a contract. We had one in this case, a large reason for our legal standing and options. NEVER work for a publication without a written contract or at least a memorandum of understanding. There are a lot of simple work for hire contracts out there, and if the client does not have one, have one of your own ready to go.
- Get some kind of payment up front. Usually for me, this is 50% of the work I am doing with monthly payments after that. Now many publications have contracts that pay on acceptance of an article (preferred) or upon publication. That is fine, as long as you trust the publication. If you are doing editing, a deposit of some sort is preferred before you start, and the FIRST time a payment is late or missed, you should evaluate your relationship with them. They want articles and work done on time, paying on time should be a given.
- Ask about red flags. Anything that sounds off probably is. Don’t dismiss them or think they “will be okay.” They might, but they probably won’t.
- Talk to other writers or editors who have worked for the publication. Find out how payment has worked, and whether or not it has been on time.
- Talk to other current writers if you have issues. The fact that a group of us approached the publication together told them we were a voice to be reckoned with. You might not be enough to get them to take action, but the entire staff? They listen to that.
- Contact an attorney if you have any legal questions. There are all kinds of things on the internet that are not true or at best not 100% accurate. Talk to someone in your state.
- Join the Writers Guild and any other unions associated with your particular writing specialty.
- Use your networks. Get the word out using hashtags, social media influencers, and everyone you know if you need to. Try to ensure that even if you got taken advantage of it doesn’t happen to someone else too.
Remember, you are your own best advocate. You need to protect yourself. If a situation seems too good to be true, it probably is. If it sounds fishy, it is. As my grandfather said, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”
Look, this isn’t meant to be a rant just about Strategy Magazine and those who run it. It’s a warning about the publishing industry in general, and some lessons learned from this case. If nothing else, it taught us some valuable lessons, things we can pass on to other writers and editors.
Advice for Publications
And publications? If you have money problems or other issues, just be honest. If that had happened from the start, we probably wouldn’t have been as insistent on payment, and this article would read rather differently. You are dealing with humans: yes, needy ones. We writers are not rich, and most of us live gig to gig, not even paycheck to paycheck. But honesty at least gives us hope.
And don’t expect us to do more work when we have not been paid for the work we already did, especially when you know you can’t pay us. That’s full on abusive and taking advantage of creatives.
If you have cashflow issues, resolve those before you hire writers and others. You’re messing with people’s lives and livelihoods not to mention your own reputation. You’ll do irreparable damage in what is a relatively small community. Don’t do it.
There’s more than happened in this case, but this is already damn near short-story length, and I don’t want to write a novella about it, nor am I getting paid to do so. It’s meant to serve as a warning to writers and freelancers everywhere: the industry is changing. Protect yourself at every turn. There are predators out there, bad actors, but also people that things just happen to. Try to avoid bad circumstances.
But if you can’t, know your rights. Speak up. Take action. And take action together. And if you do own a publication or a publisher of some sort, take care of your freelancers and your people. Without them, you won’t have a publication at all.
If you want to make a small fortune in publishing, start with a large one. But no matter what business plan you choose, always, always, #paythewriter. And writers? Don’t accept anything less. Your words have value, and you deserve to be treated well and paid on time. You don’t ever deserve to be lied to. Value yourself more than that.
If we all take a stand, things like this will at least happen less often.
Troy is a freelance writer, author, and blogger who lives, works, and plays in Boise, Idaho with the love of his life and three very talented dogs.
Passionate about writing dark psychological thrillers, he is an avid cyclist, skier, hiker, all-around outdoorsman, and a terrible beginning golfer.