Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Why I'd Like to Kill the Kill Fee

I got an offer from a prospective client to write a feature article for their website. The pay was good, the topic was interesting, and I was looking forward to accepting the project. The problem? My copywriters’ business terms clashed with their magazine perspective.

My business terms are not unusual among copywriters: 50% up front, 50% at completion. Most business and online clients expect terms like this. But newspapers and magazines are a completely different animal. They rarely pay an up-front deposit. And they nearly always have a kill fee.

As a professional, the kill fee is particularly galling to me. It works like this: the publication will pay 100% of the fee for your article. Unless your article doesn’t go with their theme for this month, or the editor decides there’s not enough room for it, or they just don’t feel like using it. Then they only give you 20%.

In what other profession is this an acceptable business policy? Can I decide to pay my hairdresser 20% of the price of the cut if I don’t like it? If I don’t like the food at a restaurant, do I get to pay 20% of the bill? No! I pay the whole bill. Plus tip. Even if it’s puke.

Even in other service industries like search marketing and website design, you don’t get this kind of treatment. If I hire someone to redo my website, then decide I don’t want to be a freelance writer after all, I still gotta pay the designer. I can’t call him up and say, “sorry, Jim, real nice job you did, but I’m switching careers and, well, you know how it goes. How’s 20% sound?” It sounds like a trip to small claims court, if Jim has any cojones.

I understand that a lot of freelancers got their start in the print world and this is how it’s done there. But here’s how I see it: I did all the work for the piece. I should get all the pay. And if the client needs to cancel for any reason, that's what a cancellation schedule is for: I set up a structure in my contract that specifies that I get paid based on the work I've put in. And if I've done 100% of the work, the "kill fee" should be 100%.

As a client, you need to know before you commission a job whether you can use it or not, whether there’s room that month, and whether it goes with your theme. And for your disorganization, you ask me to pay 80% of the wage I should have earned? I don’t think so.

Copywriting is definitely a different world from magazine and newspaper freelancing. And one of the reasons I decided to go into copywriting and not print was that the typical business terms were much more humane. As a copywriter, I’m treated as a businessperson by most of my clients. As a print freelancer, I’m treated like a clueless writer.

So let’s keep the magazine terms out of copywriting. Say it with me, folks: 50% up front. 50% upon completion. And that’s the end of it.


Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

Just saw your post about my blog at Writer's Perspective and thought I'd drop by and say hello. Thanks for visiting and hope you'll stop by often. We're also fellow Pennsylvanians!

Jennifer Williamson said...

Hey, thanks, I will. I definitely can relate to a lot of your posts because I'm also on your favorite bidding site (and I know exactly which one it is, too). I noticed you were from PA as well--I'm from Philly. Thanks for stopping by!