Late last year, a major news publication enthusiastically accepted a pitch of mine. They offered me a rate and suggested publishing date ranges via email, but when I inquired about a contract, all communication ceased. I followed up numerous times, explaining that as soon as I had a contract, I could file the piece immediately. A month went by. Then two. Finally, I pulled the story and moved on.
Ghosting on freelancers is a lot like ghosting on a date. It wastes time and effort and causes emotional distress, and in freelancing, has an added financial impact which can be crushing. It’s also frustratingly common.
To get a pulse on how prevalent ghosting freelance writers is, I spoke to members of a private writer’s group on Facebook about their post-pitch ghosting experiences (the members asked me not to reveal the name of the group here). More than three dozen writers chimed in to say that not only had they been ghosted in the past, but that, for a number of them, it happened “frequently.”
Kelley O’Brien’s most painful ghosting experience occurred in 2017, right after she’d made the transition to freelancing full-time. “I pitched a well-known and well-regarded pub a very personal article, and it was accepted within a day or two,” she said. “I wrote the article, turned it in on time, did the edits and turned those in on time as well, but after that, I never received a response.” What made it worse was the subject of her story: the death of her mother.
Nadine Courtney had a similar experience with a publication after she wrote about her miscarriage. Courtney said that piece, which included sensitive interviews with sources who had also had miscarriages, was supposed to publish in October of 2017. October came and went, and months went by as Courtney emailed with no reply. Finally, four months later, the editor wrote back, saying she was still interested in the story and even commissioned another one.
Courtney wrote that piece, too, and assured all the sources she’d interviewed for the first story that it was still going to run. It’s now been a year since that second assignment—neither of the stories was ever published, and she never heard from the editor again. “I just think it was the rudest thing ever,” she said.
David Hill, Vice President of National Writers Union, tells writers to be sure they only ever write with a contract in place—and only do that if protections for the writer are spelled out. Exploitative contracts are commonplace and difficult to get around, which forces some freelance writers to choose between agreeing to a bad contract in exchange for a paycheck or receiving no paycheck at all. “Just because you sign a contract doesn’t mean that you have, that you’re being guaranteed any rights,” said Hill. “A lot of times we’re just asked to sign a thing that says ‘We won’t do this, we won’t do that, we will do this, we will do that.’ But a contract might be silent on what a publication is obligating themselves to do in that deal.”
If, however, a contract contains explicit payment terms or kill fee language, then ghosting becomes a breach of contract, which, Hill said, is a fairly open-and-shut case. So how can writers protect themselves from ghosting? Here are a few options:
File a ‘Freelance Isn’t Free’ complaint
If you live in New York City, you can file a complaint through the Department of Consumer Affairs, under a law called the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which guarantees writers double damages in these types of non-payment situations.
“It’s worth it to file those claims. Let the city chase the publication,” Hill said.
While the act was designed to protect freelancers residing in New York City, those who live elsewhere and write for publications headquartered in the city may be able to find relief as well. If that scenario applies to you, Hill recommends contacting the city to file an official complaint.
File a complaint through a writers union
The National Writers Union has a grievance and contract division that takes cases on behalf of its members. If a writer is ghosted or doesn’t receiving payment, the union will work to negotiate a settlement or take the case to court.
The NWU has been successful at filing and receiving payments, not just for individual members, but especially through group grievances. “One writer asking for a hundred and fifty bucks is one thing, and obviously the union will take that on and fight that fight for the member,” Hill said. “But when there’s a number of writers who are all at a hundred and fifty bucks, we put those together, and suddenly we have a very compelling court case.” The union has won more than $1 million for writers in these types of cases.
The NWU’s advocacy efforts have only increased. When Hill joined seven years ago, the union only filed one or two group grievances per year. Last year, the organization filed six. This year, it’s already at five. Their most high profile case occurred in 2018 when the NWU won a judgement against Ebony Media Organization, in the amount of $80,000 for a group of writers who hadn’t been paid by the publisher.
File in small claims court
The last (and least appealing option) for people is to file a case on their own in small claims court. Problem is, clients know that this avenue requires a lot of time and money.
“If the assignment that you were doing was not a significant amount of money, now you’re adding more time and labor and energy into this effort,” Hill said. But if you have a contract and the mental stamina, you can win a clear breach of contract case in small claims court.
While uncertainty seems to be the order of the day in the publishing world, writers are talking more openly about the issues they are facing, the ways in which they are being exploited by the industry, and organizing to protect their rights. Of course, if you feel like your contract isn’t being honored, the best course is to speak to a lawyer. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share your story with others in the community.
“On our own, as freelancers, we have very little power in this situation, and publications know that and take advantage of that,” Hill said. “But together, we actually have a lot of power, and we can solve these things.”