Sunday, 24 August 2014

Of Grief and Griefcom: Part 1

I said a while back that part of my plan for this year was to start fighting my corner a little harder and to be more proactive in the face of injustice.  But ever since I began writing for money there was one fight I had no desire to fight, that I dreaded ever becoming an issue, and that was trying to get payment out of a publisher who wasn't inclined to pay.

It's not a situation you want to find yourself in, not in any line of work, and perhaps it's that little bit worse when it comes to the publishing industry, where remuneration often seems to be viewed as more a perk than a contractual right.  I think on the whole that I've been fortunate, in that I went for seven years without ever having a publisher downright refuse or otherwise seriously neglect to cough up monies owed.  (The one time it did happen it was for a measly ten dollars and I just didn't have the heart to kick up a fuss over the price of a (London) pint.)  But luck only lasts so long, and I knew it was a problem that was bound to come up sooner or later.

Which it finally did when I sold my story A Shadow Play to - at that time - new outfit Bleeding Heart Publications' literary magazine Transfusion.  It's always a risk selling to untried markets, especially when they're as cagey about what they pay as this lot were.  But they were enthusiastic about the story, it meant getting a piece that I liked a lot out into the world, and it turned out that the money was good: $100 for just over 800 words.  They promised payment within a month of publication and were quick to get a contract over, which looked entirely kosher.

Me, but not literally.
This was in August and September of last year, and it didn't take long for things to start going suspiciously wrong.  The issue with A Shadow Play in came out in October, I think, and when December came around and I hadn't been paid or received my contributor copy, or even been told that the issue was out, I sent a polite e-mail with a simple form invoice attached.  (Invoicing was something I'd already decided I'd do when payment was late, to try and subtly enforce the point that this was both my profession and my livelihood.)

When two weeks passed and I'd had no response I resent the invoice.  This time I got an undeliverable receipt back - and the alarm bells that had until then been ringing softly began to clang.  Had Bleeding Heart vanished and not felt the need to settle their debts?  There was nothing useful on their website, but when I checked their Facebook page they were still posting, which gave me the idea of sending them a note via Facebook.  This time I did get an answer, explaining that my "honorarium" would be paid when my contributor copy was shipped "at the beginning of the year." 

A rather vague term that, so I waited until early February before I checked again.  This time I was told that my issue and payment had been mailed.  Curious as to how my payment had been mailed (US cheques being both difficult and expensive to cash in the UK) I suggested Paypal as a possible alternative, and was told that payment was via a money order and that Bleeding Heart weren't able to pay by PayPal.  By this point those alarm bells were positively clattering, and I wasn't surprised when neither payment nor issue arrived.  I gave it another month-and-a-bit and then wrote again, once more via Facebook since that seemed to be the only thing that worked, explaining that nothing had turned up and asking if I might be paid by some other means, like PayPal as I'd suggested.  Within a week I'd had an apology and assurance that another contributor copy and payment by some other means would be arranged.

Two weeks later and I hadn't heard anything.  I queried again and got no reply.  By this point it was abundantly clear that I was dealing with people who, at best, did not consider honouring their contractual agreements to pay writers to be a high priority.  So I gave it one more week and then sent the following, both via Facebook and to every e-mail I could find online for Bleeding Heart or had had any communication from:  

"I'm writing to you once again to ask that you pay me the $100 you owe for the use of my story "A Shadow Play" in Transfusion issue #2.

I was promised payment with 30 days of the issue going to print; that makes it now five months overdue. This will be the sixth time I've had to query, and it's both frustrating and embarrassing to have to keep asking you for this money.

My PayPal account is under [PayPal account details redacted!].  Please can you transfer my payment by the end of this week. If I haven't received it by then I will be passing the matter to the SFWA's legal team* for investigation."

This time I got a response: a same-day response in fact, and from someone I hadn't dealt with previously, an individual named Gordon Ross whom the Bleeding Heart website listed as both director and co-founder.  Gordon's somewhat terse reply said, "Apologies for the delay, we will get it sorted in the week or 2."

I wrote back saying that, as per my e-mail, a week or two would be too late, and got a faintly apologetic reply suggesting that "threatening legal action ... will not speed up the process."  I explained that I wasn't threatening legal action and what exactly the SFWA's Griefcom service was, and suggested that Bleeding Heart had already had ample time to settle the debt, and in fact could have done it in the time it had taken for us to have that particular conversation.  I didn't get a reply.  So five days later, as the night that I'd given as a deadline drew to a close with no payment and no convincing sign of impending payment, I sent Gordon one more e-mail, explaining that I'd be referring the issue to Griefcom as I'd said I would.  Which was exactly what I did the next morning.

Next: More Grief!  Griefcom!  Explosions!**

* Not a particularly accurate representation of Griefcom as it turned out, and I should probably have done my research first, but it does sound impressive.

** Explosions may be of a metaphorical nature, or else an outright fib.

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