Pay to Work and Other Offers Too Good to Refuse

Pay to workRecently, I was approached by an agency promising several months of work in exchange for an up-front sum they were calling a “referral fee.”

Whether you’re a communications professional, journalist, screenwriter, or novelist, you may have come across similar hard-to-refuse offers. Authors frequently are pitched opportunities to publish their novels…for an advance payment of $5,000. In Hollywood, you find scammers pretending to be agents, charging “reading fees” before they’ll agree to “represent” you and your screenplay.

No matter the name, these are plain and simple pay-to-work schemes, and while they may be legal, they’re not considered ethical in the communications, book-publishing and screenwriting worlds.

I raise this subject because it’s been a mighty tough half-decade for the self-employed, independent, freelance community, and the prospect of longer-term work may be impossible to turn away. Plenty of us would jump at any possibility, no matter the terms. But, as with any offer that seems too good to be true, I encourage you to examine the contract for loopholes. Because what frequently happens is that the dangling carrot is an illusion, and, these days, who can afford to pay out and not receive the promised reward?

If you’re an independent communications contractor/freelance writer – there’s no question that since the Microsoft lawsuit, it’s been increasingly difficult to stay independent and work for large companies, which typically want contractors to be W-2 employees of another firm and carry at least $1 million in insurance coverage. Plenty of legitimate agencies have sprung up in response to the lawsuit, covering the cost of insurance and paycheck processing (many don’t offer other benefits, such as health insurance, 401Ks or paid vacations) by charging the corporation a hefty fee on top of your rate. Like it or not, until the courts and the IRS acknowledge that these arrangements offer no more special protection than directly hiring freelancers, companies will use them to avoid legal confusion between employees and full-time, on-site contractors.

But note the difference between the contractor agency charging a fee to the company for services rendered and asking you to pay in exchange for work. In my case, the terms were clearly laid out in the agency’s contract: 50 percent of the referral fee from the first paycheck, 50 percent out of my second check. Here’s the hitch – and it’s a big one – the referral fee must be paid up front whereas the work, for which I would have been paid on a weekly basis, stretched out over three months. If I’d accepted, I would have paid the full referral out of my first two checks with no guarantee that the remaining work (and the rest of my pay) would be forthcoming. In fact, in this case, I was dependent not just on doing a good job myself, but on the strength of other contractors from the agency. What if one of them wasn’t delivering or, worse, did something unethical? I’d lose my contract gig right alongside them – and my referral fee to boot. The reality of it, though, was that it didn’t matter what happened. If I’d signed up, I would have been contractually obligated to pay the referral fee, no matter what happened with the assignment from the corporate client – whether it played out or disappeared into thin air.

If you’re a novelist – you’ve probably seen plenty of ads for “publishing houses” that offer to publish your book and promote it for a fee. No legitimate publishing company charges an author for these services (though, unless you’ve just penned the next Hunger Games trilogy, most authors find themselves supplementing the publishing industry’s limited promotion efforts by hiring their own PR folks). If you pay to publish your work, the greatest percentage of your fee will be pocketed by the “publishing house;” the small amount left over will cover photocopying and binding. Placing your book for sale on a website doesn’t cost them anything, and it’s not “promotion.”

Stick with the legitimate publishers, small or large, and focus on the panoply of excellent literary magazines out there (Glimmer Train, Zoetrope All-Story, Tin House, Ploughshares, Poetry, and ZYZZYVA are among the well-known ones, and you may want to leaf through Writer’s Market at your local library to find others that are relevant to your style of writing). You can submit stories and poetry to all of these free of charge; many offer writing contests (for which you’ll be charged an entry fee). The exposure from having a story published and/or winning will give your creative work a far stronger boost than handing over thousands of dollars to pay someone to publish your novel, short stories or poetry collection.

If you’re a screenwriter – agents and managers do take a percentage, but it’s strictly based on what you’ve earned (and you will have in your possession a legal contract with the production company paying you). Agents and managers don’t get paid until you get paid. No ethical agent or manager will demand a “reading fee” to take you on; they either like your work and are willing to represent you or they’ll pass.

In Hollywood, you’ll find plenty of writers, agents, producers, and other insiders who offer “script-reading services” for a fee. These are, by and large, legitimate, but they’re not about finding representation, they’re strictly notes on your script designed to help you produce a more polished rewrite. If you decide to pay for notes, ask for references and compare fees with the length and type of notes you’ll receive. The Aspiring TV Writer and Screenwriter Blog offers such a service, as well as links to other reputable readers. (This is not a recommendation, but I do think it’s a good example of a clear description of services offered, plus additional links for comparison.)

When I turned down the offer, I didn’t go into specifics with the agency about their “referral fee” because, frankly, the devil wasn’t in the details. It was the whole arrangement. Industry standards rely on your good name, creative ability and diligent work ethic. Shelling out money to earn money has never been a prerequisite. And it’s not something I imagine anyone working in communications or the creative fields wants to instigate.

What do you think about “pay to work”? Have you ever tried this type of arrangement? What happened?

2 thoughts on “Pay to Work and Other Offers Too Good to Refuse

  1. Thanks, Rita!

    The process of first producing and then trying to publish creative work can be long and frustrating. It’s understandable that folks jump at what seems like a “good chance.” Unfortunately, these are “too good to be true” deals.

  2. Hi Vickie,

    Having spent my working life employed by large universities, I never came across the practice of paying money to earn money. (Well, unless you count my long hours and meager starting salary!)

    Now that I’ve been perusing writers websites I have seen the ads put out by online book “publishers”. Thanks for the heads-up about the dubious practices many of these publishing houses employ.

    As always, I learned something new from this interesting post. Thanks.

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