By Terreece M. Clarke
For many writers it’s a bloody stab to the heart – the kill fee (cue scary movie scream). Writers are given a kill fee when a publication decides for whatever reason – change of direction, unusable article, etc. – not to use an article and instead of paying the writer the total agreed upon fee, they pay a smaller fee for the now “dead” article. The fee is usually a percentage of the total owed. Kill fees are a much debated topic among freelance writers. I did a brief interview with two knowledgeable and well-respected writers to get their take.
Iyna Bort Caruso is a writer, author, contributing editor and copywriter whose work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor. She also wrote The Everything Home Storage Solutions book and has written Emmy Award winning video scripts.
Diana Burrell is well-known within writing circles as the co-author of the smash hit freelance writing book series that began with The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success and the accompanying Renegade Writer Blog. She has also written for countless publications including Parenting Magazine, Family Circle and the Boston Globe.
FWJ: How do you feel about kill fees? Are they necessary?
Diana: “I think kill fees are a necessary evil for freelancers. They can be good when a magazine decides not to use your piece — you at least get something — versus the magazine that doesn’t offer them, especially if you’ve signed a contract that pays on publication. When I don’t like them is when the magazine uses them after the writer has done several rewrites due to the magazine changing their mind half-way through the assignment about the focus of the piece or the magazine saying, “Sorry, this just isn’t working … here’s your kill fee.” This has not happened to me, but it has happened to enough professional writers I know to make me crazy on their behalf!”
Iyna: “I think kill fees are useful as long as they’re written in a way to protect the writer who delivers a publishable piece that lives up to the terms of the agreement. It’s not in a writer’s interest to accept a kill fee (or agree to a kill fee clause) that allows a publication to pay a fraction of the negotiated rate because the story was pulled due to reasons beyond the writer’s control. In that case, the writer should be paid the full fee.”
FWJ: Can a writer negotiate better kill fee terms? How?
Iyna: “Contract terms are often negotiable and it’s important to rework kill fee language so that it’s limited only to circumstances in which a publisher finds the work is unacceptable.”
Diana: “Yes, writers can negotiate better kill fee terms. If you don’t see anything in the contract about kill fees, it’s in the writer’s best interest to ask about them. If there’s no kill fee provision, then the magazine has some wiggle room not to pay you if they don’t use your piece. If the kill fee is miniscule (say 10 percent), I’d ask for at least 25 percent. Also, make sure the kill fee includes any expenses you incur — I do a lot of recipe development for magazines, and there’s no way I want to be holding the receipt for a bag of food they’ve asked me to buy.
I know these conversations can be uncomfortable to discuss with editors — it’s sort of like asking for a pre-nup — but it’s way more uncomfortable to talk to the editor after the assignment has gone downhill. Better to be clear about the terms before you put your fingers to the keyboard. If the editor gets all huffy on you, well, that might be a good indicator of how s/he’s going to be if problems arise down the road. Most professional editors understand about kill fees — it’s really not a big deal to discuss it with them. Plus, many of them freelance, too, and understand where you’re coming from.”
I’d like to thank Diana and Iyna for agreeing to talk with us, it was wonderful to have these two distinguished and accomplished writers with us. Remember to show them some love and visit their sites!
So FWJ community, have you ever received or had to give a kill fee? Do you think they should be abolished with editor’s just sucking it up and paying no matter what? How do you think the current economic crisis will affect kill fees?