• Advice

Things I’ve learned after being mistreated as an independent contractor

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

I got an email one February evening from an agent I’d had dealings with. An agent I really like. I was mid-bite of some homemade chili when my phone dinged. Fork in one hand, I opened the email with the other. It read: Are you available RIGHT NOW (yes in caps) to do a proposal for a celebrity?

Career Number One was in news, so RIGHT NOW means shovel in that fork full of food (or not) and get to work. Tout Suite. I responded saying that yes, in fact, I had a two-week break between a rewrite and proposal going to market, and that sure, I could whip up a proposal. RIGHT NOW.

After a quick call to the agent, I learned who the celebrity was (a medium big deal) and that he wanted the proposal for free. FREE. RIGHT NOW. Free, because he was so big, the back end on the sale of the book would be substantial. Likely a true fact, however, I hadn’t done a free proposal but once, and that was for a person of extremely limited means. And we made the New York Times Best Sellers List. So it was time well spent.

Still, I agreed to a call with the trainer in question—scheduled for the next day. I kept my phone in my hand basically all day (in fairness, that’s how I live most days), though he failed to call. I nudged the agent (who was as anxious as me to get the ball rolling) and was told the trainer would for sure call the next day (a Friday) between 4 and 8. Not exactly RIGHT NOW and frankly a large block of time to keep open FOR FREE. No call came. The following Monday, we finally had a brief, but good call and I suggested, since I was in LA for a week and he was in LA, that we meet. He agreed.

Later that week I took a half day out of my very tight schedule to meet with him. (Blow dry one hour, 35-minute drive, get there 30 minutes early because that’s my style, 45-minute meeting, 35-minute drive, one hour of pacing and decompressing post meeting.) We hit it off. Things went well. I knew going in there was another writer being considered.

I reported back to the agent that I’d work FOR FREE just this once if we agreed to the back end terms ahead of time. And that I was back and forth to LA in the coming weeks so no payment for travel would be needed. He seemed thrilled and said he would get back to me.

Well, he never did. I sent one follow-up email. And then, like so often happens in this business, I was ghosted. I had a) Put down my chili to respond. b) Sat by the phone for one-point-five-days waiting for a call. To work FOR FREE. c) Completed a couple of hours of research ahead of my meeting and d) Spent a half day of my time to meet with a potential client.

And then never heard. Not. A. Word.

The help

I know what you’re thinking: Play a little hard to get. I usually do. In the first few years of launching my business, I took whatever work I could get. But as I got more experience and became more established, I stopped chasing work. And I had the good fortune to get choosey. I say this with all humility, but work comes to me now, and nothing felt as gratifying and satisfying as that very first time I turned down a high paying project because it didn’t interest me. That was success, to me. That was power. That was a liberating and self-congratulatory moment. One win for my win jar.

Having said that, every once in a while I’m happy to dance for a project that tickles me. This one did. This project was in my wheelhouse. It sounded like a nice big payout. And frankly, fun. So I positioned myself as best I could to land it. Also, my window to tackle it was short so I had to be a little aggressive to keep the trains moving on my schedule. My RIGHT NOW had a 14- 21-day window.

The lack of loop closing was no surprise. I’d seen that movie before many times. When you work for yourself, and have clients, it’s shockingly horrific the way people find it okay to treat you. Potential clients call and request a substantial amount of time before they decide on hiring me. Agents call often and set up meetings or inquire about my schedule. But probably seven times out of ten, nobody bothers to close the loop.

Frankly, I find that offensive. Send a 20-second text: We are going in a different direction. Send a quick email: Thanks for your time, but we’ve chosen to work with someone else.

What the bad behavior makes clear: I’m well aware of my place on the ladder. That’s the bottom. That’s where writers live. We are the help.

When did bad behavior become okay?

I did about 100 short pieces a year for an online publication. When they needed a quick turnaround they contacted deadline-driven Stephanie. I always said yes. I always dropped everything. I felt like part of the team. Then, suddenly, one day, everybody stopped answering my pitches. I never heard from one person from that publication again. Silence. I heard through the grapevine that they were being sued and subsequently went out of business. I wrote the CEO a letter saying how sorry I was to hear. Silence still. But sadly, that’s where a freelancer lives. Nowhereville. That’s the tradeoff for freedom. That same story has played out often. Ghosted.

It all makes me wonder: When did bad behavior become so okay? Most people don’t seem to care if I ever get paid for services rendered. Most people don’t seem to respect when a project has come to a close and any additional services requested for free makes things very awkward. (I’m not your writer for life—can’t write your letters, other proposals, your screenplays, edit your website etc.)

Technology might be partly to blame. We’re bombarded with information all day long and so responding to it all can be overwhelming. Stretched budgets have probably inspired bad behavior as well—the new corporate raise circa 2008 is: Congratulations—you can keep your job and do more work for less money. And the explosion of the gig economy has changed the landscape. To a degree, it is unfamiliar territory.

Maybe, just maybe, good behavior will eventually catch up as those in hiring positions realize the critical importance of gig workers.

What I’ve learned

On the upside, I’ve learned a lot about running a business thanks to the dreadful behavior of so many. And thanks to the exceptional behavior of many others (yes, I have several clients who have been stellar to work with and whom I now consider not just friends, but dear friends.) Here’s my shortlist of tips for dealing bad behavior for independent contractors:

Nothing is something until it’s something. AKA: Don’t count your chickens until they hatch. A deal isn’t done until a contract is signed and check has been written. As such, I’ve learned not to wait around. Not to do one thing at a time—meaning I’ll field ten calls, I’ll take several meetings, I’ll put my chili fork down for a RIGHT NOW email, several times over. Because only one of those deals will come through. And if you don’t field multiple projects and juggle daily, you’ll wind up with a big empty black hole of time with no money coming in. Keep all doors open.

Limit the free time you offer potential clients. It’s a fine line between throwing the baby out with the bathwater (aiming for one cliché per point here). You need to listen to a potential client, do some research, and give them enough of an idea or demonstrate that you grasp their message/idea/story to sell them on you, but not dump an entire creative plan in their laps so they don’t need you. Learned that the hard way too. Words and ideas are my widget. And if they’re said over a cocktail regarding someone else’s story, well, they’re up for grabs, apparently. But having said that, you need to give them something to chew on and to demonstrate you are skilled and experienced enough to be hired. Figure out the right recipe. And, when someone reaches out, be tight with the time you use to pitch (time is money). I say: Let’s schedule a 15-minute call. And I set a timer. And I wrap it up on time. If it seems like a home run, I offer a follow-up, but not before I send a fee structure in writing. Your business might require more or less for a pitch, but learn that line to avoid squeezers who will soak up as much time as you’ll give.

Get everything in writing. Once you decide to move forward, from word count, to the amount of hours of face time I need to execute, to the number of rewrites, to preparing for the divorce (how will payment work if we break up?)…I put it all in writing. Even the little pep talks I give to my clients once they sign a book deal, when I say: This often gets tedious—you’ll have read the manuscript over at every stage, making sure you like every word. I started saying it and emailing it. So later, when they say, “Why is this so much work for me,” I have an I-told-you-so in writing.

Constantly upgrade and update your contract and terms. Bad behavior is never going away. You’ll get ghosted over and over and over. But you can pre-empt the agony of it. Especially when it happens mid-project. Yes, people pay then go away. And this isn’t a good thing. It isn’t free money. Some clients, even after paying a deposit, start a project, and then go away for months or a year. That means, I’m expected to be available until the end of time to finish, which is like credit card spending—money’s been earned, and I have to work for free later. I have a kick-ass lawyer who has created a kick-ass collaboration agreement that is very much in my favor. Still, after working on 20-plus books, I have learned an unforeseeable, unimaginable lesson, each and every time. I put an end of term in my contracts now. And always add something new at the end of deal or project. My standard contract is a work in progress.

Talk to others in your field: Virtual office mates. I belong to an online group of ghostwriters. I learn a lot from them and from one friend who is a super successful ghostwriter. I have a few other friends who are writers. We all share and talk through contract issues and hurdles and speed bumps with clients. I’ve learned so much from her (buy two recorders so you have a back-up if one fails during interviews) and she’s learned from me. When you work for yourself, you need a team of virtual office mates to call on to talk about pricing, how to handle situations, your rights, and other issues.

Get over any issues surrounding talking money. I used to panic about pricing. Even when an agent was talking on my behalf. Was I pricing too high? Too low? Would I get outbid? A friend who works in money told me that people with a lot of money or who work in money aren’t phased by talking money. That was a great and business-altering tip. If they had money, were CEO’s, or worked for corporations, they spoke budget. Another friend of more limited means (single mother) told me why people without money always pay on time: Because they understand the importance of being paid. They value money. They’ve chased a check. That meant, when it came to money, I did the following:

  • To get over the stress of talking money, when someone asks how much, I always say: I’ll email you a proposal. I learned my unease with money talk usually hurt me on the phone, but in writing I could be brave and more thoughtful.
  • People of means need to be reminded to pay, and they don’t mind. They don’t sit at their desks scribbling out on a notebook how much is coming in and going out each month.
  • People who had less were priced differently. Knowing they’d always pay, I Robin Hooded them. Charged them a fair price, but less.
    I stopped being afraid of invoicing. I just started sending without explanation or apology.
  • Even after a contract was signed, I reminded a client in writing what was coming in terms of payment—so they understood fully. That pre-empts bad behavior.
  • I promised myself never to compromise or take the hit. Cutting a fee or getting paid on the back end means: I’m financing your project with sweat equity as credit. When asked to work for free or upfront I say: I’m not in a financial position to finance other people’s books.
  • Across the board, I don’t do work for friends. For their companies? Sure. But money and friendship always get awkward. Will I partner? Yes. But when I work for a friend, I let them slide on payment, I apologize for asking for payment, I cut them a break, and then I get frustrated. I slip back into my bad habits of panicking about talking money.

Be a good consumer/client. If I come to you for your services, you’ll want to take me on. After having been mistreated for a long time by corporations, humans, and agents, I’ve become the best client you’ll ever have. I watch the clock at the gym with my trainer and say: Hey we’re going over. Not to get out of one more dead lift, but because time is money and I don’t want to steal extra of hers. With everyone I hire, I pay on time and upfront. I close the loop when the tides shift. I stay hyper in touch with a consultant I’ve hired, respond in a timely manner, and don’t over respond, ask stupid questions, or get greedy with someone’s time. When my bank balance is on the light side, I pay the small, independent companies first and the big corporations last (yeah, I’m talking to you American Express). I do all this because I detest bad behavior and I know what it’s like to operate solo. I hope it comes back to me on the other side, but more, it’s just the decent way to conduct business.

Don't take bad behavior to heart

Months after the RIGHT NOW email, I reached out to the agent with an unrelated question—to inquire about collecting royalties. Those usually arrive automatically, but in the instance of one particular client, my 40 percent cut had been going his way for…wait for it…three years. #badbehaviorabound. Maybe this particular author didn’t realize my money wasn’t coming to me. But maybe he did.

Either way, I always check in with the agency on that particular book. And since the assistants there seemed to change with great frequency, I needed the name of the person new person handling this payment. I emailed the RIGHT NOW agent in question asking for help with a new contact, and PS’d a friendly—Hey I guess that trainer book went to the other writer?

Credit where credit is due: He apologized profusely for “neglecting to pay you the common courtesy of letting you know…”. Frankly, I was moved by the apology. It felt sincere. It went a long way and in fact erased any ill will I’d held. And it had never ever been done before. It was a first and it was appreciated.

I worked for actual companies for a decade and a half. I had a regular paycheck and dreamy health insurance. I hired freelancers. And I ghosted freelancers. I always tried to make sure they were paid on time, but I certainly didn’t know how it felt to be on the receiving end of bad behavior.

Until I did.

I remember when the corporate ship I worked for was sinking in 2008 and our news operation was shutting down; we were all flaying. My boss wasn’t handling calls from freelancers on the team who worked remotely and who were desperate for some info on their futures (no severance, no more gig effective in five). So they called me. And I failed them. I told them to call my boss. That I had no information. I was in the middle of grabbing for a life preserver that never came. I couldn’t help them. But I could have closed the loop. I could have done better. I could have followed up when I finally had details. But I didn’t. I feel bad to this day, a decade later, about letting them be ghosted.

Experience has taught me to brace for bad behavior now. But, I don’t take it to heart and I remain prepared to fill the gaps. I remind myself not to get too excited about any project until it’s a project. And mostly, I remain hopeful that people will come to realize the importance of the sole propriety and work to be civilized in our dealings.

Stephanie Krikorian is a NY Times bestselling celebrity ghost writer who has collaborated with dozens of authors. Her own work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, O Magazine, and more. Stephanie got an Emmy nomination in NY for creating a reality show and she worked in TV news for 15 years.