Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Sunday, June 21, 2021

Here’s a sobering example of the perils of freelance work: Educational publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and its sub-contracting house Inkwell Publishing Solutions, owe thousands of dollars in back pay to about 50 editorial workers, who are now left in a lurch.

Jan Kraus, owed $6,000, has dropped her health insurance. Jennifer Mallow, who is due $3,100 and says she is lucky to survive with extra night shifts at Macy’s, now budgets her subway trips and frets when it is time to do the laundry. Gini Dustin, owed $11,000, is behind on apartment maintenance fees. Phil Opatz has maxed out his credit cards and has discovered that unemployment benefits are based on how much he was actually paid, not what he billed. “Without the pay stubs for the $10,000 that is owed me, I hardly made enough to qualify,” Mr. Opatz said.

The opening pages of any respectable textbook include pictures of distinguished professors and authorities on reading or biology or whatever the subject is. They look like the people who wrote the thing, but are actually human brand nameplates. In the real world, the books are written and edited by faceless workers in textbook factory towns like New York.

Into every freelancer’s life, there comes an past-due invoice or two. But $11,000 worth? It’s extreme, but I can understand how it can happen: Harcourt is a big, established corporation that you wouldn’t expect to duck out on payments. Any time you take on a client, you’re operating on reputation and trust. Fair or not, you assume that highly-visible companies are a safer bet than a smaller outfit that hasn’t been in business as long, and frankly doesn’t care about leaving behind a trail of broken promises. I know, I know — the past decade has demonstrated that even humongous mega-corporations can default on you. But you play the percentages and cross your fingers that you’ll get that check eventually.

Actually, I’d think that an outfit like Freelancers Union would be able to help in such situations, as a validation agency beforehand or as a quasi-collection agency afterward. It’d fit in well with their existing mission of advocacy for freelance workers.

I haven’t worked for Harcourt or, to my knowledge, any of its assembly/development houses. Dodged bullet, I guess. I can try to be more careful when bidding for assignments in the future, but the insidious part of this is that you really can’t control the process chain — I could be doing work for a second- or third-level supplier, and my payday ultimately depends on the money at the top trickling down. Such is the life of a wage slave (which defines about 95 percent of us, in one form or another).

Coincidentally, this story hits only a couple of days after I had to take action on a two-month overdue invoice of my own. It’s for a couple of hundred bucks, which is a small enough amount that I’ll simply write it off, rather than waste any more time or effort in chasing it down (along with appropriate last-warnings, in a mostly-vain attempt to get them to mail off a check). I’ve been fairly lucky in that, for the three years I’ve been consulting, I’ve been stiffed only a couple of times, and never for what I’d consider to be a significant amount of money. I’m crossing my fingers on that luck continuing — provided I avoid textbook mills…

UPDATE, 06/22/2009: I can confirm that the comment below really is from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, based on the originating IP address. Not surprisingly, it’s a case of he said/she said between Harcourt and Inkwell. The referenced New York Times article certainly paints both companies as sharing the blame; the only hint that Harcourt might be more broadly stiffing freelancers is this mention:

[Editor Patrick] Egan said that after he left Inkwell in late January, he went to work at another book development company, and is owed about $13,000 there, also for work done on Houghton textbooks.

But the publisher’s story is that it’s not the one withholding payment, therefore pinning the blame on the development houses. Either way, people are waiting to get paid.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 06/21/2009 12:30 PM
Category: Business, New Yorkin', Publishing
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4 Feedbacks »
  1. Response from HMH to all employees and to the press:

    The information presented in yesterday’s New York Times article is incorrect. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt does not owe Inkwell Publishing Solutions any money. To help clarify the information, we have contacted the New York Times and requested that a correction be issued. We are not in a position to comment on why Inkwell has failed to pay its freelancers—but it is not due to non-payment of money owed, as the article inaccurately asserted.

    Comment by response — 06/22/2009 @ 3:42 PM

  2. HMH is clearly trying to save face here. Either they didn’t read the article well-not likely-or the PR department is ignoring the fact that the writer indicated that Inkwell said it hadn’t been paid. He never states as a fact that HMH didn’t pay. And he called HMH twice to confirm, and they didn’t call back. It only pays for them to deny.

    Comment by PE — 06/23/2009 @ 8:31 PM

  3. FREELANCE, NOT FREE-WORK…

    Since I’m a freelancin’ kinda guy — despite ample hours of onsite-client time that makes me practically indistinguishable from staff — I’m compelled to post the follow public service announcement: Freelancers Union has lau…

    Trackback by Population Statistic — 04/17/2010 @ 1:50 PM

  4. [...] populationstatistic delves into a textbook case of getting cheated out of a paycheck. [...]

    Pingback by That Mystical Floating Money: When Clients are Slow to Pay | Freelance — 04/19/2010 @ 7:19 AM

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