Dear WordCount: I took a story assignment back in April that wasn’t going to pay until the piece was published in the magazine’s November/December issue. Since then, the publication’s run into trouble and is paying contributors late. I took the assignment so I’d have some extra cash come Christmas time. Now I’m worried I’ll be paid late, or not at all. What should I do? — Worried Writer
I’m sorry you’re in this situation. It’s definitely no fun. Unfortunately it’s also fairly common in the post-recession freelance writing business. Late payments seem to be happening more often, caused by tighter editorial operating budgets and digital media startups running on a shoestring.
If the issue you wrote the piece for hasn’t come out yet, check with the publisher to make sure it’s still a go, your story will be in the issue and they expect to pay contributors under normal conditions. Who knows: maybe things have gotten better recently and you’re worrying for nothing.
If payment doesn’t look like it’s forthcoming, you have a few options:
1. Make sure you sent the invoice. It happens – you get busy and think you sent it, but turns out you never did or never even created one for the assignment in question. Before accusing the other guy of screwing up, make sure you’re not the guilty party.
2. Ask if they got your bill. If it’s been awhile, follow up with a politely worded query. You can get nastier later on, if you need to.
3. Check with accounting. At some publications, the editor’s involvement with an invoice ends as soon as he or she sends it to the accounting department. Do you know who handles accounting at the publications you write for? It pays to find out. With a name and email address in hand, you can go directly to the source to see what could be holding up your fee. Copy your editor on emails so they’re in the loop on payment issues.
4. Re-bill. Add wording to your invoice alerting the publication to the fact that you will charge a certain percentage of the total fee in interest – 3 to 5% for example – for every month the payment is late.
5. Get back up. If you’re a member of a writer’s group such as the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Freelancers Union or National Writers Union work with their grievance committee. One of the only times I had a real problem with a late payer I was still an NWU member. I contacted the NWU grievance committee and they sent a strongly worded letter to the publisher, which resulted in me getting the money I was owed. If you’re not a member of a professional writers’ group, this is a good reason to join.
6. Get legal help. Ask a lawyer to send a demand letter on your behalf. If you’ve tried everything and still haven’t been paid, you could sue the publisher in small claims court. I’ve never done that but I know other writers who have, with varying outcomes.
7. Get even. If you don’t mind burning a bridge, you could out the publication as a late- or non-payer. It might not get you the money you’re owed, but it could save the next freelancer from running into the same problem, and it’d probably feel pretty good too. In March 2009, Gawker published a list of print’s 10 worst late payment offenders, and followed up a month later with list of 10 more print late payers.
8. Avoid late- or non-payers. You know the old saying, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. If you’ve been burned by a publication, you should have a very good reason for ever wanting to work for them again.
9. Don’t write for POP. I have a personal rule to never, ever write for publications that pay on publication (POP), for this reason. Some magazines stockpile stories and then take their time running them – I don’t want my fee subject to that kind of delay. Besides, nobody should wait six months to get paid – the guy who installs windows for a living doesn’t. Neither do people who cut hair, serve coffee or prepare tax returns. Writers shouldn’t either.
10. Sign up for direct deposit. For the first time in my freelance career, all the publications I write for on a regular basis pay via direct deposit. Now once invoices are approved – generally after editors sign off on story revisions – I get an email notice of a deposit in my bank account within 2-4 weeks. Heaven.
How do you deal with late payments? Share your experience by leaving a comment.
[Flickr photo by Robert Bouza]