“I’m not getting paid,” a writer friend of mine said to me the other day. She is productive and well-known in her industry and beyond. “I hate collecting money.”
This isn’t only a problem for freelance writers, every business in every industry struggles with getting paid on time. For some reason though, it’s harder to stand up for yourself when you’re a writer and you say “I need to get paid on time/ at all for my creative efforts that you liked, accepted/assigned, promised payment for, and published” than to ask to get paid for a carton of widgets that you delivered.
On and off throughout my writing career I have had a side business as a bookkeeper…seems counter intuitive right? Left brain vs. right brain, good vs. evil. While toiling away in front of QuickBooks has been less than fun, it has taught me a lot about managing a business account, and if you’re writing for pay you have a business. I’ve been on the accounts receivable (getting paid) side and the accounts payable (paying others) side, and I’ve had a successful track record in collections for a long time.
So what are your options if you’re not getting paid in a timely matter, or at all? Let’s start from the beginning:
- The best defense is a good offense. First of all, before anything, sit down and create some kind of system for tracking your assignments. Print out the email with your assignment details and terms and put it in a folder. Create a document and title it with the month you expect to get paid. Handwrite a list with columns for publication, assignment, fee, deadline date, and payment date. Buy a money management program or download one for free. You see where I am going with this. If you’re not organized about tracking what’s owed to you how do you expect to get paid in the first place? Make up a system that works for you, even if it consists of a giant wall of sticky notes (not that I recommend it). If you are owed a lot of money right now, the first thing you should do is create a quick list of who owes you how much and for what. Write down as much detail as possible. You’ll need it.
- Your editor is not in accounting. One reason your editor is great at what she does is that she is not in accounting. She finds writers, she juggles a schedule, she assigns pieces. Yes, she should be the one to initially tell you what, when and how you will be paid, and get the ball rolling, but unless there is a vital piece of paper sitting on her desk unsigned, she is not the reason you are not getting paid. If you have an outstanding bill you should contact your editor and politely ask who you should contact in the accounting department because you haven’t been paid yet for X assignment that you turned in on X date. (This is where being organized comes in.) She would probably happily give you this information because it will be one less thing that is not her job that she has to deal with. If it is her job, this might spur her on to pay you.
- Just the facts, m’aam. Now that you have the accounting person’s contact information, prepare yourself. These people work in numbers. They aren’t unfeeling robots, but they don’t really care if your cat needs an operation or if your last pair of jeans ripped yesterday. THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WHETHER YOU SHOULD BE PAID OR NOT. Be nice, but firm. You delivered a product, but they haven’t held up their end of the deal. It’s nothing personal.
“Hi! How are you. I was assigned X piece on X date for X amount of money working with X. Can you tell me the status of payment for that assignment, or if I need to provide anything else in order to get paid?”
This basically says:
“Hi, I am a professional talking to another professional , I am giving you the benefit of the doubt that maybe I did not provide a piece of paper you need but that by being a responsible vendor and calling to follow up that you will pay me.”
HERE IS MY BEST PIECE OF ADVICE FOR COLLECTING MONEY AND HAS WORKED OVER AND OVER AGAIN…ARE YOU READY? Note down who you talked to, what time you talked to them, what you said, what they said, and when they said you would get paid. If they don’t have an answer or an exact date your check will be cut ask them when you can call back for an answer or to follow up on payment and MARK THAT DATE ON A CALENDAR. When you call back on the day you said you would, and you have all of the details of your past conversations/emails you have the advantage. Keep calling back, don’t be rude, just persistent. Trust me, it works.
Also you need to face the fact that with some pubs, as with some businesses, it’s up to you to follow up on payment. I’ve had some dream clients, and still do, who are incredibly organized and pay me in a very timely fashion once I’ve completed the requisite paperwork. But if you’re putting off your invoicing, whether it’s due to disorganization, lack of knowledge, or viewing these outstanding invoices as a kind of savings account, you can’t expect your client to pay you on time.
Which me leads to...
- It’s not you, it’s them. Usually the above actions should get you paid. If they don’t, here are some of the most common reasons you might not be getting paid:
o The publication is disorganized. Maybe there’s restructuring going on, they don’t have an invoicing system, they lost your invoice, they don’t have your tax info but never told you they didn’t so they just didn’t pay your bill.
o Your editor is unaware that he didn’t get accounting the right paperwork. This should be taken care of in your first contact with the editor, or accounting would tell you that the editor isn’t responding to their requests. Or maybe your editor is just disorganized, and that’s just a bummer.
o There’s a cash flow issue. Sadly, the bottom line is that you’re not getting paid because there isn’t enough money. It’s very common. I’ll tell you from my perspective of working for several businesses that have had, ahem, cash flow issues, the polite persistent vendors get paid first. (Well, after the electric company and payroll.) Sometimes it’s just how a business has to run for a while, and it’s your decision whether to continue working for a business like this or not.
o You may never get paid. Sorry, that sucks. I once spent a lot of time writing for one pub that had paid me in the past, but then they folded and I never got a dime. It’s just a hazard of the business. Move onwards and upwards and chalk it up to experience.
I hope this has been helpful, and if you have any comments or would like a follow-up post with tips for writers on accounting issues (not tax info, just organizing your business), leave a comment below. Good luck!