I’m not sure you can really call yourself a freelance writer if you’ve never had to chase a late payment. Like taxes and rejection, not being paid on time is (unfortunately) almost a rite of passage for freelancers.
But it seems like now, more than ever, I’m hearing stories of freelancers who simply aren’t getting any satisfaction when it comes to chasing up late payments.
The wonderful Anna Codrea-Rado calls chasing payments ‘the emotional tax of freelancing‘, and I think it’s the perfect description, because who wants the hassle of chasing money for work you’ve already done?
No one does.
It’s emotionally and financially draining.
There are lots of different ways you can follow up with editors, publishers and corporate clients about overdue invoices.
My personal preference is to go fairly gently at first – firm but fair – and then escalate if it’s needed.
It’s crappy having to chase payments, but it’s even crappier not getting paid.
So, what can you do when someone won’t pay you?
Late invoice? Here’s what freelance writers can do
Check your payment terms
I hate to admit it, but more than once I’ve followed up with an editor when an invoice is showing overdue in my accounting system, only to be told they have 30 day (or worse, 60!) payment terms.
It’s a pain in the rear end, yes, but knowing how long a publication or corporate client is likely to take before they pay can save you a lot of frustration.
If you’ve signed a contract, this information is likely to be in there.
And if you don’t ask your corporate clients to sign a contract or letter of agreement, now might be the time to start.
Long payment terms are one of the reasons why I don’t write for particular publications anymore – 60 days from publication (when I filed 120 days earlier) is just not tenable for me.
I’m not sure I need to tell you to do this one, do I?
But first things first.
Assuming that the client or editor is happy with your work and they’ve indicated it’s okay for you to invoice them, you want to send a follow up email.
I usually write something like:
I hope you’re well.
I just wanted to check on the progress of this invoice (sent on X), as it’s now X days overdue.
Are you able to give me an update of when I can expect payment?
In lots of cases, this is all it takes.
A gentle, polite reminder and a request for information.
Contact the finance department
If you’re not getting any love with your editor or client, see if you can go directly to their accounts department.
If you’ve been paid from this client or publication previously, you might already have received remittance information from the finance department.
If so, send them a polite email or call them, stating your invoice number and when you sent your invoice.
I’ve found that there’s usually someone sympathetic with your cause – you just have to find them.
In the past when I haven’t been paid and editors haven’t replied to my emails, I’ve gone to the editor in chief or the managing editor.
I don’t like to do this, because it always feels somehow sneaky or rude, but I’m always polite and phrase it like:
“I just wanted to check on the progress of this invoice. I did send my invoice to [editor] on [date], but I wasn’t sure if they received it as I’ve followed up a couple of times and haven’t heard back.”
Remind them of your agreement
Okay, so the client is still withholding payment.
You might have even called.
You’ve contacted their finance department and still nothing.
Recently I’ve heard of freelance writers being told that clients or publications can’t pay because their budgets have been cut or they don’t have the funds to cover the cost of the work due to COVID-19.
Clearly, coronavirus is going to be an economic apocalypse for so many people, but I’m assuming that if you’re already following up on late payments, then it’s likely your work was commissioned before COVID-19 was even on the radar.
This is your time to reiterate that you you agreed to the work well before the worldwide pandemic.
I know it’s uncomfortable to have these conversations, but there really is no grey here
Be flexible about payment
Please don’t read this the wrong way.
I do not mean that you should be flexible about how much your client or editor pays.
I mean if for some (let’s face it, unfathomable) reason that direct deposit or paying by cheque (if you’re in the USA) is tricky, offer for your client to pay by PayPal.
It’s not ideal because you’ll usually have to cover the cost of the transaction, but it’s definitely an option depending on how desperate you are for the matter to be dealt with.
Add a late fee
Again, this is a slightly hard one to negotiate, especially if you haven’t written it into your contract, but if an invoice is late and you feel like you’ve exhausted most options you can always let the client know you’ll be adding a late fee.
Some people recommend adding a 2 per cent late fee that compounds each month.
It’ll be up to you to do what feels right and sometimes clients won’t pay the late fee but will be spurred into action to actually pay what they owe you.
Ask for a payment date
Sometimes people will try to fob you off with the assurance that you’ll get paid ‘as soon as possible’ or in the ‘next pay cycle’.
Push for an actual payment date (in writing if you can – email is fine).
One person’s “ASAP” can be very different from yours.
If you have a specific date and that date comes and goes without payment you can then (yes) follow up again.
Query who owns the copyright
Depending on where you live in the world, if your client or editor hasn’t paid you for your work, then you may still own the copyright.
That means that they may not legally be able to use your words until they’ve paid you.
It’s worth checking this out and if you do own copyright, definitely let the client or editor know.
Bring in the big guns
I’m not a fan of threatening legal action, but if you’re not getting anywhere, then you can politely inform whomever you are dealing with that you’re going to discuss the issue with your legal representative so that they can start debt recovery.
If you’re a member of a union, it’s absolutely worth contacting them and asking about your rights and whether they can follow up for you.
But if you want to go it alone, then there are lots of good templates that you can use to help craft your letter of demand or collection letter.
What you need to remember when chasing up late payments
- Be polite but direct
- Try to get your agreement in writing before you start or file the work
- It’s your right to be paid for the work you do
- You’re not being a pain or a pest, you’re simply doing your job
- You deserve to get paid for your work
- Be persistent – be the squeaky wheel
Have you chased late payments? Are you finding it’s worse at the moment?