Writers Worth: Stop Chasing Payments

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I consider myself extremely lucky to know many good people in the writing community. They share advice, commisserate on issues, and give each other a pat on the back when needed.

Then there’s Paula Hendrickson. Not only does Paula offer all of the above, but she extends herself even further. She managed my blog last year when I was in the hospital unexpectedly. She promoted the heck out of Writers Worth Day (its original incarnation) and convinced me to extend it first to a week, then to a month. She’s trying for a year of worth, but I’m not sure how to make that happen yet. 🙂

Paula is also an advocate for our profession. She’s a passionate defender of the freelance lifestyle and has been an outspoken proponent of increasing writer awareness of market value and self-worth.

What Paula also does well is write. Here is her take on payment and the business of running a business.

Stop Chasing Payments

by Paula Hendrickson

We’ve all seen job listings touting how you’ll earn exposure, experience and maybe – if you’re really lucky and willing to do some marketing on their behalf – even a little shared ad revenue. Anything but actual pay. Thanks to Writers Worth Month and Lori’s “This Job, Not That Job” series of blog posts, it’s easier than ever to spot those red flags and steer clear of people or companies unwilling to pay you for your time, talent and experience.

Some bad clients aren’t quite so obvious. A few may even be established and respected within their industry.

A few years ago I started contributing to one of the top (and only) trade magazines for a very specific industry. The editors were great, and the editorial director seemed keen on how my experience and connections could benefit the publication. The first assignment went well. Sure, they demanded a lot of their writers — including a weekly update to ensure you’re on track – but they had standards to maintain.

The magazine’s guidelines said payment was on publication, but right up front the editorial director told me that’s actually when invoices are “put into the system” so payment was actually within 30 days after publication.

Each client or periodical has its own payment terms, but as long as I knew when to expect payments to arrive I could budget around their timeline.

Before the first article ran, a second was assigned. Normally I refuse to take another assignment from a new client when there’s an outstanding invoice, but the process had been explained so I agreed to write the second piece. The payment for the first article came within the stated time frame and I felt comfortable accepting a couple more assignments.

That’s when things began to fall apart. Thirty days after publication became 45 days, then 60. Excuses were made. Past due notices were ignored. At one point I held an article hostage, refusing to turn it in until I was paid in full for all outstanding work. They finally paid. I turned in the article. And it started all over again.

The excuses usually involved the publisher being out of town or caring for his ailing father. Meanwhile the magazine ran photos of the publisher schmoozing with advertisers at golf resorts around the globe. Apparently no other employee, not even the editorial director, had authority to endorse checks, so everything waited for the big boss to actually show up at the office.

I refused assignments when money was owed. Faced with empty pages and a looming deadline, the editors usually persuaded the publisher to pay up. When that didn’t work, I resorted to saying I would be forced to seek “alternate means of collection” if not paid immediately. That’s when they overnighted checks to my door.

After six months or so I relegated them to “fill-in” status — assignments I’ll take, but only if I have the time.

The final article I wrote for them was nearly two years ago. I can’t remember the topic, but I wrote it in August 2012 and they published it that October. Even by their lax 30-days-after-publication schedule, I should have been paid by the first week of November, right? Around Thanksgiving I sent a past due notice. Nothing. The next notice went out in December with a late fee attached and a polite note saying, “I’m sure you want to clear your books by year’s end.” Crickets.

After my Happy New Year e-mails failed to elicit a response from the editorial director or publisher, I started calling. Funny how the editorial director and publisher were never in the office no matter when I called. At first the receptionist only said they were out. After a week of my daily calls she said the checks were written but the publisher had the flu and couldn’t come in to sign them. I told her if that was the case they needed to bring the checks to his sickbed, hand him a pen and get the checks signed and sent out.

Several days passed and still no payments. I e-mailed the publisher and asked: If elementary students can’t use the flu as an excuse to avoid homework, why would clients accept it as an excuse for not paying their invoices? I reminded him the rights to publish my copyrighted material were contingent on his paying me as promised, so if I didn’t receive payment by a specific date I would consult an attorney specializing in copyright protection.

He paid. He also backdated the check to December.

Shortly thereafter both of his editors resigned. At least one of the magazine’s other top freelancers quit as well. Within a year, that writer and I were both approached by the magazine’s unsuspecting new editor about writing for them again. We both respectfully declined. I believe I said they only way I’d consider working for that publisher again is if he doubled the rate and paid me in advance.

That’s about as likely to happen as him paying invoices within his stated timeframe.

The publisher’s lack of respect for the very writers who made his magazine attractive to both advertisers and subscribers was palpable, but I was willing to overlook his attitude because I didn’t deal directly with him. The real deal breaker was when his slow paying tactics caused me to spend more billable hours chasing payments than I did researching and writing the articles.

Sure, I lost a few thousand dollars per year when I fired that client, but it was one of the best business decisions I’ve ever made. It also freed up time to seek out better paying clients who appreciate good writers.

Paula Hendrickson is an Illinois-based freelance writer specializing in entertainment and television, but also enjoys covering advertising and marketing, food, pop culture, writing, bungalows, fiber arts (knitting, crocheting, quilting), pets, education, career planning, personality profiles, neighborhood associations…and everything in between.

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  • Cathy Miller May 12, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    It's stories like this, Paula, that make me glad I ghostwrite articles and get paid by my client. 🙂

    The only seriously late payment I had was when I wrote for an online health magazine. I'm amazed I ever got paid (6 months later) as shortly after payment they went belly-up.

    I've never understood how clients view written contracts as something they can simply ignore. Think of all the business lawyers could have if they took on broken contracts of freelancers. 😉

  • Anne Wayman May 12, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Actually, given their performance, I wonder how many other writers never did get paid because they didn't follow through as you did… two lessons here… follow through asking for payment and drop the jerks who run you around.

  • Lori Widmer May 12, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Sounds like your check put them over the edge, Cathy. 🙂

    Exactly, Anne. I think follow-up contact is part of the job, but too many writers are shy about "pestering" the clients. It's not pestering; they owe you. Get what's owed.

  • Anonymous May 12, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    Great story Paula! You're right on about the financial hit being worth it when you unload deadbeats like this one. Good for you! 🙂

    The only thing sadder than big publications being slow payers is the trend towards becoming non-payers or revenue share gigs (and acting like those "opportunities" offer as much credibility as their traditional print hires with real standards in place).

    It's always nice to see that new writers have role models like you out there who respect themselves professionally. I hope these kinds of clients are few and far between for you.

  • Jennifer Mattern May 12, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Ack. That Anonymous comment was me. I submitted before entering my name. Whoops!

  • Paula May 12, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    I need to get into ghost writing more articles, Cathy. I did that briefly for a client – until they hired a full-time local writer. I really enjoyed it.

    Good point, Anne. I fear the publisher hoped writer's would drop it without a fight for the "prestige" of being in their publication. (And this wasn't even an entertainment publication where fanboy types would happily write for free.)

    I hate to admit it, Lori, but early on in my career I wrote an article for a new publication and was too shy to follow through to ask for a copy of the magazine, let alone collect the payment. I still have no idea if it ran, or if the magazine ever got off the ground. Shame on me.

    Thanks, Jenn. I recently heard that a MAJOR weekly consumer entertainment magazine unveiled a new "business model" which included unpaid bloggers. Don't think I'll be renewing my subscription.

  • Lori Widmer May 12, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Did the same thing, Paula. We learn by being burned sometimes. 🙂

  • Paula May 12, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    Indeed, Lori.

  • Ashley May 12, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    Good for you, Paula. I agree about the cost of time it takes to chase payments and other nonsense. I had a pretty regular magazine client and enjoyed the work, but I got a phone call from the editor every. single. day. And not a quick phone call. At least 10 minutes while I can't get a word in edgewise. I conveniently don't have time to write for that publication anymore!

  • Paula May 12, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    Think like Devon and remind them you're on the clock – and they'll be charged for the phone time. Some people don't think they'll be charged for casual conversations.

    It's like when a friend of mine referred a plumber. When he was here working – at an hourly rate – she dropped by, started chatting. He managed to work and chat at the same time. Then she asked if he wanted to see some vacation photos I hadn't even see. His body language clearly said he didn't have time for it. I told her, "He's on the clock. Wait until he's done installing my water heater, okay?" (Luckily for him he had to rush off to another job!)

  • Sharon Hurley Hall May 15, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Great story, Paula. I actually HAVE insisted on a higher, up-front payment with a client who habitually paid late. Eventually, though, we parted company, though I got all the money I was owed 🙂

  • Paula May 15, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    Good for you, Sharon! My late payer was a magazine, so I knew they'd never go for paying up front…even if their advertisers do.