Unfortunately just about every freelancer faces this scenario at some point. As the economy has tanked, your chance of experiencing "slow-pay" (or worse, "no-pay") clients has increased. However, there are five steps you can take to help ensure that you’re paid, (hopefully) promptly, for your work.
Step 1: Choose Your Clients Carefully
When can you expect to be paid? That depends on a variety of factors. In general, national magazines pay within about four to six weeks of accepting a story; I’ve found that trade and regional magazines, which have fewer levels of bureaucracy, pay more quickly. Business clients generally pay within two to four weeks of receiving an invoice.
If you're contacted by a client that isn't a "name," consider too how long the client has been in business and what its reputation is before you accept an assignment. Some clients are notoriously hard to collect from. New publications or websites (a/k/a "start-ups") may lack financing. Markets that advertise for writers with promises of "exposure" or websites that pay per-click aren’t good bets. In other cases, you may hear from other sources that the client isn’t paying writers.
If you’re writing for a publication that you’ve never heard of, a quick internet search may alert you to payment problems down the road. The American Society of Journalists and Authors maintains a “warning list” of publishers for members, and WritersWeekly.com also maintains a Whispers and Warnings forum anyone can access.
Step 2: Obtain a Written Agreement for Your Work
A written contract is your best defense to payment problems down the road. Most big magazines have a written contract they’ll ask you to sign, but you needn’t have an "official" one to have an enforceable agreement. Technically even an oral agreement is enforceable, but an email exchange between you and your editor that sets out the terms—the story topic, word length, payment, rights purchased, and deadline—is better evidence should payment push come to shove. Writing your own is simpler than you might imagine. Here’s an example:
EDITOR’S NAME, TITLE, CONTACT INFO
I’m writing to confirm the terms of our agreement as discussed by phone today. Per your assignment, I will write 1,000 words on the benefits of procrastination for MAGAZINE TITLE, for $1,500. The story is due April 1, 2010, and you are purchasing first North American serial rights to the piece. Please reply by email to confirm these terms, and thank you for thinking of me. I’m looking forward to working with you.
If you don’t have a written contract, it’s legally presumed that you’re selling one-time rights to the story, but that may or may not be your editor’s understanding. And without something in writing, how will you assert your rights? What if your editor assigns the story and then leaves the publication a few weeks later? How will you collect if you have nothing from her confirming your agreement? Get in writing, no matter what.
Step 3: Maintain Accurate Records
The next step to getting paid is knowing when you expect payment. Note when you turn work in and when it's accepted. If you're working with a new market, ask whether you need to provide an invoice to your editor or client. (Your invoice should include your name, address, phone, email, invoice amount, an explanation of the work purchased and rights, if applicable, social security number or tax ID number, and an invoice number for easy tracking.)
Step 4: Track your Invoices
If a few weeks elapse after your work is accepted and you haven’t been paid, follow up with your editor via email or phone. Ask when you can expect your check. If you still don’t receive a check, contact the magazine or company’s Accounts Payable department directly. Be prepared to email or fax a copy of your invoice, and record who you spoke to and when. Often, contacting AP will result in payment, but you may have to pester the department repeatedly until you get your money.
With one magazine, I called the AP person every Monday for seven weeks until I finally received my check. Was she sick of my calls? Sure. But I wasn’t going to give up until I get paid...and I did, eventually. (And no, I never wrote for that publication again.)
Step 5: Send your Pay-or-Die Letter
Last resort? Send your pay-or-die letter. And if that still doesn't work, you have several other options. A sternly worded letter from an attorney may trigger payment (you needn’t disclose that the lawyer is your brother-in-law or cousin), or you can consider hiring a collection agency which will pursue payment for a percentage of the amount owed. You may also consider filing in small claims court, although you have to file in a county and state where the publisher or company is located and/or does business.
Bottom line? You deserve to get paid--and paid fairly--for your work. Don't be afraid to pursue the money that's owed to you--or to say "no" to clients who you suspect may not be able to willing or able to pay you before you work for them.
P.S. When I ghostwrite for or collaborate with a client, I always get a retainer up front, and set up a payment schedule so I'm paid for work performed throughout the project. For more on ghostwriting, check out Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writer's Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (Kindle edition).