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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Month of Templates: The "Pay-or-Die" Letter

You accepted the assignment. You did the work. The editor or client accepted the piece. So where is your money?

Usually an invoice will do the trick, but what happens with a client doesn’t pay? Then you’ll need a demand for payment, or what I call “pay-or-die” letters. You'll want to detail the terms of your contract, prove that you have satisfied your contractual obligations, and describe the attempts you’ve taken to get paid. I’ve found that threatening to turn the matter over to my attorney usually provokes payment.

One more thing--find out who actually cuts the checks and pursue that person for payment. You can certainly enlist your editor's help, but I've found that going to the person who holds the purse strings gets me paid more quickly.

Here’s an example of one such letter that I sent to the owner of a publishing company which had owe me money for months (with identifying information redacted). As you'll see in the letter, I'd already pursued the controller (i.e. AP manager) with no success:

Dear Mr. Badman:

I am a fulltime freelance writer who has spent over six months trying to collect payment for work performed for No-pay magazine. I first sent invoices for the work last August after my articles were accepted, but have never been paid for them.

In the past two months alone, I have sent two letters with copies of invoices to Michael Nogood, your controller, and have called him on nine occasions. He has never returned my calls nor paid me for the outstanding sums owed me. Your company still owes me the following amounts:

“Fit on the Street”/November/December, 1999/$270.45
“Ten Health Club Commandments”/January/February, 2000/$750.00

TOTAL $1,020.45

As all of this work was long since performed (back in the summer of 1999) and these issues have already been published, I would appreciate it if you would immediately issue me a check for $1,020.45. If I don’t receive payment within five days, I’ll turn the matter over for collection and will involve my attorney.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. I look forward to hearing from you and receiving my check soon.

Very truly yours,
Kelly James-Enger


This letter worked--I finally collected my check, and it cleared. And before you ask, no, I never wrote for the publication again!

Readers, what do you think of my pay-or-die letter? Do you use something similar? What do you do when you don't get paid?


  1. Ugh. Payment issues. I think it's the most baffling part of this business. If you can't get away with it at the grocery store, or when the carpet cleaner visits, or when you go shopping at the mall, then why can publications pay freelancers months upon months after they've worked for them?

    Sorry for the ramble.:) I've had to write a few, and it looks like I'm going to have to write another soon. I do as you do: politely remind them about the terms of our contract and firmly ask for my payment.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Kelly! I've had some really frustrating incidents trying to get paid, and it's hard not to let that frustration seep into the tone of your letter. Though you want to be forceful and firm, I once had a "pay or die" letter backfire on me and the editor issued the equivalent of "you'll never work in this town again!" (Didn't happen, though I agreed it was best that I not write for her again.)

    One strategy I use before things escalate to this level is to tell the editor, "I know you're busy and I hate to bother you with this, so who should I follow up with in accounts payable?" Otherwise, they often act as gate-keepers and guard firmly accounts payable information.

  3. I had this happen at a progressive magazine that often publishes stories about worker's rights of all things! Happened to a good friend of mine too who also wrote for them exactly once. Here's what I finally wrote:

    I have still not received payment for my May 2009 invoice. It is attached for the third and final time. If I do not receive payment within six weeks, I will be forced to turn this over to a collection agency. I respect that it is a difficult time for publications, but it is equally difficult for freelancers right now. As the editor of a magazine that "fight[s] for workers’ rights," I hope you can understand my position.

    Editor's response was:

    We will bump you to the front of the line.

    I did eventually get paid, but why, after six months, was I not already at the front of the supposed line? It also really made me mad because back then, it was a really high per word amount for me to be making (still isn't bad, actually) and among those types of magazines, it's well respected. I did want to have a relationship with them, but I just couldn't after this. Still makes me mad.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Leigh, Susan, and Brittany! I agree with Susan's comment about not putting the editor in the middle--it's usually not something he/she has any control over. Like you, I ask politely for the AP person's name/contact info so that I can follow up with him or her and not pester the editor.

    And I agree that tone is important--you want to be serious but not bitchy, I suppose. Following up (and following up on the follow-ups!) is also essential.

  5. Is there any way to work with a pub again after it gets to this level? I just had an awkward conversation with the payment person after six months of run around. I hate to cut off a good market, but I can't imagine going through this again.

  6. Hi, Eliana--

    You know, I really don't think so. I think after six months of run-around, I'd be done with the market...if you can't get paid on time (and hopefully well), I wouldn't consider it a "good" market. My $0.02! :)

  7. I've learned to advise up front when contract is signed that a) I need a 30 day written notice of termination of contract b) I need full payment before handing over work. As consultants we are at a disadvantage when we turn over our hard work, then wait for months to get paid for it. Sometimes people (companies) want to screw you over which is bad business ethics. I have had times to want to throw in the towel, but each situation offers an opportunity for growth and "lesson learned". Your letter is just fine!!

  8. Anonymous, that's an excellent strategy for working for corporate clients. When I do bigger projects (e.g. ghostwriting), I always get a retainer up front. However, with magazines you're usually faced with a deadline that precedes payment...and the editor has to formally accept your work *before* you can get paid. So in some situations you may face the prospect of chasing down money.

    Thanks for weighing in!

  9. Kelly, what do you title your "pay-or-die" emails? I am close to sending one and want to make the subject line an attention-getter.

  10. I would use something like "Payment Overdue--Please Respond ASAP" in the subject line. Or, if I was contacting Accounts Payable or someone else per my client or editor, I would put that instead. Hope this helps, Sarah, and let me know what happens! :)