What to do when you don’t get paid

Ask any freelance and they’ll tell you one of their biggest worries is payment: when they’ll get paid, how much they’ll get paid, if they’ll get paid. When I first tried freelance work after being a staffer, I soon discovered I had to become a hard-nosed businesswoman as well as a top-class journo. For some, this comes more naturally than others.

Head-in-the-sand approach

Freelance Phil A., based in Northumberland, admits he tends towards the ‘ostrich-head-in-the-sand’ approach: “If people don’t pay, I remind them gently when they come back to me for more work. If they don’t come back, I just chalk it up to experience. I did try to get forceful once, I was on the point of getting a solicitor friend to write a stiff letter, but then the cheque arrived.”

When asked why he was so passive towards debt collection he confessed: “I’m scared of losing work. There’s not too much of it up North.”

Bull-by-the-horns approach

Alex G. from London is a bit more forthright: “A week after payment is due, I send a reminder or make a polite call to point out the oversight. Another week later I’ll do the same. After a month, I’ll take a firmer line. A couple of months on, and I might involve the NUJ and/or impose a £40 late-payment fine and charge interest. There’s an institutionalised view among some editors and publishers that it’s OK to make freelances wait. It is not. No other suppliers are expected to wait for payment, so why should we?”

Well said, Alex. I expect, and usually get, payment by the end of the month in which the article was published. If by the middle of the next month nothing has come through, I phone to enquire about payment. This usually does the trick. If nothing arrives by the end of the second month, I phone again and send a reminder invoice.

If the third month comes and goes I send a ‘final demand’ stating: ‘this account is now overdue’, referring to the 30-day terms and conditions clause on the original invoice. If still nothing comes, I either send a letter or call them (depending on how brave I’m feeling), informing them that if payment is not forthcoming within seven days I will be forced to pursue legal channels.

Final demands

I only sent a ‘final demand’ once and they quickly paid up. Another time, I threatened legal action and was ignored. The account was for nearly £500 (made up of two invoices) and six months overdue. I allowed it to go on for so long because the magazine was my major source of income and I feared losing it.

The editor obviously smelt blood and realised he could keep me going indefinitely by paying in dribs and drabs. Sometimes he paid half an account, sometimes a third, but never the full amount.

I was so stressed I was physically ill. I realised I had to stop it, even if it meant killing my golden goose. The problem with this goose, to mix metaphors, was that all my eggs were in one basket. So I did two things: I took legal action to get my money back, then committed myself to soliciting work from a spread of publications so I would never be in one editor’s power again.

Small claims court

When I first registered as self-employed, I was advised that debts under £5,000 could be reclaimed through the Small Claims Court. I went online to find out more about it and discovered I could represent myself and face my debtor in front of a judge. I wasn’t too keen on that – call me a coward if you will – so I decided to go through a claims company which I found on the internet. There was no fee if I didn’t win, and only 10% of the amount claimed if I did.

My entire dealing with the claims company was via email and within 30 days I had my money. I was also entitled to claim interest (8% per month above the Bank of England base rate); I didn’t, but now I wish I had. I supplied the claims company with copies of the outstanding invoices and they did the rest – no mess, no fuss.

Top tips

  • If other freelances complain about a publication, steer clear.
  • When your first proposal is accepted, politely ask about rate of pay and schedule of payment.
  • Before sending an invoice, ask whom to send it to. Sometimes it’s the editor, other times the accounts department.
  • Always send invoices even when the publication says they don’t need them. If there’s a dispute, you need them for legal recourse.
  • Make sure you have a terms and conditions clause on your invoice, eg. ‘Terms and conditions: strictly 30 days.’ This is standard business practice and allows you to legally charge interest on overdue accounts.
  • Don’t be scared to ditch a publication if they prove to be bad payers. Who needs them? Believe it or not, there are plenty of good ones out there!

(first published in Writers’ News, February 2005)

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2 comments on “What to do when you don’t get paid

  1. Pingback: Non-fiction writing - finance, copyright and libel at The Crafty Writer

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