I've been having a pickle with late payment from three clients. This is usual for me. I fire publications that make getting paid as hard or harder than completing the assignment for them. Also, I've worked with all three outlets for some time, and this is the first time I've hit a hurdle with any of them. For all three to go on the fritz at the same time is baffling.
Here's how I go about following up on late payments, in three gifs (because that's what the cool kids do now, right).
But before I get into it: I'm not a lawyer, so this is not legal advice.
These also aren't the only ways to get paid – they're just the way I approach this kind of mess.
There's usually more than three levels too, because each relationship is different. For example, if you've been writing for an outlet for a long time and one editor only is terrible at paying you but you don't want to blow up the whole thing, your approach may be more nuanced. If you hear the publisher is in financial trouble and could go, your actions may be different too.
It's complicated, but this is generally what I do.
1. Alert the client that payment is late.
Usually, editors don't you haven't been paid yet, because that's handled by a different department. Unless you work directly with the accounts people (sometimes that happens), give your editor a heads up that your money is late. Don't apologize or dance around what you're asking about. You did work. You should be paid for it, on time.
Sample Script: "Hey X. I haven't been paid for Y story yet. Can you check in on that?"
Payments can be delayed for a lot of small, dumb reasons. Sometimes just raising your hand to say "um hello?" is enough to knock your check or direct deposit loose.
2. Ramp up the pressure.
If they ignore your request, or promise you'll be paid and still nothing, it's time to press harder.
Sample Script to Editor: "Hi X. I still haven't been paid for Y yet, which is now Z days late. When can I expect payment? Or would be easier for me to speak to someone accounts payable directly? If so, let me know who that is so I can reach out directly and get this resolved as soon as possible."
Sample Script to Accounts Payable: "Hi A. I'm following up on the attached invoice, which is now Z days late. When can I expect payment?"
This is usually when I say I won't take on anymore work until I get paid.
Even if you've gotten to this stage, late payment doesn't necessarily man they're in money trouble. Accounts payable may be a mess. I once had an accounts person at a research institution sit on an invoice because she'd never gotten one for written product before, and instead of asking the person who submitted the invoice about it, she just decided to not pay it until someone asked her about it. This time around, an accounts person didn't pay my invoice because it didn't include everything required via their new template, a new template no one told me about. It took three editors sending multiple emails just to get the name of the person in accounts payable responsible for this, and then me contacting that person to be told this information was missing.
So yes, a lot of chasing late payment is having to deal with layers of corporate red tape that have nothing to do with you. If that's their standard operating procedure, and I'm told that's just how it is, I'll most likely fire them, no matter how much I like the work and/or the editor. Time spent chasing money plunges the per/hour rate through the floor. Their lack of orginzation just creates angst that should not be part of any healthy business relationship. It's not worth it.
3. Turn on the gas.
You can do this in a few ways, depending on your relationship with the client, and whether you want to preserve the relationship with that editor (I strongly recommend you fire the client if you get to this stage, but I know you don't necessarily want to burn down the entire bridge, especially if you like your editor who had nothing to do with this, and want to write for them if they land somewhere else).
If your editor said nothing is working, or the editor is just ignoring you, you can go over your editor or the accounts payable person to the editor and chief, CFO, publisher etc, and demand payment. I have a lawyer friend who says to CC her on any of these demand emails – check your network to see if you have a friend or acquaintance that'll let you do this too.
What you send will depend on what you plan to do, but…
Sample Script: "Dear [Whoever]: Payment for X story is now Z days late. I have done everything I could to resolve this issue, but you have continued to withhold payment. I have CCed my lawyer [Name] on this email. If I am not paid immediately, she will contact you directly about next steps."
If you don't have a lawyer lined up, you can change that last line to something along the lines of "if I do not receive payment in five business days, I will pursue next steps with my attorney" or something like that.
You can also invoke a late fee, if you had that clause in your initial contract (I haven't gotten any publishers to go for this, but I have on other kinds of work that I do).
Still not working? You can get a lawyer to write a demand letter. You can go to small claims court. In New York, for late payment over $800 with a written contract, you can use the Freelance Isn't Free Act (I'm not sure if one or both parties has to be based in New York City – something to check out). I can't offer you advice on those options because I haven't had to go that far. Usually, once I invoke "lawyer," I'm paid ASAP.
You can also publicly shame the outlet. I haven't done this until well after the fact and knew that I would never ever write for the publisher unless their business practices changed (ahem Conde Nast). As frustrated and infuriated as I get about a publication messing with my money, I'm just not comfortable doing this. I've reported bad payers to anonymous databases, and also warn other writers off writing for these publications, but the public shouting isn't a step I've been willing to take yet (for the same reason I'll happily share my year end financials, but don't publicly say how much I was paid for each story I write – it's just not my bag).
Late payment sucks. It's not right, but it's unfortuantely part of this business. Firing clients who can't get their payment act together helps, but sometimes problems come up – as evidence by me having three of these at one time. I fired one of them already; the other one, it seems to be limited to one section of a publication so I won't pitch that section anymore. I'm still working for the third because they're a good client and I've never had an issue before. I was told the payment turmoil has to do with turnover in the accounts department, and they cut a check the next day. But if there are any other blips, they'll be gone too.
It's not personal. It's business. Keep that in mind when you charge forward in getting they money you're owed.
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What I'm Reading
- The Pleasure Palace by Kate Emerson. Mehhhhh not my bag. I think I picked this up in a Little Free Library and gave it a shot. Not a bad idea, but I don't think I'll continue on in the series.
- The Birdcage. I think I'm going to add this to my list of perfect movies. What a delight. I'd seen it before of course, but I forgot a lot of it. Gene Hackman as a conservative senator was particularly great casting.
- For All Mankind. If you got Apple TV+ for Ted Lasso go watch this show immediately. Immediately. It's a sort of "what if" situation – what if this specific moment in history changed (you find out in the first episode, but I don't want to spoil it for you). It's baffling why this hasn't gotten more pickup, or all the Emmys. It's the best TV drama I've seen in a long long time. I'm also in it apparently.
- Jungle Cruise. This was kinda silly but I enjoyed it. It's a better Indiana Jones movie than Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, that's for sure.
- Schmigadoon. I'd say this is silly, but I think it's very clever! A modern day couple gets caught in what's supposed to be an old school musical – with all the faults and flaws those shows had (please, for the love of everyone, STOP DOING REVIVALS OF CAROUSEL. Ahem). The music is really catchy too.