Collection. It’s a dirty word, isn’t it? If you’re like me, you hate the prospect of tracking payments. Hate it, that is, until you realize you’ve got bills to pay. After all, freelance doesn’t mean we work for FREE!
The fact is, it’s a necessary evil. And freelancers sometimes feel ill-equipped to handle it. We got into this business to write, and we don’t want to call an editor about payment and risk becoming a nuisance (or worse, losing a steady source of income).
But the sooner you realize you’re entitled to prompt payment, just as any business owner, the better your bottom line.
In most cases, when you write for publications, payment terms are outlined in a contract. Read that contract carefully. Does it say, “Payment upon publication” or “Payment upon acceptance?”
The question of when you will get paid is answered by those three words — sometimes. Payment upon publication is fairly clear. The magazine or newspaper is published containing the fruits of your labor and within a realistic timeframe after publication (typically 10-14 days in newspapers, 30 days for magazines) you receive a check.
The trickier part is when you receive a contract that says “Payment upon acceptance.” That word “acceptance” can be misleading, but generally it means when the assigning editor is completely satisfied with your work.
“I’d never worked with (this national) magazine before and hadn’t really asked, specifically, what constituted acceptance,” says Cleveland-based freelance writer, Jill Miller Zimon, who also is an attorney.
Most editors will process invoices for payment and send them to the business or accounting department. Though they may be your contact for the story, there’s not a lot they can do to help with getting you paid, aside from a friendly reminder to the business office.
If your work and relationship is valued by the editor, often they will go to bat for you. But sometimes, payment lags at the hands of employee turnover.
Zimon explains: “I handled the situation by e-mailing the editor who’d assigned my piece maybe three times over five months to find out the status of the article. Eventually, I learned that that editor was no longer with the magazine.”
After some persistence, she received payment about five months after she’d turned in the article.
Benjamin Tomkins, of Emeryville, Calif., says he’s been fortunate in that most of the publications he writes for have been above board on payment.
“When I have encountered difficulties, persistent, yet pleasant, phone calls and e-mails to the editor have eventually done the trick. In one case, on a payment that was three months late, I threatened small claims court and the $1,200 I was owed showed up in my mailbox two days later,” he says.
Jay Miller, president of the SPJ Cleveland Pro Chapter, did more than threaten small claims court; he pursued a claim against a regional publishing firm for whom he had written for nearly 20 years.
“At different times I was on several mastheads as a contributing editor to several of their publications and was for a time a monthly columnist for one of them. Together we even survived a libel lawsuit,” he says, describing the close working relationship.
“While the lawsuit was continuing, one of the editors called and asked if I would accompany him to a meeting with a university economic researcher to discuss an idea the researcher had for a story. We met, the editor wanted the story, and I agreed to do it.”
After more reporting, Miller says he became skeptical about the validity of the data, but was advised to push on by the editor. He did as he was hired to do and turned in the story in November. Time dragged on, and it was May before he heard back that the story didn’t seem to be there. The editor offered to pay a kill fee.
“I e-mailed back saying that wasn’t acceptable since it was an assigned story that he championed, and that I got involved with earlier than a writer normally would, and that it grew stale because he failed to get back to me in a timely way. And I asked for double his kill fee.
“I got no response, and six weeks or so later made a second request for payment with a copy to the business manager, who I’d come to know during the time we were defending the lawsuit. This time the editor responded saying the kill was all he could justify.
“I responded — with a copy to the business manager — saying that was inadequate and that, if necessary I would pursue it in small claims court. I heard nothing for nearly two months. So I went to small claims court, filled out the form out and faxed a copy to the business manager saying unless I heard back promptly, I would be filing the claim. I got a check for the full amount within two weeks,” he says.
In the end, Miller believes his history with the firm helped his cause, as did the details found in the small claims filing.
“They saw how they came off as unresponsive over a long period of time, they realized it made sense to concede and not invest any more time,” he says.
Wendy Hoke is a Cleveland-based writer and editor. She serves as co-chairwoman of SPJ’s National Freelance Committee and can be reached at email@example.com. Her online Weblog, Creative Ink, can be found at www.creativeink.blogspot.com.