Payment Self-Help

You’ve landed the assignment and turned in brilliant copy. What happens when payment doesn’t arrive on time and in full?

Even professional freelancers sometimes have to push clients, editors, and publishers for payment. Here’s how to manage late payments, kill fees, and acceptance issues.

How to Respond to Late Payments

Check your contract. Once the calendar indicates your payment is past due, (i.e. it’s day 31, and your contract says payment is due 30 days after acceptance) contact your editor to inquire if payment has been processed. Don’t wait for two months to pass before taking action — that sends the message that you don’t run a tight ship. Ask for verification of the payment date in writing.

Don’t accept another assignment until you’ve been paid. If you’re already working on another assignment, consider holding it until you receive your pay.

Follow up. If your editor or client doesn’t not respond or the payment does not arrive, follow up again with your editor or contact accounts payable. If accounts payable says that the check has been cut, ask for a check number.

You can also send your editor or client a certified letter, “return receipt requested,” on your letterhead. Briefly recap the chronology of the assignment and payment delay. Clearly identify a deadline for payment and let the editor or client know you’ll take additional action if payment is not made.

If the deadline passes with no payment, consider asking an attorney to write a certified letter on your behalf and have it sent return receipt requested.

Still no check? Be sure the publication is still viable. If it’s in Chapter 11 or has declared or is about to declare bankruptcy, you may be out of luck. But you can still file a small claims court claim, which will put you on the list of creditors. Unfortunately, writers are not considered “assured creditors,” so if you are paid, it’s likely to be a small percentage of what you’re owed. Some publications take their debts to writers very seriously but you do need a paper trail, and a small claims court filing will do the job nicely.

You can still file in small claims court if the publication is not or has not declared bankruptcy.

Kill Fee Disputes

It’s important you negotiate the kill fee clause in contracts with as much care as you negotiate the full fee. Work to obtain the highest kill fee possible, and make sure the contract allows you opportunities for revision before a kill fee is invoked. The contract or agreement must be clear about when and why the kill fee can be invoked.

If you plan on fighting a kill fee, it’s of the utmost importance to not accept payment of the kill fee before concluding all negotiations. Doing so indicates you agree to the kill and thus ends the market’s contractual financial obligation to you.

Kill fees can result from the following circumstances:

  1. The editor and the writer misunderstood one another about the assignment;
  2. The editor failed to make his or her expectations about the assignment clear;
  3. The writer fulfilled the assignment but the editor, or the editor-in-chief, changed his or her mind about what was wanted, or about accepting the assignment;
  4. The assignment was clear, but the writer failed to fulfill it.

Only the fourth cause above is a legitimate reason to kill an assignment. And although this is the reason editors invariably give for refusing to give up the kill fee clause in contracts, assignments are killed for all the other reasons.

The third cause is your best shot at getting paid in full, or at least a bigger kill fee. But you must establish that you fulfilled the assignment in good faith and that the only reason the piece was killed was that the editor (or superior) changed his mind about what they wanted, or decided they didn’t want the assignment you completed. To substantiate your position you need a good paper trail.

  • Make your case in a letter, in calm, reasoned language, and review the chronology. Provide printouts of the relevant email messages you’ve sent and received. Use restraint; don’t send a two-inch pile of documentation.
  • If this letter doesn’t produce the desired result and you feel strongly enough about the issue, consider sending a second letter and cc your editor’s immediate superior.

If your piece was killed for reasons #1 or #2, write a letter outlining the problem and cite the chronology from your paper trail. (Example: On September 4, Mary Louise emailed me that the piece was “too heavy on the quotes from victims” and needed “more medical quotes” and asked me to interview two more doctors. On September 25th, she called me to tell me the piece was killed because “there are too many quotes from doctors.”) Make the case that you fulfilled the assignment in good faith and should not be penalized because the assignment was changed midstream.

Story Acceptance Issues

Increasingly, writers are having trouble collecting payment because clients fail to acknowledge receipt of or officially accept assigned stories. On the rare occasion that these aggrieved writers receive word on whether a client has reviewed a story, it is often along the lines of “not yet” and “no, sorry” because clients are “too busy.” The resulting non-payment limbo can continue for months past the initial submission and requested edits. This dragging of feet creates unwarranted payment delays.

Here are some strategies to avoid those delays:

Elicit a timely response. When you submit an article or manuscript, state that if you do not receive word of acceptance within two weeks, you’ll follow-up. That lets your editor know you’re not going to let this piece fall through the cracks.

Stick to your schedule. If you haven’t received word of edits or acceptance within two weeks, drop your editor a note inquiring of the piece’s status. That sends the message you don’t value your work and don’t care if or when it’s accepted.

Follow up. If after another two weeks (four weeks total) your client has not accepted or communicated with you about the piece, call your client. Sometimes emails really do get lost. Make sure that hasn’t happened. Follow up that call with an email, asking the client to confirm receipt.

Escalate the issue. If after another two weeks (six weeks total), call your client again and contact their boss. Explain that you fulfilled your obligation and you deserve similar consideration.

Get tough. Eight weeks is long enough! Send your client a certified letter, return receipt requested, detailing the chronology of the situation. State a deadline (two weeks from receipt of letter) by which you would like to receive word of the manuscript’s status, and cc their boss.

Issue a final demand. If your manuscript is not accepted 10 weeks after submitting, send a second certified letter, return receipt requested, to your client, their boss and the market’s EIC (if applicable) asking for the full fee to be put through, as you’ve not received notice of edits needed. Give a second date for acceptance and/or payment to be executed.

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