Getting the Coin: Dealing with Slow-Paying Clients

I have a friend. Let’s call him “Bob.”

Bob received a call one day from an editor with a start-up magazine. The publication had no track record or history, and was looking for writers versed in the subjects of marketing and advertising.

The editor was looking for three stories, promising to pay $900 on publication. Bob agreed. I received a similar call from the editor. I turned her down.

Nine months later&#151about six months after filing his pieces&#151Bob was still awaiting payment. He would call me every so often to vent, usually after a heated and frustrating discussion with the editor, who seemed about as green as the publication she worked for.

I had already forgotten about the publication and moved on with my work.

That was not the first time I had turned down a new publication&#151or one that just left me feeling like I was taking my chances on getting paid. My thinking is this: Instead of possibly inviting the grief and headache of chasing deadbeat publishers (or spreading myself thin and delivering subpar work because I decided to take on all comers), I instead rely on those publications known for their prompt or reliable pay schedules. And as veteran freelancers versed in specific niches know, work tends to find the accomplished writer.

Make the right choice
Thus is the constant challenge of the freelancer: Knowing how to choose the good from the potentially delinquent. Here are a few tips.

  • Get references.
    If a publication has been around, ask for several back issues, or buy one at the local newsstand. Search out freelancers whose work is in the publication, and inquire about their experience with the editors and publisher. Obviously, some may see you as competition and be reluctant to pony up their insights.

    Regardless, by perusing the publication, you’ll be able to gauge the content, its style, professionalism, and whether its style jibes with yours.

  • Know your contracts.
    Do your publications pay on delivery, approval or publication? Obviously, delivery is ideal. I have some editors who insist on my submitting an invoice when I file the article; some give me grief if I don’t. Payment upon approval takes a little longer, depending on the lead time a publication works on. If you file today for an article slated to run in a magazine in six months, you might not get paid for two months.

    The worst scenario is payment upon publication. The previous example could have you waiting 180 days for payment&#151talk about messing up your books. However, it’s more understandable with newspapers or weekly magazines with fast turnaround.

  • File electronically.
    Whether it’s a template invoice you drop into the message box of an e-mail or one you send as an attachment, filing an invoice electronically speeds up the process by up to a week. I have one client who insists that I mail a paper invoice. Once received, the company pays in about three weeks. That’s the policy, and though it’s a few extra steps, the client’s reliable&#151and the rate is above par.

  • Negotiate terms.
    Big business works this way, no reason why freelancers can’t be equally savvy about getting paid. Say you have a publication that’s a notoriously slow payer. Just say, “Two percent-10.” That means you’ll give a two percent discount off the fee if they pay in 10 days from receipt of your invoice. Or negotiate to receive a down-payment on the fee, like 30 percent or half upfront, and the remainder upon delivery&#151or approval&#151of the work. This is especially prudent on larger contracts or fees, like fee-based book deals.

    Remember that most publications don’t work this way, so you’ll likely have to decide whether you want to work with them&#151on their terms&#151if they say no to your terms.

  • Insist on a kill fee.
    Publications die. Editors have a change of heart. Insist that a kill-fee clause is part of any contract you negotiate or sign. Ask for 50 percent; settle for no less than 30 percent. If the magazine demands to pay less, you may be dealing with a substandard publication?and be inviting trouble.

  • Be realistic.
    The aforementioned tips notwithstanding, realize that some editors will be plain difficult to deal with. They will ignore kill-fee clauses, invoices, telephone calls, e-mail reminders, or your threats to sic your lawyer on them.

    Depending on the fee involved, it might be a good idea to have a lawyer negotiate the deal or review the contract&#151especially for larger contracts dealing with higher sums. Just remember that most publishing contracts will be governed by laws in the state where the publisher resides. If you want to take them to court, it will be on their turf.

  • Take a chance
    Bob’s tale above is not to say writers shouldn’t take a chance on upstart or unproven titles. I’ve told this story before, but the tale merits retelling. A few years back, a relatively new publication for whom I wrote a $900 feature folded&#151before the article ran and before I was paid.

    Here are quick tips you can use to make sure you receive timely payments:

  • Research the publication.

  • Get references from other freelancers.

  • Read your contracts carefully.

  • File all invoices electronically to speed up the payment process.

  • Don’t take contracts at face value.

  • Demand a kill fee in case the publication dies.
  • Instead of copping an attitude and demanding an immediate kill fee, I e-mailed the now-former editor to learn more about its demise. It seems funding for the magazine had dried up, and the publisher was actively seeking new financing. I expressed my sympathy and my sincere willingness to help the editor in the future.

    My next correspondence was an e-mail to the publisher, wishing her luck in her efforts to find new backers and opening discussions on payment for the article. With some publishers, the quiet writer may be the one paid last&#151if at all. I didn’t want this to be me.

    While there had been no kill-fee clause in the contract (all my contracts include one now?whether at my or the publisher’s insistence), we amicably negotiated a 30 percent kill fee. I also told her to hold my story for a few months?on the chance she was able to find funding and relaunch the magazine. She didn’t find the money, and the article never ran. Another friendly reminder a few months later, and a check for $300 was mailed to me&#151plus a handwritten note offering to bring me along to her next publication.

    Do what you know
    As the new year approaches, make this a mantra to live by: Work only with those publications you know&#151either personally or through reliable resources&#151or with people you feel you can trust.

    Sometimes freelancing is about taking a leap of faith, going with publications you’d like to be associated with, or writing on subjects you feel would help advance your subject expertise&#151and your career.

    Freelancing is also about engaging in the occasional “gut-check”&#151asking yourself if the potential for gain outweighs the downside.

    Become a good judge of character. To the best of your ability, perform due diligence. Limit your exposure. Though many writers admit it’s a weak spot, be&#151or become&#1151a smart businessperson.

    Jeffery D. Zbar is a freelance writer specializing in small office/home office and teleworking issues, and is the author of Home Office Know-How (Dearborn Publishing, 1998). He can be reached via e-mail at

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