December 8, 2017

I’ve been a full time freelancer writer for almost 13 years and the worst part of the job — by far — is trying to get paid. This doesn’t mean publishers are always trying to stiff independent writers (I don’t run into this problem as much anymore because I’ll only work with companies that pay me on time without me having to show up to their front door with my "Where’s My Money Bat"), but when they do, the process of getting your money can be time consuming, maddening — and often enraging.

“Do what you have to do because they have taken our work. They have relied on our labor and our skills and our good faith. We have done our job. You have not honored the deal you made with us,” said Caitlin Kelly, a writer, coach and author of "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail."

If checks are coming late, or you’re not being paid at all, here’s what to do to get your money.

Be the squeaky wheel

The person who cares most about you getting paid is you, which means, most of the time, you’re the person who is going to need to raise your hand and say “Hey where’s my money?”

Sometimes that’s as simple as nudging your assigning editor and asking where a check is. I’ve had payments delayed because an intern forgot to bring the checks down to the mailroom; I sent it to an editor instead of accounts payable; and the company paid the wrong Jen Miller. These issues were rectified quickly, but only after I asked.

But your missing payment could also be a sign of a much bigger problem.

A publisher started delaying payments to Denise Schipani, who’s been an independent writer for 13 years, to the point that they were paying more than 60 days after they accepted an article. They owed her $1,200 while still asking her to write new stories.

She asked the assigning editor first what was going on. When she said she couldn’t do anything about it, Schipani contacted the accounting department, who told her to check back in after checks were 60 days late. That wasn’t a guarantee of payment — just a promise to update her.

“That’s when I had to make the decision to just burn a bridge,” she said. “I knew the editor could do nothing about it. Meanwhile, they’re putting out this pretty magazine and she’s offering another piece.” She eventually got paid after she told the CEO that the company was violating her copyright by publishing her work without payment, and that she was gravely concerned that they were late paying their vendors but still assigning work.

Schipani said that freelancers should create a system to track assignments, including information on when you should be paid. That way, you’ll know when to start asking where your money is. Don’t be shy about it either. “You’ve got to get over that part about being afraid of upsetting someone,” she said.

Lawyer up

When being your own advocate isn’t enough, lawyers can be. When I was having a hard time being paid by Rodale, which was stringing out payments past 60 days when I stopped writing for them, I wrote a final demand email and CCed a lawyer friend on the email (with her permission of course). It worked.

My friend didn’t ask for anything in return (her rationale: she didn’t really do anything), but getting a lawyer on your side can cost less than you think.

“There’s this notion that we all live under bridges and in cardboard boxes, and we didn’t go to school and we have zero capital,” said Kelly. “We are the most highly educated and interconnected people on the planet.” She’s used lawyers three times to get paid. Once, finding one was as easy as looking at her network to see who could help her. She played softball with a lawyer, who was happy to write a demand letter in exchange for a bottle of Stoli.

Another time, when she lived in Vancouver, and Kelly was owed money from a U.S.-based publisher, she hunted down the name of the biggest law firm in that publisher’s city. “You can call the local bar association and say what’s the big fancy law firm in town, who are the people I need to get [expletive] done?” She said they charged her a few hundred dollars to write a demand letter, which unlocked her late payment.

If you’re not being paid for work done in New York City, you also have the Freelancing Isn’t Free Act on your side.

The act, which was been in effect since May, not only requires a contract to be in place between freelancers and companies, but also helps the self-employed if they’re not paid.

“Now any contract between freelancers and a hiring company has to be in writing if the value of the service is $800 or more” said Lorelei Salas, commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. Unless payments terms are explicitly stated in the contract, the law states that freelancers are owed money 30 days after services are completed. The act also fines the hiring company if no contract is put in place.

When a freelancer files a complaint with the Office of Labor, Policy and Standards — a process that’s free — the office reaches out to the hiring company and tries to facilitate payment. If the company doesn’t respond, the freelancer will need to go to court. Failure to respond to the office’s inquiry is considered admission that a writer hasn’t been paid, Salas said, which for freelancers “makes it a little bit easier to prove their case.” (You can find information on the process here).

Salas said they can’t provide or pay for an attorney for the freelancer, but the law does allow freelancers to recover attorney’s fees, costs and damages, which she said is “an incentive for private attorneys to take on these cases.”

So far, Salas said they’ve had more than 200 inquiries and 109 cases filed, and that they’ve recovered about $70,000 for freelancers.

If you have a literary agent, he or she may be able to help, too. When a now shuttered Conde Nast title said they wouldn’t pay me until I signed a Master Services Agreement — after I’d been told I wouldn’t need to, and after the story had already run — I asked my agent to step in. She did, and along with the agency’s lawyer, they negotiated on my behalf. The agency took 15 percent of my check, but it was worth it to turn the problem over to someone else so I could get back to writing and not fighting with a giant media conglomerate.

Go to court

In October, Matt Villano, a veteran freelance writer and editor, did all that he thought he could do to get the $2,210 owed him by Consumers Digest, tactics that including making multiple calls to the CEO. He said he gave the CEO a deadline, after which he would file suit, and also start speaking out about the situation — not just to other freelancers and on social media, but also to local media and trade publications, if he didn’t get paid.

“I telegraphed my strategy. I was like ‘Here’s my playbook. This is what I’m going to be doing. You have multiple outs here, kid,'” he said.

When that still didn’t work, Villano filed suit against the company in small claims court. The trick (and possible expense) in doing this is that you file in the county where the company is based. In a lot of places, you must file in person. Villano lives in California, and the publisher is based in Illinois. Fortunately, Villano was traveling to Chicago for a reunion, and he filed at the appropriate courthouse then.

Villano didn’t hire a lawyer because the instructions, which he found on that county’s website, were easy to follow. He also lived up to his promise to name and shame the publisher by posting about the conflict on Facebook and Twitter. He also reached out to other journalists, including a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. It was only after the CEO got a call from the Tribune reporter, Villano said, that he was paid. In the process, though, Villano found out that he was far from the only person to be stiffed. Talking Biz News reported on five other writers who say they’re owed money too.

Hire a collection agency

That’s what writer and author Marijke Durning did when a now defunct publisher stopped paying. She went directly to the accounting department, who kept saying they’d pay her, then didn’t.

She emailed the CEO, who said they’d send her 12 postdated checks for the amount they owed her. She declined that offer. She had no idea if those checks would clear or bounce.

“If you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money,” she said. “I finally hired a collection agency.”

She found one by posting in a Canadian writer’s group, asking for a company that would work for her in the U.S. They charged 25 percent  of whatever they could collect. All she had to provide was proof of contract and the publisher’s contact information “and they took it from there,” she said. “At that point it was more a matter of principle. It was ‘I’m going to show you you’re not going to screw a writer, even if I lose 25 percent,'” she said.

She never wrote for the company again, not just because she refused, but also because they don’t exist anymore.

Fire the client

Freelancers are often the canary in the coal mine: When a company slows down payment, or stops them all together, good things probably aren’t ahead — and if that company goes bankrupt, often our money goes with it.

I knew more than a year before Rodale put themselves up for sale that they were in trouble (Hearst agreed to buy them in October, pending Justice Department approval). They moved from paying 30 days after invoice submission to 40 then 60 and then beyond. And I knew I wasn’t the only one they were doing this to because freelancers talk, and a lot of us were waiting for money.

It hurt to stop writing for them because I liked the work I did there, and the editors too. It had been a healthy and profitable relationship for almost five years, but I refused to keep working for a company that didn’t appear to value my work enough to pay me without me having to fight for every check (my essay in the December issue of Runner’s World had been written and paid for two years ago, before I stopped writing for the company).

“I’m tired of people going ‘Oh I can’t; what if they get mad?’ Do you ever want to work with them again? Do you ever want to work with someone who lies and cheats and stiffs you? I don’t,” said Kelly.

You shouldn’t want to either.

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect the correct amount owed to Matt Villano. A different amount was in an earlier version.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.

More News

Back to News