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Handling Slow- and No-Pay Writing Clients

It seems to happen to all of us once and awhile. We do a piece of writing or editing work for a client, send out an invoice, and nothing happens. There’s no check in the mail and no word on why, when, or even if.

First Review, Then Call

First of all, review the contract or letter of agreement you have with your client. If you don’t have one, vow to never again put a word on paper for a client without some sort of written agreement. An email is fine as long as it spells out the details clearly.

Next, review your copy of invoice you sent; if you didn’t send one do so right now. Double-check the address and the date. If all is in order, pick up the phone and call your client.

Yes, it’s better to call even though it’s easier to write or email. You know why; you’re more likely to get a real answer when you’re actually talking with someone. Telephone calls are, by their very nature, more personal and more urgent than written communications.

Your Calling Approach

Your goal, in this first call, is of course to get paid. Your approach, however, is to make sure the invoice was received. Keep it simple. Something like this often works:

“Hi (client name), this is (your name). I realized I hadn’t gotten payment from you and wanted to be sure you got my invoice.”

Now, shut up and listen! Even if the silence grows, wait it out. Your client will say something and that will tell you what your next step should be. Here are some possible scenarios. The first three are easy:

  • “I’m sorry, no, I didn’t get your invoice.” Agree to send it again and say you’ll call in five days to be sure it arrived. Double check the address, say thanks and hang up.
  • “I’m sorry, yes, I meant to send a check, but…” Smile, say you understand and ask when the check will be sent. Write down the date for follow-up .
  • You get an answering machine. I usually just ask the client to call me back, without giving a reason because I want to talk with them. If they don’t call, on my second or third try I’ll leave a message asking if they got the invoice. 

More difficult is the situation where the client says something like, “Yes, I got your invoice, but I can’t pay you until (some distant date.) Your response depends on your relationship with your client. Sometimes we have to cut good client’s some slack, but it’s not a good idea. I like responding with something like “I’m sorry, that won’t work for me.” If you take this route, again, shut up and wait; the silence will force your client to say more and usually what they say will tell you what to do next. Keep in mind that you have the right to be paid on time for your work.

There are, of course, times when it makes sense to take payments rather than insist on a lump sum even if that’s what was agreed to. Just be careful you don’t put yourself in a position where you can’t collect.

When It Stops Being Friendly

The worst case is when it becomes obvious the client has no intention of paying you. It’s rare they will say this directly to you. More often, you’ll just not get any response at all. Here are some options:

  • Resend the invoice, marked: Second Invoice – 5% late fee added if not paid by (10 days later.) Some successful writers add this automatically to every invoice. You’re entitled to charge a late fee.
  • If you’re working for an organization, call the accounts payable and make sure they at least have your invoice. It’s amazing how often editors and others fail to forward payables to the right department. Then, assuming they do, find out what they have to say. It may be accounting will get you paid even when editorial said it was impossible.
  • Send a third invoice and add a note saying you will send this to collection if it’s not paid in 10 days. This will often get at least a phone call from the client.

When all else fails, consider either a collection service or a suit for payment. Neither is fun, and both can be costly. Collection agencies charge an arm and a leg, usually at least 50% of what they collect; court cases cost and take time. You probably won’t want to do this for small amounts, but if you’re owed a thousand or more, it may well be worth it. 

Whatever you do, don’t work for that client again unless they pre-pay you. Even better, let that client go and find a new one.

You may also want to read: When Do I Ask For Payment? Ask Anne The Pro Writer

Write well and often and collect!


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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • The only problem with that approach, and it’s a reasonable one, is that you might have to follow through. Some deadbeats will jump when they receive a dunning letter. Others will then sic their attorney on you for a countersuit, so you’d best have a real one on hand if you’re going to try this.

    Now, after your response, I had a beaut come up. A friend of mine over at the SCI FI Channel asked me to write a review for him, and as a favor for him, I broke my promise that I wasn’t ever going to write for any science fiction venue ever again and gave him a movie review. Two months after the review comes out, and I didn’t have a check, so he tried to find out what was going on. Several letters from him and from me to the administrator in charge of finance, and nuthin’. A couple of letters to her boss, who oversaw the Web site, and nuthin’. At nearly five months, I had received absolutely no response from anybody other than my editor friend, so I pulled out the H-bomb. A friend gave me a publicity rep list of all of the executives at the Skiffy Channel, from President Bonnie Hammer on down, and I publicly noted that I was going to share mailing addresses, phone numbers, and personal E-mail addresses of each and every one of those execs, one per day, until I got my check This was right about the time Skiffy announced that it was changing its name to “Sy Fy”, and I had all of that contact information on the exec who was telling fans of the Channel why that name change was necessary.

    Amazingly, I got notice that the check was going out right that day, and I know it was only the H-bomb that made a difference. To add gravy to the mix, the site overseer wrote a letter to apologize for the inexcusable delay, swearing up and down that he had no idea why the Channel was sitting on processing my check. I didn’t bother to call him a liar: I’m going to do that to his face, before I quote Harlan Ellison and tell him “Now get out of my face before I puke on your shoes.”

    Yes, this burned a few bridges. I’ll probably never be contacted again by Skiffy to write for the Sy Fy Channel or any of its Web properties. Considering that I had to fight for five months to get a whole $125, and that this was par for the course (I used to write a regular column for the Channel magazine, and I’d regularly be lied to for six to eight months about when the check was coming), I think I can live with being a pariah.

  • admin

    yikes… I wouldn’t want to live near you and owe you money 😉

    I’ve often wondered what would happen if I ginned up a letter from an attorney… you know, fancy letter head, etc. etc. etc. Might work.

  • In some cases, especially for piddling amounts, a friendly lawyer comes in handy. I spent nearly a year waiting for a payment from Cinefantastique back in the early Nineties, when regular calls got the regular response of “We just sent off the check, and you should get it any day now.” I traded a lawyer friend two paperbacks he desperately wanted for a quick letter from his firm, and it was amazing how rapidly I got my check after that. The last thing the penne ante crowd wants to do is pay thousands of dollars in plane fare and hotel fees for a $60 payment.

    However, when you’re talking about large sums, particularly above $1000, just go to the collection agencies. They’ll get a percentage of the money, sure, but it’s their job to get it. The only thing that works on the serious deadbeats is shame. Well, that and a baseball bat behind the knees. (The sleazebag I mentioned earlier still owes me $1500 that I couldn’t afford to lose at the time, and I’m just biding my time. I know where he is, and he runs a restaurant a few blocks from my house. I figure that if he makes himself too visible, and I’ll call a few friends who are also owed serious amounts of cash from the fratboy. If he’s lucky, he’ll need about six months of intense therapy before he regains such advanced skills as color vision and bowel control.)

  • admin

    Interesting Paul… when I wrote my first comment/response I sort of was picturing an attorney writing a letter that would scare some money loose… but somehow I suspect you’re more right than I am. Thanks for your bolder approach.

    texas triffids? love the site.

  • Speaking from experience, skip going to an attorney and go directly to a collection agency for longterm nonpayment, especially from the publishers that plead poverty but manage to dress the CEO in good suits. Even class action lawsuits can be ignored by many of these characters: one sleazebag here in Dallas was hit with a suit from some 100 people he’d burned, and he didn’t even bother to show up to the hearing. However, you can imagine the screaming from same rich bastard when his credit gets dinged for nonpayment and he starts getting calls from a collection agency at all hours. Yes, it’s expensive, but sometimes it’s the only way to get results.

    (A very good friend uses the collection agency to take care of various significant debts owed her: as she puts it, it’s not worth the time unless the amount owed exceeds $5000, but it’s a priceless way to make the deadbeat miserable. In her case, she specifically calls agencies and claims to owe money. The one that responds in the most aggressive and vile way gets her business. After about two days of calls at work and at home, these slobs will do anything to pay off the money they owe.

  • admin

    Linda, I’m so sorry! Before you go public, I’d investigate filing a law suit… against each of the company’s officer. You want money, not revenge… or at least that’s how I read it.

    See if you can get your money – check with legal aide, the national writers union, etc.

    Don’t worry about politically correct, but don’t let revenge get in the way of collecting… actually you might want to hire a collection agency… but explore the legal avenues first.

  • The company that I freelanced for for over 17 years went out of business without paying me for my last project. (Over the many years that I worked for them, I allowed them to pay me when they were able to, and they always eventually did.) They owe me more that $7000.

    The company did not declare bankruptcy; they simply closed their doors at the beginning of 2007. One of the company’s officers, whom I have known for over 20 years, decided that he “couldn’t remember my work well enough to give me a professional recommendation” after I had the chutzpah to ask to be paid. The other officer, his wife, won’t answer my emails and has made her phone number unlisted.

    What are your thoughts about my “going public” about this situation? The male officer is a lecturer in the Instructional Technology department at a local university and, so, is well known in the ISD and writing communities. I find myself biting my tongue when his name comes up in conversation. I have no desire to protect him (or his wife) and would rather simply say “[company] went out of business without paying me.”

    I’ve been told that doing that would be “politically incorrect,” but I’m at the point where I don’t really care. Actually, though, I would rather have the money.

    What are your thoughts?

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