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Get The Money Up Front

Money for freelance writingThe Ask Anne Q&A called When Clients Misbehave sparked comments from pros that encourage freelancers to both get advances on work and written contracts.

Devon Ellington put it bluntly and simply: No work is done without a contract and a deposit. Period.

Of course, she’s right. None of us should do any work without a written contract of some sort (an email agreement is fine) and an advance or deposit before the freelance writing work is begun.

As a general rule, advance money ranges from maybe a quarter to a half of the total with the balance paid over time and/or on completion. For big contracts like books, there are variations on this theme.

For instance, I often break the charges out monthly which smooths my income stream and makes the cost perhaps more manageable for the client. But I always get at least the first month’s payment in advance – always.

Ok, so how do I actually get money in advance?

But the question still arises: How do you get a new client to actually send you money in advance?

It’s simple. You ask for it! Or even better you make a statement.

My conversations about getting money up front go roughly like this:

M. Client, I’d want a third up front, a third in the middle and the final payment when we’re done, or, if it would be easier for you I can take monthly payments for six months or so.

Notice, I’ve made a statement with two options, showing flexibility and assuming he’s going to go for one or the other. I make the statement and then:

I shut up!

I learned this sales techniques I ever learned from my father who was a master at selling real estate. He said that more sales people talk themselves out of sales than ever talk themselves in. I don’t even ask if that’s okay with the client or use any other “closing” technique. I wait until they speak. I’ve learned to be comfortable with silence, sometimes a lot of silence..

When you present a choice you’re assuming the client agrees with the premise – in this case the price and that some money will need to be paid up front. Usually the client will agree and pick the option that suits them. Sometimes they’ll present an alternative, and once in a great while this will blow up the negotiation completely. When that happens I know I’m better off without that client.

I expect up front money

You may also notice that I’m not asking if they will pay me up front; I’m assuming they will.

Perhaps it will surprise you when I say most clients don’t balk at paying an advance against work yet to be delivered. The amount up front and/or the way the balance is paid may be negotiated, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a client simply refuse that an advance of some sort would be due.

I hear of clients defending their right to get a sample before they pay – it doesn’t happen to me. Occasionally I’ll offer a sample, but that’s more to discover if I can really work with the potential client or not.

Getting money up front won’t feel easy the first few times you try for it. That’s okay – none of us were born knowing any of this stuff; we all had to start somewhere. Asking for an advance is just one more thing to learn.

Now it’s your turn. Do you insist on money up front? How do you ask for it? If you don’t, do you agree this is something you should consider? Tell us your experience in comments.


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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • I absolutely did nothing illegal, and perhaps, all of you did not notice that I said I wrote “polite” emails. But make no mistake, the magazine owner was an outright thief – the magazine is out of business now – and the other lady was telling the company owner bald-faced lies about the instructions she gave me and the work I produced.

    And perhaps, I’m not as worried about my “professional image” as some of the rest here who may be just starting out – I have hundreds of great clients and don’t often have to pursue new clients. For every nut case that may say something bad about me, I can name a hundred others willing to take phone calls to extol my virtues and honesty.

    My point was simply that you should not be lulled into a false sense of security because you have some contract, and that you should protect and aggressively defend yourself at all times because there are liars and cheats waiting to screw you over.

  • I’m still green since I haven’t made any green!
    Love that, Elizabeth-LOL!

    I’m with you, Anne, the contract is more about having everyone on the same page (pardon the pun) than assuming it will protect us in legal action.

    And I am happy knowing that I, too, assume people are honest – especially if I had no problem receiving the deposit. Knock on wood, I haven’t gotten burned yet–late payments but paid eventually.
    .-= Cathy Miller´s last blog ..Is the Report of Email Death an Exaggeration? =-.

  • I’m not so convinced on the absolute need for a contract, but certainly nothing wrong with the idea. First, a contract is worthless legally unless you are willing to make the effort to enforce it should the client breach. Prosecuting a small claims court case is the minimum effort, which requires a filing fee and service fee (to serve the defendant). Then, there’s your time and effort to prepare the case. If you win, which is likely by not certain, you only receive a judgment. There’s more effort to enforce that, and again, no guarantee that you’ll ever see a dime (depending on the client).

    If we’re talking about a few hundred dollars owed, it’s just not worth it (except for the satisfaction of revenge).

    However, a contract is valuable in dealing with honest clients. They probably have the same naive belief in its enforceability as you may have. They’re also good when working with reputable companies that have obvious assets that can be attached by judgment, or reputations to protect.

    More often, the client demands a contract. Usually those reputable companies.

    Personally, I’ve found that personal threats work best for collecting from dishonest clients. For example, a local magazine was stiffing me for a few hundred dollars due for a series of articles they commissioned that required that I interview a number of prominent local businesswomen. They had arranged the interviews. When he wouldn’t return calls/emails for a couple of weeks, I simply left a nice voicemail stating my empathy with his busy schedule or lack of funds and that I would be contacting those interview subjects again to see if they would consider paying me for the articles (since they were kind of PR pieces). Got a return call within 20 minutes and my money the next day.

    Another time, a project manager was throwing me under the bus to cover her ineptitude and refusing to pay half of my fee. I Googled up her address, her husband’s name, the floorplans to her house, etc., and wrote a polite letter stating that I had a friend in her area that I wanted to come by to meet with her or her family members to discuss my anger at her refusal to pay me. Her boss sent my money the next day.

    Some people are scum and deserve no better.

    I would also still be wary of getting a down payment but then sending the entire work. And I think you need to acknowledge the client’s concern with sending any money to, essentially, a stranger with an email address. In previous comments on this site, I’ve described the process I use in converting text to a jpeg, blacking out parts, and locking it in a PDF before sending it to clients I’ve not previously worked with. The idea is to send enough to prove you’ve done the work and provide a sample of the work quality, but not send enough that they can actually use it. A dishonest client might still rob you of the time you spent, but you at least have the satisfaction of knowing they didn’t get anything of value from you.


    • Anne

      Ron, the real reason I like contracts is it sets out the initial agreement in writing which means we can get back to it if things get nuts. It’s a statement of intention. You’re right, they are hard or impossible to enforce or not worth the effort.

      Of course, I assume people are honest.

      Threats… maybe the threat to tell the local businessmen, but downloading floor plans etc. to hold over someone is just plain creepy and of doubtful legality in my non-lawyer opinion.

      As I said, I price my 50% or whatever it is, so that if they fail to pay me the balance I don’t feel totally ripped off.

      • I agree, Anne, about the threats. I wouldn’t want to risk my professional image by doing such a thing. Word gets around.

        Most of this is still a mystery to me, but thank you for all the articles about invoicing/the business part of writing. All advice is very much appreciated. I’m still green since I haven’t made any green!
        .-= Elizabeth West´s last blog ..Music of the Hemispheres =-.

  • Pretty similar to you — I say, “I typically get 50% up front to start these kind of projects…that work for you?” I have yet to have somebody say, “No, I won’t give you a deposit payment.”

    It’s obvious that you’re taking a risk starting a new client who’s often cross-country from you or even farther. They need to show they’re legit by starting you with a check. They can talk to your previous clients to know you’ll do the job.

    Just present it confidently as “this is how we do it,” and you shouldn’t have a problem.
    .-= Carol Tice´s last blog ..Be a Writer, Not a Waiter =-.

  • Anne:

    Few of my projects are 6 months long. I assume your reference is to your ghostwriting of books; however, I still receive 50% up front.

    It is is in my formal contract, and I let them know the work will not start until the deposit is received (also in the contract, under Terms). I had to revise my contract a few times from misunderstandings. Here is a sample of what I have now:

    Fees are based on estimated time to complete specified tasks and are subject to the following terms:
    -All services require payment of 50% up front, 50% upon project completion
    -Services will not begin until 50% deposit is received by Cathy Miller
    – Cathy Miller accepts company check or PayPal
    – An invoice will be submitted with delivery of final copy or at the end of the project
    – The remaining 50% is due within 10 business days of receipt

    If changes to the Scope of Work require significant additional hours, an amendment will be made to the original Statement of Work, based on the change in scope.

    Until paid in full as agreed, Cathy Miller retains copyright of all work for hire.
    .-= Cathy Miller´s last blog ..Is the Report of Email Death an Exaggeration? =-.

    • Anne

      Maybe I should try 50% on the larger contracts… what’s the advantage do you think Cathy?

      • For me, and the type of projects I typically work on (white papers, industry articles, etc.), I do the lion’s share of the work at the beginning. So, the 50% up front helps pay me for the concentrated time I spend on a project at the beginning.

        It’s rare for me to have multiple white papers, for example, starting all at the same time, so I am able to sprinkle in some quick work (e.g., blog posts) with the labor-intensive start of the white paper & not feel pressed because the blog posts pay less. Did that make sense?

        I had a large web content project, coordinating different vendors and writing responsibilities. On that one, I was paid monthly. If I had to do it over again, I would have at least asked for a deposit 1st because even though being paid monthly sounds good for a long-range project, that 1st payment takes a while to get there. It was so labor-intensive, I was doing almost nothing else and went almost 8 weeks before I was paid my iniotial payment.

        Live and learn…
        .-= Cathy Miller´s last blog ..Is the Report of Email Death an Exaggeration? =-.

        • Anne

          That makes sense. When I’m ghost writing books the effort is pretty even across the whole project so taking a third or monthly payments may actually make sense. And I always insist that I actually receive the first payment before I start working. I’ve had a couple of clients overnight checks to me so there was no delay.

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