Sometimes a client simply can’t pay you. It almost doesn’t matter why, except I’d rather know the non-paying client has no choice than deliberately stiffed me.
Businesses go south all the time. It may be the owners or the CEO, depending on the size of the organization, did something stupid or failed to do something necessary. Chances are when they contracted with you for some writing they fully expected to pay you on time; instead they do not have the money, don’t know where to get it and literally can’t pay you. Oh sure, there are a few real crooks out there, but they are pretty rare.
What can you do if they can’t pay?
Although a few businesses will let you know as soon as they know that you won’t be getting paid, mostly you find out after trying to collect over a period of time. If they truly don’t have the money to pay you there’s not a whole lot you can do.
It might be worth talking with your contact to determine exactly the situation. They might, for example, be able to make a partial payment or offer something else of value to you. It’s certainly okay to ask, but as a solo practitioner you’re probably better off to just let it go and move on to your next client.
If the contract is a big one, you may want to try collecting through a law suit or small claims court. (Remember, I’m a writer, not a lawyer.) Be careful about getting obsessed with getting your money… it may not be possible.
What can you salvage?
There may be more you can salvage from the situation that you first see. If the client can’t pay you’re free to use the material you’ve created for someone else. Use judgement here. If you’re involved with trade secrets and/or have signed a non-disclosure agreement, you may still be bound to not use certain information. I’m not a lawyer, as you know. If you’re in this situation it may well be worth paying one who is familiar with that industry just what you can do.
Ask yourself who else might benefit from what you’ve written so far? You may be pleasantly surprised. Even if you don’t find an immediate use for the information, I find that over time I’ve probably used everything I’ve written for myself or others at least twice, maybe more. It’s the nature of writing and writers that we tend to use and reuse.
Multiple clients means one who can’t pay won’t hurt as much
The occasional client who can’t pay is the biggest argument I can think of for not limiting yourself to a single company or person for all your paid writing assignments. Even that dream client who pays a retainer and gives you enough well paid work to make a full-time job of it leaves you vulnerable if you have all your income coming from a single source.
If you have a dream client like this, at least have a discussion about your vulnerability. Maybe they’d be willing to help you set up some sort of fund that would tie you over if the worst happens to them. Perhaps they’d be willing to introduce you to others in that industry and encourage you to find at least a few small gigs. You won’t know unless you ask.
Savings is another hedge that can save your business if your primary income source goes belly up.
It’s up to you to do your level best to build a sustainable writing business. Knowing in advance that you may run into a client who can’t pay you makes planning for that easier. Give it some thought.
Write well and often,