This question came to me via email today from a fellow freelancer. Because this is an issue that all freelancers face at one time or another, I thought I’d share my response.
Q: I wrote four pieces for a regional magazine, ranging from home design to education. Two pieces appeared in the summer issue, published in June, and two were to appear in the fall issue due out in September, but are now past due by two months. I have not yet received payment for any of my work. According to our email agreement, I was to receive payment within two months of publication of the issue in which my pieces appeared. I have called and emailed the editor and the business manager repeatedly, but they do not respond. I received one email form the business manager in September apologizing for the delay, saying he’d mail my check for the summer issue the following Monday. I have yet to receive that check. What resource do I have, if any?
A: As a freelancer for seven years, I’m happy to say I’ve only had to use a collection agency twice, once for a publication in New York City and another for a wedding planner for whom I wrote web copy. In both instances, I continued the collection process by sending a letter (I’d send it certified or US Priority Mail so you have documentation of its receipt) demanding payment. The letter said something along the lines of “Per our email agreement, I completed the assignments in good faith and was told I would be paid by ______. To date, I have not received payment and am making one final attempt to collect on the debt before turning the matter over to a collection agency.” Give them a date certain and follow through if they balk. Then, when I did resort to collections, I had documentation of my emails, phone calls and final demand for payment. You will also need or want a record of the email or verbal agreement (who said what and when) to send to the collection agency and, if it is legal in your state, be sure you pass the collection fee onto the client. Also, when you choose an agency, choose one that reports to Dun & Bradstreet. That way you are sure the collection will be reported.
Another option is to write to Angela Hoy of Writers Weekly. She’ll sometimes serve as an intermediary to go after payments for freelancers, and she makes it public so clients and media organizations can’t get away with not paying for work used.
Keep in mind first, however, that I wouldn’t take any of these steps IF you want to write for this company or any related or sister companies again. If you do, you need to hang in there. If you are willing to sever the relationship based on this breach, then proceed by all means!
One last bit of advice – as these situations have occurred, I have added safeguards in my two-page business agreement which lets clients know that I will stop work and/or take them to collection if they don’t pay as agreed. This agreement is usually between clients and me, rather than publications and me, but I use it whenever I can.
Good luck and keep me posted!
~ Dana Neuts, freelance writer and SPJ freelance committee chair