The Dark Side of Freelance Writing: When Clients Don’t Pay

tales from the darkside

We often talk of the benefits of freelance writing, extolling on its flexibility and comfort. Something we don’t cover enough is what I call the “dark side”  of freelance writing including scammers and non payers. One thing I learned over the years is how so many freelancers are embarrassed after being “stiffed” and don’t want to admit they’d been had. I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of. The more we talk about these situations, the more ammunition we have to protect ourselves against unsavory clients.

Here’s a question for you: What do you do if a client doesn’t pay?

Clients don’t pay for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, their intentions are honorable, but they ran out of funding. Sometimes they’re counting on the writer not to pursue legal action because they don’t feel it to be worth the time, and sometimes they’re just scamming to get something for nothing. There are occasions however, when the client forgets. It’s best to give your client the benefit of the doubt. At least at first.

When I worked in publishing, I was the “check is in the mail” girl. I was the one who had to promise payment was coming, even though it wasn’t. I can tell you I wasn’t comfortable with this, and it was one of the many reasons I left publishing for good. However, it also puts me in a good position to discuss this issue with you today.

If your client misses a payment:

Check your contract. Nothing annoys a client more than if writers start nagging for payment before the agreed upon time period. For example, if payment is to be 15 or 30 days within receipt of the finished product,  and you’re looking for payment the day after submitting your work, your client won’t feel the love.  Wait until that period is over and then:

  • Issue a gentle reminder – Don’t demand payment. Instead send a copy of the invoice or a past due notice. Give it one week to ten days.
  • Call – After a reasonable amount of time passes, call.  You will probably be able to gauge whether or not your client is putting you off by the tone of his or her voice. If you have to call more than once and never get put through to your contact, or if the client never has time to talk to you, there’s a pretty good chance he’s putting off payment …at least for a little while. If he apologizes and promises to get payment out, ask for a firm date. Make sure he knows you’re holding him to it.
  • Call again – I know, this is getting to be a pain in the butt, right? Now it’s time to start getting annoying. If the client didn’t send you payment as planned, bug him. Bug him every couple of days or once a week if you need to. You did the work and you deserve payment.
  • Write – Let your client know when you’re going to have seek other action. Send a copy of your letter to his supervisor, the CEO and the head of the accounting department. If this is just a person and not a business, you can’t obviously can’t do this. However, all letters sent of this nature should be certified and a return signature requested.

If they’re not paying you and keep putting you off, you can take several courses of action:

  • Put a halt to any work and future work you’re doing for this client: If they’re not paying you for past jobs, your chances of being paid for subsequent opportunities are slim to nil. Ask yourself if you should continue writing for this client, or put off work at least until you’re paid.
  • Offer a payment plan: If your client is short on funds and you have a good relationship with her, offer a payment plan. It might be easier for her to pay $50 per week for one month instead of a lump payment of $200.
  • Take it over his head: If your client isn’t the head honcho, you may have to go over his head. Find out who else to talk to. Contact a V.P or the person in charge of accounting. They may not even be aware you’re having problems.
  • Threaten legal action: Many clients will count on your not having the time, money or inclination to seek legal recourse. They’re right. Not many freelancers wish to take legal action. They don’t want to deal with court fees or attorneys. Small claims court will allow a judge to hear your side if the amount in arrears is under $3000.  You don’t need to contract an attorney for small claims court and you can request your client pay any court fees if you win. Yes, it takes time, but it also sends the message you’re not someone to be messed with.
  • Report them: Let your client know that you will report him to the Better Business Bureau, and offer warnings among the freelance writing community if he doesn’t pay. Anyone who doesn’t want his name tarnished will pay up immediately.

You deserve to receive  compensation for your work. If you’re not receiving payment you can always write it off as, “Oh well…I’m only out $500” or you can say, “This person took up my time and best effort and I deserve to receive payment for my hard work.” Don’t worry about burning bridges. Clients who don’t pay aren’t so concerned about a good relationship, after a certain point this should be the least of your concerns as well.

If you’re not paid and you let it go, you’re only paving the way for other writers not to get paid. Moreover, you’re going to earn yourself a reputation as a pushover. Trust me, I know. I worked for someone who counted on pushovers. Those who didn’t make a big fuss fell through the cracks. As far as I know, they’re still hanging out there today.

Have you ever been ripped off by a client? How did you handle it?


19 responses
  1. Samar Avatar

    I’ve only ever been fleeced once. The shocker was that a local client did it. Before this, all my work had been done for foreign clients and the mode of payment was always Paypal.

    Having freelanced for only a few months, I made the mistake of not having a contract. I signed their’s but it never occurred to me that I should have one of my own. After all, I’d always been paid before this!

    I did a month’s work for them and never got paid. Contacting them yielded no results and like most freelancers I eventually gave up and moved.

    Looking back, I realize that it was my own naivety that led them to take advantage of me and I wasn’t assertive in going after the due payment. What I did learn from the experience was that I won’t be taking any more local clients without meeting them and getting them to sign my contract!

  2. Anne Wayman Avatar

    Sure, but not for a long, long time because I learned to do what you say here. I have, in the dim distant past, just walked away.

    I really work to get paid in a way that means I don’t lose much money if any. Part of my thinking when doing a proposal goes like this: If they only pay me a third, will I have only written a third or just a tiny bit more. That way if they quit paying I quit writing… which I state in my contracts.

    If it’s a small contract I ask for half up front… having set the fee with that half in mind. Then the question becomes: If I only earn the first half will I feel badly ripped off? If the answer is yes, I raise my rate.
    .-= Anne Wayman´s last blog ..3 Minute Fiction =-.

  3. Sara Avatar

    Not ripped off, but a client that used to pay every 15 days on the dot (I do the same projects each month) suddenly is 2 months behind on one invoice and a month behind on 3 others. Their parent company (huge international monster) has taken over the accounting process. It’s a painful transition because they are my most regular client… that sudden loss of assurance that I’ll have a check has caused havoc. 🙁 Big lesson: Don’t put all your writing eggs in one basket, no matter how much you enjoy the basket!

  4. Lucy Smith Avatar

    There really is nothing like a phone call. The first time I had a client hold out on paying, I was nice. I sent an email reminding him. Nothing. I sent a statement. Nothing. I sent another email. Got a reply saying “I’ll get on it this week.” Nothing. I mailed an invoice. Nothing. I phoned. Got payment the same week.

    The whole process took just less than three months. It was stuff all money, but I was new, and it was a lot of money to me. Luckily it hasn’t happened since, but I’m not going to muck around like that next time. I made it too easy for him to ignore me. You want to be such a pest that they pay you to get you off their back 😉
    .-= Lucy Smith´s last blog ..Passion, what is that? =-.

  5. Samantha Avatar

    I once got stiffed on a $20 invoice. Twenty dollars! I let it slide because the relationship was ending tensely anyway and I didn’t want to stir the pot. Now I wish I’d followed up on it. It might be only $20, but it’s the principle of the thing.

    I now put a clause in all my contracts that I charge interest on overdue invoices (and this is apparently sorely needed for freelancers – it’s the #1 search term that gets people to my blog!). It hasn’t happened again since, but at least I have some extra security if it does.
    .-= Samantha´s last blog ..Spelling & Grammar Pet Peeve: Using the word “which” to signify an afterthought =-.

  6. Genesis Avatar

    I was scammed by the so-called magazine company that was ordering huge articles for a variety of magazines a couple years ago. I wrote a lot for them and never saw a penny. I took those articles and put them on Constant Content for $100 a pop, figuring if they sold I’d have something and if not, I wasn’t any worse off. Well, it’s been about two years and all but two of them have sold!

    Apart from that, I was ripped off a few times in the early days, mostly when working for morons who wanted to pay $2 an article. Learned my lesson, now I charge what I’m worth! Also, I use PayPal to invoice clients. I just recently had a client that was 15 days late on their payment (I have a late fee after 30 days, as well) and I desperately needed the money, so I just “reminded” them through Paypal. A couple hours later, I had the money.

    I agree with Sara, too . . . don’t put all your eggs in one basket, even if that means having to tell a great client you can’t take all the work they have. It is just too painful when they drop you or don’t pay.

  7. Kevin Freeman Avatar

    I most certainly have been ripped off, but I am proud to say that I eventually collected every invoice issued to date. My personal secret was to remain courteous and excitedly talk about future projects that my flaky clients wanted to have done. Every time they came to me fired up and ready to begin another project, I replied, “Of course! Sounds great! I can get started as soon as our outstanding invoice is paid from the last project.” Then, when the long awaited amount has finally arrived (usually after two or three attempts at another unpaid assignment), I informed them of a change in policy that requires 50% down, after which I send a partial file along with an invoice for the remaining amount. When final payment has arrived, I send off the full file, and don’t have to worry about it happening again. Of course, my more reliable clients receive a somewhat gentler treatment, but this method has worked well for me.
    .-= Kevin Freeman´s last blog ..Why Use Freeman Writing Services? =-.

    1. Christina G. Avatar
      Christina G.

      Great idea Kevin, I need to try that in the future. My problem these days isn’t with nonpaying clients it’s with slooow paying clients. Everyone these days is blaming the recession and that can’t be. If money is so tight, then why hire a freelancer? Can you say set up?

  8. Peg Avatar

    I’m currently waiting for payment for a book editing job that I completed more than six months ago. The book came out in November. I have a signed contract sayIng I was to be paid sixty days after date of publication. Unfortunately, the publisher is based in the Caribbean so I’m not sure how I’d follow up on it. The publisher has promised to pay me but the last reminder email I sent has not been answered. All I want at this point is some communication.

    In my next email I am going to offer the payment plan option and see if that makes a difference.

  9. Kathryn Lang Avatar

    I worked regularly for a client and was always paid on time. She moved to a new publication and paid me for two jobs at the new one. I sent two more (one of which I know for a fact was published) but have never heard back from her. I emailed letting her know that I had not received my copy of the printed article, but have not heard back.

    She is not local, so I am not sure that it is worth the time and effort to pursue.

    This is one of the main reasons that I set my budget based on what cleared last month and not what I am expected this month.
    .-= Kathryn Lang´s last blog ..Trust Agents Review =-.

  10. poch Avatar

    I had an Italian company as a client. What they did was make me edit
    an article (my fifth) again and again and finally force me to insert
    a grammatical error which of course I wouldn’t do and that was just
    when I realized I was being ripped-off.
    I just stopped corresponding with them even if they owe me 5 euros.

    What would you do in my place?

  11. k_ra06 Avatar

    It happened to me also..A website didnt pay a single peeny. I keep on mailing them and no respond from them. I do not have any other way to contact them as they didnt provide any contact number.I such situation what can anyone do? I just had to leave it.

  12. Marcia Frost Avatar

    I have had clients that I had trouble collecting from, but nothing as bad as my book publisher, Mansion Grove House.

    I was so excited to get offered book contracts from multiple companies for my fist book. I made the mistake of going for the highest advance. My book received nothing but good reviews. Unfortunately, the experience with the publisher was far from good.

    I was never paid the third installment of my advance, nor have I received royalties. I wrote by email and (registered) snail mail endlessly with no response. I finally contacted an attorney. The attorney also got no response and concluded the publisher was hiding money offshore and it wasn’t worth paying the legal fees to take him to court (and he probably wouldn’t even show up).

    The worst part of this story — Mansion Grove continues to publish books! Why, because they’ve managed to get writers who are more interested in getting published than collecting money. None of the authors I have spoken to have seen money over the last year, yet a few are working on second books! It’s a sad but true story. I’m sure it will catch up with the publisher at some point and I will be there to collect!

    .-= Marcia Frost´s last blog ..IHotel offers Rooms, Food & Spirits in the Center of Illini action =-.

  13. Kevin Freeman Avatar

    @Marcia: Wow, thanks for sharing that! I’ll be sure to stay away from Mansion Grove, and will spread the word to other writers. I would think that a lawyer would be able to build quite a suit against them, regardless of where they are hiding!
    .-= Kevin Freeman´s last blog ..Why Use Freeman Writing Services? =-.

  14. jessica Avatar

    I learned a lot from the $1500 a client never paid me. Even though it has been about 3 years, I still get frustrated about it. The client claimed he was going through cancer treatment, and his wife was going to pay me but then the medical bills started to roll in. I offered to accept smaller payments. I offered to work with him on the invoicing. I did stop any additional work for him in hopes he would pay. I didn’t go after legal action even though I researched different options. Instead I’ve tried to learn from my “loss”. If I’m working with a new client, I now ask for a percentage or amount up front before I start the work. And I’m a lot more willing to stop work right away if an invoice isn’t paid within 30 days.

  15. Marcia Frost Avatar

    I just wanted to do a quick update re: Mansion Grove House Publishing. I just heard from three other writers that they have not received their payments/royalties in the last year! We have yet to confirm any author that this publishing house has been paying.

    While I was previously told by three lawyers that it wasn’t worth the legal fees to go to court for what I was owed, we are working at joining together. In the meantime, I urge everyone to stay away from this publisher.


  16. Veronica Avatar

    Hi Deb! Great article! It really is frustrating when you don’t get paid for articles you’ve carefully researched, written, and edited. I, myself, am fearing that I’ve got stiffed because I haven’t received any payments yet from two of my clients 🙁

    Freelance writing is new to me and I hope you can give me some help. Seeing the necessity of having a contract, I’m wondering if you have a sample contract from which I can base my contract on.

    Also, how do I prove to others that I still own the copyright of an article if, for instance, I state on the contract that I will only transfer the copyright of the article once it’s fully paid.

    Thank you so much!

  17. Poch Avatar

    Hi Deb,
    I had a new client just this month and after 2 weeks of working for her, her husband got into a serious road accident and got him into critical condition. My client repeated her promise to pay me even after apologizing and telling me that she isn’t sure anymore if we could continue our business venture after the accident. And of course I understand. The problem is that she broke her promise and haven’t paid me until now. I know it would be insensitive to press her for my payment because of the accident. But she could use my submitted work anytime after she recovers from the accident. What would you do in my place?

  18. joe victim Avatar
    joe victim

    I do not know if you are aware of this but the web site Ripoff report is using a link from your site to raise his search engine results to the top of anyone’s results he lists. he then uses that to charge people thousands of dollars to remove horrible comments on his site posted by internet stalkers. The owner of ripoff report Ed Magedson is a convicted criminal who pretends he is a consumer advocate. Well I had a stalker post horrible things about me on his site that now rank number 1 on my search results. I contacted him and was told for $17500 I could have this removed. I know you do not want to be a party to this sort of extortion so I am asking you to please remove his links from your web site..

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