One of the hard truths about freelancing is that some clients don’t often pay on time, if at all. And because there isn’t a payroll or human resources department to connect with, you may need to chase payments yourself.
Contracts and Invoices
The first step, of course, is to familiarize yourself with the terms of your contract. Magazines or websites that pay on publication can sit on your work for as long as they want, while other publications are supposed to pay within a certain amount of time of receipt or acceptance.
It’s also important to keep records–who owes you how much and by which date. You can keep track of this through invoicing software or your own spreadsheets.
Attaching an invoice in the same email as an article you are submitting can be helpful for publications with a tendency to misplace invoices. That way you know that their invoice was received if they publish the article.
If a publication is late in paying, your first step might to be contact the editor, either by email or by phone (or both). You can also resend the invoice. Some invoicing software will indicate whether an editor opened the email or printed the invoice.
If that doesn’t do the trick, you can send the invoice with a past-due notice and a letter about payment owed. Sending it certified mail can be helpful if you intend to go to small claims court if payment is not received. It indicates that the editor did, in fact, know about the past-due unpaid invoice.
Often editors will give another deadline by which they will send payment, typically because the invoice wasn’t inputted properly or because they believe they did pay and the check didn’t arrive. Sometimes they forgot to send you appropriate paperwork that needs to be filled out before payment is processed, or they forget to forward it to the appropriate parties.
Alternatives to Small Claims Court
Whether it’s worth it to take a client to small claims court is a personal decision. Some people may think it’s better to eat the loss. Others think that attempting to recover payment owed is worth the time.
Before going to small claims court to collect payment, it may be worth it to work with an organization that can help settle disputes—especially if multiple writers are affected. If you are a member of the National Writers Union (NWU) orASJA (American Society for Journalists and Authors) or, you can reach out for dispute resolutions and these organizations may advocate on your behalf or give you the resources to advocate for yourself, particularly if multiple members are affected.
Another option to consider is the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts’ pro bono services.
If the client has an office in New York, you can also file a complaint and proof of non-payment with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs under the Freelance Isn’t Free Act.
Small Claims Court
If you do decide to go to small claims court, the information on it should be readily available on the court website for your county. There is a process involved that typically includes filing a claim and paying a small fee. (You can often add this fee to the total you are trying to collect.)
You’ll then need to gather evidence (contracts, interactions with the client, work you completed, etc.). Make three copies of it (one for the judge and one for your client), and write the case you’d like to present on a small index card.
If the client is in a different state than you, it can sometimes be possible to hire an attorney on contingency, which means that they will only collect a percentage of fees they collect from the client.
If you do win in small claims court, you’ll need to collect payment, which can be a process. It typically involves obtaining a money judgement from the court and filling out an order for disclosure, which requires the client to list their assets. This can be a time-consuming process.
Another option to research is to work with a debt collection agency, such as Freelance Collection, which charges 35 percent of the amount collected and works with debts of $1000+.
Make sure to write about your experience on a site like Who Pays Writers? so that other freelancers can learn from your experience.