July 23, 2016

When Pubs Don’t Pay

In theory, freelance writing is a simple process. Send a query. Get an assignment. Turn in article. Collect payment. Listen to friends who marvel that “if I earned a $1/word, I’d be rich!” Rinse, wash, and repeat.

Well, unfortunately, things are seldom that smooth.

Articles get killed. Invoices mysteriously disappear. Editors leave. Sometimes publications fold. It seems like there is a new thread on the writer’s forum I frequent every other day announcing the demise of another magazine or newspaper. Today it was Cottage Living. Several weeks ago it was The Christian Science Monitor (which will focus on web content instead of completely disappeaing, and don’t worry, I got paid promptly).

Two years ago, a local publication I wrote for closed up shop. They did not officially file for bankruptcy, but I never got paid for my last article because the editor said she had cash flow problems. It was a small amount of money, so I just shrugged and move on. But it does concern me that, given the current economic client, it could happen on a grander scale now. Heck, even the New York Times is feeling the crunch! I’m certainly more skeptical of unknown magazines or websites than I was a year ago. Should you find yourself singing the bankruptcy blues, Erik Sherman has some sage advice on dealing with bankrupt clients.

Have you ever dealt with a bankrupt client? Are you finding that publications are dragging their feet on paying invoices? What’s your strategy? Let me know!

Flickr photo courtesy of Daniel Y. Go


  1. Hi Susan! Good, timely post.

    I personally have not dealt with non-payment or a client going bankrupt (knocking on wood), but I am certainly noticing that some are taking longer to pay these days. One regular, longtime client of mine has stretched out payment to 45 days after receiving the invoice instead of the original 30 days.

    In a couple of instances, I have made friends with accounts payable. That has helped on occasion.

    But what you’ve described just underscores the need to diversify—now more than ever. That way, we’re not relying on one or two clients for the bulk of our income.

  2. Susan Johnston says:

    Good point, Jenny! As Michelle Goodman pointed out on UPOD, diversification doesn’t just mean diversifying your client list or the topics you write about. It also means diversifying your skill set.

    For instance, I took a proofreading course this summer (admittedly, I have yet to put it into practice and search for proofreading gigs, but I think it’s a good skill to have). And someone on a writer’s forum announced that he’s looking into doing voiceover work. That way, we’ll have a number of different marketable skills to draw from.

  3. Noooo! I LOVE Cottage Living! Oh damn, no wonder they wouldn’t answer my emails about renewing.

  4. knit_junkie says:

    I’ve been freelancing for over 15 years (book indexing), and this has been the worst year I’ve seen for late payments. A good (that is, bad) 80% of my invoices have been paid late. Jenny correctly points out that clients are stretching 30 days to 45 (or 60 or 90 or . . .). They are also ignoring late charges on invoices.

    The indexing community seems to be taking it lying down! All I hear from my colleagues is, “Replace late payers with new clients.” Yes, but 80% of them? Not bloody likely.

    My business coach takes the opposite approach: Let my clients know of my new policies:

    net 15 days
    50% payment up front

    Some things I’m already doing are using a contract, which includes the statement that in the event of a dispute, the jurisdiction will be Milwaukee County (my county). When I send an invoice, I request that the editor let me know when it’s been approved and is on its way to accounting. If she or he doesn’t respond, I follow up the very next day. In some cases, I’ll send out a gentle reminder 3 weeks out that the fee is coming due.

    Whew! That’s plenty for a first post. –Cheers, Carol

  5. I haven’t dealt with non-payment or a bankrupt client either, Susan – although I’ve waited a looooooooooooooong time for payment before… At least it came, though, right! LOL

    Great post!


  6. Susan Johnston says:

    @Knit_Junkie and Michele: Thanks for your insights!

  7. JacquelineC says:

    Ouch. I just went through this. I was thrilled to have an editor of a print mag who was excited about my query. It paid well. She wanted it very focused on her location.

    The article is great and dead. The magazine folded after I submitted the invoice. From my research, it is clear that it was going under AS she was still chatting with me about various things including how excited she was about the article.

    I lost prospecting/marketing time which affected my pipeline to write this really good piece and thought it was worth it for the credential.

    What's worse: she was "all about fabulous women helping fabulous women." And in a very high SES market.

    I'm at a loss for how to recover. Trying to pitch the piece elsewhere but it's pretty narrowly focused. I sent a registered letter which she signed for and ignored.

    I have all but given up and don't feel there's even a lesson I can say I learned from the experience. With the info I had, I'd do the same thing again, I think.


    I do see more clients setting 90 day payment schedules. Crazy. Hello AT&T may I have 90 days to pay my bill? As if.

    Heightens the importance of relentless attention to pipeline….

  8. Susan Johnston says:

    @Jacqueline: Ugh… that is infuriating! I hope you are able to reshape the piece for a different market.

    I had to send registered letters to two clients recently. One of them sent a check immediately and the other emailed me saying he wasn’t going to pay on principle. This is after two months of ignoring my follow-up emails on the whereabouts of my check. That saga is ongoing, and I will probably end up blogging about it (without identifying details, of course) in the near future.

  9. knit_junkie says:

    “One of them sent a check immediately and the other emailed me saying he wasn’t going to pay on principle.”

    I wonder what principle he was applying: cheat people whenever you can? steal from the rich?

    These stories are so disheartening. I’ve recently started requiring 50 percent up front. I also include a clause in my contract that designates my county as the county of jurisdiction in the event of a dispute. That way I can file in local small claims court regardless of where the deadbeat client lives.

  10. knit_junkie says:

    Oops, I meant, “steal from the poor?”

  11. Susan Johnston says:

    @knit_junkie: I know that not all my clients will go for paying a fee upfront (it’s unusual with some of the writing I do), but I definitely need to define the county of jurisdiction going forward. Smart move!