Hidden costs: Chasing invoices

I’ve been thinking of starting a ‘Hidden Costs’ series talking about the parts of freelancing that people don’t talk about, so we’ll see how well this is received. After all, if I’m going to start anywhere, I may as well start with one of the most perennially frustrating parts of the freelance existence: Getting people to pay you for the work that you performed and they are profiting from.

Freelance work is often heavily idealised among the general public, which seems to think we sit around in our pajamas staring off into space while money pours into our bank accounts. That’s not true by any stretch of the imagination, but perhaps especially the bank account thing, because that bit requires that people actually pay you, which is not as simple as it seems. All the freelancers reading this are, I’m sure, fondly casting their minds back to the scores of invoices they’ve had to chase, the publications they flatly refuse to work with because of payment issues, and the ones that got away — the things they were never paid for and will never be paid for, with little to no chance of getting that money.

The recordsetter for me was Cosmo Australia, which took 533 days to pay on an assignment. By the time the money actually landed in my account, I had spent more time chasing the invoice than I had on the original piece, and honestly, my per-hour returns on the payment were absolutely dismal, but it was the principle of the thing at that point. I’d written an assignment which they commissioned, accepted, published, and profited from, now they needed to pay me. The only thing that worked, in the end, was continuously publicly shaming them on Twitter for weeks, at which point suddenly all of the mysterious ‘problems’ that had interfered with payment disappeared. I tend to bring out the nuclear option like that only in extreme circumstances, partially because it’s the kind of thing that gets you labeled as ‘difficult,’ which, frankly, is bullshit: If publications can blacklist us as ‘difficult,’ then we should be able to blacklist publications the same way.

In theory, invoicing is supposed to work like this:

  1. You pitch or they commission a piece
  2. You agree on the specifics, including the rate
  3. You submit the piece, on time, as agreed
  4. You go through edits
  5. The piece runs and your editor helpfully sends you a link or drops a copy of the print publication in the mail for you
  6. You invoice or the publisher automatically invoices
  7. Money arrives

In practice, it can take weeks, months, or YEARS to cadge payment out of some publications, even when you have agreed-upon terms (and all of my invoices clearly state net 30). There’s always some reason you can’t be paid — whoops, it didn’t go into the right payment cycle, or there’s a problem with your account information, or it went to the wrong office, or your editor didn’t fill out this form (they like throwing editors under the bus), or you didn’t submit this form they need, or… — and they are always most apologetic and eager to fix the problem.

Or not. Sometimes you email and call repeatedly about an invoice and hear nothing. Or people respond sporadically and indifferently. Or they have an automated trouble ticket system that keeps marking your complaints ‘resolved’ even though they have not been resolved because you haven’t been paid. And then your commissioning editor leaves for another publication. Or the person in accounts payable that you’ve been working with has been transferred. Or the publication gets sold. (Or it folds, in which case good luck getting in as a creditor.)

Many people, like me, have an organised invoicing schedule, and then a followup schedule, which escalates accordingly. Eventually, you reach the point where you call and/or email at exactly the same time every day, demanding to know where your money is. You try to be polite, you really do, but it wears thin. The people you are talking to are paid on time. They are large companies clearly capable of sending money to people on a relatively regular basis. Yet you are not accorded the respect of their other vendors.

The thing is, while I may have a shocking amount of money in unpaid invoices out at any given time, I still owe people money for things like rent, health care, utilities, veterinary services, accounting, and the like. People provide me with goods and services that I am expected to pay for at the time or service or by an agreed-upon date. If I do not, there are consequences. I can’t tell the propane company that I can’t pay until next month because Some Magazine didn’t pay four-month-old invoice yet or ask them to wait to deposit my cheque until my eft from That Publication clears, which they swear is going to happen on Wednesday. They don’t care. They provided me with a thing (propane), which I used, and now they want their money.

While there are sometimes legal options — namely, taking companies to small claims court — they are often not worth it. It’s a pain to file, it’s a pain to deal with all of the legal stuff, and by the time you’ve done all of that, the payout isn’t necessarily worth it. Some contracts also like to slip in binding arbitration clauses (I refuse to sign those, and I don’t sign non-disparagement agreements either), in which case you actually cannot take them to court for non-payment (or shame them on Twitter, if you signed a non-disparagement clause).

Some of the publications I work with are fantastic: They pay fair rates, and they always pay on time, or there’s a very, very good reason for it and they are extremely apologetic and move quite quickly to fix it. I’ve had accounts payable people go out of their way to fix a problem that wasn’t always their fault (once my post office lost a cheque, so while I berated accounts payable with increasing fury, it was sitting on the floor of the post office for who knows how long). I love working with them! I long to know what alchemy of their accounts payable department ensures that they actually treat writers with respect and pay them!

People often envision things like writing as ‘well, you sit down and write a while and then you’re done.’ But there are a lot of hidden costs, and the percentage of my time that I spend actually writing is probably much smaller than you think it is. I spend a minimum of three hours a week chasing down invoices, with an entire spreadsheet dedicated purely to tracking who owes me how much and what stage of the ‘bitch better have my money’ process we have reached. This is the fun, rewarding life of freelancing!

Image: Wystan, Flickr