Not chasing your dues (Mistake #40)

If you enter into a business transaction with a buyer for words you have written you should see that transaction through to the end.

The end is receipt of payment from the buyer.

If you choose to donate a piece of work – for the exposure, because you believe in the cause the publisher represents, or just because you want to – then fine (up to a point – but back to that another day).

But if you have discussed money, and its exchange in your favour has been agreed during negotiations, then there should be no shirking from your responsibility to see it remitted to you.

For it is a responsibility. You owe it to yourself, first and foremost. Writing what you wrote for money may well have been the only reason you did so. You (presumably) expect to be taken seriously as a professional writer. Well, professional writers are paid. You cannot expect others to look upon you as a professional if you do not look upon yourself as one.

You owe it to other writers too, and to the publishing business which you expect to pay you at least a partial, if not total, living. The business is a business because money changes hands. I’m not an economist, but it appears that model works. Please uphold it – for all our sakes.

Sadly, as most of us who have been in the game a while know all too well, not everyone is particularly keen to send the dosh. Regular clients may well be excellent – as mine are. Others drag their heels, promise to send money which never arrives, and come up with a selection of dog-ate-cheque-like excuses.

So you have to chase. You chase when the payment is overdue. It’s overdue when the date by which settlement was agreed has passed. If none was agreed, then the default is 30 days after the date you delivered the work or the given deadline (whichever is later).

How to chase? Politely, always, at first. Professionally, too. Increasingly firmly, if you have to. You can start by email, then move to phone. It’s the accounts department you want, but you may need to check with the editor that your invoice has been passed on. Get a firm commitment to pay, by a named date, and preferably in writing. Follow up if there are further problems. Become more persistant and dogged. Make yourself a bit of a pain.

This mistake is called ‘not chasing your dues’ not ‘not obtaining your dues’ because I don’t believe you should run yourself into the ground, into a state of mental delerium, and into the law courts to chase down every penny you are owed. There have been times in my career – an overseas client, an amateurish UK outfit with which I should never have become involved – when I’ve just not had the stomach for a bloody battle. My point is you must try, quite hard, as I did. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small amount (I once chased, and got, £35), it’s the principle. How bruised you wish to get, I’ll leave to you, but don’t just turn your back or you’ll feel rubbish. It merely makes it that little bit easier for dodgy dealers to get away with it again. Instead, send them a message that it may not be worth the hassle. And report unscrupulous dealers too, to the NUJ or to Writers’ News.

Ditto if your copyright has been breached and someone has reprinted an article of yours without permission. Don’t steam in with a litigious head: get in touch, point out the mistake (it could well be a genuine mistake), and request removal (if online) or payment.

You may only get a small fee, but I believe it is a duty you have to the writing community. It’s important to convey the sense that words are a commodity, carry a value, and should be paid for. It’s the principle on which our livings rely.

Comments 21

  • And sadly, during these difficult economic times, chasing becomes a more frequent way of life. I'm currently chasing over £800 from three different customers, £300 of which dates back to the middle of November.

  • Unfortunately I think this is a problem that freelance writers will come across sooner rather than later – it's certainly one that I've had to face!

  • It's rough isn't it. I'm losing the will to live over one particular outstanding debt for £250. It sucks it out of you after a while. Need to work up some fury and perhaps threaten the legals…

  • Well said, and we've been discussing a related point about late payment over on my blog recently.

  • Great post, Alex,

    I always feel terribly 'English,' when I try and chase money that's owed to me. I had to do it recently and felt awkward in having to e-mail the client twice about it! Lord knows why I felt bad doing it, but there you go. Persue I did and got paid.

    If you don't stand up for yourself and your rights no-one else will – well, except for a lawyer if you pay them lots of money, perhaps. Hopefully it won't get that far!

  • Super post, Alex.

    I have a system I use. The clients get three invoices total – one at delivery, another thirty days after it's delinquent (if it's not paid right away), and the last one sixty days after delinquency. The last one, to date, has been paid without fail. That's because of a line I add to both the invoice and the note I send with it: "Pay within 10 days of receipt to avoid litigation."

    Not one person has decided to wait and see what I'd do.

  • >>Lori said: "Pay within 10 days of receipt to avoid litigation."


  • ohhh – I think I might borrow that 'litigation' line. It's inspired!

  • What about chasing writing competition prizes? Anyone else had a problem with this? I entered a short story competition that a published and fairly well-known chick-lit writer was running on her blog, last summer. The results were announced in August and I came third. My story was published on the website (ie: I can do nothing more with it). My prize? A signed copy of one of the author's books and £25 of Random House book tokens. I finally – after two polite emails – got the book about a month ago (with a gushing inscription apologising for the delay but she'd been 'sooo busy') but there's still no sign of the book tokens. Only £25 but it's the principle of the thing, isn't it? I've emailed her again, via her website but heard nothing. I am miffed!

  • I'd be miffed too. You say you can do nothing more with it – did you agree to some sort of rights-limiting term or contract? Because, frankly, if she hasn't held up her end of the deal, then I'd be tempted to question whether that remains legally valid. That it came third tells you it's a saleable story. This may need a legal eye. Could you submit a question to the Writers' Rights lawyer in Writing Magazine?

  • Alex
    No, to be fair I didn't agree to anything like that when I entered the competition but I'm assuming, as it's on her website, that it now counts as a 'published' story and therefore that I can't send it to a magazine or enter it for another competition?

  • Well, online rights have been used, so you can't offer those, but you can still offer serial rights. I'm annoyed on your behalf. Another option is to ask her to remove it from her site, on the basis she's breached the terms of the competition. I'll tweet this tomorrow and see if anyone else can advise.

  • Re the missing prize, You could try the Name & Shame approach that worked so well for the Cooks Source copyright faux pas. As you say, it's not a lot of money, but it's the principle of the thing.

  • I hope this information will help blogaboutwriting. I am a writer but I enter competitions as a side hobby. Whenever a competition is run there are certain rules to be followed and by not fulfilling your prize they have breeched this.

    Jane Willis has a great blog post about what to do in these situations.

    I would email again stating that you will be sending a complaint to IPM if you do not hear back from them (providing you have waited more than 28 days which I assume you have.) It may seem harsh but it is what the IPM is there for in situations like this.


  • 1. Yes, I agree with Alex, if part of the prize was 'publication' on her website, then that would infer only electronic rights have been used. I would offer it to a suitable fiction magazine.

    2. But I would try to turn this round to a positive – perhaps contact the author in writing (snail mail – via her publishers if you have no other postal address) and get it in writing that you are free to offer the story to print publications, and at the same time, in recompense of the delay in sorting this out, ask her for a quote about what she liked about your story. It would make a good opening sentence to a letter addressed to a magazine editor, if you could say, XYZ writer said "This story is …." Aimed at the right magazine, it could earn £25 many times over.

  • Agreed, Simon. If it can be turned to a positive it would be much better but even a subtle mention about The Institute of Promotional Marketing will be enough to get a response. This is a bit of a last resort but good to know it exists if you ever need it.

  • Thanks for all your comments and help. I will certainly follow this up and I'll let you know the outcome!

  • Hi all
    I just wondered what your advice for me would be. I'm not owed any money, it's only a small prize of a book for writing the star letter for Writing Magazine but it's the first thing I've had put into a magazine so I'm unsure what to do. I wrote and sent off the letter in August last year and it was in the October edition of the mag, sent out in September and I'm still waiting for my prize. I've emailed a few times and keep getting assurances that it will be sent out soon but I didn't receive a reply to my last email. I feel a bit silly chasing up such a small prize.

  • Don't feel silly. Just give them a call. I'm sure it's just an oversight. An email is easily lost in the swamp of hundreds of others, but a phone call will usually be dealt with.

  • Hi Alex,
    Can I add that when chasing money it is not always the editors fault that the payment is slow? I now send a copy of my invoice to the accounts department as well as the editor with a friendly note stating that the article/short story was filed on xxx date with xxx editor. Yes, the invoice will have to be rubber stamped but usually with the accounts department having a copy it is not lost in the system. They will also see your terms of payment so cannot at a later date start quoting 60 days after publication as long as there's a 'r' in the month.
    It's quite easy to ring the publcation and ask for the accounts department where you will be given the appropriate email address.

  • I guess it's quite easy to c.c. an email to accounts too, but with hard copies also?

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