Getting paid

I followed a recent thread on Twitter where several writers discussed how their invoices for school visits were being paid chronically late or, sometimes, not at all.  Whilst this is bad enough, it transpired that several of them felt uncomfortable chasing payments because they found it confrontational or feared it might be seen as rude.

Personally, I think no one should feel embarrassed about chasing a late payment – after all, if your employer didn’t pay your salary into the bank this month, you’d ask them where it was, wouldn’t you?  Providing a service as an author is no different and you are entitled to chase late payment.

For many writers, issuing invoices and following up payment presents no problem and, if you are one of them, this article is not aimed at you.  However, for others, the process of carrying out author events and being paid for them may be the first time they have experienced what it feels like to be self-employed or to run your own business.

In my muggle job, I have spent a fair proportion of my time chasing late payments.  This need not be a traumatic process; handled correctly it rarely reaches the point of unpleasantness or legal action and a few simple precautions can reduce or eliminate the most common causes of late payment.  So, if this sounds like it might be useful information then this article is for you.

Firstly ,know you are in the right:  We’re a weird lot, writers.  We spend so much time on our own and questioning our self-worth that it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that you are not worthy of being paid. However, at the risk of sounding like a Marxist treatise – everyone has the right to be paid fairly for their skills and labour.  You wouldn’t leave a restaurant without paying would you? (for appearances sake please say ‘no’ to this question) – well this is no different.  Start with a mindset that says you are fully entitled to be paid an agreed sum for what you have done – know this in your heart and, if necessary get a little pissed off.  Grr!

Second, agree everything up front:  Contrary to common belief, invoices are rarely paid late because the other person is deliberately trying to cheat you.   Far more likely is that there is a misunderstanding somewhere down the line.  So, be very clear at the outset of any school visit what you will do, what conditions you will apply and what you expect in return.  It’s easy to assume that the librarian you spoke to on the phone caught your passing reference to your fees but you don’t really want to find out after the event that the head teacher didn’t get the message and thought you were working for free.  Set out the terms of the visit in writing.  This needn’t require you to call Saul; my own terms and conditions are a few simple paragraphs that set out, what I will talk about, which year groups I work with, how long I will talk for and what my fees will be.  It also sets out any special conditions, like what expenses I expect to be paid and how long you will give them before an invoice is ‘overdue’.  SCBWI has some excellent guidance on this and it’s worth its weight in gold.  As a colleague of mine used to say – “you never need a contract, right up until the moment that you do.”

Third – avoid the common pitfalls:  So, let’s say you’ve got the contract, done the gig (they loved you) and you are ready to issue an invoice.  What will increase your chances of being paid promptly?  I’ve found that the following can solve a lot of problems before they begin:

  1. Is your invoice correct? Does the invoice have the right fee on it? Have you submitted expenses in accordance with what was agreed?  Are there any mistakes/ errors; have you included receipts, a purchase order number or an accounting reference (if you have one).  No matter how trivial an error may seem, there are a lot of accounting departments who will automatically reject any invoice with an error.  Often, they will then sit on it until the hapless supplier questions where their money is.  It may seem devious but many accountants simply regard this as good accounting practice – whatever your feelings, be aware of the problem and pre-empt it.
  2. Have you sent it to the right person? Simple enough. Don’t assume that the nice assistant librarian who met you at the door and made you a coffee is the person you should send your invoice to.  If you don’t know who it should go to, ASK!  The last thing you want is to find out your invoice has been languishing in the inbox of a supply teacher who went backpacking in Vietnam when it should have gone to the accounts team.
  3. Have they acknowledged receipt? Simple enough this one – ‘Did you get my invoice?’ can save weeks of waiting later.
  4. Have you been clear about the payment terms? You’d be surprised how many invoices don’t say when they are due.  Some unscrupulous accounts departments (and there are a few) might assume they have forever to pay.  Be clear about when you expect the money.  My own invoices say they are due immediately on presentation although, in practice, I generally give people about four weeks before I start to chase.

Start chasing:  OK, so say you asked for payment in 30 days and it’s been longer than that.  It’s time to start chasing.  Bear in mind that the majority of late payments are due to forgetfulness and admin cock ups so don’t start with all guns blazing.

  1. First step: Gentle reminders – “Dear Miss XXX, thank you so much for hosting my author day last month, the children were a joy to talk to and a credit to the school (lay this on as thick as you like).  I wonder if you could help me regarding my invoice:  I submitted this on (date) but haven’t received payment yet.  I am concerned this may have been lost in the system, I wonder if you could follow it up for me?”  – The truth is, your invoice has probably been forgotten in the bottom of Miss XXX’s briefcase and she will be mortified – but because you gave her a ‘get out’ she will blame the admin team and sort it out this afternoon.
  2. Second step: Insistence – If this persists for, say, another couple of weeks you may want to be a little more direct.  “Dear Miss XXX – I still don’t seem to have received payment for my invoice – as this is now X weeks overdue I’d be grateful if you could arrange payment this week.” Not rude, not unprofessional but a little more steely than the last message.
  3. Third step: Talking – Fact: People are harder to ignore than emails.  Ring them up – talk to them directly.  Often it helps to fabricate a reason for calling.  “Mary, I have an advance copy of my new book/ bookmarks/ limited edition moist towelettes that you might like for the library – shall I send them over?  Oh, by the way, my invoice still doesn’t seem to have been paid, is there someone I should escalate this to or are you able to help me?”  Trust me, it’s a shameless person who is not prepared to respond to this immediately.
  4. Fourth step: Get to the root of the problem – Alright this has gone on long enough, it’s time to get to the reasons behind the delay.  A frankly worded email is often best.  “Having checked my account I see my invoice has still not been paid – can you tell me if there is a problem with payment that I should be aware of?  As you know, payment was due X weeks ago and I am reluctant to escalate the issue, but I am not sure how else to expedite (good word, sounds vaguely legal) the process.  Please let me know when I can expect payment.”  This may prompt a spontaneous confession from the librarian that they put your fee on the 3:15 at Kempton Park but more likely there’s enough implied threat here to unstick the payment.
  5. Fifth step: Escalate:  Still no money?  Alright, however nice this person is, they are jerking you around, or useless, or both.  You have a right to be annoyed, you have a genuine grievance and you are entitled to be paid.  Start moving up through the organisation – who is this person’s boss?  The head of department? Head teacher? School governor?  Time for another polite but firm letter stating the problem – remember this new person may have no knowledge of the problem and may be mortified that it’s got this far – I find the right tone is usually firm and polite with top notes of mild embarrassment at having to bring it up.

If this fails then you can keep escalating, until you get to someone who is prepared to help (I once petitioned the Chairman of a major multinational about my unpaid invoice while he was in bed with a slipped disc).  I felt a bit bad about that one, but he paid the same day.

However, if an organisation is genuinely rogue and refusing to pay then you may have to think about legal action.  For something like author visit fees then the small claims court is probably the best vehicle for doing this – it’s quick and relatively easy and needn’t involve lawyers.  As a process it’s designed to help small operators get quick legal redress and guidance on the process is easy to find on line.

That’s it – be persistant, be polite and know you’re in the right (a little bit of pissed-offness can help you find the right attitude).  Above all, the best solution is prevention – making sure that you have the terms of the gig and the subsequent payment clearly agreed up front is the best insurance against late payment.

Good luck