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:
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.
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.