Every career writer has been there: weeks without a single check arriving in the mail, nails chewed down to the knuckles worrying whether you’ll be able to eat this month, let alone pay the rent. In a perfect world, checks would arrive precisely on the due date, every single time. Unfortunately, our dear old world is far from perfect, and accounts-payable departments even less so, for a whole range of reasons: inefficiency, the ubiquitous cash-flow problems, understaffing, staff changes, vacations, illness, computer problems, editors who are too busy to sign off invoices. Even the promptest and most reliable payers occasionally experience hiccups that see an invoice overlooked, with the result that an anticipated payment is delayed.
Just as you have in place procedures to get your work out there, so you must also have in place procedures for promptly following up overdue payments, because the responsibility for ensuring the money flows in rests with you.
The initial step in your collection procedures is prompt invoicing: raise an official invoice as soon as an editor accepts your article. Be sure that invoice details all relevant information: the contract number or any other reference number you have been asked to quote, the name of the commissioning editor, the name of the article, the edition of the magazine, and payment terms. Indicate on the invoice that you are happy to accept payment via electronic funds transfer. You may get your money more quickly, and writers who refuse electronic payments may find they are dropped from a publication’s list of preferred suppliers. Now, in your diary or contact management software calendar, note the date the invoice is due for payment. If the check doesn’t arrive within a day or two of that due date, e-mail a brief, low-key, non- accusatory note to the editor: ‘Pam, payment for my [name] article was due on the 30th, but as of today’s mail, it hasn’t arrived. Is there someone in accounting I should speak to?’ Pam may respond with the name and contact details of an accounts payable clerk, or she may say something to the effect that she’s followed it up, and the check will definitely go out in today’s mail. Note her response, and keep a brief record of every collection discussion for future reference. Allow sufficient time for the check to reach you, and if it doesn’t arrive when expected, contact her again with a friendly: ‘Pam, hate to bother you, but still no check’.
If the editor gives you an accounts-payable contact, note the person’s details – and use them! Don’t bother your editor again, for payment is out of her hands: the accounts department controls the cash flow and determines who gets paid when, and she has enough on her plate without fielding late-payment enquiries. The only time to break this rule is if the check does not hit your mailbox after several collection discussions with the accounts person. Again, keep the note/chat friendly, polite, and brief: ‘Pam, I’ve spoken to [name] in accounts four times, my check still hasn’t arrived and it’s now two months overdue. Anything you can do to speed things along would be greatly appreciated.’ If possible, make your initial contact to the accounts payable person by e-mail. Provide as much information as possible to make her job easy: invoice number, date, article name, publication date in the body of the e-mail, and attach a copy of the invoice to the e-mail. If she doesn’t respond within a day, call her, because the larger the organization, the less reliable e-mail communications can be. Be friendly and polite: this person is your ally, not your enemy, so focus on building a relationship with her. It may require several calls and some excuse-countering (see below) to get your check. However, don’t automatically assume the company is ‘out to get you’: every organization experiences cash flow problems, and contrary to widely held belief, huge multi-nationals are not exempt from them. Think about it: they, too, are dependent on their customers paying them on time. If two or three large customers are slow payers, it means that perhaps millions of dollars are unavailable for the company to pay their suppliers of goods and services.
So: the keys are:
+ Keep things pleasant and friendly throughout the collection process. It’s in your best interest: bear in mind office gossip and the good, or harm, a chance remark can do. Much better for your career if your accounts contact says to your editor over coffee: ‘Isn’t Jean Smith lovely? Her calls make my day! I wish everyone was as nice’ than ‘That Jean Smith is the rudest b**** I have ever spoken to.’
+ Be prompt: ask about overdue payments within a day or so of their due date. Don’t leave it until two months after the check should have arrived. Ensure your follow-up contacts are equally prompt: you have to show that you are serious about wanting payment. Delaying a follow- up call for a month or two won’t do much for your credibility.
+ Be persistent: note down responses, counter excuses, follow up when the check doesn’t arrive, call again, note response, counter the next excuse, follow up. It’s the old ‘squeaky wheel’ technique: the one that makes the most noise gets the attention!
+ When a payment is overdue and it’s obvious you’re not going to get paid without a fight, get tough. Re-read Angela’s article 10 Ways to Make Deadbeats Pay Up…Fast! .
Along the way, you will encounter all sorts of excuses about why you haven’t been paid. Following are some of the classics, along with responses to counter them. Excuse: That check was posted ages ago.
Response: I’m very pleased to hear that, Anne. However, it should have been here by now. Could you just tell me the check number and the actual date it was posted? Note down the check number when she gives it to you. Then solicit more information, such as the bank, the exact amount, whether she or someone else physically posted it. If the debtor is a habitual defaulter, you could then say “I’m sorry, I didn’t write down that check number, would you mind giving it to me again?” Compare them to see if they agree