Sometimes it's not rude to talk about money

So, you’ve filed your copy and sent off your invoice. Now you’re just waiting for the fee to hit your bank account. Except you’ve already been waiting two months and it still hasn’t materialised.

For many freelances, this will be a familiar story. But what do you do? Slap on a late payment charge and risk being labelled a nuisance, or suffer in silence while the bills pile up?

‘My first client took ages to pay,’says one freelance, not named by request. ‘They owed me money I was counting on – I was promised a cheque and it didn’t turn up. I added a £40 late payment fee, and got a call from the editor saying: ‘You can’t complain or they’ll drop you’.”

Fear of a phone call like this one can turn a freelance into a frightened mouse. Your gas company may call the shots about when their bill is due, but finding the courage to fight your corner isn’t easy when you’re going it alone.

‘On your own, you’re powerless. Get together with other freelances,’says London-based freelance Michael Cross.

Cross freelanced for Macmillan before Emap bought its health publications in 1997. He recommends getting to know and trust other contributors. ‘As soon as someone tries to change terms, get in touch with other freelances. Another invaluable lesson is keeping friendly with editors’ and publishers’ secretaries,’he says.

Sometimes, though, negotiation just isn’t possible. ‘One commissioning editor would leave my invoices in his in-tray for a month,’says one journalist, who also asked not to be named. ‘Their rates were really low, but I didn’t have any other clients. In the end, I said: ‘I can’t do this’. They said they couldn’t change, so I walked away.

‘I ended up getting a column in a weekly supplement, which led to more work elsewhere. The original client took up so much of my time, I didn’t have any energy to chase other work.”

His advice? Speak up, but don’t whinge. ‘Make your wishes clear in the most professional and polite way possible. Give them a timeframe by which to respond and, if they haven’t, give yourself a deadline of when you’re going to walk away.”

The NUJ runs a training course in negotiating techniques. According to John Toner, the national freelance organiser, it’s important not to start off confrontationally.

‘Make it clear you enjoy working for the client, and that the issues you are raising are not necessarily deal-breakers,’he advises.

‘This leaves your options open if negotiations are unproductive. If a client proves to be difficult continually, and the freelance has to spend increasing time on dealing with him or her, then the freelance is losing money in real terms.”

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