More notes on freelance life

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By Caitlin Kelly

It happens to all of us.

This time, it’s The Pool, a popular and terrific five-year-old UK website aimed at women, now “in administration” (i.e. bankrupt) and screwing lots of furious freelancers out of the payment we earned and are owed and rely on.

Here’s a story about what happened.

But here’s the tricky part:

You don’t think to check the records at Companies House in case an outwardly successful, much-loved, well-read website is in fact £760,000 in debt, has an outstanding personal loan of £40,000, borrowed £250,000 against the company’s assets and lost £1.8 million in the previous financial year. As a freelancer, you can’t possibly be aware of office politics, or worrying signs such as the fact that the entire board bar one resigned in August 2018. None of the staff tell you. Why would they? Maybe they don’t know.

Besides, they need your copy. They keep commissioning you, right through the Christmas period and into early January, only stopping — or so it seems — once they are outed first on Facebook and then on Twitter by a mounting number of freelancers who haven’t been paid.

I’m out about $300 — a hit we can afford to take (reluctantly!) because we have savings and a fairly low overhead. But many others relied on The Pool for our due payments — to pay for rent, food and other necessities.

Creditors don’t care why we’re suddenly and unexpectedly short.

They just expect to be paid on time.

 

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I learned young to be wary of others’ glossy appearance or promises of payment.

I’ve been selling my photos and writing as a freelancer since I was 19, when, one summer, I sold my photos on the street in Toronto. I was so flattered when a smooth, well-dressed, charming woman ordered a large color print of my work — and sent me a rubber check. She assumed I was ill-equipped to fight back.

I sent her a lawyer’s letter and got paid in full, quickly.

I see too many people now desperate for emotional or professional validation — “I’m a writer! I got published!” — when some of those commissioning this material are shysters or going broke and no one tells us this — until, suddenly, we’re all screwed.

As soon as I started to fear (and hear rumors of this disaster at The Pool) I might not get paid, I Googled the company and found everything I needed to know; senior editors quitting months ago en masse, financial chaos, huge debts.

No one selling their skills to strangers — basically what we do when we work without a steady, secure salary and benefits –– can afford to be wilfully ignorant about the ethics and financial health of their clients. It’s why finding and using reliable networks of writing peers is crucial — intel!

 

Everyone who wants to freelance needs savings!

 

 

 

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In other recent freelance writing news…

— Was excited to write about a cool new Montreal company last year — it, too, just went bankrupt. I successfully re-pitched as “What happened to this great idea that sucked up $17 million in investments?”

— Was coaching a young writer for about six weeks but that work (and income) abruptly ended when the student ran out of money.

— Picked up a new anchor client (i.e. steady income!), and now scrambling to meet weekly deadlines for them.

—  Made the error of politely disagreeing on Twitter with a highly opinionated science writer who went batshit on me until I blocked her. Later, privately, a writer who knows her (and her shitty temper) reached out to comfort me. Both were strangers.

— Interviewed a fellow journalist/author via Skype about his new book, gobsmacked by the opulence of the room he was sitting in. Was this a luxury hotel? Was that his living room? Good Lord, what am I doing so wrong?!

— Last fall I’d hoped to pitch a great little story perfect for The New York Times’ Metropolitan section, one of the few sections left there I haven’t written, for but my radiation treatment/exhaustion scotched that. I finally traveled to Brooklyn to interview middle school students for it, with Jose as my chauffeur. It’s so comforting to have him help me!

— Finally emailed an editor with whom I feared we’d had a rough ending last fall. He wrote back immediately to say, No, not at all. Whew!

— Have a new book idea. Will have to see if it’s even worth writing a proposal.

— Sent an unsold book idea to a colleague and now await news if her agent is willing to read it or even rep it.

 

The usual hustle!

Slow, Late, Non-Paying Clients — How to Avoid Or Cope With Them

Sand Dollars and Shells
Sand dollars are pretty, but they won't pay the rent...Image by Zevotron via Flickr

Here’s my New York Times story today about dealing with the bane of business, and one that is getting much worse in this recession — clients who refuse to pay you, now or ever.

Like many of my article ideas, this came out of my own costly experience last fall. First, an out-of-state, privately-owned start-up publication abruptly cancelled $20,000 worth of work, then tried to stiff me out of $5,600 for my work already in, accepted and invoiced for. Two months later, an in-state regional publisher sat on my check — my story already in the magazine, already published — for months, essentially thumbing his nose at me in emails.

My favorite read: “The squeaky wheel doesn’t get the grease.”

At least they were answering my calls and emails. My solution, in both cases? Attorneys.

I found the first one — unusual for me, then very new to social media — through LinkedIn. I posted a simple request: “I need to find an attorney in X state to sue a deadbeat client.” I heard within hours from an attorney in San Francisco, referring me to someone he knew in the city where I needed help. Within a day. I’d hired a collections attorney; many other freelancers who had sold writing, photos or illustrations to this magazine, some of whom I was in touch with, said they preferred to be patient. I doubt they got a penny. Six months later, I got 50 cents on the dollar, minus 1/3 to the attorney. Better than nothing.

As for the New York loser, I turned to a friend I play softball with, a local attorney. His letter to this publisher managed to get me a check within days.

Tips:

1) Do your due diligence! If you are going to do business with anyone, find out whatever you can about their current financial situation and their reputation for payment. I’m on the board of the 1,400-member American Society of Journalists and Authors, and we have several mechanisms available to our members to help them recoup their payments and, perhaps most crucially, warn others away from trouble spots. Use any legal or ethical means necessary; anyone who’s recently done business with them (fellow members of an industry association or listserv) can help.

2) Don’t just wait if payment is late. I know one young writer who waited (!) almost a year for her money from a major New York publisher. Call, email, call and email, however politely. You’ve earned your income and you have bills to pay.

3) Use prudent caution if you choose to work with/for a start-up, a family-owned business and/or one that is out of state. All these can be red flags.

4) If you fear your payment isn’t going to arrive, look into small claims court or a collections attorney sooner rather than later. It takes time.

5) Document every deal: emails, contracts, faxes. You need proof there was a deal.

6) Do whatever you can to keep three months’ expenses in the bank, or a line of credit at a decent interest rate — which is also harder to get these days — as backup. Your mortgage, rent and other bills will not wait for these deadbeats.