The Freelance Creative

Ask a Freelancer: Help! A Client Owes Me $2,000!

I’ve had a terrible time with a new client—a major publication. One of the editors of this publication wrote me last fall to see if I’d do a couple of stories for them, which I agreed to. Shortly after, a second editor from the magazine asked me the same, which I did, and writing for him has been a delight. But the first editor has been a nightmare.

I completed two stories for her, one of which was approved many months ago, and finally paid this week. The second story—which I sent her a draft of in March—still hasn’t been approved due to holdups on the client’s end, and I’m at my wit’s end. I’ve explained to the editor very nicely that I can’t afford to walk away from the $2,000 I was supposed to make from this piece. But she doesn’t respond to emails when I check in every so often.

Any advice?

—Can’t Walk Away From $2K

You have two big problems here.

Problem No. 1 is getting your $2,000.

Problem No. 2 is maintaining a positive relationship with your editors so you can continue working for this magazine once the issue is resolved.

Last year I answered the question “What if an editor never publishes my article?” and noted that it can take months for a piece to go from final draft to published article, even if it’s online. It’s important to be patient when dealing with unresponsive editors, which isn’t always easy, but if you expect a long lead time when you accept the project, it’ll be easier to handle the waiting game.

I recently went through a similar situation, turning in a piece on March 31, but waiting until this month for it to go live. I’d worked for this client before, and I expected a delay of a month or two; I checked back in twice over the four months to confirm the piece was on their radar. In July, it was finally published. This is my standard operating practice for clients that are slow to publish. In these cases I generally get a quick confirmation that my story will be published “soon,” which might mean another month, but at least I know my article hasn’t been forgotten.

In my experience, the story in question didn’t come with a $2,000 payday. Regardless of how much income you make, that’s going to be a significant number.

So how do you get your $2,000 if you’ve already sent enough emails? You could think about going to court—probably the surest way to come to a resolution. But small-claims court takes a lot of time and money. And with any legal action, freelancers have to make sure the cost of suing a client doesn’t exceed the damages they hope to receive.

You don’t really want to take your client to court, right? You’ve got at least one editor on this team you enjoy working for who might be interested in offering you additional $2,000 assignments in the future. Scorching your bridge with this client to the ground over $2,000 will probably get you your check, but it’ll kill any chance of a long-term relationship.

So here are a few more suggestions to help you get your money and keep the peace:

Call your editor on the phone

This idea comes from Carol Tice at Make a Living Writing, and it makes a lot of sense:

Many people are less evasive if you can get them on a call. They may give you a sob story about why it’s late (set phasers to ‘ignore’), but hopefully they’ll tell you when you can expect the check.

It’s funny how a lot of us—myself included—forget the phone exists. It’s still there! We can use it to call people and have real conversations!

So call your editor. This is one of those situations where, if your editor doesn’t give you a straight answer, you need to end the conversation with a clear next action that both parties understand: “Thanks for talking to me. If I don’t hear from you in a week, I’ll call again.”

Tice also notes that if your editor is not being helpful, you can always call your editor’s boss. Maybe the managing editor will give you a better picture of the situation or will ask your editor when the piece will be approved. This option isn’t as volatile as suing the company, so you’ll probably be able to keep working with the editor you like, but going above someone to the boss will probably end the working relationship with the editor you’ve struggled with. Which may not be the worst thing in the world.

Talk to another editor at the magazine

Why not ask the other editor if he knows anything about the holdup? If you say working for this particular editor is “a delight,” he can likely provide some insight into the situation—or, at the least, reassure you that your piece hasn’t been forgotten.

He could also ask the other editor about the holdup. When I wear my editing hat at The Billfold, we hang out in a group chat and discuss issues relevant to the publication—including questions we receive from writers. Simply asking for guidance from a colleague who knows the person you’re dealing with could be a safe way to get closer to your check.

Send an invoice

This trick has worked a few times for me. If a client usually pays on time but is keeping one of my pieces in final-draft limbo, I just add the fee to that month’s invoice. I include a note at the bottom to the effect of: “We finalized this draft on February 21. If there’s still work that needs to be done, let me know and I can resubmit April’s invoice without this item.”

So far those invoices have always been paid. This probably works because I have a good relationship with my clients and because I’m willing to say “I did the work; please pay me.”

If you’re unclear about whether invoicing for this piece would be an appropriate step, ask the editor who’s treated you fairly for advice. Or just invoice and see what happens. The worst thing you can get is an email asking you to revise or hold the invoice until the piece is approved.

Ask for a kill fee

This path is a last-ditch effort because you’ll have to cut your rate, but some money is better than no money and the stress of not knowing what’s going on. Having a contract here will help, but even if you don’t have one, most publishers have standard kill fees that range from 25 to 50 percent.

If you handle this with tact and avoid sounding punitive, you will probably be able to salvage your relationship with this company and keep getting work with the editor you like. With the other editor, well… see if she reaches out to you for more work. But don’t hold your breath.

Nicole Dieker always forgets that her smartphone has the magical ability to dial phone numbers. That’s why she prefers you email her your freelancing questions instead of trying to call her. Send your Ask a Freelancer questions to

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