Freelancers are always running into little problems…shifting deadlines, clients who don’t know what the hell they really want, and the worst one of all–the publisher who won’t pay for some reason. Handling this situation calls for a tactful blend of psyhological warfare and extreme tact, but you can win if you play your cards properly. In a recent dispute with an editor over payment, I used the following five tactics for successful resolution of the problem. I’m happy to report that I did get paid, I’m still writing for the publication, and everyone seems happy. Here’s what I did:
5. Rely on your paper trail. Many times a dispute over content or delivery comes out of either a simple misunderstanding, a lack of communication, or the willful disregard by one party or the other. Save ALL your correspondence with your clients and editors until you’ve cashed your checks. This gives you something to refer back on in black and white–ammunition for when you need to get serious. It’s really important to make sure you understand the e-mails sent to you about a project. If you think your editor has their head jammed up where the sun don’t shine, make sure you know for sure before diagnosing a case of Cranial Rectosis.
4. Continue to work on the project. I cannot this stress enough in situations where there is substantial money involved. Your dropping the project or telling the editor you are in “pencils down” mode may be legal grounds for witholding some or all of your money. A verbal agreement is still binding. If you have hopes for a renewed good relationship or are only in dispute over part of the project, don’t jeopardize the whole thing by stopping your work. The exception to this is if you are certain you are getting screwed, won’t ever be paid, and need to cut your losses and find a bona fide gig. Don’t take the “keep working” advice when dealing with a lost cause, but think this option over carefully before committing.
3. Remember Machiavelli. Never threaten. Do NOT issue ultimatums. Instead, make your demands and let THEM fill in the blanks. In trying to resolve my dispute, I issued a very strong, but tactful e-mail to the editor. She was the person in the middle, and I told her I understood her position completely and didn’t have any issues with her at all. But I also said that going forward I expected an established payment schedule to be followed to the letter. I didn’t need to threaten to quit or make the usual complaints in the appropriate places. It was completely understood what I would do if both sides didn’t live up to their part of the bargain. You can often inspire people to do the right thing simply by letting them imagine what might happen if they don’t.
2. Be flexible. Understand that you may need a bit of compromise in order to get your due. It is NOT fair, and it’s often a royal pain to deal with, but in situations where you would like to preserve the relationship you can rest assured your fair-minded actions will be remembered. If you don’t need to preserve the relationship, by appearing to compromise with them you might be paid after all. You can dump the losers after you get your check. Just don’t burn your bridges or do anything that could start a wildfire where your reputation is concerned. Putting those fires out could take a long time, so try to take the high road wherever possible. Compromise might include any number of things, but in my opinion the one thing you should not do is back down on an agreed-upon pay rate for work already finished. It’s a sign of weakness to many editors and lets the predatory ones know you can be taken advantage of. It’s not so bad to compromise on work not submitted, but don’t give an inch when the editor has already agreed to your fee and accepted your work. That, my friends, is what they call a binding agreement.
1. Re-Evaluate. Was your dispute a bump in the road in an otherwise good relationship? Or is it symptomatic of more problems to come? Take stock and try to decide if it’s worth your time to continue with the company. If so, put the incident behind you, be enthusiastic and tell your editor with your actions that all is forgiven. Otherwise, deep-six that relationship in the nicest possible way and move on.
When its all over, you might still go unpaid, but at least you did everything you could. Sometimes you have to chalk it up to experience and move on. It’s what the old schoolers call an occupational hazard. The only good thing about getting burned is that you can recognize the warning signs and behavior next time and take steps to avoid the problem before it starts.