By Paul Bindel
For centuries, creative people have often wondered—mostly in their own minds— “Am I really an artist? A writer? A musician? Or merely someone who makes art, writes, or plays music?”
We can easily settle this debate. You know you’ve really made it if anyone has ever asked you to create for “exposure” or if you’ve ever had a patron ignore your notices about late payment for creative work you’ve already completed. Congrats!
Is that a sadistic way to define an artist? Only if it weren’t true. As many an artist can attest, tens of thousands of clients, patrons and publishers are ready and willing to undervalue your work. (Cue the #notallpatrons crowd.) It’s so common that Jessica Hische has made a playful infographic, which you can find at shouldiworkforfree.com. Spoiler alert: no, you shouldn’t.
While there are many aspects to a healthy client/artist relationship—efficiency, scope of work, collaboration, meeting client goals—payment and the agreements around it should remain a top priority. It’s your bottom line. Here are offensive, defensive and preventative tactics to ensure that you take home what you’ve earned.
Nonfiction writer Scott Carney has seen both tricky and terrible when it comes to publishers. He recently pulled out of a six-figure book deal with Random House when his publishers didn’t respect his creative process. “A lot of freelancers feel like they don’t have any options,” he says. “You have to use whatever tool you can.”
After publishing several best-selling books and countless magazine articles with Wired, Mother Jones, and Playboy, Carney has developed effective—if sometimes curt—tactics in dealing with clients who pay late, or for less than the agreed-upon price.
Carney underscores that slighted creatives shouldn’t hesitate to take action. “Always be escalating,” he says. “Many freelancers feel like their relationships with the client is sacred, and if the client is treating them badly, they need to do better in some way and they’ll never have a client again. My take is that if you have a shitty client, you don’t want to work with them. You need to return the energy they give you.”
When dealing with a late-paying client, the first step is the infamous reminder email: short and dispassionate usually does the trick. When gentle reminders don’t work, however, Carney adds a daily late fee of $100 to the invoice balance to escalate the process. No publication has yet to pay the late fees, but each of them have, finally, paid the invoice.
To add external pressure, you may consider hiring a lawyer or debt collector. While many creatives might believe that hiring a lawyer is out of reach, sometimes all it takes is a sternly worded letter from an attorney for your clients to take action. Additionally, some lawyers are willing to work on contingency, meaning they won’t be paid until after your case wins. A debt collector may be a suitable choice if a client owes you a large amount, but be aware that they will take a cut.
Local musician Jesse Mathews remembers negotiating one of his first gigs at The Aggie in Fort Collins. Over a text the promoter had promised “a cut of ALL ticket sales from the concert on top of a small guarantee,” Mathews recalls. This arrangement motivated the band to sell 50 tickets just on their own. When it was time to pay up, the band earned a measly $300—a cut of only the tickets they had sold, not all the tickets. Mathews now knows this arrangement to be a common industry practice, but that didn’t help him then, after the promoter’s texts had led him to believe otherwise. “I had to give my cut plus more out of my pocket to our trombone player,” he says, “and a few bucks each to the rest of my band, who were visibly disappointed after I had been led to hype them up about our profit for the evening.”
Many stories like Jesse’s start with fuzzy agreements: “I didn’t get it in writing,” “I thought we were friends,” “I understood I would be paid.” While we want to give clients, patrons and publishers the benefit of the doubt, the first step toward clarity is laying out who will do what, by when, and spelling out what happens if any of those fail to happen.
Painter and owner of Afro Triangle Designs, Adri Norris, swears by Tad Crawford’s “Business and Legal Forms” series. “Ever since getting that book and always making sure to do a contract, I’ve gotten paid every time.” In addition to contracts, Norris uses a range of payment processes—half payment up front, accepting online payments and milestone payments—to build trust and protect her work. Even the final payment may need protective measures, Norris explains. “Especially with products, whether physical or digital, I don’t deliver until I get paid.”
But what if your defense against the dark arts isn’t strong enough? Even with a contract, my copywriting clients have gotten behind on payments and in one instance, ended our agreement prematurely due to cashflow issues. Not getting paid can feel annoying, infuriating and even hopeless.
Ultimately, having positive, healthy client relationships requires careful evaluation from the jump. Lincoln Young hasn’t had any significant payment issues in 12+ years as a graphic designer and owner of Swell Creative. He credits that in part to avoiding red flags in the discovery phase.
For instance, Young is very careful to avoid clients who micromanage: “Clients who allow me to do what I’m good at and, in turn, spend their time doing what they’re good at end up with the best results. And, of course, if their teenage neighbor has ‘insight’, we’re probably not a good match.” Young also uses up-front billing in order to protect himself, and he’s only had late payments a few times in his twelve-year career. “Once I’ve worked with a client for a while and there’s mutual trust,” he says, “we can move into a more regular monthly billing process.”
Client relationships characterized by mutual respect, understanding and trust take time to build. And walking away from prospective clients who might not be a good fit isn’t always easy—especially if you need to make money quickly. If you’re feeling stuck, remember to account for the total costs of a client relationship—not just a one-time chance to make money. Every client relationship also involves your energy, your time and your emotions, and it’s as important to protect those as it is to bring home a paycheck.
Originally from rural New Mexico, Paul Bindel spent five years teaching writing before transitioning full time into marketing at Doghead Creative, a digital marketing firm that specializes in content writing, strategy and social media.