A big issue for many writers is what to do after you get a publishing or job offer. What if the publisher or employer has a tight deadline, and to make the deadline you have to start writing before you get a payment or a signed contract? Should you get started and risk not getting paid or not getting the contract? Or should you wait, which could mean losing the job or the contract?

The answer is, as they say in the law, it depends. What to do depends on such factors as how much money is at stake, how much work you have to put in before the promised payment or contract arrives, and how solid and trustworthy the individual or a company is that you will work for. Then, too, consider that the person hiring you could change his or her mind or that the client might be a subcontractor for a client, so if the ultimate client doesn’t pay or changes his or her mind, you could be unpaid for any work you do before you receive any payment on the project.

I began thinking about this issue after I was hired by a client who was putting together a book and website for another client. Initially, this subcontractor just wanted a book and wanted a proposed fee for writing it. But after I bid and got the job, the subcontractor said he wanted a website included for that total amount. Not wanting to lose the job, I didn’t say anything about the change, figuring the website write-up would only take a few hours. Then, since the client had a short deadline on the website copy and his staff couldn’t send the contract and check until the following Monday, I agreed to start on Friday.

In making this decision, I even turned down an offer for a credit card payment, since Master Card would take 4%. But after I edited the Frequently Asked Questions section and got the go-ahead to do more, I found the instructions about the website copy unclear, and after I turned in a few pages for feedback, the subcontractor called to cancel the contract for both the book and the website. He said he didn’t have time to do any more reviews and no longer wanted me to do the book, so he wouldn’t be sending the contract or advance check. But I had already spent about 5 hours unpaid on the project.

At first, the client tried to get out of paying me, though ultimately he agreed to pay, saying my offer to accept $500 for the work I had done “sounded good,” though later he sent me a check marked “In protest.” After it went through, I decided it best not to respond to explain anything. “He’s just messing with you,” another writer told me. But the incident got me thinking about payments and contracts generally.

I’ve worked with dozens of publishers where it can take several weeks or even a month or two to get a finalized contract, and the payment often doesn’t arrive until 30 to 45 days after that. But the deadline for submitting the copy means I need to start writing it before the contract arrives. Whenever this has happened, my experience has been that the contract does arrive and so does the payment.

In some cases, where the publisher has a no-advance contract, so the first payment will be several months after the book has been successfully published, the book has almost always been published and eventually I have gotten royalties. So with established publishers, working before the contract or payment arrives has usually been fine. But with smaller publishers, such an agreement can be very iffy. The publisher has no initial investment, and so the publisher can easily decide not to publish.

I and other writers have also generally had success in getting paid after doing some work or completing a project with larger, established companies. Commonly, they hire a number of writers, as well as other employees and contractors, and have a policy in which writers do the work and submit a bill to get paid – generally within 10 to 30 days. Usually there is an agreement describing what is to be written, sometimes called the “deliverable,” and the writing usually begins after getting the contract, with the payment following within a short time after delivering the work.

However, when it comes to writing for individual clients or small companies, that’s when problems arise, and there can be little recourse if the individual or company doesn’t pay, especially when they are based in another state, or worse, another country. It takes time and effort to go to small claims court, and you can’t use small claims court for an out-of state or out-of country client, plus you can encounter many difficulties in trying to collect even with a judgment from a debtor who doesn’t want to pay.

Thus, I have come to realize that in working with private individuals or small companies, it is best to either get a retainer or set up a pay-as-you-go arrangement using a credit card. Then, whether or not you are getting a contract, don’t do any work until you are paid in advance. Clients may express a concern about paying you and then not getting the work, but they have an easy way to complain and get a refund if this is the case, by appealing to their credit card company or to PayPal. But if you aren’t paid, you don’t have the option. You have to depend on the client’s willingness to pay.

It may be fine to arrange for a check, credit card, or PayPal payment after you do the work once you have established an ongoing trusting relationship with a client. But until then, initially, it is better to get paid before or at the time you do the work, however the client wants to pay (check, credit card, PayPal, or even cash). As one writer associate put it, “I don’t put pen to paper until I am paid up-front and receive any signed contract that’s required for the project. And if the client has a tight deadline making it difficult to get me the payment or contract, then that’s the client’s problem. He or she should do better planning. I simply won’t write anything until I have at least a partial deposit or retainer up front.”

So that’s my recommendation. Use a “pay to play” approach in dealing with individuals and small companies, and try to get this arrangement with larger companies if you can, but if not, take the chance they will be good for the money, after you do some or all of the writing. You may lose out on some writing assignments from individuals and small companies as a result. But you will save yourself a lot of problems from clients who don’t pay after you have done the work.

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Gini Graham Scott, PhD, is the author of over 50 books with major publishers, including two on the writing and publishing books: FIND PUBLISHERS AND AGENTS AND GET PUBLISHED and SELL YOUR BOOK, SCRIPT, OR COLUMN. She has written and produced over 50 short films, has written 15 scripts for features, and has one feature film she wrote and executive produced scheduled for release in February 2015.
She also writes scripts for clients, and has several book and film industry Meetup groups which have meetings to discuss members’ books and films. She is the Creative Director for Publishers Agents and Films.
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