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The copywriter’s toolkit - part 3: How to get paid

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Let’s look at an all-too-familiar scenario. The deadline – which was already tight – got moved up. The brief that you’d agreed to got changed as their client added more aspects to it. But in the interests of professionalism you cut all your social engagements short, did the extra research and delivered everything on time.

Cue blubbering thanks from the client (or, more likely, a text message saying ‘thx’) and a sense of a job well done. With a sigh of relief you submitted your invoice, and sat back and waited for those funds to roll in.

And waited. And waited. And waited some more. After a week you sent a polite reminder – which wasn’t acknowledged or answered. This was the client, you’ll recall, who had responded instantly when you needed clarity on the brief or anything else essential to getting it done. Finally, after three weeks, you got a form letter saying that your payment would be processed at the end of the month, or in the next 30 days…

The cheque’s in the post

Of all the words that you have at your disposal, money shouldn’t be the dirtiest or hardest to deploy. But it frequently is, and never more so at the start of your copywriting career when the lack of a bulging portfolio and inexperience can easily become psychological obstacles in getting clients to cough up or even negotiate a decent rate of pay.

Let’s look at that last point first: the 30-day payment terms. Net 30 (and it’s even-less-welcome flatmates Net 60 and Net 90) are beloved of bigger organisations. It means that they can schedule payments to contractors at their leisure, usually to tie in with their monthly payment run. This benefits them in two ways: it reduces their operational costs and lets them hold onto that lovely capital – and its interest – for a few weeks longer.

If you read that back again, you’ll notice that the benefits are all one-way – they’re being rewarded for your patience. That this is purported to be the norm makes it harder to challenge – but this norm is a corporate invention designed for coroporate convenience.

Here’s the thing: as a contractor, you should be setting the terms, and you can do this by a four-word magical credo on the bottom of your invoice: Payment Terms: On Presentation. It’s important to have this conversation right before you’ve agreed to any work; this means that your terms of business are then set down in law.

Businesses might argue that it’s expensive to do a same-day transfer, which used to be the case; a scheduled monthly BACS transfer is free, but a same-day CHAPS payment carried a fee of around £35. However Faster Payment Service – FPS – was rolled out in 2011 and allows for instant transfers of funds without the whopping CHAPS fee.

Making proper advances

And speaking of fees, it’s also a good idea to specify a late fee on your invoice – typically 1.5-2% of interest per month after the payment due date. That sounds like a small amount – and it is – but it’s an extra incentive for the client to pay up on time.

If it’s a new client, then it’s far from unreasonable to ask for a deposit up front. Again, if you’re only starting out, this might come across as a bolshy power move, but you’re pretty much taking all the risks here; they’ll likely have a greater deal of financial security than you have at this point.

You might think that your writing is the unknown quantity, but they’ve chosen you to do the commission. From your viewpoint, they’re the unknown quantity. This is also a good time to clarify the brief and get that down in writing. It’s not unknown for clients to try to reduce or skip out of payment if they get push-back from their client, or if they change the brief after you’ve delivered your work.

30-50% is a reasonable advance on the work, and most proper clients won’t have a problem with that. If they do, it’s worth exploring what the problem is; if it’s a cashflow issue on their part or ‘just company policy’, it’s a potential red flag when it comes to getting paid after the job. Of course, the reverse is common, where they expect you to deliver work for free.

I’m a union man

This can all be a bit daunting if you’re going it alone, and the good news is that you don’t have to. There are a number of professional organisations such as Procopywriters where you can find advice and support – membership starts at £6 a month – and it need hardly be said that Creativepool is incredibly proactive in terms of promoting the work of its members.

If journalism makes up a percentage of your work, you become eligible to join a union such as the National Union of Journalists or the British Association of Journalists. In fact, it’s arguably worth branching out into journalism just to do so (not to mention the addition of another revenue stream and a chance to hone your writing skills in that arena) – union membership gives you access to solid legal support and great networking opportunities.

And if your journalistic activities involve newsgathering, you might be eligible for that mythical beast, the press card. The actual qualifying percentage of your overall work varies from union to union, but there’s no denying that it’s a handy thing to have.

Royalty without a crown

Which brings us to another organisation, and one that’s paradoxically largely unknown to many British writers: The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Societ (ALCS). The ALCS’s mission and purpose is simple: they hunt down and pay the money that you’re owed for secondary use of your works, be it magazine articles or books. That means when schools photocopy your material or libraries lend out your work – you’re owed money. The ALCS makes sure that you get it.

Lifetime membership is £36 but you don’t pay anything upfront; it’s deducted from your first payments. And if you’re a member of one of the NUJ, your membership is free. Even if you’re just starting out, it’s worthwhile getting in on the ground level on this one – and it’s important to keep updating your profile any time your work makes it into print.

What are you waiting for?

If you only write one thing today, write an invoice. I’ve provided a sample one for you to download (with the payment terms thoughtfully filled in for you). One point that’s worthy of note is that if you’re working for an overseas client, you’ll need to change these to your BIC and IBAN code. Your bank should be able to tell you what they are.

And – and this should be a no-brainer – make sure that you send that invoice the second the work is completed. Push for payment on presentation – if you cave in to Net 30 or any other period, you are essentially extending free credit to the client; and if you don’t do any of this, then the legal default is that the client has 60 days to pay you. 

Put it this way: try telling the till assistant at Tesco that you’ll pay for your weekly shop at the end of the month and see how that goes over. And it's a fair bet that Tesco could afford to wait more than you can.

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