Last week freelance writer and photographer Nick van der Leek did an inspiring piece for Grubstreet offering his advice to freelancers – this week I’m going go over to the dark side: the times you wish you weren’t a freelancer because you can’t get paid.
But it’s not all bad news. I’ve also got some tips on how to spot bad payers, what to do to help ensure you get paid timeously and a bit of tax advice thrown in at the end.
First off, some warning signs that there may be trouble ahead:
1. Big companies often equal big hassle. You’d think they’d be professional but I have often found the mainstream media companies the toughest to get my money out of because they are so big and bureaucratic. The editor of a major newspaper himself can ask you to do a story but he won’t be the one sending the invoice to the accounts department nor will she/he be the one you will have to bug for the money later: that will either be the news editor or the managing editor.
You can see the problem!
You may eventually go to the editor out of desperation and they will have to kick arse with their middle manager, who then has to run off to the accounts department to get someone to actually process the payment. Often accounts people will only do this at certain times of the month and you will just have to wait… Sigh…
My advice is that you treat the mainstream newspapers with suspicion from the word “go”.
Far better to get commissions from smaller outfits where the person who commissions you can also sort out late payments. Generally, I have found websites in SA far better payers than the newspapers of the so-called “Big Four” media houses and I have found magazines (even those at the Big Four) to be more attentive to freelancers than the newspapers. They have smaller editorial teams at magazines so they rely quite heavily on freelancers – and, therefore, they treat them better.
The online guys also try to be more decent on principle. Many have bailed out of the corporate media because they want to work with decent people and want to behave with honesty and integrity.
2. Alarm bells should ring when the person who commissions you doesn’t have a firm idea of what they want or are tricky to get hold of when you need clarity on angles, length, sidebars etc. If they don’t have a clear idea at the beginning, it means the brief might change – costing you time and money. And for you time is money. For the salaried hack, time is… well, at somebody else’s expense.
If you’re struggling to get hold of them before you’ve delivered the story, it will be even worse when you want your money!
3. Beware especially of news editors who treat you like their own staff, i.e., thinking you can drop everything at a moment’s notice to give them a story in a day (if this is the case, they must pay more). Or they come back to with ridiculous or gratuitous queries. I’ve got nothing against legitimate queries but this kind news editor is only going cause you stress and waste your time. One of the perks of being an experienced freelancer is limiting your exposure to inexperienced or idiotic news editors.
Keep on the good side of them but don’t work for them unless you have to.
4. Two things in the fine print to watch out for: that you will only get paid for what is used and not commissioned (some won’t even tell you this is the case so always check first) and that you will get paid after publication, which in the case of magazines can take months. This is common in magazines but if you know this, you can make plans for it, i.e., expect the money in two to three months’ time rather than banking on it at the end of the month.
5. When you run into other freelancers, do trade stories about good and bad payers. This is invaluable advice and I have found that the same culprits crop up time and time again.
To help ensure you get paid as fast as possible, you need to:
1. Do a proper invoice with all the relevant info: an invoice number, your name, address, contact numbers, ID number and tax number (many companies won’t pay you unless you include the latter) and their proper name and physical address. Keep copies of all your invoices, neatly organised in company-name folders in your dropbox for later use!
2. Often you have to fill out forms the first time from a big company that involves getting a bank stamp. Do this as fast as possible and get it back to the accounts department so they can get the wheels turning on your payment.
3. When you email your invoice, CC the person who commissioned you if you must send it to an accounts department.
4. Mark down in your diary when you expect payment and if the money is not paid on that day, find out why immediately. There might be a reasonable explanation for late payment but you might also need to start nagging. Don’t let them think you’ve forgotten about getting your money.
5. If you do have to escalate things, try keep it polite but don’t feel shy to email the editor even if you did not deal with him/her on commission, It is his/her title and he/she is really the only person who has the true authority to kick some butt.
And now some tax advice!
1. Find yourself a good tax consultant – and not a big firm where you are one of many faceless clients. Being freelance means your tax is not straightforward and it will be well worth getting the experts in.
My father was a tax consultant and my guy today is someone who, when he was a young CA, used to turn to my dad for advice. This means that he isn’t in the same town as me but the personal connection is there.
Gary sat me down for an hour when I first went to his firm, assessed my situation, consulted the law books and instructed his junior what to do with my taxes in the future.
This means I get money back every year and I can turn to Gary and his juniors for advice whenever I need it – and for the sum of R700 a year to do my returns.
2. I have also always insisted to the companies that pay me regularly that they take PAYE off before I get my money. It is not always necessary in law but it means you are not spending money you might owe to SARS later. Better to pay the money now and see if you can get it back later when you claim your expenses than get hit by a big tax bill when you least expect it.
3. On expenses that you can claim in your tax return, have a look at mine below if you’re not sure what you can and cannot claim. Your situation, however, might be different.
I don’t, for instance, claim petrol or mileage as I don’t feel I do enough driving to justifying claiming this and the hassle of keeping a log book fills me with fear and loathing. This is exactly the kind of thing a tax consultant will advise you on.
As my father used to say: “Never try cheat the tax man, He will get you in the end.”
My list of expense (averaged out monthly and things like rates, water, electricity are a small percentage of the total if you work from home – reflecting your small office space in your larger home ):
Furniture & equipment
Printer & printer consumables (e.g. ink, paper etc)
Phone and ADSL line
Teas & cleaning
Magazines and newspapers
Insurance – household (short-term and long-term)
Website hosting fees
PLEASE EMAIL me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or comment below with any tips of your own. The more we independents share info, the better for us all. Remember that as newsrooms are shrinking, more titles will need more freelancers so it’s best we start educating the errant payers now on how to conduct themselves professionally and with integrity!