Credit control is something every small business has to deal with, and freelance journalists are no exception.
At some point in your career, you will find yourself dealing with late paying clients, clients who are slow to pay, and sometimes, clients who just refuse to pay.
As set out in EU law [to be specific, in the Late Payments Directive, transposed into Irish law by Statutory Instrument No. 580/2012 – European Communities (Late Payment in Commercial Transactions) Regulations 2012], most companies will expect 30 days credit. However this can be varied by the terms of a contract.
Note that this can mean either 30 days from receipt of goods or service, or 30 days after an invoice is received.
After 30 days, interest payments can be charged.
However, your future business as a freelancer will depend on building relationships with companies, editors and producers. Citing the letter of the law might get you a prompt payment on an overdue invoice, but it could also mean you get less business next time.
Legal remedies should always be a last resort. So what should you do first?
It’s a mistake to think that credit control begins when a bill is overdue. Good habits begin in childhood, and it’s good practice to set things out in advance in your work too.
To begin, agree what work you are expected to do up front, and how much you will be paid. Sometimes, on a large project such as ghostwriting, this can mean exchanging contracts setting out in detail what is expected. But often, it’s just a phone call from an editor. Take a minute on the call just to ask how much the fee is, and follow up with an email. Keep it simple, but set out what was agreed in the call.
Something like “Hi John, just a quick email to confirm your request for a 500 word article for the Daily Bugle by 5PM tomorrow, for a fee of €200, payment 30 days after delivery” covers the basics.
You may also want to set out some “boilerplate”, standard text to cover different terms and conditions. Do you have a cancellation fee, for example? Or you may want to specify that you are only selling the rights to first publication in an Irish newspaper (or website), and retain all other rights. You can either copy and paste those added terms at the end of the email, or post them on a webpage and post a link.
Over time, as more exceptions arise, you may find your boilerplate text grows in size. It’s a good idea to review and trim it regularly to avoid bloat.
As soon as you’ve delivered the agreed piece, send your invoice. Just set out a brief description of the piece, the amount due, and repeat your terms again (“30 days after delivery”).
Some (in fact, most) businesses will pay routinely, on the first of the month, or every week on Tuesday. It takes time and practice to learn their different rhythms.
But even in the best run offices, things go wrong sometimes. If you miss an expected payment, drop a line to the accounts office. Ask if there’s a problem you can help with. Maybe the invoice went astray into a spam folder (it happens!) or your account details are inaccurate. A statement outlining the outstanding invoices, along with a friendly email giving your phone number, and followed up a day or two later with a phone call, will sort out most problems.
Eventually (you will have to decide when for yourself) you may need to escalate.
The Late Payments directive allows interest charges on overdue invoices after 30 days.
Charging interest from Day 31 is not a good idea, but if the time comes when you feel it is necessary, you can send statements outlining interest charges.
Several sites on the internet include interest calculators, such as this one.
However, in some cases, even that incentive may not be enough. If you are have exhausted all your options, and you are still experiencing difficulties, then contact the NUJ, who may be able to help.
You can read the Late Payments S.I. at http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2012/si/580/made/en/pdf
POSTSCRIPT: SETTING A RATE
At the beginning of this article, we skipped over agreeing a rate for a job with a commissioning editor or producer. So how do you set your rates?
The truth is, a lot of the time, there is very little negotiation. Publishers will have set rates and, often, those are the rates you take. Even so, if you have a regular and ongoing relationship with an editor and they know you are reliable, it never hurts to ask about raising the rates now and again.
If you are looking for guidelines, there’s no Irish rates guide published, and if there ever was, it is severely out of date, since it would have been compiled two decades ago, before the Competition Act was first enacted.
There is a Rates For The Job survey maintained by the London Freelance NUJ branch but as you might expect, it is very UK orientated, and deals more with publications than report writing. A lot of the data is also a bit dated.
For what it’s worth, the minimum wage in the Republic of Ireland is currently €10.20 [as of March 2021], which gives €81.60 for a traditional eight hour day, so that sets the absolute floor. That is, if you’re setting a daily rate of less than €80, then you’d be better off getting a minimum wage job. This is a reminder that the hazard with these numbers is they end up becoming targets, when they should really be treated as the absolute baseline.
The average wage is currently about €35K/pa (the minimum wage works out at around €21K for a full-time worker). Bear in mind that if you were waged, your employer would also be paying PRSI contributions (up to 11%, again as of March 2021), and you would receive holiday pay.
Please note these figures are illustrative, and should not be taken as a recommendation or a target.
You won’t get work every day as a freelance. Most freelances are doing well to get 200 days work in a year. Keeping that in mind, you may want to work backwards from their target annual income to strike a daily rate. Even then, there is no single answer. The rate you charge is going to vary depending on the job, the client and other factors. An interview feature for a local provincial paper is not going to net as much as the same amount of work if you are lucky enough to land a piece with a major international magazine.
Perhaps the best advice is not to think about how much you can charge, but to think about a different question. What can you do to charge (or earn) more tomorrow than you did yesterday?