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Writing off your losses*

I’m not only a “travel writer,” a term that makes me feel uncomfortable, actually (but that’s a topic for a whole other piece). I write essays–typically about social, cultural, and political issues, as well as pieces related to food and parenting. I am an academic editor, which means that I copy edit dissertations and theses, provide guidance about how students can improve the rigor of their qualitative research, and generally ensure that their finished product meets referencing guidelines. I very occasionally do research for other writers. (Once, I had to go to a courthouse in Brooklyn and scope it out to confirm details that only a local could know for a writer who lived far away). I probably do other stuff I can’t even remember.

And I do translations, Spanish to English and vice versa.

I love translation work. One reason is because Francisco and I do the work together (if you’re ever in need of a translator, I highly recommend a fully bilingual couple to do the work; native speakers often lack the formal grammar and spelling skills that a non-native speaker possesses, but they tend to “get” cultural references that even the most immersed non-native speaker might miss entirely). Other reasons I love translation? I get to practice my formal Spanish skills (as opposed to my sloppy, slangy daily Spanish) and I learn so much about topics that I probably wouldn’t have investigated on my own. I get to work with people from other countries, often on interesting and, occasionally, incredible projects.

Together, Francisco and I have translated the strategic plan for a winery in Rias Baixas, Spain (we learned A LOT about albarino… and felt obliged to drink a few bottles in order to understand our subject. Hiccup). We’ve translated artists’ contracts for a New York based representation firm. We’ve translated all of the text-based material for a wonderful art exhibit about marginalized communities in La Boquilla, Colombia, and all of the dialogue on several documentaries.

Four or five years ago we also took on a quick small project, translating a few articles for a New York based writer. I probably wouldn’t remember the project had it not involved the translation (or non-translation, as we eventually decided) of a single phrase that actually led to an hour-long debate between Francisco and myself about its meaning… and which totally stoked my interest (and ongoing passion) in the theories of translation.

I actually trot out the story of that project every once in a while because I find it an exemplary way to explain some of the challenges of translation. But now, I get to trot the story of that project out for an entirely different reason: we never got paid for it.

*

The Havana Film Festival of New York is showing here this week. Francisco is overdosing on documentaries and movies from Cuba and Latin America while I hang out with Mariel and write between her infrequent naps. After yesterday’s feature, a woman approached Francisco and said, “Are you Julie’s husband? I think I owe you money.”

Funny… the night before, Francisco had brought home a post card advertising a film by a woman with the same name of the person who owed us for the translation project. “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks it’s the same Marilyn Perez,” I said to Francisco.

And it was.

Now you’d think that if someone approached you and said “I think I owe you money,” that (1) perhaps they were ashamed they hadn’t paid you for work you did years ago and (2) since they were outing themselves, that they finally intended to pay.

Wrong.

Francisco actually couldn’t remember how much Marilyn owed for the project, and so he told her he’d check with me. I spent about 30 minutes going through years-old email, trying to find the original invoice. “I don’t know,” I finally told him, completely annoyed. “But it was at least $100.” We agreed to say $100 and just settle the account.

*

Francisco saw Marilyn again today and when he told her the balance owed, she actually told him she “could have gotten volunteers” to translate the articles. “But you didn’t,” he told her. “You hired us. You knew the rate beforehand and agreed to it.” “But I ended up losing money on the articles,” Marilyn continued. “That has nothing to do with our work,” Francisco says. “And we definitely lost money.”

*

I’m not entirely sure how their encounter ended- Francisco’s cell phone punked out- but I know for sure he’s not bringing home a hundred dollar bill.

What’s the lesson to be learned here?

I’d actually written off this loss several months after we finished the project, convinced that Marilyn wasn’t going to pay. Perhaps Francisco shouldn’t have even confronted her… even though she was the one to initiate the conversation about her debt.

Should we charge in advance and require that payment be made in full before working on any projects?

We have lots of clients- 99% of them are wonderful. They pay on time, in full, and address any concerns directly and professionally. I don’t want to impose an up-front system on them and I’m not particularly keen on having a different approach for every client; it’s just too much to keep track of.

Should we only accept projects from clients we already know and referrals from those same clients? Perhaps. But it might limit some opportunities.

How do you handle private writing or translation clients and payments? I’d love to hear your advice and experiences in the comments.

*By the way, if you live in the United States or pay taxes in the US, you CAN write off unpaid projects as long as you have evidence of your project agreement and can substantiate you weren’t paid.

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21 responses »

  1. I have a contract (incl. fee) signed before beginning the translation work. Legally binding, so (in theory, at least) you could sue for the fee.

    Reply
    • Sophie-

      I think contracts are important, especially for new clients. But the fee being as little as it was in this particular case, the time and money spent trying to recover it would probably not be worth the effort.

      Reply
  2. It’s mind boggling that the woman approached Francisco, mentioned the debt, and then refused to pay it! I’m just getting started at doing this type of work online, but I have a few strategies I try with private clients.

    – Prepay – This worked well in Pakistan because the “trust” factor was always on my side. People tended to trust that a white, foreign woman would do what she said she would. Here is the US I’ve asked for prepay for the first installment of work, and then when the client pays in a timely manner I set up a payment schedule with them. I might complete the work before payment, but I generally won’t send it until the payment goes through.

    I also work with clients through Constant Content. I charge higher fees (as CC gets a significant cut) but I have the assurance that tracking down payment is not my responsibility. Clients can’t download articles until they pay, and if a private client never pays then the article goes in a general pool for other prospective buyers. Of course, if I write something really specific that wouldn’t have another market, then I have to take the risk that it might not sell.

    You can see client track records (how many times they have purchased with CC), so now I pay attention to that before committing to an article. If they’ve never bought anything on CC (rating of 0), chances are they are just testing the waters and might not actually buy anything.

    Reply
    • Heather-

      I really hate the notion of pre-pay (in my own case), but I think it’s something I have to consider as a means of protection. And while I’m loathe to change my system with clients I’ve had for years, I think that they tend to be very understanding. I actually asked a client this week to help me experiment with a PayPal fee work-around and explained why. When she replied she said, “I’m all about helping you get all the money I pay you!”

      Reply
  3. I’m glad you wrote about this. I’ve encountered this while writing for a local newspaper. The features editor refused to pay me after I’d written eleven articles ( I had a column) for them. Thankfully, my parents, who are accountants came to my rescue and helped me draft an invoice. After almost six months, the editor in chief apologised profusely and I was paid.

    Isn’t there any way of hauling up private clients in the U.S when they default on payments?

    Reply
    • Reeti-

      You have had more than your fair share of crappy editors!

      The answer to your question about deadbeat clients in the US is yes… and no. You could haul them to court, but unless the project pays thousands of dollars, it’s not really worth it. The time you’d spend, not to mention the money, is really likely to cancel out whatever you’re owed.

      In some cases, you can report the issue to your state’s Department of Labor, but in most cases, there’s no protection for freelancers. This is why, interestingly, the New York-based Freelancers Union is currently working on an initiative to help freelancers who have deadbeat clients. They realized that this was a problem… though I don’t think even they realized just how pervasive it was until they started holding town hall meetings and heard story upon story of deadbeats. Hopefully, we’ll get more protection and assistance as a result of their efforts.

      Reply
      • Yes and this seems to be perfectly acceptable behaviour here. I decided never to work as a fulltime journalist in India after my experiences and I plan on sticking to my decision 🙂

    • Good for you! I’m telling you, it’s all about the diversified income stream.

      Reply
  4. As a freelance translator, it’s your decision whether to work for an end client (in this case, the paper) or an agency. If you work for an agency, there are places you can go first to verify whether or not they’re what we call a “good payer” or a “bad payer.” PaymentPractices.net is the best in the industry; however, it requires a $25 annual subscription fee. The BlueBoard on ProZ.com is free, but not as reliable as you’re unable to see the agency’s feedback as to why they didn’t pay, etc. I don’t know of anything like this for end clients. When you work with end clients, you run this risk. There are a LOT of people out there willing to do translation. Bad payers among end clients just find someone else. But bad payers among agencies get bad reputations because translators talk and then they can’t get anyone else because people know they don’t pay.

    Just a decision you have to make.

    Reply
  5. Whoa, what a douchebag. I wouldn’t even know how to handle that, perhaps I’m too naive. $10 seems more than reasonable to me.

    Reply
  6. Don’t even get me started on the unpaying client issue. I wrote a website bio for a client once, then followed up daily regarding any revisions, etc., since I was going to be traveling out of the country and completely unreachable for the next 10 days. He didn’t get back to me, I assumed all was good and sent him the invoice for $150 (our agreed upon amount). He never paid and finally told me that they ended up not using the bio so he didn’t have to pay for it. Ummm … excuse me?

    It’s one thing to go into a magazine article contract knowing there’s no kill fee, but when I do client work, I expect to be paid, and I go out of my way to make sure people are satisfied with the finished project before invoicing.

    I know that some people say you can take people to small claims court, and I can see that being worth it for a loss of $500 or more, but for $150? I finally just sucked it up and wrote it off.

    Here’s the problem I have: I understand why people don’t want to pay for a service upfront. I wouldn’t want to pay to get my plumbing fixed or landscaping done and then not have the work completed. For awhile I tried to get new clients to pay 50% upfront, but then I wasn’t getting new clients. I don’t feel the need to charge ongoing clients fees upfront because I know they’ll pay.

    That said, this client who didn’t pay was a recurring client who just jumped ship after not paying the $150. Seriously, he actually skipped town.

    So I don’t know the answer because it really does tick me off to do work and not get paid for what I do. For me, following my gut and getting a feel on the person might be the best thing to do. If someone does use contracts and they work well, I would be interested in seeing a copy of the contract if possible. I know they’re intimidating to some people, but I may have to start using them.

    Reply
    • “He never paid and finally told me that they ended up not using the bio so he didn’t have to pay for it. Ummm … excuse me?”

      My point precisely. You don’t go to the grocery store, buy milk, let it go bad, and then go back to the grocery store and say you want a refund because you didn’t use it. I know writing and translation aren’t milk, but still….

      Reply
  7. I’ve definitely had a few deadbeats in my lifetime. Some for professional work, others just on road:

    Doing a rideshare in Texas, I offered to take two girls to Austin for $30. They were an hour late meeting me. I stopped in West and offered them each a kolache for the road. When we were approaching Austin, I asked if they could give me the $30, whereupon one girl said she would meet me at Western Union later and have it wired. I’m not naive, I found this sketchy, but we had talked a lot over the 4-hour drive, and felt as if she deserved the benefit of the doubt. Then days went by, when I finally felt the need to just say: PAY NOW. Her response?

    “You don’t need the money. I’m struggling to live. You can afford to buy fancy sausages.”
    “That’s beside the point. You agreed to pay $30 before we left.”

    $30 from two rail riders, $50 outstanding from a tutoring gig (nice lesson to your son, btw), $220 from an employer who thinks she’s written me off (will confront this weekend). I don’t think there’s a way around some losses if you want to show a little trust in people. Sure, I’ll rely on PayPal or cash in hand, but when it comes down to it, I’ll probably give someone the benefit of the doubt.

    Reply
  8. I’ve been mostly pretty lucky, a few small translation jobs, and people trying to nickel and dime me down off my fee once they did the math on how much it would cost (hint: no, except in one extenuating circumstance). I try not to draw a direct connection between the work I do and the money I make from it, because if I count hours, I can get quite bitter. Luckily in Chile the world is so small that if you screw one translator or one editor, no one will work for you again (I think), so it tends to be pretty honest (so far).

    and the expensive sausage? that’s hilarious! But sad, so sad!

    Reply
    • Oh, to nickel and dime you on your fee? Eileen, that is a whole other post. I had a long-term client I actually like a lot recently ask me if I could do some free work for her because she was going through a hard time financially. I had a series of projects for her, some that were more time-intensive than others. At first, I was totally incensed. Fortunately, I stepped away from the computer and took 24 hours before I responded. I told her that I could charge a lower rate for the less time-intensive projects, but that I couldn’t work for free because, well, it was work. And because it would make me angry and I wouldn’t do a good job.

      Reply
  9. What a crappy situation. I hate when people don’t honor the work that you do. (I liked your earlier comment about writing and milk. You don’t take your milk back to the store when it goes bad and you haven’t used it.)

    I’ve had some performances/accompanying payments go ‘missing’. Thankfully, I’ve gotten almost all of them back by being a polite pest (sending invoices/calling). I one time was out about $300 from some accompanying work. The person didn’t pay for over a year. But every couple of months I sent another invoice until they just broke down and paid me.

    Reply
  10. Sorry to be jumping late into this conversation, but another tactic I’ve used with a reasonable amount of success is the attorney/collection firm’s 10-day demand letter. Many attorneys and collection firms will send these for free. If the debt still remains unpaid after the 10 days has elapsed, it can go into collection. The collection firm only takes a cut if they are successful, which means you at least get something, whereas otherwise you might not have received anything.

    So after I’ve sent at least two invoices that have gone ignored, I’ll send a third that clearly indicates it will be handled by a collection firm thereafter if still unpaid. Although this really only works if it’s a couple of hundred dollars or more – less than that and the debtor just assumes that I’m bluffing, which I am. I’ll only really send it for collection if the amount is going to be worth the effort for the collection agency, otherwise they won’t work it aggressively, if at all.

    After that I quit worrying about it – they may successfully collect, which means I’ll get an unexpected surprise, even if it’s not the full amount owed me, but if not, well it wasn’t likely to be paid anyway.

    Reply
    • papertrail23

      Trisha-

      Wow- fascinating. I had no idea that a collection agency was even an option. Thanks for sharing this information.

      Reply
  11. Ageing thread I know, but after reading last post encouraging the use of collection agencies I feel compelled to post a response. Be very cautious when engaging such agencies, they can seriously damage your reputation and client relationships. Although the client relationship is often gone bad if you are at this stage anyway…

    Taking some simple steps at the point of sale or service request will assist in prompt and full payments. There is no harm in asking for at least a partial payment up-front, especially for new first time customers.
    For more tips or to ask me anything see my blog http://www.cashflowworks.com/cashflow_discussions

    Reply

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