Upfront Payments: A Buyer's Perspective

Not only am I a freelance writer, but I'm also a client to other freelancers from time to time. Most of my clients are billed up front for my work. As a provider, I get to set the terms I work under and decide if or when to negotiate or make exceptions. Obviously there are benefits to being paid up front. As a client though, I also find there are benefits to paying up front, and this past week or so has made for an interesting example.

Here's how I typically like to work:

I review a contractor's portfolio. Either it makes the cut or it doesn't. I don't buy the cheapest. I buy from someone whose past work demonstrates they can do what I want. Usually I find people I hire by searching on my own or asking for referrals (the one exception being the music reviewer who does writeups for me monthly, who solicited me).

If their portfolio is adequate, and I'm reasonably impressed by their conduct when we discuss a project, I hire them. We cover all of the project details, talk about price and delivery times, and once I have the information I need, I pay them and they deliver when the work is complete.

There are a few reasons I prefer paying up front. For instance:

  1. It means my end of the bargain is finished. I don't have to worry about doing anything - just receive and review the work.
  2. I don't have to worry about payment processor issues - if there's a problem, we know up front (see the example below for the latest horror story).
  3. In my experience, I've noticed two things. When I pay after the work is complete (generally on the contractor's insistence), they have a faster turnaround, because they want to get paid. When I pay up front, I've already shown that they can trust me and that I have the ability to live up to my end of the bargain - in that case, I find the contractors are more eager to please and they focus more on quality (which in the end is what I'm most interested in) - they know keeping me happy as a client means they might be able to get more work (also being paid up front, which they often find they like even if they're not used to working that way).
  4. If I've already paid up front, I have more leverage when it comes to ensuring other terms are met (if I haven't paid yet, people seem less worried about upsetting me, missing a deadline, etc., because in their mind I haven't really lost anything yet - and this has happened with small and quite large ticket projects alike).

Why I'll keep paying up front in the future:

I made a mistake with the coder I hired recently. Because he generally did a good job with the work itself, I'm not going to name names. In short, I wanted to pay up front, and he insisted I wait and pay after the work was delivered.

We agreed to payment terms (in this case via Paypal). He noted that I should contact him before sending payment, because his business partner manages the account. It might sound strange to some, but I work with a lot of firms, and it's not uncommon that the person I'm dealing with isn't the person who directly manages the Paypal account, credit cards, bank account, checks, etc. I didn't think much of it at the time.

Work was finished and delivered. I was ready to pay. He tells me there might be a problem, and that his business partner won't let him use the account to accept payment (so obviously some honesty issues there about them actually being in business together, and needless to say I'm not happy about it). He proposed a different payment processor. If we were doing an upfront payment as I asked for, I would have simply said no (with this particular suggestion) and found another coder.

The other payment processor was a nightmare. They sent a receipt that funds were transferring, and they put the hold on the funds in my account. They ended up canceling the transaction because of some problem on the contractor's end (said he wouldn't be able to accept payment, but they couldn't tell me why for privacy reasons).

I ended up spending a half an hour on hold just to reach someone, received form emails when I was promised a personal and detailed response, and to put it mildly all hell broke loose. It was crazy just getting them to release my funds from hold and answer simple questions.

So the coder asked me to send the money via Western Union (I generally don't do this). I set up an account with them online and tried to send the payment. I got an error message telling me to call them. I called them (more time wasted on the phone). They told me they couldn't verify my address with the credit report they checked (which was bullshit, because I check my reports regularly and as of last month every one of them had my correct and updated contact information - the two reps I spoke to could barely speak English to begin with and kept spelling my street name wrong no matter how many times I repeated it, so I'm sure the issue was in what they were entering). They canceled it (but to this point haven't released my funds again, which they also immediately put on hold with the financial institution).

I let the contractor know he would be responsible for any additional fees incurred because of the change in agreed upon payment terms, and he was fine with that. I also made it clear that I'm not processing the payment again (they want me to go to a Western Union location and go the manual paperwork route now) until they release the funds from the first attempt (after dealing with their customer service people who were absolutely atrocious, there's no way in hell I'm trusting them with double the payment in their control).

It's been far more of a hassle than it was worth, and looking back it all stemmed from me not insisting on paying up front as usual. I doubt I'll make that mistake again.

So folks, don't be afraid to ask for up front payments for your freelance writing work. Buyers don't all take issue with it, most will compromise if they really want to work with you, and it's the seller's right to set their terms (you don't tell your doctor, plumber, or any other service provider when you'll pay them - they tell you). And in the end, it just may be in their best interest after all.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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6 thoughts on “Upfront Payments: A Buyer's Perspective”

  1. Great post with sensible advice.

    I hope freelance writers take it to heart.

    I don’t know what it is about writers, that they’re hesitant about asking for payment up front. On small jobs (under $500) when you know the writer can do the work it’s much more sensible just to pay up front and get it out of the way.

    Writing without payment is a sure way to go broke. Magazine writers are trained to wait for payment when and if the mag is ready to pay them; that’s a great reason not to write for magazines. 🙂

    Many of the writers I talk to don’t even have a rates schedule, nor do they have a payment policy; both are essential.



  2. Angela, it’s funny that you mention that. One of my goals this year was to finally pitch some magazines (I’ve ghostwritten pieces for clients that are in trade mags, but I’d love a bylined print sample). Despite that goal, I just haven’t been able to bring myself to spend time querying to work for someone who won’t abide by the terms I set for what I’m offering – just doesn’t make sense with a regularly filled schedule with clients who will and with my own work paying well. The print appeal just isn’t enough, and I think the pay terms are something they’re eventually going to have to some compromising on more to compete with the growing number of print publications paying well (hell, you can get paid faster writing for a magazine’s website than the primary publication – which is what brings in much, if not most, of their own revenue still).

    On a side note, my coder and I did finally get his payment dealt with – bitched very loudly at Western Union this morning for not releasing the funds yesterday as promised in order to re-process, got them to do it while I waited on hold (I’m good at getting companies to do what I want when they screw up on the customer service front – my mother used to joke I could make a nice living writing complaint letters for people), and then drove out to one of their locations to process it again. *sigh* At least it’s dealt with and I don’t have to think about it again. The coder was very apologetic and did offer to try to make up for the wasted time in additional work (not making him do that, but it was nice that he offered).

  3. Jennifer, it’s great that you got Western Union sorted. You ARE a genius at getting results. Good idea for a magazine query or two, maybe? Or even for a book.:-)

    Re magazines, I still write for a couple of computer magazines every month because I’ve been writing for them for 15 years. But it must be at least a year since I’ve sent out any magazine queries to publications where I don’t have a on-going relationship.

    Occasionally I get an idea for a magazine article which might work, and then think about the HASSLE of sending the query… so I weasel out and write the idea as a blog post, or start a new blog, or save it in a folder. I’m sure the money side has a lot to do with my ditching magazines, but it’s also the all-round hassle.

    These days, I can’t think of any good reasons to build new relationships with print magazines. You can get the same name-building results with Web writing, and Web writing has a longer shelf life. 🙂

  4. I hear you on the hassle front. I write successful pitch letters all the time (including ones the get my clients in magazines and newspapers for feature pitches or interviews). I have no doubt I could write my own queries just as well. I just can’t feel motivated to do it – why spend time writing that query / pitch letter (something I usually get paid for in and of itself) just on the hopes of a “yes” followed by more work and then waiting? It’s just easier for me to come up with an idea, think about which of my clients it might apply to, and then propose a pitch letter for them to use instead – I get paid for the letter, they more often than not get the pickups and exposure, and it’s just a win-win. When what they’re pitching is a feature itself, I generally also get paid to ghostwrite it for them (and that’s something I get paid decently for – more than a lot of mags would pay at the moment for a writer without print bylined clips).

    It’s funny that you mention books. I’ve been quietly working on a non-fiction project that started out as a potential blog post and became a book-proposal-in-progress. It’s on becoming a query-free freelancer (making a significant freelance writing income without having to subject yourself to the rules and query processes of magazines and similar publications). So at this point, giving in and querying print mags would even be hypocritical!

    I’ve also been toying with creating a few ad-supported “silent” (not credited to me) static sites to use a few of my spare domains. Might be worth doing a small 5-page site or something on the complaint letter issue. Thanks for the thought. 🙂

  5. Interesting to read this! I’d never really thought about asking for payment up front, but I’m mulling it over. It just seems like most publications have these “we pay upon publication” policies that are sort of hard to argue with. But man, it is frustrating to wait…and wait….and wait….to be paid.

  6. While the publishing industry is notoriously slow to change, I really don’t think they have a choice in the grand scheme of things. With Web publishing becoming more prevalent and more respectable (and paying on par with print publications), they’re going to have to start re-thinking their payment policies before long if they want to attract the top writers.


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