Introduction | I: Presentation | II: Client Contact | III: Self-Promotion | IV: Estimating Fees | V: Estimating Expenses | VI: Coordination | VII: Execution | VIII: Expense Accountability | IX: Billing | X: Payment
This is the Ninth in a series of articles on the nine steps necessary to complete a successful freelance photography job. As you recall, the first three articles focused on the sales aspects pertaining to every job—namely the development and presentation of your portfolio, the process of defining who you would like to have as clients, and the importance of creating a marketing campaign to promote your work. The next four articles dealt with the production topics common to all jobs and they were outlined in the estimating expenses, estimating fees, coordination, and execution articles. Then we moved on to considering expense accountability in the Administration segment in which we looked at various ways to keep on top of the paperwork that will allow us to be prepared to pull our billing information together more efficiently.
In this installment we will devote some time to the second to last element of the Lifecycle of a Freelance Job, namely Billing. Actually this is one of the most frequent topics I am called upon for help from not only emerging professional photographers, but also by veterans. I suppose the one reason why photographers find billing so hard to deal with is that it seems so laborious and uninspiring that some photographers drag their feet in getting their invoices out. Besides they would rather be out shooting pictures than doing accounting and so they put off completing their invoices and sending them in. Well let me offer some hope. I feel billing can be handled in such a way as to be an incentive and to offer you encouragement to grow your opportunities. All you need is an approach that will be as painless as possible and reward you for all your efforts.
It is always an amazement to me when a photographer calls me to tell me they have not been paid by a client and they need to know what they can do about getting the check. The first thing I usually ask them is how long it has been since they finished the job and got their invoice to their client. Typically they may say 90, 180 (in some instances even more) days. My response is predictably, “Why did you wait so long to call me?” and they will say, “Well I didn’t want to make the client feel like I was pestering them.” Pestering them? It’s your money. You earned it. Then I have to talk myself down and begin my lecture on self-respect, communication, good business practices, etc.
The first thing we have to keep in mind is that, contrary to popular belief, the billing procedure does not start after the job is done. It doesn’t even start with your keeping track of what you spent during the expense accountability phase. In the world of the Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job the billing procedure starts way back shortly after you turned in your estimate, and the estimate was approved, and you were awarded the job. Yes, that’s right, the moment they tell you that you got the job and you begin to discuss schedules, locations, and the details of the job, that is the time that you ask your client (who is very high on you at this moment), “By the way, to whom should I speak regarding the bookkeeping on this job?” Chances are that the Art Director is the one with whom you are talking and they are responsible for the creative decisions and signing off on the job, but the money will be dispersed through a person in the Accounts Payable department. If you are fortunate enough to be working with an Art Buyer, then the Art Buyer will smooth out the process. It is still imperative to find out who will actually cut the check.
The next step is to call that all important person in Accounts Payable and introduce yourself. Let’s face it, when suppliers call them it is usually because the supplier hasn’t been paid and there is anger or anxiety in the supplier’s voice and that immediately puts the bookkeeper on the defensive. If on the other hand you call up with a happy tone in your voice and you introduce yourself to the bookkeeper by saying, “Hi, I was just awarded the such-and-such job and the Art Director gave me your name. I wanted to introduce myself so I can find out what you will need in order for us to work together to get the billing done to your specifications,” they will appreciate you for your thoughtfulness and professionalism (and also wonder what planet you came from and if there are any more like you).
If you have an advance coming (and you should ask for one on every job) then this is your chance to find out how the bookkeeper wants the invoice for the advance turned in. To speed things up you can offer to email or fax the invoice for the agreed upon advance and then follow that up with a hard copy that will be mailed in. You can even offer, when it is feasible, to go down and hand deliver the hard copy and pick up the advance check. And while you are there you can meet face to face so you get a feeling for working conditions in the office. It’s okay to get a firsthand look at where and how they work so you can try to understand the pressures they are under and to learn how you can make their lives easier. They will appreciate it and you will probably get the attention necessary to find out the disposition of your payment anytime along the process.
While you have their attention you can also ask them how they want the final bill turned in. Maybe they want it in triplicate. Maybe they prefer it be compiled in a three ring binder with tabs for each of the expense line items noted on your estimate. Maybe they will need original receipts, or they may accept photocopies of receipts. This is also your opportunity to ask them the all important question if they have billing cycles and what those cycles are. For example if they usually pay on the first and the fifteenth of the month then you know it will be to your advantage to get your bill to them before those dates or else your payment will be delayed only because you were delinquent in getting the bill out to them. But if you get that invoice in their hands on the date that the office is ready to work on it then your chances of getting paid more quickly are increased. It could be that they are small company and the bookkeeper comes in only every other week in which case it is to your advantage to know when they will be around to make sure they have the correct paperwork in hand to get your bill through. In any event there is always someone who is authorized to write a check when there is an emergency and your chances are heightened if you know whom to call and how their departments operate. The last thing you want be is just an anonymous vendor number. You need to know who the human being is that you are dealing with, and you want them to know that you are trustworthy and you will supply with the information necessary for them to get their job done.
One of the beauties of the APA Estimate/Invoice form cover page is its flexibility. Way back in the beginning of the job you used it to carry forward your sub totals on the work pages and to come up with your estimate, and at that time you simply placed a check mark at the top of the page to signify that it was your estimate of how the job was ultimately going to turn out. It was you best, most professional guess based on your experience and your perception of the objectives of the project. Now you can return to the same form but this time you can check the box at the top of the page that says “Estimate” and it is transformed into the statement of what the job actually cost. You can keep the same line items but this time you are going to show more than just numbers, you are going to tell your client how you kept things under control during the job. By way of implication you are letting them know that you controlled not only the money on the job but also the time involved, the personnel, and all the other elements that made this job happen. This singular sheet of paper is a statement to your professionalism and a testimony to your abilities as a businessperson who happens to be in a creative profession.
While we are on the subject of the Invoice paperwork let’s take a look at some of the common problems that people run into when billing. First make sure that all the contact information is correct so your bill gets routed to the appropriate people on the client side. Then check the Description of Services and Rights Licensed to make certain that nothing has changed since you first estimated the job, or if it has to make note of any issues may have developed during the shoot. Then go ahead and fill in the costs involved on the appropriate line items. Again, as in the case of the original estimate, make sure you put in the exact numbers you are billing because it will be very difficult to go back and ask for more money after the fact if you find you inadvertently left something out. I know that may sound as though I may be talking down to you, but it is very easy to let something slip by and very hard to get compensated after the fact.
It is a good idea once again to note N/A (not applicable) or the number zero with a line through it on any line that has no charge. Clients love to see that they are not being charged for something. If there were any client approved charges that went beyond the original estimate they can be noted on the invoice or they can be submitted as a separate invoice, whatever you have agreed upon with your client. But be sure to note on your invoice that those were client approved additional charges so there will be no reason for dispute after the job has been completed and the paperwork turned in.
Don’t forget to keep accurate track of your post-production work especially if the work you do involved digital manipulation. A lot of people underestimate the time it will take on the computer after the shot is taken and end up not being able to bill for that time. It takes some time and experience to predict how long you will take to create your digitally enhanced magic so be acutely aware of that when estimating and invoice for your labor appropriately.
When it comes to billing for models (Talent) you will notice there is no line item on the form, but you can add that cost to the blank space under Miscellaneous. However you can alternatively put that cost into the “Third Parties Paid Direct to Client” section. In that case the Talent costs are not part of the main bill and therefore not subject to Sales Tax. The client will be billed directly by the Talent or Talent Agency and, as it is a service, will not have to pay sales tax on the services of the Talent. Once again make sure you note the number of talent involved, the number of hours involved, and the price per hour so the client knows how much to expect on the Talent bill. Any other third parties who are expected to be paid directly should be handled the same way.
Once every appropriate line is filled in then it is time to add up the Subtotal which is the total of the Fees, the Production Charges, and the Photographic Imaging Charges. With that figure you are ready to calculate the Sales Tax. In my state, California, the state regards photography as a manufacturing process and so the state tax is determined as a product of the Fees, Production Charges, and Photographic Imaging Charges, the whole thing. There is no splitting up of no tax on services, and tax on supplies. There are certain exceptions to the tax laws and they include there is no tax on final images sent out of state, or images that are sent electronically (since there was nothing tangible exchanged), no tax when a signed and numbered resale card was received from the client, or when the client was one of several governmental entities. For more details on the California Sales Tax Laws you can review the rules by clicking on the California Board of Equalization web site or by checking with APA’s California chapters, which has been doing a wonderful job in working with the state government for some time to simplify the rules. If you are doing business in a state other than California then make sure you are aware of their rules and comply fully. I would not want anyone to think they could circumnavigate their state’s rules in the hopes of saving a few bucks only to get busted and have to pay enormous fines. Remember, we are here to be treated as professionals, so we have to act professionally.
And another thing, as always, double, then triple check your math. Even if you are completing your invoice on some fancy spreadsheet program take the time to make sure your line items add up, you have the appropriate state sales tax, deduct any advance money received, and give the final stamp of approval to the Grand Total.
I noted earlier in the article on Coordination that it is extremely beneficial if, when you have a job that is bigger than your normal job, to hire a Production Coordinator. I suggest that if you do need to hire a Production Coordinator go ahead and ask the Art Director or Art Buyer with whom you are dealing at the beginning of the job if they can recommend a freelance Production Coordinator to you that they prefer working with. Now some photographers may feel awkward asking for a reference to the person who is hiring them but an Art Director or Art Buyer may actually find it comforting to have someone on the job they have worked with in the past, someone they trust, and who knows the ways of getting through red tape at that particular agency. As has been mentioned many times before when you get right down to it the people you deal with on the client side have a boss, and that boss has a boss who has a boss, and none of these people want to look silly to their bosses for having hired you. If you know, or hire someone who knows their procedures you will have a better chance of getting your paperwork approved and therefore getting paid in a timely manner.
So what is a timely manner? Generally speaking it is expected for invoices to be paid in thirty days after your invoice is completed. You will notice that at the bottom of the APA Estimate form there is a note that reads, “Late charge of ___ per month after 30 days.” (The blank space denotes the space in which you type in the percentage which is usually around 1.5 %.) Of course you can allow a little time for the invoice to get through snail mail, but you can circumvent that to some extent if you have made arrangements beforehand (another example of taking the time early in the game to set this up) by faxing or emailing the invoice in advance of the receipt of your hard copy. If you do your job and they do theirs you can get paid well within the industry-accepted thirty days even when you have received an advance.
This is not the only way to get paid. You may choose (especially on a large, long and/or complicated job) to request being paid the way film production companies have been traditionally paid because of their involved budgets, which is one third of the estimated total at the award of the job, a third at the end of the job, and the final third in the allotted thirty days from the end of the job. You may opt to request no advance on the condition that you be guaranteed payment within twenty or fewer days of invoicing, but be careful and have a good sense that they will keep their word, and as in every case when you are dealing with money issues, have this in writing. And another thing, make sure that when you send in your invoice you get confirmation they received it by calling them or asking them to verify the receipt by sending a confirmation email. Email is wonderful in that it has a built-in date and time stamp and the names of the sender and the recipient (in case you have to compile a paper trail). While you’re at it you can also ask when you can expect payment. A simple request like that can keep the ball rolling. It is not unheard of for a client to say they will pay on a certain day and then default, but at least you have a date you can discuss and a reason to call. Make yourself approachable and leave the door open so you know how to reach the authorized personnel necessary to complete the process.
When it comes to negotiating there’s lots of ways to negotiate your payment, but they all hinge on full communication with your client and the people who actually cut the check before the job, and then staying on top of the process in a proactive, professional manner. As far as negotiating goes I don’t remember who it was that told me this but it is wise to think of it this way, “Birth is beautiful…death is inevitable…everything else in between is negotiable.”
Now we are in the home stretch of the Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job article series. We have taken a keen look at how to promote yourself and to whom you should target your promotional materials to be the most effective. Then we went on to consider what you need to keep in mind when in the production phase with attention to the estimate, pre-production and execution of the project. And in the last two installments we examined two of the administrative topics namely expense accountability and billing. Now we are ready for the big final step, payment. In the next article we will spend some time looking at what happens if the check is delayed (or not paid at all); what transpires when the check finally arrives; and what happens to all that money once you sit down to pay everyone. You won’t want to miss our last element of the Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job.
Tony Luna—the President of Tony Luna Creative Services, a Creative Consultancy founded in 1971, and Artist Representative/Executive Producer with Wolfe and Company Films. Mr. Luna has been an Instructor at the Art Center College of Design since 1985 where he teaches “Career Perspectives” in the Photography and Imaging department, and “Crafting a Meaningful Career” and “Living the Dream” in Art Center’s Public Programs. He is the author of, How to Grow as a Photographer: Reinventing Your Career (Allworth Press): an informational and inspirational guide to career evolution. Tony presented a lecture titled “Taking Your Career to the Next Level” at PDN PhotoPlus Expo in October 2008. He has helped well over a thousand artist-entrepreneurs begin, sustain and enhance their careers, and hundreds of companies to grow and prosper.
John Anderson is a retired Lutheran Pastor, having served primarily as a hospital chaplain for more than thirty years. John has been avid about photography for more than thirty years. In the past three years he has devoted his energy to the creation of unique abstract images drawn from normal photographic scenes. John’s work has appeared in three one-man shows over the past two years, and he has published his work on Blurb.com. He has an upcoming show of conventional work in October of this year. John is passionate about his work and continues to explore new frontiers in the creation of unique images. To experience more of his innovative work click on www.imagesaccordingtojohn.com .
Text ©2009 Tony Luna. Photos © John Anderson.