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Ask Author Law

When the publisher doesn't pay

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: A magazine owes me several thousand dollars and hasn't paid. I'm afraid that the publisher is experiencing major money problems. Do you think I should sue for my money? Can I go to small claims court?

A: A lawsuit is certainly one way to get your money, although I would advise it only after you have exhausted your other options, such as requesting intervention from a writers organization. When all else fails, though, litigation is something to consider. Sometimes the credible threat of a lawsuit will precipitate payment. Often the actual filing of a suit brings about a settlement. Sometimes a trial must be held. If you are going to threaten litigation, though, you should be prepared to go ahead. If you aren't ready, willing and able to sue, don't threaten. This means that you should carefully evaluate the potential for litigation at the first sign of trouble. Your collection strategy will be dictated in part by this evaluation.

Whether or not small claims court is practical for you depends on a variety of circumstances such as exactly how much you are owed, where the magazine is located and where you live, how strongly you feel about the situation, and how much time and effort you are willing to invest. Small claims courts are state courts and the rules vary from state to state. In most small claims courts there is a ceiling, called the jurisdictional limit, on how much can be recovered. The figure varies widely from state to state.

Most states require a small claim to be filed in the jurisdiction where the defendant is located. In New York, the suit must be filed in the same county, city or township where the defendant has a postal address. This means that if you live on the West Coast and wish to sue a Manhattan-based magazine, you'll have to file your suit in the small claims court in New York County, which is a division of the Civil Court of the City of New York. You can have someone file on your behalf, but you'll eventually have to appear in court yourself. So, if you live near New York and can appear in court easily, small claims court can be an effective way to get your money from a New York publisher. But if you live far away from the publisher or are owed more than the jurisdictional limit, then it's a much less practical option.

Something else to keep in mind is that even if you win a judgment, in small claims court or another court, you still have to collect it. If the magazine is, as you suspect, tottering on the brink of insolvency, winning in court may not get you any of those dollars you are owed.
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