I've recently had a couple of interesting experiences when it comes to dealing with contracts for my writing. I thought that it might be a good idea to share my thoughts on the topic. Specifically, I want to speak on three key ideas that have been playing in my mind. First and foremost is the importance of contracts in the first place, though I would hope that you have some conceptual understanding of this already. Forgive me if this point falls into the "been there, heard that" category. The second point is to beat in just how important it is to read your contracts in depth before signing them. Finally, I'm going to talk about a strategy that I have used in order to dissolve a contract with minimal hassle down the road.
So why are contracts important? As a writer, they are important to you because they ensure that you are obligated to a pay and they lay out what tasks are expected of you when it comes to the project in question. When many of us first set out to make a living this way, our earliest clients are often friends or family. Why would we need a contract when we're working with our bestie? Surely if anyone is going to treat us fairly and honor their commitment to pay us, it is them. Isn't it?
While this is often the case, the contract exists in order to prevent the shitty situation that arises in the rare cases when it isn't. Of course, to call these situations rare only really works when we're talking about working with someone we know quite closely. The less we know the client that we are working for, the more important the contract becomes to ensure that they can't back out of payment. But a contract does more than just layout how and when we get paid. A good contract also outlines the responsibilities we have as a writer. When it comes to friends, it is often a lot easier to ask a friend to do more for us than an employee. By setting out what is required of us in the contract we are able to prevent being taken advantage of through extra, unexpected duties.
Regardless of whether or not you are working with a stranger, a friend or a family member, insist on first drafting and signing a contract before you work.
If you are looking to work with a new client or company that provides their own contracts, always read them in depth. There are a lot of companies out there that will take advantage of you and even get you to agree to that exploitation in writing. Here is just one example to illustrate this.
I had been interviewed to work with a company who I won't name directly but it rhymed with SalBet. It was a straight forward gig: I write articles of at least 1,000 words, they pay an impressively measly $15-$25 per article. It's not quite highway robbery, though it is pretty close. But I was desperate for a job and so $15 looked pretty good for an hour or two of work at that point. Then I read the contract and immediately severed all ties with the company.
What the contract set out was: Yes, I would make $15 per article and this would increase to $25 per article if I was able to write a set number of articles in a monthly period. There was a trial period in which I would be expected to write an article a week, the quality of which would be used to determine if I could stay with the company. But this two month trial period was unpaid work, at any point during which I could be let go. So according to the contract they wanted me to sign I was expected to provide a minimum of eight articles without pay or even the promise of pay. Seeing this contract, it is no surprise that the company is constantly posting job openings onto message boards as it suggests that they manage to keep their expenses down by cycling through new writers on a recurring basis.
Finally, sometimes a project that you are under contract for will collapse and you have to dissolve the contract. The easiest way to do this is through.... another contract. Basically, use the second contract to set out what responsibilities each party has in dealing with the dissolution of the original contract. This puts everything into writing and ensures that nobody gets fucked over.
I go one step further when it comes to dissolving. I was working on a project that I had received 50% of the pay for. This project ended up collapsing and suddenly there I was with money for work I wasn't doing anymore. The client, a friend of mine that I trust, told me to keep it. However, this puts me in an awkward position where that client might possibly try telling me that I owed them work in the future because they let me keep the money. To stop this from happening, I offered a discount on other services for a short period of time so that they felt they received something in return. This wasn't a necessity and it wasn't technically true either as the first payment made up for the time I invested.
But I am a strong proponent for for covering your ass at all times. So don't work with anyone unless they will agree to a contract and don't sign any contract unless it treats you fairly.