Some Issues with Contracts

The better a professional writer you become, the bigger and more important will be the contracts people ask you to sign.

But tempting as those financial figures may be (with all those zeroes to the left of the decimal point), you’ll be foolish to sign without applying a little professional savvy to your contract evaluation process.

Here are some fundamental tips to guide you in contract evaluation:

  1. “Sign This”

My most important contract advice derives from my very first book deal: I remember sitting in the publisher’s office and chatting amiably about how great was my book concept and how much money we were going to make.

Eventually, the conversation wound down and the publisher looked me square in the eyes. He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “This is our standard contract,” he said with a warm, friendly smile. “Sign it.”

Instead, I started looking through the pages. Here was something I didn’t like. There was another questionable arrangement. After a few minutes of flipping pages and deconstructing legalese, I looked up and said: “There are some things in this contract I don’t like.”

Without missing a beat, the publisher reached into a different drawer of his desk and said with no trace of embarrassment: “This is our other standard contract. Sign this one.”

  1. Watch Out for Claims

This warning may be just as important as the previous item: Most contracts for professional writing come with conventional language warning the writer not to plagiarize, infringe on any rights, defame, or violate any one of a great many laws governing creative work. They follow these injunctions with language in which you agree to indemnify and hold harmless (basically “reimburse”) the publisher for any liabilities arising from your breach of any of those laws and injunctions. So far, so good.

But the lawyers like to sneak another word in here that threatens your entire economic wellbeing. I’m talking about the word “claims”. Basically, most contracts require that you reimburse the publisher for payments made in response to claims that you breached one or more of those laws and injunctions.

Do you see the danger here?

Once you sign such a contract, anyone can make a claim that you violated certain rights, plagiarized, defamed, or did any of a number of bad things, and the publisher doesn’t have to be concerned about whether or not you actually did it. Under the contract, the publisher can simply pay the claimant to go away – and make this payment entirely with your money!

This actually happened to me, once, and I learned my lesson. I have never since signed a contract making me liable to pay for unsupported claims. Instead, I insist on language to the effect that I must reimburse the publisher only for claims “proven in a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Such language is no problem for me because I never plagiarize, defame, or do any of those other bad things.

Once or twice a publisher has been too bureaucratic or hidebound to accept my request for this new language, and so I wasn’t able to make those deals. But I have no regrets; the danger is too large and too real to put myself on the hook for that kind of scam, no matter how lucrative the contract might appear to be.

  1. Obligations of the publisher

Contracts generally bind all parties to both rights and obligations. When looking them over, it’s easy and natural – and sensible – to devote most of your attention to your rights and your obligations. But it’s more professional to take a few minutes to consider the publisher’s rights and obligations, too.

For example, I once negotiated a book contract that gave me a wonderful share of revenues from the hardcover version, and less revenue from the paperback version. I signed it. But I didn’t realize until later that the contract did not obligate the publisher to bring out that hardcover edition. Years later, I’m still waiting to see that book in hardcover.

I have to admit I’ve made this kind of mistake twice, not just once. But you can bet your bottom dollar I won’t be making it a third time.

  1. Play “What If”

Contracts tend to be written by people who are seemingly paid by the word. They rarely use one word when ten will do. As a result, contract language often gets very confusing and the whole point of what’s required can get lost.

That’s why it’s useful to play “what if” to an extreme, just to see what results from the language of the contract you’re preparing to sign.

Try some of these “what if” ideas, and any more that may appeal to you. What if:

  • The publisher goes out of business
  • The work sells millions of copies
  • The work sells almost no copies
  • You can’t complete the work on time
  • The publisher never publishes the work
  • Someone plagiarizes your work
  • Someone claims you plagiarized their work

The more extreme and wide-ranging the “what if” scenarios you test, the more clarity you’re likely to get regarding the contract.

  1. NDA Hijinks

Non-disclosure agreements are increasingly common not only in contracts, but in stand-alone form that someone wants you to sign before you can even begin to learn about a project in which you might want to participate.

But the language here can get very tricky. One potential client asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement that was so strict I discovered – by playing “what if” – that if I signed it I would be forbidden from revealing my own name!

Maybe these kinds of provisions wouldn’t hold up in court, but it’s easier, cheaper, and more practical not to sign such a sketchy contract in the first place.

Robert Moskowitz is an award-winning independent professional writer who has written and sold millions of words in just about every format over five decades. He instinctively sees the big pictures, breaks each one down into coherent slices, meaningfully prioritizes and sequences those slices, and then executes the tasks inherent in each slice in very productive ways. Put more simply, Robert knows how to succeed as an independent writer, covering all the bases from soliciting assignments to delivering polished work, from pricing jobs to budgeting and managing personal finances, from organizing a conducive office environment to establishing and following sensible guidelines regarding life, work, and productivity. Having done all this, and having paid attention to how he did it, Robert is now in a position to pass along what he knows to others.

Setting Up the Effective Writer’s Office

Whenever I have moved to a new house, I experience the same kind of organizational difficulties.

For example, if I am inspired to sit and write a story, but I can’t because my chair and desk are cluttered with moving boxes. I’d like to move the boxes, but I can’t put the boxes in the closet because the door to the closet is blocked by a large piece of furniture. I’d like to put the furniture where I want it, but I can’t because the floor in the room where I want it needs painting. I’d like to paint the floor, but I can’t because I don’t have the right color of paint. I’d like to go buy the paint, but I can’t because my car is in the shop.

And so forth.

As a result, I’m frustrated and I lose out on that particular swirl of inspiration to write that story.

Later, when everything in my new house is squared away and I am settled in, when I want to write a story, I’m in a great position to do so. I can immediately sit at my desk, grab whatever tools I need for writing, and get to work.

Over the years I’ve learned that one of the ways writers become professional is by surrounding themselves with the proper tools and the most comfortable systems they need to work more effectively.

In short, they create an effective writers’ office.

Generally, this entails:

  1. A comfortable space in which to work, whether that’s a garret or a patio, a soft bed or a hard chair, a high tech hardscape or a Victorian drawing room.
  2. The right tools, whether that’s a good pen and plenty of paper or a touch-screen laptop, or a lightweight laptop with Scrivener or Pages software, or a heavyweight desktop computer with Dragon or Speech Recogniser.
  3. The right aural and visual environment, whether that’s dead quiet or heavy metal guitar shredding, a breathtaking view of a mountain lake or a bust of Hemingway at your elbow.
  4. The right reference materials, whether that’s your own notes on preparatory thoughts or props that help you get in your characters’ frame of mind, an encyclopedia or an internet connection.
  5. The right feeling, whether that’s a creative mood, a historic sense of writing well in that place, the takeaway after proven warmup exercises.

An effective office is as important a support of your best writing as an effective wardrobe is in helping you look and feel your best.

The time you spend setting up and maintaining your office will pay dividends over the years as you gain career momentum and add emotional power to your most important writing efforts.

I can recall many times that helping aspiring writers create solid platforms on which to work has led to the launch of far more satisfied and successful wordsmiths.

Setting up an effective writer’s office is different from, but akin to learning the proper footwork or other fundamentals of a sport. Not only my own experiences, but those of others I have helped, make clear that it’s so much easier to concentrate and produce compelling material that accurately reflects your thoughts and feelings when you don’t keep butting up against practical impediments and obstacles.

 

Robert Moskowitz is an award-winning independent professional writer who has written and sold millions of words in just about every format over five decades. He instinctively sees the big pictures, breaks each one down into coherent slices, meaningfully prioritizes and sequences those slices, and then executes the tasks inherent in each slice in very productive ways. Put more simply, Robert knows how to succeed as an independent writer, covering all the bases from soliciting assignments to delivering polished work, from pricing jobs to budgeting and managing personal finances, from organizing a conducive office environment to establishing and following sensible guidelines regarding life, work, and productivity. Having done all this, and having paid attention to how he did it, Robert is now in a position to pass along what he knows to others.

How to Get Your Next Assignment Easier Than Your Last, or Easier Than You Ever Imagined

If you are—or want to be—a working professional writer, then it’s time to realize (or remember) that being able to write a great piece is winning only half the battle.

The other half is being able to sell it.

As far as I can tell, there are only two ways to sell your work:

  1. Find your own audience that is willing to pay to read your work.
  2. Convince someone who already has a paying audience to provide your work to their audience.

I’m all in favor of finding your own audience. I’ve self-published several books, and I plan to do more. I’ve known or heard about people who’ve started their own publications, promoted their own blogs and websites, crowd-funded their books and other writing projects, and so forth. I’ve even met people who have sold their own poetry on street corners for as little as 25 cents a pop.

There are lots of ways to find your own audience, and I encourage you to try some or all of them en route to building your writing career. But it’s always helpful to take the easier route and piggyback your desire to be published on someone who already has access to a paying audience.

Again, I believe there are basically two ways to do this. First, you can write whatever you want and then hope to get someone to pay you for it, or second, you can find someone willing to pay you for writing something they assign to you, whether that’s a newspaper or magazine article, a book, a poem, a white paper, liner notes, a website, a blog post, or anything else.

Here’s how to make getting such an assignment even easier.

  1. Try a lot of avenues to a wide range of outlets (and keep trying new ones)

Selling your work is something like a lottery: you can’t win if you don’t play, and the more entries you have working for you, the greater your chances of winning.

If you’re interested in writing magazine articles, make contact with a lot of publications and editors. If you want to write a book, talk to a lot of agents. If you’re interested in ghostwriting, beat the bushes for lots of different potential clients.

Accept that this is part of the business, and like any professional looking to make a sale, recognize that every rejection brings you one step closer to a “yes.”

  1. Be flexible, professional, and easy to work with

Maybe if you’re the next Hemingway or Doris Lessing, you can afford to be grumpy. But if you’re not, or not yet, then make it pleasant and relaxing to work with you. Hold your complaints, say “yes” as much as you can, and try to find ways to work around the unpleasantries that come with almost every assignment.

I remember when I was young and reporting for a newspaper in Philadelphia, I would sum up the entire wisdom of the world—as it pertained to the topic at hand—in the last paragraph of every article I wrote. The editor would inevitable chop that last paragraph for reasons of space.

I could have gotten angry. Instead, I simply put that wisdom into the second to last paragraph.

Of course, if things get too terrible for you, you can always find a different outlet for your work. But don’t burn any bridges on your way out. You never know when you may have to re-cross that bridge on your way back.

  1. Always have a “next” project to offer

Whenever you sell something, immediately implement the successful professional writer’s “two step”: First, deliver what you promised on time and as terrific as you can make it. Second, start setting the stage to sell to this outlet more of your work.

For the professional writer, a sale is not the end of the process, but the beginning.

  1. Go back to the best wells again and again

Although following these directions will eventually net you a variety of places to sell your work, some will inevitably be better than others: more interesting, challenging, lucrative, friendly, easy, or whatever.

Don’t be shy; keep going back to these outlets with better and better ideas, as well as better and better work. What I am saying is if you have found two peach trees, and one produces better peaches, isn’t that the one where you should do most of your picking?

  1. Keep adding new arrows to your quiver

As a professional, part of your job is to keep improving and delivering better and better work in a wide variety of genres, styles, and formats. You’ll find that trying to sell to new outlets is far easier if you have more skills, abilities, and offerings to show them.

  1. Sell the same prep-work over and over

You may have noticed that successful professional writers often touch on the same topics, revisit the same information, and appeal to the same audiences over and over again. Of course, you want to grow as a professional, but if you spend a lot of time and effort digging into and mastering a certain topic, why not get the most from your investment? You’ll find it’s easier to sell the second and third items resulting from that work than it was to sell the first.

  1. Piggyback on your best ideas

One of the techniques of brainstorming is to piggyback on others’ ideas. For example, I might suggest “let’s paint it red,” and then you might piggyback on that by suggesting “let’s offer it in seven different colors.”

But you don’t need others’ ideas for piggybacking to work. Whatever idea you’re working on, you can probably use that idea as a jumping off point and find some other idea(s) that will also yield good material you can sell.

I have consistently used these techniques to maximize the results of pitching my work to publishers, editors, writing partners, and clients. They may have little to do with the craft of writing, but they have a great deal to do with keeping me in the writing game when other “writers” have dropped out of the creative world in order to keep food on the table.

Of course, it’s important you maintain your primary focus on writing rather than on getting your next assignment. But if you lose sight of selling, there’s a chance you’ll fairly soon be writing for an audience of one.

 

Robert Moskowitz is an award-winning independent professional writer who has written and sold millions of words in just about every format over five decades. He instinctively sees the big pictures, breaks each one down into coherent slices, meaningfully prioritizes and sequences those slices, and then executes the tasks inherent in each slice in very productive ways. Put more simply, Robert knows how to succeed as an independent writer, covering all the bases from soliciting assignments to delivering polished work, from pricing jobs to budgeting and managing personal finances, from organizing a conducive office environment to establishing and following sensible guidelines regarding life, work, and productivity. Having done all this, and having paid attention to how he did it, Robert is now in a position to pass along what he knows to others.