Why Writers Need a Contract

August 2018

Closeup of unrecognizable businesswoman holding documents

Image: iStock

Thanks to a flood of contract writers and the rise of content mills, the commerce of writing is taking a huge economic hit. So are writers who depend on their craft to earn a living. That’s why freelance writers need a contract.

Statements of work or author agreements —or whatever such  contracts are  called—are designed to clearly explain expectations and publishing rights. Most writers understand the deliverables and deadlines. It’s the publishing rights that can trip them up, especially if those documents are laced with legalese.

Some business relationships are longstanding and work well without a contract. For all others, here are some terms to understand as you comb through a contract.

Exclusive rights

Whether you submit a completed article “on spec” or agree to write something on assignment, the publisher can ask for exclusive rights to that completed work. This basically means you cannot shop the same article to someone else upon acceptance, and especially after a copy team has improved it.

Take a company like Twirling Tiger Media, which has a proven process for reducing the risk of errors. Our editorial team spends considerable time to make sure a piece is accurate, articulate and artfully composed. We basically take the words a writer provides and elevate them if need be.

That doesn’t mean you can’t take the same topic and write about it from a different angle or perspective. By all means, leverage what you know to maximize your return as a subject matter expert. Just don’t peddle a piece that someone else bought and/or worked on.

First rights

Unlike exclusive rights, which a third-party may own in perpetuity, first rights (sometimes called “first serial rights”) mean that party is first to publish a piece. There also is typically a waiting period outlined before a piece can be reposted somewhere else. Others may also have rights to the same product once initial publication takes place. This is more common in regional publications with geographical preferences. For example, your local newspaper may buy the first rights to publish your op-ed on a local issue. But you then retain the rights to publish the same piece elsewhere, such as a personal blog or LinkedIn.

When it doubt about where you can post a piece, ask.

Kill fees

Sometimes an assignment is canceled through no fault of the writer. When that happens, companies often provide a kill fee. This is typically up to 25% of the full amount you’d be due if you’d been allowed to complete the project—and it was accepted. The publisher realizes you may already have invested in preliminary work and want to compensate you. When a kill fee is decided depends on when the piece is pulled.

This is different from when you complete an assignment and then it is rejected. If you fulfilled your end of the transaction— turning in what was expected and on time—you deserve full payment.

Chances are these author agreements are written to protect the company assigning or accepting a piece. But they also protect the writer. Additionally, pay close attention to document retention requirements. Most credible publications require you hold on to notes, recorded interviews and ancillary research records for some time in the event of a legal challenge.

This post was inspired by one done last month by Maureen Joyce, our Creative Director, on publishing rights for creatives.