I read a blog a few months back where a successful writer talked about his frustration of going to speak somewhere and having the questions people ask be about the financial and publication side of his profession. His frustration came not from the questions themselves, but because someone would ask, “How do I get an agent?” just before revealing that they had a great idea for a book, but wanted to get it represented before “actually writing it.” I see this frequently on blogs and even in my classes–people who have written nothing and want to sell it.
For my bit, I suffer from the opposite side. I’ve been writing for years and giving it away for free, so the business side of it is foreign. At one point I did have to calculate my hourly wage for editing because I was being asked to do that as part of “other duties as assigned” at my old job. Beyond that, I was just happy for contributor copies. (Which I still am.)
However, in the past year or so, I’ve actually had to look at the business side of writing. For example, I actually had to declare my income as a writer on my taxes. Who knew? Probably everyone but me. (I’m still trying to figure out what constitutes a deduction and if incorporating is the best thing to do at this point.) It’s strange to have something that really isn’t a career in the financial sense of the word still be part of the business and financial part of my life.
Probably the most important thing I’ve learned about in the past year is contracts. When I received my first writing contract which said someone had to pay me money for something I had written, I was so overjoyed I almost didn’t read it. But even in my elation, I knew I should make sure I understood what I was signing. Can I just say that the writing contracts I have read have ranged from the straightforward to the maddeningly convoluted? I don’t do well with clauses and jargon, so I have come up with a simple list of rules for contracts before signing:
- Never sign anything that does not give me the rights to my work. Sometimes they’ll say that they have exclusive rights for six months or a year. That seems pretty standard for online publications. But eventually I need the rights back to my work because it is my work. Someday if I want to include it in something else, I need the right to do that.
- Make sure they are paying me and not the other way around. I haven’t run into this yet, but I know there are scams out there for writers. As I tell my students, you should never pay to publish. (Contests are different–a number of reputable contests have an entry fee that supplements the prize. I get that.) Even if the only payment is a contributor copy, I shouldn’t have to give anything financially.
- Clear indication of editing policies. I’m fine with people editing my work for length or clarity; I just want to know about it. Again, I haven’t had this issue–all of the editors I work with are collaborative people who give suggestions and guide the editing process–but I don’t ever want to see my work altered without my permission. In the end, it’s my name that goes with it and I don’t want credit for work that isn’t really mine, good or bad.
- Ask questions about things I don’t understand. If I don’t know what a particular phrase means, I’ll just ask. I don’t like things that are ambiguous and unclear; I would hate to sign away the rights to reprints or something like that just because the phrasing was tricky.
These may seem simple, but if you are like me, it’s important not to sign something that could impact your work for years to come. If you are lucky enough to get a writing contract, read it thoroughly and make sure you understand everything that is being agreed to, on both sides. Always ask questions–it’s better to appear naive about legal documents than to end up losing something important to you or being in violation later.