Contracts and the Magazine WriterPosted: November 15, 2007
What Every Writer Needs to Know About Contracts
If you’ve been freelancing for any time at all, you’ve probably learned that contracts — or lack of contracts — vary from magazine to magazine.
Some publishers send writers extremely detailed contracts when assigning articles. Others give assignments to writers during a phone call or they send an email stating scope of the assigned article, word length and other requirements, plus payment and deadline information.
If a publisher makes no mention of a contract when assigning you an article, it’s appropriate for you to send the publisher a letter of agreement specifying the assignment details as you understand them — what the article will cover, number of words, deadline, payment amount, payment date and the specific rights you are selling (First North American Serial Rights, Reprint Rights, One Time Rights, etc.). Sign two copies of the agreement and send them to the publisher to sign, and ask that one signed copy be returned to you.
If you do receive a formal written contract from a publisher, it can be daunting. Examine the document carefully. Does it ask for all rights? Is it a works-for-hire agreement? Does it demand electronic rights along with print rights? Find out exactly what rights you are expected to give up. Understand and agree to everything on the page before signing any contract, or cross out what you do not agree to and return the contract to the publisher noting changes you would like to make. Remember that all contracts are open to negotiations.
Freelancers need to know ahead of time what rights they are willing to sell. If you hope to sell your article to other magazines down the road, you should insist on selling only First North American Series Rights to the original publisher. If you expect to receive payment for electronic rights, be prepared to explain why you should receive compensation for those rights.
Publishers want to be able to use the work in any way and every way possible, now and later on. Most writers are interested in limiting the publisher’s ability to have extensive use of their work. These are the basic beginning points for negotiations, along with the amount of compensation writers will receive.
Negotiations need not be confrontational, and politeness is always appropriate. You might say, “The rate you offer is very low. Can you do any better than that?” Or maybe, “I’m so sorry, I always receive extra payment for electronic rights. I’ll be glad to assign them to you for 90 days following print publication for XXX dollars.”
Writers should also be aware that they could lose rights even after publication, especially when endorsing checks. I wrote quite a few articles for one magazine that several times tried to pay me with checks rubber-stamped on the back with a statement that my endorsement transferred all rights to the publisher. I always returned those checks to the editor I worked with and reminded her that I sold first rights only. Then I waited for a replacement check to arrive. The magazine (now defunct) was always slow to pay and I believe they played this little rubber-stamp game to hang onto money for a while longer. And I still think they wanted to grab all rights.
For much detailed information about contracts, I suggest that you visit the Resources for Writers section of the American Society of Journalists and Authors website. The free Information Sheets are great, especially “Why Writing for Magazines Isn’t What It Used to Be, And What Writers Have to Do About It,” and “Contract Tips for Freelancers.”
I’m not a member of ASJA but I’m a fan of their website because of all the help it provides freelance writers. It was there that I learned about, and signed up for, their free Contracts Watch newsletter several years ago. You can sign up at the ASJA site to receive the newsletter by email or RSS feed.
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©2007 by Laverne Daley