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ScienceWriters magazine  

How to prevent grievances

The relationship between a freelance writer and a publisher thrives on mutual respect, clear expectations, and professional behavior on both sides. That's the ideal. But it doesn't always work out that way, and writers sometimes end up getting what they consider to be unfair treatment.

 

The relationship between a freelance writer and a publisher thrives on mutual respect, clear expectations, and professional behavior on both sides. That's the ideal. But it doesn't always work out that way, and writers sometimes end up getting what they consider to be unfair treatment.

On the NASW grievance committee, we do our best to resolve writers' legitimate grievances with publishers. But it's far better to prevent a grievance in the first place. Here are some suggestions:

Remember, it's a business

To prevent misunderstandings — the biggest cause of grievances — be sure you and the client are on the same page. As soon as the client expresses interest, let them know you're interested, too, but you have a few questions. What's the word count? The pay rate? When's the deadline? What rights do they want? Be cordial but straightforward about what you want. Don't hesitate to negotiate.

Get it in writing

As the old joke goes, verbal agreements aren't worth the paper they're written on. A casual e-mail exchange confirming the basics — pay rate, deadline, rights — is better. Put it in writing no matter how well you know and like an editor or client — editors can leave, priorities can shift, and you need to be protected.

If a contract isn't forthcoming, send a friendly e-mail outlining the terms you agreed to, and ask for confirmation. Be casual about it — but do it. Such e-mails could go a long way toward protecting you should a disagreement arise.

Read your contracts carefully, and negotiate

If a clause is vague or confusing, ask for clarification from the client or from savvy colleagues. Pay attention to rights granted, provisions by which the publisher shares revenue from resales and reprints, exclusivity clauses (for example: "writer shall not write about any related subject for one year"), and kill-fee terms. Try to narrow a kill-fee clause so it can be invoked only after one revision and only if the piece is not of publishable quality. Try to raise the percentage to 50 percent. It's often far too low, considering the amount of work the writer has invested.

If you negotiate and can't make much headway, don't feel bad. Some publishers and other clients are just not particularly flexible.

Walk if you have to

Some potential clients will negotiate numerous clauses in good faith. Others may tell you to take it or leave it. Most will fall in between. We encourage you to do what's best for your business and career. Depending on your circumstances, the terms and the tone of the negotiation, you may wish to accept the terms, keep negotiating, or walk.

Keep a paper or e-mail trail

Your paper trail can document that you delivered an acceptable piece of work on deadline. It can document that you have tried in good faith to inquire about the fate of an article sitting in limbo, or a promised paycheck that has mysteriously been lost in the mail. If you smell trouble, document phone conversations and send e-mails to confirm them. Your communications can be firm and professional, yet cordial.

Stay on top of your business

Check in about that article that's sitting in limbo. Invoice promptly. Expect payment within 30 days. Inquire if it's more than a week or two late. Put your query in writing. Assume good will at first, but don't be naive. If you're getting only silence or obfuscation, try contacting accounts payable directly, or (if you're willing to risk burning a bridge) going over your editor's head to the editor in chief. If your paycheck still fails to arrive, contact the grievance committee. In many cases, we can help.

More contract tips

  • Rights 101: What Writers Should Know About All-Rights and Work-Made-For-Hire Contracts. What various rights clauses mean for writers, including first North American rights, exclusive and nonexclusive rights, all rights, and work for hire. ASJA's Free Resources for Writers page.
  • How to Deal: Negotiating a Better Contract (transcript of workshop at 2004 NASW meeting). Available on the NASW All About Freelancing page. (NASW member username and password required.)
  • Liability: How to Limit Yours, by Kendall Powell / Part I: Know your risks, and avoid them; Part II: A business entity protects mainly against breach of contract disagreements; Part III: Professional liability insurance: not cheap, not bullet-proof. Available on the NASW All About Freelancing page. (NASW member username and password required.)

Dan Ferber is a freelance science writer in Indianapolis, a contributing correspondent for Science, and chair of NASW's Grievance Committee.

(NASW members can read the rest of the Spring 2010 ScienceWriters by logging into the members area.)