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Agents & Editors All, RESOURCES-TIPS

By: Shirley Kawa-Jump

When you sign a contract for your writing, your first concern might be what you’re getting paid. But then, as you study the legalese closer, you might start to wonder if there’s room to ask for more. Not that you’re a greedy person–it’s just that you’re beginning to realize the work you’ve put in and now you want terms that reflect that work.

Solution? Negotiate.

In the beginning of your career, you might not be able to negotiate a contract. That’s okay–your primary goal at this point is to gain experience and exposure. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to occasionally give up all rights or accept a little less money if you think the sale will lead to bigger and better things down the road. But don’t let that stop you from asking for more later–editors expect some negotiation on certain terms:

RIGHTS: If at all possible, avoid granting the publisher all rights. If the article is a long one–say, 3,000 words–you’ll want to later break it into smaller ones or re-use some of the research in a different piece. You probably can’t get the contract switched to grant one-time rights. But, you CAN ask the editor to insert the word “print” before the rights clause. In other words, instead of saying, “This fee purchases all rights,” the contract would state, “This fee purchases all print rights.” That gives you back your Web rights and gives you more resale possibilities.

PAYMENT: Early in your career, you won’t have the leverage needed to get additional money for your work. But this can change. After working with the editors of two different publications for more than a year, I wrote a letter to each one explaining why I felt I merited higher fees. For instance, I’d landed cover interviews with celebrities like Lillian Vernon, Bob Vila, and Dave Thomas. I’d been on-time with articles and needed little revision work. In both cases, the editors agreed my experience, work, and skills justified a boost in pay. Also, if you have been with a publication for a long time, you might be able to change “payment on publication” to “payment on acceptance.”

EXTRAS: Always ask for additional payment for extras like sidebars or photos. Sometimes, the publisher does this work in-house; other times you can do it and make a bit more money.

EXPENSES: While most small and medium-sized publications won’t pay travel expenses, most are willing to cover phone costs. If you’re writing a national piece requiring numerous interviews, ask for payment of telephone expenses. Remember, you’ll probably have to send in documentation, like a copy of your phone bill.

KILL FEE: This is the fee that is paid if your article is “killed”–that is, not used. If you think you could easily resell it elsewhere, then agreeing to a kill fee might be fine. If, however, the piece you are writing will work only at this one publication, try to negotiate full payment whether the article is used or not.

COPIES: Because copies of the publication cost the publisher very little, this is an especially easy item to negotiate even if you’re a new writer. So if you want copies to hand out at the next family gathering, go ahead and ask for them.

When to Withdraw

Sometimes the terms of a contract are terrible. You may be asked to write 4,000 words, relinquish all rights, and settle for less than a hundred dollars for your work. If the publication is completely unwilling to negotiate, then you have a choice to make. You can accept the offer, or you can reject the contract and try to find another outlet for your piece.

This decision is entirely up to you. There’s no checklist to help you decide when you should take your writing elsewhere. A smart strategy is to weigh the amount of work you will be putting into the piece against the contract. Don’t feel you have to walk away from a deal because it fails to offer everything you want. Rather, judge what it does offer–clips, a prestigious byline, useful connections, increased credibility. Once you have a few clips under your belt or more experience, you’ll be able to request–and receive–the contracts you deserve.

If you decide to withdraw from a contract, be sure to do so in a professional manner. As with any business dealing, if you behave courteously and professionally, you will build a good reputation in the field, something money can’t buy.


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