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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Before you Sign on the Dotted Line: Contract Advice for Freelancers

You just received a contract from a market that's new to you. You flip to the signature page, sign your name, and return it immediately, right?


Don't rush to signed on the dotted line. While many writers simply accept the language in contracts they receive, you can negotiate better ones when you keep these strategies in mind:

• Read it! Believe it or not, many freelancers don’t read the contracts they sign—or they don’t read them closely. (I did this early in my freelance career—I cared about clips, not contracts.) Highlight anything you don’t understand, and if you have questions about what it means, gather more information and ask a lawyer or other freelancer for help.

• Ease the way. I never start a contract negotiation in a hostile manner. In fact, I express how much I appreciate the assignment and let the editor know I’m excited about it. Then I say something like, “but there are a few parts of the contract I’d like to talk to you about…”

• Guard your rights. Much of contracts are boilerplate, but some provisions can affect your bottom line if you’re not careful. Take exclusivity provisions. Many magazines ask for exclusive rights to a story for a certain period of time, say three or six months. But sometimes the provisions seek to prevent you from writing about a similar subject during that time for other publications. If you specialize, like I do, that may be a real problem. Read indemnification clauses carefully, too, to make sure you’re not signing on to insure the publisher if a lawsuit arises out of the story.

• Don’t give it all away—unless you have to. I’m often asked about all-rights contracts. Should you sign them? On principle, no. But I will sign them if the publisher is offering me enough money, and I don’t think I can reprint the story elsewhere. (I did sign them when I was starting out—remember, I wanted clips, connections, and experience and wasn’t as worried about contract issues.)

• Offer an alternative. If a contract asks for all rights, for example, suggest all rights for a limited time—say 90 days—or for first North American serial rights and electronic rights for a limited period of time. I’ve found that many editors are amenable to changes like this, especially when I’m willing to work with them to create an agreement that will make both of us happy

Sure, sometimes editors refuse to change their contracts, and then you have to decide whether to accept an assignment with the contract “as is.” But often editors are willing to make reasonable contract changes—if you’re willing to ask for them. So why not try?

Don't forget to tune in tonight for my free teleseminar on Six-Figure Freelancing...hope to "see" you on the call!


  1. Thanks so much for the great teleclass tonight. I have read your 6-figure book, but it's clearly time to read it again--you have lots of great tips and ideas. Thanks for helping me get motivated again.

  2. Hey Kelly,

    A little late commenting on this one but here's a contract question you may be able to answer: if you sign away all exclusive rights to a publication forever, can you still write a similar piece for another publication? I'm thinking of an example like two essays on similar topics. Know what I mean?

    Really loving the 'daily nut' advice. Thanks!!

  3. Hi, Brittany--

    Yes, you can still write a similar piece--I would just make sure it's a completely new story (new approach, mostly new sources, new quotes). I do that *all* the time! :)

    Now I'm off to make my daily nut. :)