The Business of Writing

Simon Whaley's Resource For Writers

Negotiate. Nicely.

I recently had to renegotiate a contract with a magazine I’ve done work for in the past. Looking back, I realised that the current contract which I was working with was over ten years old. And ten years is a long time in the magazine world.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I didn’t like the revised contract. But that didn’t matter, because these things are always just a starting point.

When you receive a contract, take yourself off somewhere quiet and read through it. If it helps, read aloud each clause. Do whatever it takes for you to understand it.

  • Highlight in one colour clauses you don’t understand.
  • Highlight in another colour the clauses you don’t like.
  • Then put it to one side and do something else.

If you can, leave it for several days. No reputable business will require you sign a contract within a tight deadline of a matter of hours.

During that time, seek support from any groups and associations of which you are a member. I did. I got in touch with the Outdoor Writers’ and Photographers’ Guild. I asked them to clarify a couple of clauses I wasn’t too sure of.

These organisations can often put things into perspective too. They may see contracts from many different publishers, which means they can tell you which clauses are ‘industry standard’ and which ones are more likely to be negotiable.

Businesses expect you to negotiate. Be polite. Explain what you don’t like, and why. Put it in a way that suggests how amending the terms enables you to help them more.

In this particular contract my main sticking point regarded photographs. They wanted copyright. As a photographer I would never assign copyright in an image, but there were practical issues for me with this too.

There are many times when I might offer an editor photos from my own personal library of images to help illustrate a feature. Many of these images may be bought by other businesses via an agency I use. Some publishers might buy the right, via this agency, to use a photo of mine more than once over a period of several years. Therefore, if this contract were to stand as it was, I wouldn’t be able to offer this magazine any images that I offered for sale via the agency.

I told them this. I explained that if the editor commissioned a feature from me, the photographic clauses in their contract might prevent me from offering the editor the best photos I had available.

The magazine’s legal department understood my argument. A revised contract batted back and forth between us a few times until we reached a wording that we both agreed on.

If you can, remain light-hearted about this. I happened to mention about my current predicament with the retina in my left eye, and joked that scrutinising a legal document with just one eye wasn’t much fun.

Still, it raised a smile with both of us when I spotted two contradictory clauses right next to each other in one of the versions we were working on. My one-working-eye was better than their two-working-eye legal assistant 😜.

The final contract looks quite different from the initial submission. But the important point is that it’s one I’m much happier working with. It’s one that I can work with.

So when you next find yourself being offered a contract, don’t panic. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Don’t read it and throw it at the wall in disgust. Don’t accuse the other party of being charlatans, intent on defrauding you.

Negotiate. Nicely.

Good luck.

6 Comments

  1. I had a contract recently – perhaps the same group as they’ve done it across the group. I had the same problem. I amended it to say ‘except photographs’, and explained why, which they accepted. I think (although they haven’t paid yet). Add to that, some pics are sourced from elsewhere, so I’m in no position to give them copyright on everything, even if I wanted to! It’s all going the same way as the US contracts. 🙁 I liked the mutual understanding of a licence to print (no contracts) better.

    • BusinessOfWriting

      February 20, 2017 at 10:03 AM

      Yes, if you go out of your way to find images from elsewhere then you may not be the copyright holder, and therefore not in a position to grant them the rights they want. (And you also need to remember these things in ten years’ time when the contract is still valid!)

  2. I was once offered a contract which would give the publisher all rights to my accepted work. Even though the pieces were written just for them and it was unlikely I’d ever be able to use them elsewhere, I wasn’t happy with the idea that my stories and characters would no longer be mine. As a new writer I didn’t have much clout, yet still managed to persuade them to amend it.

  3. I think you have to go in with the attitude that you will decline the work / contract if at least some amendments aren’t made. Yes, politeness, but you have to mean business. You can’t pussy foot. Confidence, too – and you get that by making yourself aware of what the contractual terms and conditions actually mean. Know what you’re talking about 🙂

    • BusinessOfWriting

      February 20, 2017 at 11:25 AM

      Yes, and I think confidence comes with the more negotiation experience you have. But you can only have confidence if you understand the consequences of the contract.

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