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Don’t Assume You Know My Contract

July 30, 2009

Don’t Assume You Know My Contract
by Devon Ellington

Because I speak (and write) out about the right for writers to be paid a fair fee for their work, and about the responsibility of those who call themselves professionals not to hurt everyone in the field by working for content mill sites who pay crap, publish crap, and make lots of money off YOUR work, I get a lot of nasty emails.

Some of those people challenge me based on my resume. “Well, you wrote for so-and-so, and THEY don’t pay.”

As usual, they’re not listening and they’re not gathering facts. You’d think they were pundits and politicians.

First of all, my resume and/or CV contain things I’ve done over the course of many years. I got paid less when I was starting out because I was paying my dues, because a dollar was worth more then, and because I didn’t value my work the way I do now. I didn’t have the skills I do now, either.

I still didn’t work for a mill content site. Even starting out, I had more respect for myself than that.

There’s also a huge difference between doing a freebie for a really good literary magazine or taking on a legitimate pro bono client, such as a non-profit about which you’re passionate. The difference is that you have a good clip that shows your skills placed in publication or written for an organization that is respected, not something that changes its name every fortnight, churns out content, asks you to “rewrite” the same content over and over — and continues to profit from your work without paying you fairly for it.

Also, just because the guidelines say that they don’t pay contributors — it doesn’t mean they don’t pay contributors. If they’ve never heard of you and you pitch over the transom, no, they won’t pay you. If they’ve heard of you and want you badly enough and THEY approach YOU — you can negotiate.

No matter what kind of contract crosses your desk — you can always negotiate. You don’t have to sign the first draft of whatever you’re offered. Decide what you’ll ask for and how far you’re willing to negotiate back BEFORE they send you any paperwork. Also know the point at which you’re ready to walk away from a project, and don’t be afraid so to do.

Several times, I’ve turned down potential clients who tried to haggle my rates down, only to have them come back to me, admitting they made a mistake by going with someone cheaper who couldn’t deliver the goods. I get my rate and more the next time around.

And if you CHOOSE to do a freebie –whether it’s because the editor is a friend, or you really want to break into the publication no matter what or for a reason that’s nobody else’s damned business — do it. You don’t have to justify it to anyone.

Freelancers advise each other on the generalities of the payment scale to help each other get the best rate possible, or to figure out what a fair rate is, or to figure out market rate for their particular region if they’re working with local businesses (I have a wide base of international clients. I don’t adjust based on geography, and don’t have a problem with people trying to change my rate based on where they live). But the actual details of your contract — that’s between you and the client or the publisher or the agent. No one else needs to know them, except, maybe, the IRS. I’m not going to assume I know the details of your contract. Don’t assume you know the details of mine.

–Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. She writes “The Literary Athlete Column” for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW. Her main blog is Ink in My Coffee, and her website is www.devonellingtonwork.com.

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