An American Editor

May 15, 2021

On the Basics — Contract tips for freelancers

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:51 pm
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Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Please do not share or reprint without prior permission from and credit to the author

 and owner of An American Editor.

One of my local professional groups recently held a session about contracts for editorial work that I couldn’t attend, so I put together a few suggestions that colleagues could use despite my absence. I ended up expanding those tips into this column.

Many freelancers work for years without contracts and have no problems. Others need a contract from their first client and day in business, while still others only need a contract once in awhile. Because we never know what could arise, it’s a good business practice to have your own version of a project contract, just in case. If a client offers a contract, read it carefully (especially if it’s full of legalese) before signing it, and make sure you understand everything you’re committing to. If a client doesn’t have a contract, ask them to sign your own. If they hesitate, assure the client that it doesn’t imply distrust but protects both you and them. You can also use the language “letter of agreement,” which can sound less scary or off-putting than “contract.”

You don’t have to hire a lawyer to produce a contract. Professional associations and online services provide templates that you can tailor to your business or assignments/projects (see below).

What you don’t need

Check every contract offered to make sure you don’t accept anything that works against you, such as an unnecessary liability clause.

If a contract includes a liability clause, be aware that most freelancers do not need liability or accident coverage. That’s usually boilerplate language that relates to large contractors or subcontractors working onsite at a client’s facility or operating heavy/dangerous equipment on behalf of the client. In some states or municipalities, freelancers can’t even get liability insurance. You can usually ask to delete such a clause from a contract, but if the client insists and you want the job, add the cost to your fee. Most of us also don’t have clients coming to our home offices, or employees, subcontractors or vendors at our locations, so we don’t need that kind of liability coverage. You should have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, and added coverage for your work-related equipment, furnishings and supplies, but that would be about it.

A liability clause that says you’re responsible for anything that goes wrong with an editorial project is bad news. We rarely have control over what happens to a document once we finish writing, editing or proofreading it; other people in the publishing process can introduce errors, change quotes, leave out important details, add new but inaccurate information, etc. Don’t be bullied into saying you accept responsibility for the published version of something if you aren’t in total control of the material. You don’t want to be sued for something done by someone else.

Items to include

Start a checklist as a template for the contract elements you want to remember to include in any given project. Try to think of everything that could possibly be part of any project — hope for the best, but assume the worst. You can save it as Contract-Project X every time something new comes in and then tailor that version by deleting items that don’t apply to the specific project or assignment, but the template will ensure that you don’t leave out a crucial item that could cost you money or create other issues.

These are the minimum items to include in your contract template:

√ Nature/Type of assignment (writing, editing, proofreading, indexing, layout, etc.)

√ Scope (number of words, pages, hours, etc.; number of passes; whether fact-checking or plagiarism-checking are expected)

√ Pay rate or amount (by the word, hour, page, project, etc.); if by the page, define page

√ Deadline

√ Expenses covered/receipts required

√ Revisions

√ Protection against scope creep (spell out extra payments to be made if work goes over agreed scope)

√ Copyright/Rights/Ownership

√ Credit (work-for-hire projects generally don’t give you a byline or publication credit; editors and proofreaders often do not get credit, although you can always ask to be named)

√ Payment timing (on acceptance, on publication, X number of days after invoice)

√ Payment method (check, direct deposit, PayPal/credit card, etc.)

√ Late fee (charge to client if payment doesn’t arrive by X days after invoice date)

√ Kill fee (percentage of fee you receive if assignment is canceled for reasons beyond your control)

√ Format or program (Word, Google Docs, Pages, PDF, PowerPoint, Excel, InDesign, InCopy, etc.)

√ Confidentiality

√ Subcontracting (some clients will not accept having subcontractors work with you)

√ Complimentary copies

√ Permission to list or link projects/clients on your website

√ Emergency contact/process (in case something happens to you or the client, or the client’s client, that could affect being able to finish the project)

√Dispute jurisdiction/Mediation option

Adjustments over time

• Contracts can be evolving documents; you can add new items to your template that arise with any new contract of project. There’s often something you never thought of. On my first freelance newsletter contract, for instance, I included managing printing and mailing in what I would provide, but didn’t realize the client would read that item as included in what I would provide. Guess who had to pay for printing and mailing.  

Some editing and proofreading clients might expect or request guarantees of perfection or a specific percentage of perfection. Try not to be tied to such demands, which are usually impossible to meet, or to be bullied into a refund for any errors you might miss.

Resources to consult

The Paper It’s Written On: Defining your relationship with an editing client by Dick Margulis and Karin Cather; despite the subtitle, it can be used for all kinds of editorial projects (and is an excellent example of how a presentation can turn into a profit center; the book grew out a presentation by the authors at a Communication Center “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference)

√ Professional associations for samples or templates, as well as advice about creating or responding to contracts (Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) sample agreement for services: https://www.the-efa.org/resources/; Editors Canada contract template: https://www.editors.ca/hire/agreement-template-editing-services)

√ Websites for legal services, including contract samples or templates, such as LegalZoom.com and Nolo.com

√ An attorney (local bar associations can provide names)

√ Lawyers for the Arts (local chapters)

What other contract terms or items would you add to a template? What kinds of contract headaches have you experienced, and how did you resolve them?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

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1 Comment »

  1. A colleague asked about two aspects of contracts worth mentioning: copyright and confidentiality. Here are my thoughts in response.

    Copyright belongs to the author as soon as they write something, but would be worth including. An American Editor founder Rich Adin has inspired many of us to use something like “Copyright to the edited version resides with the editor until the editor is paid in full, and then reverts to the author.”

    I hadn’t thought about privacy aspects, because my experience is that clients concerned about that usually have their own language. You could use something like, “Editor will respect privacy/confidentiality/proprietary aspects of client projects and will not publicize or promote their contributions without client permission.”

    What else has come up in your contract negotiations?

    Like

    Comment by An American Editor — May 28, 2021 @ 1:24 pm | Reply


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