Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Ghostly Thoughts on Money and Approval

From the In-Box:

Advice, Please, on Ghosting Payment & Copy Approval!

”I recently bought Authors Access: 30 Success Secrets for Authors and Publishers and read your article, "Exploring Ghostwriting, Co-Authoring, and Collaborating."

In the article, you mention some pointers about the writing contract used by ghostwriters etc. I have just ghosted a book with a contract that unfortunately now requires going to court to collect. The expert I wrote for seems to have no money to pay for my six months of writing, even though the book is completely finished.

Can you provide a copy of the contract you use? I am particularly interested in the clauses for gracefully exiting (in case I see this situation coming on another project in the future) and on defining what "satisfactory copy" is. This is the sticking point on this project.

I have been a writer for more than 25 years, with several trade paperbacks and a new one coming out in October. I've had some other experts look at what I've written on this project and they all say that it is highly professional work with a high sales potential. The expert has just said "I'm invoking the right to cancel the contract" (which is in my current contracts) and believes he is no longer obligated to pay for any of the work I've done on the book.

I want to make sure I don't repeat any mistakes in the future, so changing to a more iron-clad contract is the best solution.

Many thanks for any help you can give.

My Response

(Insert “Thank you for contacting me. I hope I can be of some use to you” introductory verbiage and cautionary words stipulating that I am not an attorney and am completely unqualified to give contract advice here.)

I don't use a standard contract. Each project I do has its own contract -- and no two have been the same.

Advice on Payment: Get Paid in Pieces

Most of the time I write under contract from the publisher. I share in the book's advance and in the royalties. My contract generally stipulates that I get paid in increments:

• Sometimes my payment comes in thirds: 1/3 of the agreed-upon advance monies upon signing, 1/3 upon ms. delivery, & 1/3 upon final sign-off of the galley proofs.
• Sometimes the pay is split in two: 1/2 upon contract signing & 1/2 upon ms. acceptance.

I never begin a job for a publisher without $$ up front and an at-will exit clause (which usually states something to the effect that either of us can get out of the contract for any reason w/ a 30-day written notice). I have never had to invoke the clause & have been fortunate that the publishers who've hired me have been financially solvent.

It sounds as if you have been doing work for hire. When I do that, my contract specifies EITHER my hourly rate with an estimated number of hours expected for project completion OR our agreed-upon price for my services.

If I am working hourly, I bill the client with an itemized statement twice a month. If the client has not paid before the next bill comes due, I re-bill. If that goes unpaid, work on the project comes to a screeching halt until the client’s check is received and has cleared the bank.

If I'm working on a flat rate, I get paid in pieces. I always insist upon a significant chunk of the price (usually 1/3 of the total) as a retainer up front. That eliminates the deadbeats fairly quickly. When the ms. is just over 1/2 done (according to word count or deadline) and the client has approved the project up to that point, I get another third. I get my final third when the ms. is done, but before I provide the client with the finished file.

I have no qualms about holding the entire manuscript "hostage" until I have been paid. But I've never had to do so.

Advice on Copy Approval: Spell Out What “Satisfactory” Means

As for "satisfactory copy," I provide clients with completed chapters or portions as soon as they are finished. I give the client a deadline for responding to the proposed copy.

Every e-mail I send with new chapters or sections contains some form of: "Please let me know what changes you would like made either to the content or the execution of the text. Text not specifically tagged for changes shall be considered satisfactory, and no further changes shall be made to it without the client's express approval."

I keep a copy of every e-mail I send in a project-specific file. I've had lots of lazy clients who didn't want to read what I'd written, but I've never had one who quibbled over what "satisfactory" meant. (Knock on wood...)

In short, my advice to ghosts and writers-for-hire is to never have a huge balloon payment looming on the horizon. Get paid in stages, in smaller amounts, throughout the project. That way, if a client is a deadbeat, you know quickly, and aren't out hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. Also, throughout the project, stipulate that unless specific changes are requested, the client is accepting your work as satisfactory.

Are you a ghost or a freelancer? Care to share what works best for you when it comes to both keeping your clients happy and putting food on your table?

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