Like it, hate it, curse at it, deny it, but at some point, you’re going to have to face it: If you’re an independent author selling your work, you are running a business. And in some of your transactions with professionals who provide services for independent authors, like editors and designers, you might benefit from having a solid, written agreement.
First, a disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, unless watching Legally Blonde about a dozen times counts. But as an author and an editor, I’ve worked under a few agreements. Let’s look at the basic types and how they might help you:
1. Letters of Agreement
A letter of agreement can be as informal as both parties want it to be. Many moons ago, when I was just starting out as a freelancer in graphic design, some of my agreements were as simple as a phone call or a brief letter confirming deadlines and fees. That worked for me, mainly because I was a sole proprietor doing short-term, pay-for-hire assignments. I worked; I got paid; easy button pressed. As an editor, I still tend to use an informal agreement with regular clients and friends.
If you trust the professionals you partner with well enough to have an informal agreement, that’s fine. But there are times when a more detailed, formal agreement can be advantageous to both parties. If you’re working on a project that has a lot of moving parts or complications, it can save everyone a lot of aggravation to get everything in writing before you start.
Here’s a fictitious example of a situation in which having a formal letter of agreement can help both parties. A first-time novelist wants a full edit. It will entail developmental editing, rewrites, copyediting, and a final proofread. He wants to pay on an installment plan. He also wants to self-publish in time for a specific book show, and he’s already purchased booth space, so each pass back and forth needs to stay on track. The process is a lot more complicated than a couple of emails can handle. A letter of agreement (sometimes called a “memo of understanding”) does several tasks for both the editor and the author:
- It gives both parties a mutual understanding of what the terms mean. That will reduce the chances of a nasty surprise down the road when, say, the author presumed that “proofreading” meant “formatting for Kindle” and is unhappy with the editor when he uploads the final Word file straight to Amazon and his eBook is full of formatting errors and doesn’t have a table of contents. Similarly, the author will be covered if a service that the editor has promised is not delivered.
- Payment terms are detailed and all in one place. If an installment plan or a particular payment method has been negotiated, it’s handy to get that in writing. It not only gives you something to point to later when one of you forgets what the remaining balance is, but also saves you the time of squirreling through all your emails to find the one where you talked about money.
- Both the author and editor have recourse if something goes awry. Please note that asking for an agreement does NOT assume that you expect either party to take advantage. But humans being human and life being life, things can happen. The author might have an accident, illness, or family emergency and need to put the project aside for a while — or indefinitely. Or an author might have a serious disagreement with an editor’s style and want to go in another direction. (This has not happened to me, fortunately, but I’ve heard stories.) What happens to the project? What happens to the deposit already paid? Who owns the work that has been edited to date? Will there still be a spot on the editor’s schedule when she/he is ready to work again, or does the author have to go to the back of the line? Having the terms spelled out covers everyone involved.
If I’m working with a project that could benefit from a letter of agreement, or if an author requests one, I’ll draft the letter and send it to the potential client before we formally commit to working together. That way, the author has an opportunity to ask questions and if we want, we can revise the terms.
Good editors know where the bodies are buried. Even when we consult with each other on thorny issues, we go to great lengths to disguise the identity of the author and the subject matter of the project. In general, non-disclosure agreements aren’t used much for direct transactions between editor and author, and some editors have strong opinions about being asked to sign one. Writer’s Digest editor Jane Friedman gets a little incensed about them here. But in special circumstances, your lawyers or your agent or your publisher might feel more comfortable if you get something in writing legally pressing us to keep our silence. Sometimes a much-simplified version of a non-disclosure agreement, basically a paragraph or two, can cover everyone’s confidentiality needs just fine.
I’ve seen a few non-disclosure agreements in ghostwriting projects. They protect all parties involved. The author gets his or her manuscript written and edited, I get paid, the publisher is happy, and there’s no question about ownership, royalties, liabilities, or who gets the credit. Privacy kept.
Where can you get examples?
Good news! Several online sources will let you download sample letters of agreement and contracts. Authors can get a peek of what might be involved, and editors can tailor them to fit their needs.