The following has been kindly reprinted by the New Zealand Writers Guild. They didn’t commission it – it was a chest-clearing exercise.
If I learn nothing more from this year, it’s that contracts are a sign of how serious things are. (To those of you for whom this is, like, so obvious, what can I say? I am – or was – an idealist.)
So. The first thing the Writers Guild told me when I joined three years ago? Don’t work without a contract.
And what’ve I done in that time? I’ve worked in good faith. It’s gone like this: the terms of the contract are verbally agreed in the early days; writing commences whilst a draft contract is bounced around; the script is finished; a contract is agreed and signed; and throughout, money changes hands. In the end, someone has themselves a script, and I was paid to write it.
Sure, I’ve had a few projects explode in my face, some of which has provided fodder for my writing. But for the most part, I’m a trusting soul and I like to give the benefit of the doubt. This doesn’t mean I’ve provided all the work to date with the copyright already assigned. I try to be reasonable and flexible; sometimes this has been interpreted as being easy.
As I shift towards projects with ‘real’ money, what I’ve noticed is that the expectations and the contractual/political manoeuvring move up a level. Besides my writing having to be more than professional-looking, each gig is a potential career-maker or -breaker (or -extend-just-a-little-longer). The expectation as a writer I can deal with. But the contract shenanigans… oi vey.
All that stuff that was verbally agreed up front? Worth the paper it was written on. All the work that’s been done in good faith? Taken for granted and/or leverage to get you to continue to work in good faith and/or a very possible waste of your time.
The earlier that contract is signed, the sooner everyone knows how to behave.
Negotiate and sign that sucker now. Work long. And prosper.