Erik Sherman's WriterBiz

A spot about the business of writing as seen by a freelance writer. That includes marketing, sales, contracts, copyright, planning, research - in short, the business end of writing.

Name: Erik Sherman
Location: Massachusetts, United States

I'm an independent writer and photographer who covers business, food, technology, books, media, general features, and pretty much anything appealing that results in a signed check. My work has appeared in such places as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Newsweek Japan, Fortune, Inc, Fortune Small Business, the Financial Times, Advertising Age, Saveur, US News & World Report, and Continental

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Designer Paul Rand's Client Philosophy Explained by Steve Jobs

Something on Twitter pointing to some blog led me to this 1993 interview with then NeXT CEO Steve Jobs (between stints at Apple):

He's talking about working with a famous graphic designer, Paul Rand. Here's how he describes Rand's philosophy about getting paid for his work:
He had very clear conclusions about what the relationship meant to both parties and how it should be conducted. For example, I asked him if he would come up with a few options, and he said, "No, I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. And you don't have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people. But I'll solve your problem for you the best way I know how and you use it or not -- that's up to you, you're the client -- but you pay me." And there was a clarity about the relationship that was refreshing.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

NBC Universal and Nielsen Want Your Money, Too

Just the other day I mentioned how Time Inc. wants you to take less money for prompt payment. Well, Gawker, which wrote about the first issue (and eventually noted that while one freelancer claimed payment within 30 days, another said that it generally took 60, making the discount-for promptness plan more economic arm-twisting) has another. NBC Universal is doing the same thing. There is one big difference: while Time may make you wait for 60 days normally before dropping that fiscal ort you so badly need to pay the bills, NBC Universal will either make you wait 75 days or cough up 2.5 percent of the money you earned in 15 days. Oh, and as my BNET colleague Jim Edwards noted back in March, Nielsen says that it won't pay until 75 days unless any of its vendors (which included, but is not limited to, freelancers) give up 3 percent for payment in 15 days.

And for the people who want to argue that discount for early payment is normal business, I'll say that it is, but here's what is considered normal:
  • The service provider is the one offering the discount because that fits into its business plan.

  • The service provider sets its own rates and doesn't have to ask, "And what do you pay for this?" So its rates can reflect a more realistic view of what a discounted fee would have to be to remain worth the work. It also sets fees to recognize the many companies that don't pay in a timely manner.

  • The service provider also has late penalty fees, so if the client doesn't pay on time, more gets tacked on - like 2.5 percent a month or so.

  • What doesn't happen is a fucking cheap-assed financially conservative megacorporation setting rates that haven't moved in so many years that archaeologists line up to study them recognize the economic pressures on today's business, and then putting a gun to someone's head holding payments for long periods of time to twist people's arms convince freelancers to take a discount.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Time Inc. Wants to Charge You to Pay Promptly [UPDATED]

Writer colleague Dana Kennedy passed this information on, and even if you don't write for any of the Time Inc. properties, be prepared for a blood pressure boost. As Gawker reports, Time Inc. is offering to pay freelancers quickly -- if they are willing to take less money
Under the cheery subject heading "Time Inc - Accelerate payments at year end!", it outlined the company's PayMeNow program, whereby you can speed up payment of your invoice for a fee, kind of like when you get a payday loan at the check cashing place down on the corner so you can afford to buy lottery tickets for the week.
There's a whole rate sheet of how much you give up to see that check earlier:
  • 25 days - 0.5 percent
  • 20 - 1 percent
  • 15 - 1.5 percent
  • 10 - 2 percent
  • 5 - 3 percent
  • 3 - 4 percent
Nice, eh? Now understand that discounts for early payment are nothing new in corporate transactions. They have been around for, oh, I don't know, I'm guessing hundreds of years. Certainly many, many decades at the very least. But there's a difference between something offered as a general part of negotiation -- and usually offered by the seller -- and something tossed out by a chronically late payer who is trying to manipulate individuals who often have the least fiscal power to make totally reasoned decisions.

And, if you think about it, this behavior is even more contemptible and the evidence that the corporate suits there are a nasty bunch of sneaky little shits. It's almost the end of the year. Guess what companies generally do at this point if their fiscal year ends with the calendar year? They accelerate payments anyway to reduce tax liabilities. Want to guess when parent Time Warner Inc.'s fiscal year ends? Yup, December 31st. So they're laughing all the way to the bank - literally - because they know they're going to try to push all this stuff out anyway, and they want to shave a little extra profit out of the pockets of freelancers. And my bet is that they take the discount and are still late based on the payment schedule. Merry Christmas. Ho, Ho, Fucking Ho. Bastards.

[UPDATE: The original article suggested that Time was paying in 30 days already, which seemed faster than many large corporations. A new Gawker post says that they heard from another freelancer who said that it usually takes closer to 60 days. I've heard from a couple of Time Inc. freelancers that the online payment system works well, but having dealt with one at a big client in the past, where the editor didn't bother to process the paperwork, I can pretty authoritatively say that even with the best accounting system, the company can leave you screwed. It's one reason why you want to get a definition of what acceptance means. Is that "yup, we're going to use the piece," or "you have to wait until the Big Man in the Sky reaches down, lights a burning bush, and allows your manuscript to pass into the publishing promised land"?]

Image via Flickr user DanCentury, Creative Commons license.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Google Bowing to Pressure of Paid Content

Google is the poster child for those who want to claim that free content is the future and that everyone has to give away what they produce to court “eyeballs” and the advertising they can generate. So why is it that in a number of ways, the company has recently been turning its back on literal free market theory? Is it that management has become inexplicably dumb? No, it’s because that executives at Google have always pushed to get what they can for free but realize that ultimately paying nothing may not be a workable business strategy.

Link to my BNET story about Google

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Workflow:Writing Snagging Writer Blogs Without Permission [UPDATE]

There's a site called Workflow:Writing that has a list of blogs about writing. Although I can't speak to all in that long list, I heard from one, on a writers' board, who had until recently been on the list. No one had asked her permission. This site took her RSS feed and posted it, along with all the other sites, and had advertising displayed against it. Click on one of the article links, and you get the original page, only in a frame with a top section that shows a banner ad and the Workflow:Writing logo. Maybe this one woman's blog was the only one stolen - because that's what you call it when you appropriate someone else's property for your own gain. But I have a funny feeling that if I checked with the other bloggers, I'd be hard-pressed to find one that had given explicit permission. If you blog about words, check the link and see if its own had co-opted you. And if you don't, consider stopping by there and expressing your dismay over people who want to cash in on the hard work of others. This site is worse than a writers' mill. At least those offer some token payment. One ironic point: one site with at least one article posted is PlagiarismToday.

UPDATE: Make that two writers whose work has appeared and who said that they hadn't given permission. Any guesses on how many did give permission? Do I hear ... none?

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

8 Points to Smarter Client Contracts

A friend and colleague recently asked me if I had a contract template that I used for clients. I said that I didn't because my contracts are generally heavily tailored to the specifics of an engagement. However, I was able to point to seven different clauses that I like to include to protect myself. Here they are, plus an eight that my publication and IP lawyer, Anthony Elia, had suggested for future use as I was suing an ex-client:
  1. Whether a work-made-for-hire contract or not, no rights should transfer until you get the final payment for the job. If the assignment consists of multiple parts and the client pushes back, you might consider transferring rights to parts as payment for them is completed, if you can separate them out. But if a client balks completely on such an arrangement, I walk. If they're not willing to say that they can only use material if I'm completely paid, then they're saying that they're not interested in upholding their end of the deal. I have better ways to spend my time.
  2. I charge late fees for payment in arrears. Again, this should be a non-negotiable. Companies want to charge me late fees if I don't pay on time, and I don't see why I should underwrite someone else's financing.
  3. Have a clean definition of the work and then an hourly fee for requests beyond that definition. If the client cannot agree to a clear work specification, then it is going to ask for more and more to be done for the same fee, either trying to push the boundaries to get more for its money or because it is confused and inefficient. In neither case am I willing to give something away for nothing in return. That's not to say that I don't do favors for regular clients. I do. But that's with an ongoing relationship where I get plenty of return for my investment.
  4. Give a hard deadline for reviews, with drafts past that date getting contractual automatic acceptance. Generally, payment in corporate assignments keys on acceptance of parts of a project. You do not want to be waiting for money because someone or other won't bother to look at what you've done. This protects you against that, largely by acting as a goad to get the client to do the reviews it owes you. Make the deadlines reasonable, but not too long. I find that two weeks max is a good timetable for getting a review done.
  5. You are the service provider, so make sure that any legal disputes, whether state or federal court, are in your home jurisdiction. You don't want to go to another state to sue for money owed you. Similarly, get your state's laws as the ones governing the contract. If the client won't go for that, then eliminate the requirement completely. Don't allow them to insist that you agree to jurisdiction in their area, because, frankly speaking, if legal issues come up, you're most likely to be the plaintiff, not the defendant.
  6. Explicitly address expenses and any other item that might reduce your income. Don't expect to work such things out after the fact.
  7. Make deadlines offset from when you actually get the expected payments. So if the first should be in a month, make it a month after you have the signed contract and deposit. Before you've signed the contract is when you have maximum leverage in negotiation. Once you start work, your leverage decreases exponentially with the time you've put in.
  8. The final point is to try to include a clause that has the loser in a legal action responsible for the legal costs of the winner. I had thought this a danger, but my lawyer pointed out that the chances were overwhelmingly likely that I'd be the one having to take action, and getting costs covered if you have a good case becomes a goad to getting people to settle

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Keeping Up With Media Law

The law moves slowly - as it should. Whether common law or statute, you want relatively stable rules of the road so you can live your life and do business with some degree of predictability. And when you're in the media - and pretty much everyone reading this blog is likely in the media - law becomes particularly important. You have a host of things that can come up:
  • libel and defamation
  • rights of privacy and publicity of people you cover
  • people suing because they took whatever advice you offered and didn't like the results
  • infringement of intellectual property
  • actual or simply alleged copyright infringement
  • new potential uses of material, which means new rights to consider
That's just a start off the top of my head. However, the world does not move at the same speed of the law. Just a few years ago, you wouldn't have been able to talk about Twitter. Cell phone information delivery? Pretty new. Technology is stretching the bounds of where material can appear and in what context legal issues can arise. That's why I'd suggest reading Can the law keep up with technology? on There aren't many answers, but a lot of questions you need to be considering.

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