By Ann Douglas
This is an excerpt from a speech freelance writer Ann Douglas gave to attendees of Yes, We Are Worthy: Making it in the Freelance World at Hart House in Toronto on Sept. 24, 2013. The event was organized by the Canadian Media Guild, the Canadian Writers Group and Cultural Workers Organize.
Earlier this year, I found myself in the painful position of having to resign from a column I loved writing for The Toronto Star. I was presented with a contract that I simply couldn’t sign—a contract that was completely non-negotiable. I had no choice but to walk away.
I wrote a column for Story Board describing what had happened because I wanted other freelancers to know that I had taken a stand, so that they would feel similarly empowered to take a stand, if they had the opportunity to do so.
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Here’s why: it is empowering to walk away when you are being asked to sign a contract with terms that are unacceptable.
This means taking back control of your business rather than allowing the other party to dictate the terms by which you will be employed. It also means earning the respect of your peers and, in an industry where editors play musical chairs at a dizzying speed, those relationships are what truly matter.
After my column was published on Story Board, I received over 150 messages of support from other writers. And in June, the Professional Writers Association of Canada awarded me a lifetime membership for contributions to the freelance writing profession, an incredible honour that has only been bestowed on one other writer in the organization’s 30-year history.
There’s no denying that the past few years have been difficult for those of us who make a living with words. The economic recession combined with the publishing industry’s ongoing transition from print to digital have shaken the foundations of an already shaky industry. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post model of editorial financing, which involves convincing a large number of writers to contribute to the success of a website in exchange for fame (or, rather, the promise of fame) as opposed to fortune, has become extremely popular.
But that doesn’t mean that we writers have to roll over and play dead. If we want freelancers to continue to be able to make a living, we might want to join forces and work together for better working conditions in our industry.
Just as interns are beginning to question the value of unpaid internships that fail to provide any real training and low-income workers are rallying for the right to a living wage, freelance writers can stand together and remind employers and the reading public that there is value in our work.
But first we have to value our work ourselves. We have to stop selling ourselves short and we have to commit to negotiating contract terms that will not merely benefit ourselves, but that will also make things better for the next writer who attempts to negotiate that very same contract, rather than making things worse.
I suppose I’m lucky. I come from a long line of stubborn people. I once spent two and a half years negotiating a book contract. When the book publisher and I were having difficulty coming to terms on some clauses regarding trademark language (specifically, who should own the trademark contained in the title of the books) and revision rights for subsequent editions (specifically, whether other writers could be hired to revise my books without me), my Bay Street lawyer, who had worked with many of Canada’s biggest corporations, told me she had never seen a negotiation drag on for so long.
It wasn’t that I was trying to be difficult. I would have compromised on those two clauses if there had been room for compromise. But my livelihood and my reputation were at stake. I had no choice but to hold firm.
So what happens when you take a stand on a contract? You feel good about yourself. You know you’ve done the right thing and that you have avoided compromising your principles or your integrity. And you haven’t made things worse for the next writer who sits down at the negotiating table. That final point—not making things worse for other writers—counts as a victory in my books.
I’d like to encourage all freelance writers to adopt that as a contract negotiation bottom-line: negotiate the best possible deal you can and don’t make things worse for other writers. Imagine what a difference we could make as a group if each freelancer decided to followed that mantra.
Ann Douglas is the author of 23 books and an award-winning magazine writer who specializes in writing about pregnancy and parenting. Her articles have appeared in Canadian Living, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent, Canadian Family, Cottage Life and numerous other publications. She is currently writing a book for parents who have a child who has a mental illness.
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