Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

When a Writing Gig Goes Bad

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Jane Graham. Jane lives with her family in West Michigan but dreams of motorhomes and mountains. She blogs about faith at Girl Meets Paper and about intentional parenting at Unofficial Homeschooler.

February had just gotten underway when my phone came alive with a former colleague’s call. While my daughter sat perched on an elevated salon chair having inches removed from her hair, I said “yes” to the idea of ghostwriting my second book.

Bad Writing Gig Photo

Photo credit: Victor1558 (Creative Commons)

In the weeks that followed, my client and I talked in a fair amount of detail about his manuscript. He sent me his first draft, asking for my feedback. After re-writing a portion as a trial, we settled on a contract and made things “official” by the end of March.

I was thrilled at the idea of an extra paycheck and let my imagination cozy up with every Crate & Barrel catalog that entered our home.

Prepare for the unexpected

Unbeknownst to me, this client began to wonder if he had rushed into our contract; perhaps Path A or Road B should have been more fully investigated, he reasoned.

I returned home from a spring vacation to an email declaring he intended to break our contract in favor of a new option.

Crate & Barrel suddenly became a distant memory and I was crushed. Not only had I been hoping for another publication but my family was counting on the money. The “Rojo Cabinet” would have to wait.

The author’s options

As I saw it, I had three choices in the matter aside from throwing things and crying like the victim of a high school break-up:

  • Insist on the contract. It was, after all, legally binding, though I suspected our working relationship would be seriously compromised.
  • Ask for a buy-out. Because we had a signed contract, it seemed reasonable to ask for a buy-out due to his breach. After all, I had made space in my work calendar for this project.
  • Walk away. I hated to consider this option because it made me feel as though I wasn’t a fighter — that this didn’t mean enough to me to insist on something. Worse, I didn’t want to be perceived as an easy target. But was it time to walk?

What I learned

Lost in a new world of unwanted legal dilemmas, I wrote a friend. He generously offered some advice that would bring me immense clarity, and eventually, peace:

  1. Be gracious. My friend reminded me to take the high road even if I’m feeling jipped this time around. Certainly extending grace would reveal my character and preserve my integrity. Even if I don’t reap the “rewards” now, eventually kindness wins. I read and re-read James 1:19 and told myself to be slow to speak. Slow to anger. I forced myself sit silently with emails until I was sure I could proceed with grace.
  2. Next time, provide a way out. The contract I signed (without the help of an agent) did not have a clause to govern this type of situation, so we were left to debate the situation without boundaries or an arbitrator. In retrospect I would have appreciated some language in the contract about those who suddenly opt for a lifeboat in the middle of a seemingly placid sea.
  3. Ascertain your values. I had to ask myself the question, “Is it worth it to you? Is this contract worth the fight?” You’re expending valuable emotional energy; is it over money or principle? It convicted me to look at the situation with fresh eyes.

As I write, this situation in still full of loose ends, but I’m okay with that. I feel that I was assertive, yet kind. Forthright, yet grace-giving.

Today I write in peaceful anonymity. There may not be another book this summer or a new cabinet in our living room, but my integrity is intact. And friends, that’s something you can’t buy in a catalog.

What have your own contract blunders or deals-gone-wrong taught you? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Victor1558 (Creative Commons)

By the way, I made an amendment to the You Are a Writer Contest. You can now enter with a blog post, tweet, status update, whatever announcing you are a writer. The contest ends on May 20, 2012. Enter here.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Wow – what wise advice from your friend, Jane.  Thank you for sharing!  I can imagine this advice will be valuable for MANY areas in (my) life.  Great post.

    • Thank you so much, Lori. Yes, his counsel really kept my feet on the ground and my head level. I’m sure I wouldn’t have handled things as well without it!

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  • Great post. I sometimes feel the same way when dealing with unprofessional clients. I guess the best thing you can do is walk away somtimes. I don’t know, I’ve felt that its best to spend your time and energy on those clients that are supplementing your income the most.

    • I agree, David. It’s still hard to do, especially when you believe in the project and are excited about it, but in the end it’s still a business and sometimes things go wrong. Thanks for your comment.

  • Miranda

    Yet another lesson in patience, for me. Rarely does anything good from acting out of hastiness or anger. Jane, I love that you were gracious and kind. Indeed, integrity cannot be bought in a catalog. Well done  for trying to see this situation in positive light, and deciding to handle this graciously.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Miranda. Easier said than done, for sure, but I’m learning.

  • Amen, sister! Nothing is more important than your integrity. Great job and great post. Thanks for sharing it.

  • In the design biz, it’s fairly common to have a “kill fee” that is 50% of the project fee. That is usually in place after a decent amount of work has been done. Also, I almost always got a 50% deposit on a project before I lifted a finger. In this case, if all you have is a signed contract and no significant amount of work was done, it’s probably in your best interest to chalk it up to experience and move forward—with a revised contract to protect yourself in the future. What if you turned down potential work because you had agreed to this work?

    I’ve had a couple of people stiff me over the years. Maybe a total of $1,500 total, so I feel fortunate. I had one client who’s checks bounced and didn’t return my calls after I delivered work. It was incredibly frustrating and I learned that the best approach is finding a balance between persistent hounding and patience. 

    They did eventually pay. Which was good. Because I was contemplating slashing care tires and toilet papering their offices daily.

    • Ha!! I live too far away to TP an office, but I understand the frustration!  I appreciate your advice on the “kill fee.” It sounds like a wise clause to add to future contracts. Thanks for your comment, Matt!

  • Well done, even if you  didn’t get that cabinet – YET. “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”   Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

    • What a perfect quote, Michele! Thanks for sharing that!  PS: Cabinet came as a Mother’s Day gift   🙂

  • D

    Its not always easy to do the right thing – but it sure is important.  I can’t imagine all of your feelings when this occurred, but I appreciate you sticking to your personal convictions.  Thanks for sharing!

  • This is a shame and very much the bad side of being a pro. Those darn responsibilities, they really do make things harder, don’t they.

    Glad you have come to a resolution, though. This is good

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

    • Thanks, Matt. Yeah, responsibilities can be a drag for sure, but I guess nothing worthwhile will ever come easily. At least that’s what I tell my kids 😉  

  • Becky Swanberg

    Appreciate this insight to navigating the business of writing with the mindset of grace. I have no doubt that you will reap the a harvest of righteousness from sowing peace. (James 3:18)

  • Move on.

    That’s the option I chose when in this situation earlier this year with my first potential ghost book job. The main difference was, the contract had not been signed yet.

    After spending hours calculating, debating, researching and writing up two contracts, the client said he was all good with everything except the payment. His wife just lost her job, they were expecting a baby…

    I offered to work with him on payments, but never heard back. Zip. Kind follow up emails received no response. I put away the Apple catalog.

    Who knows, maybe that gig will come around again, maybe something better. The thing I learned from that deal was to not stress over the loss, and move on to other projects.

    Thanks for the article, Jane, hope the best for you!

    • Hoping the best for you, too, Sarah! It sounds like our situations were quite similar. I mourn the loss of your Apple with you (truly), but believe more opportunities will be waiting around the corner. Thanks for the comment!

  • Good for you.  It’s hard when a contract goes wrong.  I’m in that boat with a publisher that hasn’t paid me (or answered calls or emails) for 8 months.  I can fight it, or not.  I look at the emotional and financial cost of litigation and come to the conclusion that I’ll just walk away.  I don’t want to live in anger for the next umpteen months.  It was not exclusive, so I can re-release it self-pub.  Not the route I wanted, but it sure taught me what to look for next time.  

    • Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear that, Lia. I can only imagine your frustration when it’s a publisher not standing behind their word. You’re right: living in anger or bitterness is not worth any paycheck. Good for you for keeping a positive outlook as you move forward. Thanks for your comment. 

  • Anton

    I always insisted on at least 35%. What complicated matters were the number of people attempting to break into the field who would work for nothing up front. Because there were so many of them, clients got spoiled . . . and then many of them had writers who didn’t deliver the goods. For most of them, we then insisted on at least 50% up front. Unfortunately, the harmonious atmosphere that had existed between writers and their clients in the 50s and early 60s was gone.   

    • Yep. No one wants to have to convince a client that they’re worth the 50%. It’s a bummer all-around. Thanks, Anton.

  • It is frustrating and painful to go through some of these things. I have been down this road a few times and it is never easy. 

    The first time it happened I took a very large hit. It was big enough to make a significant difference to my family so I consulted with two different attorneys.

    Both of them assured me that we would win but when I looked at the cost of winning I decided not to pursue it for several reasons.

    The attorneys figured that if the other party decided to fight it would take a couple of years to sort out. I didn’t want to live with it for that long.

    That would have been like giving them free rent in my head and at the end attorney fees would have eaten up most of what I was owed.

    It made for a painful but good learning experience. Now I approach things very differently and am careful to make sure that I am covered.

    • I like what you said about giving them “free rent in your head.” I’ve done that through the years in various circumstances and it is such an emotional burden. Glad you were able to walk away with some good lessons and a great perspective. 

  • Love this! I’m bound to run into it at sometime, so I’m thankful for hearing from someone who has gone through it. Great perspective (and friend!). 

    • Thank you, Heather! Yes, the friend saved the day for me.

  • When I refused a speaking engagement because of what I’d told a friend (“I won’t speak at that church until you feel comfortable …”), I learned two important lessons.

    1) Keep your word.
    2) But be careful about what you say.

  • whenpigsfly

    I have not been in this particular situation but did find myself in a sticky position doing some social media work for a small business. The expectations and my role were never buttoned up. I found that I was providing a lot of extra work and time that I wasn’t getting compensated for. When I tried to rectify the situation by creating a kind of terms of work agreement, it was not well received. I learned some tough lessons.

    • Yes. I’ve been there, too. Buttoning up the details is really important, but can be tough to navigate. It’s easy to feel taken advantage of in those circumstances! Best of luck to you!

  • I go through this situation a lot at my job. It’s so painful, but worst of all is the betrayal you feel of just your own personhood. You begin to wonder how you got from happy to them walking away… Questions, questions, questions. To reach the emotional/professional outcome you managed to come to was graciously and wisely done. Great call with seeking council. It’s a wonderful thing to have friends that can guide you on a higher path when you need help like this. 

    A honest, relatable, and personable post. 

    • Hillary, you nailed it with the questions regarding our own personhood and skill level. It kind of feels like being dumped before prom, doesn’t it? And what girl wants to *beg* someone to take her back? Sorry to hear that you have to deal with this, too. Thanks for your comment; glad you found it honest and relatable.

  • Taking the high road will pay off for you in the end Jane. This was an excellent post, I loved how you hooked me right away with the story, I bet you’re an amazing author.
    Being self-employed for the last 11 years means I’ve had to deal with these kinds of situations a lot, as you said, next time work on the contract and make sure you’re happy with it.

    • You’re so sweet, Kimanzi! Thank you for your kind words.

  • Totally agree with your friend’s advice. And don’t discard your plans with the money, you’ll have something coming up soon <3

  • Well hello Jane! Looks like we’re fellow Michiganders. Loved your post.

    Glad to hear you took the high road Jane. It may stink right now but you’ll reap the benefits latter on. 

    I haven’t had any blunders or mishaps when it’s come to contracts or deals-gone-wrong. Hope too many won’t come my way. But I really enjoyed reading about yours and how you handled it.

    • Hello, Joe! Glad to hear from another who’s “Smitten with the Mitten”  🙂  Thanks for your kind words!

  • Angela Roberts

    My experience as a decorative painter taught me so much about contracts and about myself. I left important things out of contracts due to my lack of self-confidence. The worst and most teaching moment came after six months of making samples and sitting on several design meetings with a very wealthy client. At the final contract signing they  said they were going to look at other artists. They were bluffing to bring my price down, but after all that hard unpaid work, I blew up on the spot. I regretted it. It cost me worth with the general contractor. Did they deserve my tirade? Yes, but I didn’t deserve the consequences. Here’s what I learned. All work (even samples, design meetings (after the first consult), etc. are my time and talent and worth pay. I needed to be confident enough to establish a consultation fee and a clause in contract for payment no matter what, once the job started. That client went on to abuse two more artists. You were available for the consulting and now next time, you will know how to put that into a contract, leaving room for an exit strategy. Your grace is better than mine was, and that’s a plus. 

  • Just think now, you’ve got your whole summer free to enjoy now to work on your own book!