Contracts—some freelance editorial pros swear by them, and others would rather use the proverbial handshake. And because freelancers are individuals, the contracts created by those who use them can take many different forms.
All of my editing projects are with individual authors, medical-specialty societies that produce journals, and book publishers. No multiyear projects with fees in the 6- or 7-digit range. Freelancers who work on the latter type of projects will want what one of my colleagues has described as "a multipart, multipage, multilawyer agreement signed in triplicate, notarized under the full moon." But those who work on much smaller projects may handle contracts in a way similar to how I do them.
I have a formal signed-in-triplicate contract only with very large publishing houses whose lawyers require them and with individual book authors whom I'm working with for the first time.
With my ESL (English as a second language) authors who make arrangements for me to do an English-language edit of their medical-journal articles, our e-mails back and forth constitute a contract. I lay everything out in my first response to an author's inquiry. I've been doing this for so long that I have standardized text ready to place in an e-mail; I tweak it here and there for each particular author. Then when he or she sends me all manuscript materials so that I can provide a fee estimate, I write the author back requesting that he or she agree to my fee and editing schedule by return e-mail. Ta-da—contract! I don't repeat that initial boilerplate for returning authors, though, unless it's been a couple of years since I last worked with them. I just write a short e-mail specifying fees and due dates because I figure that we have an understanding that is based on our initial contract; in this situation too, I ask the author to e-mail me back to agree to my fees and schedule.
With repeat-client publishers and book authors, I don't create a new signed-in-triplicate contract for each new project. I do summarize in an e-mail what the project parameters are, including number of rounds of revisions, project delivery date(s), the down payment I require, my fee, due dates for the down payment and fee, acceptable forms of payment (i.e., wire transfers, direct deposit, corporate checks, bank cashier's checks—no personal checks), what happens if either I or the client decides to end the working relationship before the end of the project, and so on.
Having a contract in place, in whatever form you use, doesn't erode trust. I believe that it fosters trust, because both parties know how the collaboration process will proceed. They both can stop worrying about outcome and start focusing on process.
Do you use contracts? If so, what forms do they take?
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