Posted in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, The Publication Process

Work-for-Hire Wisdom


Here are more words of wisdom about work-for-hire.
Bridget Heos says she’s a big fan of work-for-hire for these reasons:
“1. It provides steady income. I know that I’ll be paid for what I write, since the publisher commissioned it. Also the publishers pay, in my experience, one-two months upon receipt of the manuscript, which is nice!
“2. It gives me more writing time. The more you practice something, the better you get. It’s nice to get paid to practice my craft, even if it’s less than I would make selling a manuscript that was my own idea. I can only sell a few manuscripts of my own per year, so it makes sense to supplement that through work for hire. Plus, a lot of the books I write for hire are lots of fun. And I get to work with more editors, which is always great. (Children’s book editors are some of the nicest people I know, and I’m not saying that to butter them up. I’m pretty sure the way to butter up editors is to meet deadlines.)
“3. Finally, I learn a lot. (I write nonfiction for hire.) This gives me good background information on a variety of topics. Often these relate in a small way to another nonfiction manuscript I’m writing on spec. Sometimes I also get book ideas from a small detail I learn through my research.
“My advice is to drum up work WHILE you’re busy writing. That way, you’ll avoid a vicious cycle of having tons of books to write followed by no books to write. And if anybody figures out how to do this, please let me know.”
Prolific author Joanne Mattern said, “I’ve published hundreds of books for the educational market and almost all have been w-f-h, so you could say it’s been the cornerstone of my career. Almost all of my experiences have been very positive. I like getting paid quickly and I love the diversity of genres and topics I’ve written about–many times I’ve gotten assignments on topics I would never have researched on my own. I often have to defend w-f-h to other authors but for me it’s been a wonderful way to work.”
By contrast Bobi Martin has done a couple of w-f-h jobs. She said, “One was a CD Rom product and the other was my travel activity book. I enjoyed both. The money was not stellar, but the projects were fun and the editors were nice to work with. In each case I was able to earn more money than the original contract amount because I got my work in ahead of the deadlines AND because I asked the editors if there was other work I could do on the project. In the case of the CD Rom product (Reading Search: In Search of the Lost Folktales produced by Great Wave) the editor let me do 11 vocabulary exercises in addition to the retold tales I was hired to write, and I was paid reasonably for them.
“In the case of Kidding Around San Francisco, I asked if I could do the word-based activities that would be in my book. My editor originally said no, but then called back a couple of days later and asked if I could do some simple crossword puzzles and a few ‘Silly Stories’ (these are like Mad-Libs). Once I’d sent those in, I got calls from the editors of other books in that series and I wound up contributing to 10 books in the series. The pay was nominal, but I got a copy of each book I contributed to and the editors listed me as a contributor in the inside credits of each book. When you’re beginning your career, writing credits are worth almost as much as a paycheck.”
Vijaya Khisty Bodach said, “My experience mirrors Joanne’s (minus the hundreds of books 🙂 I enjoy working on wfh books and it’s helped us financially. I always take on topics that I enjoy or want to know more about so writing is a great way to learn as well (and get paid for it). I have missed doing WFH books, but I decided to give myself a couple of years to learn the art of writing a novel … there are some things I’ve just got to write and they will not fit in the short story format.”
“I remembered another positive not mentioned: photos,” added Christine Kohler “I wrote a book about refugees for Harcourt Achieve, published in 2003. Every refugee I interviewed had photos of themselves in their Mother country and/or in the refugee camp. It was remarkable! So both the editor and I knew right away that this book had to be done with photographs, like an album, instead of illustrations. Toward the end of the process the editor asked if I could recommend a photographer in my area to photograph two of the refugees for recent photos. I said I could recommend a local news photographer, or I could do it; I’ve done photojournalism for newspapers. The Harcourt hired me to shoot the two recent photos. (ALWAYS negotiate a separate fee for photos. The editor would have to pay extra if someone else took the photos, so make sure you are getting paid extra.)
“At the time I didn’t think much about it, but five years later Houghton Mifflin bought Harcourt. I expected For a Better Life would go OP, which is common for that length of time on the shelves and during buy-outs. To my surprise, I got a call from a NYC agency requesting I grant permission to H-M to use the photos for another five years and send an invoice for payment on the renewal. I was surprised because I didn’t know my photos were on a separate, limited, contract from the text, which was wfh. I asked around, billed from a reasonable amount, and was delighted H-M was picking up my refugee book as a reprint. It’s an excellent book for ESL and citizenship classes, although it was intended for the public school market.”
“Be sure the contract mentions author copies. The first time I did w-f-h I didn’t think of that and was disappointed (multi-book contract, no less!).” – Paula Morrow
“My second through ninth published books were work for hire,” Chris Eboch said. “I would have had a 10-year gap in publication credits without WFH. Experiences and pay varied. The worst case was $3000 for a research intensive 25,000-word nonfiction book working with a terrible editor at one house. (Other jobs paid less, but for less work.)
“I also had two books killed with one publisher. In one case I got a kill fee, and the other nothing after writing and editing an outline and sample chapter, because they decided to discontinue the series and we hadn’t yet gone to contract.
“On the positive end, I enjoyed writing a “famous girl sleuth” book, and learned a lot from working with those editors, and I got $6,000 plus royalties for the Childhood of Famous Americans bios on Milton Hershey and Jesse Owens. (Not that they’ve paid royalties yet….) I’ve gotten fan mail on Milton Hershey.
“WFH is not ideal, but I would not have been able to survive as a writer without the pay, and the publishing credits also help when you’re trying to establish yourself as a professional.”
Amy Houts said, “The majority of the 40 picture books (both fiction and nonfiction, mostly for the education market) I’ve written have been w-f-h. I’ve had great experiences with supportive editors. The money varied, but mostly was good. I’ve only had one success in submitting a picture book proposal on my own. W-f-h has worked for me.”
Wow, what a nice variety of experiences. Thanks, Bridget, Joanne, Bobi, Vijaya, Christine, Paula, Chris and Amy for sharing. (Again, there are links to these authors from their names above.)
Next up: Work-for-Hire Resources