When I talk to writers about their careers, said talk inevitably turns to money, fees and working for free. When it does, I always ask, "If you don’t know how to value your work and your time, how can you expect someone else to?" This question doesn’t just apply to writing and ghostwriting, but to any area of work, no matter what profession you're in. We all have a duty to ourselves to value our time, skill and hard work as highly as possible, because if we devalue it, others will compensate us for it at the devalued level...if they compensate us at all.
This was driven home for me once when I spoke with an author about his book proposal. He was a terrific and well-intentioned man, a former professional athlete who had become the head of his own successful nonprofit and wanted to write a faith-based book. This gentleman had a genuinely terrific marketing platform, tremendous contacts in media entertainment and sports, and could probably get a New York book deal. However, when he asked me if I would “partner“ with him on the book proposal, I said no.
For those of you who don’t speak writer, partnering means “Will you work for me for free in the hopes of getting paid on the back end?" The offer was sincere and honest, but again, I said no. I don't work for free, and for someone to even ask is an insult.
When I advise freelance writers, I counsel them to never, EVER work for no money up front. Never work for "credit." The reason is simple: if you work for nothing up front, you stand a good chance of never getting paid, and mortgage banks don't accept bylines as currency. No matter how certain a deal looks, there is no such thing as a sure thing. Back in 2011, I did a back-end-only deal (a project where I got no money up front but a big cut of the prospective royalties, if there were any). It looked like a sure thing, but the author ended up doing almost no marketing and the book earned next to nothing in royalties.
The only thing that saved my dumb ass from getting zero compensation was a very, very smart agent (who I should've listened to when she told me NOT to do the book). She wrote a clause into the contract that stipulated that if I didn't receive my full normal fee in royalties after one year, the author was on the hook for the balance. I ended up recouping about 75% of my fee thanks to that smart move.
However, there’s another reason not to work only for back-end compensation—another reason that I said no to a worthy author who I believe could very possibly get a substantial publishing deal in which I would have shared:
If I don’t value my work, neither will anyone else.
If I work for someone for free, that tells the person that that my work is not to be valued, and that opens the door for abuse or for my work to be taken for granted. This applies to all of us, whatever we do. Writer, accountant, lawyer, engineer, auto mechanic—it doesn’t matter. If you don’t value your time, your training, your experience, your knowledge and your effort, who else will? Frankly, it’s no one else’s job to place a value on your time and work, or to ensure that you’re properly compensated for them. It's your job. No one will ever be as fierce an advocate for you as you will be. That’s why I turned down what could be a very promising project. I value myself and my work more highly than that. I also believe it's important to practice what I preach.
I hope the author in question finds great success, and I believe he will. I hope you do as well. Now, go write.