Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Writing Wednesday: Work for Hire - What It Is, Why You (Might) Want It, and How to Get It


As you might have seen on Twitter last night, I finished the book I had to stop writing Heartstrikers to write! WOO!

This book was a new record for me: a complete 95k novel written and first sweep edited (ie, cleaned up enough to be decent for the initial editor/client review) in about 7 weeks. Pretty freaking awesome!!

So what is this book, you might ask? Well...I can't tell you. I'm not just being coy here, either. I mean I signed a contract that legally prevents me from telling anyone anything about this project. Why would I sign up such a thing? Well, friends, let's take an educational journey into the world of what we in the publishing business call Work for Hire!

Writing Wednesday: Work for Hire - What It Is, Why You (Might) Want It, and How to Get It

According to Google, this is writing for money looks like. (Holds out hands to receive cash...still holding...)
At the basic level, the publishing world definition of Work for Hire (sometimes known as Contract Work) means hiring a writer to write a specific book. This is backwards from the way publishing normally works (ie, the writer writes a book, makes it as awesome as possible, and then tries to sell that finished book to the publisher). In Work for Hire, a publishing house or individual will come up with an idea/world/series on their own and then go hire a professional author to actually write the thing.

Work for Hire contracts include writing novelizations for film and popular franchises (the Extended Universe Star Wars novels, the book version of every big movie/game, and so forth), Ghost Writing, writing for Book Packagers, etc. All of these have their up sides and down sides for both the client/publisher and the hired writer, but since this is a writing blog, I'm going to focus on the author half of the business agreement.

How Does it Work?

Every Work for Hire project is different, but they all generally start the same way: someone who is not an author wants a book, so they go out and hire an author to write it. This interaction can be as small as a retiree paying someone they found on Craig's List to write their memoir or as huge as Disney hiring fifty authors to write a thousand years worth of Star Wars novels. The basic dynamic, though, is always the same: a client needs a novel, so they hire/sign a contract with a professional author to write it, hence the name "Work for Hire" or "Contract Work."

Now, sometimes these contracts are a very big deal, like when a major media corporation hires an NYT Bestseller to write a series of novels for a big hit property (again, see Star Wars). These sort of big name projects are often more like partnerships than normal Work for Hire. All three parties--the major media corporation, the NYT Bestseller author, and the big hit property--have their own name recognition and fanbase, and since bringing all of these together in one novel is a surefire way to produce a hit, every part of the equation is trumpeted as loud as possible for maximum impact. 

All around awesome dude Kevin Hearne working it like a pro!
These kind of projects are the Holy Grail of Work for Hire, and they can make a writer's career (Timothy Zahn, anyone?), but not all Contract Work is so good for your career. In fact, most contract projects out there are anonymous Ghost Writing jobs where you're hired to write a novel, give the credit to someone else, get your money, and then never speak of it again. Your name will never be on the book, and if you're a good author and obey your NDA, no one will ever know you were involved. 

This anonymity can be a mixed blessing, especially if the Book That Must Not Be Named goes on to be a critically acclaimed smash hit, hit the NYT, and otherwise achieve all your author dreams without you, but such is the gamble of Work for Hire. 

More on this in a bit. 

So What's it Like to Write One of These?

From the writer side of the fence, Work for Hire is a pretty bizarre experience. For me personally, it felt like I went from being God of my own worlds to playing action figures in someone else's, which was a pretty big change for me. If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm a pretty anal control freak when it comes to my work, and I had to let go of a lot of that to write this book.

That said, I actually really enjoyed the experience! To take a page from my Great British Bake Off writing post, Work for Hire is a lot like a technical challenge. You're given a specific recipe (book spec) with predefined ingredients (characters, plot arcs, etc) and, more often than not, a very tight timeline in which to create a specific finished product, but you're not given many (if any) instructions on how to actually get there. You have to use all the experience and skills you've gained through working on your own novels and just figure it out.

The result is a pure execution challenge: how well can you assemble a fun, competent, exciting book given predefined pieces. If that sounds like a fun challenge to you, then working for hire will probably be an enjoyable and lucrative experience. If having to write someone else's characters sounds like hell, then maybe this kind of work isn't for you.

It's not always so dire, of course. How much control you have over the creative details of the narrative will vary from project to project. Sometimes the client will come in with a cast, plot, and narrative arc already laid out, and you're just there to connect the dots into actual, readable prose. Other times, you'll be given something very broad like "write a novel in this world" and the rest--the characters, plot, and so forth--will be left up to you, pending client approval.

That last bit's the kicker, because while all that freedom might sound nice, it can also be enough rope to hang yourself if your client doesn't like any of your ideas. That's the other part of Work for Hire that's really different from writing your own stuff: you're writing for an audience of one. Of course, you're trying to write a good book that will sell well and make you proud, but you're also writing to please the person who hired you, even if that person's ideas aren't what you would normally write. It's a very delicate balancing act, because you were hired specifically for your writing expertise. Yes, you're writing their story, but if you think your client is asking for something that's going to wreck the book, it's your job to tell them. It's a very different dynamic from the normal editor/author, or even reader/author relationship, but it's one you have to learn to manage adroitly if you ever want to do this kind of work. Which brings us to...

Why Would Anyone Do This?

There are a lot of reasons authors take on Work for Hire, the simplest of which is that it usually pays pretty well. Anonymous Ghost Writing especially gives you licence to demand ludicrous sums of money since your name will never be associated with this book, which means it's doing nothing for your career and you need to be compensated accordingly. 

On the flip side, if you get a contract from a major property (ie, get hired to write the next Halo novel or a book adaptation of Frozen) to write a book for them under your own name, then Work for Hire is a great way to get your writing in front of a much larger audience. This is especially great if you can land a contract for something really popular (again, Star Wars is the prime example), because that book is then pretty much guaranteed to hit a big Best Seller list, and since you're on the cover as the author, this means you get to call yourself a NYT Best Seller on all your other novels forever! Once a best seller, always a best seller :)

 Finally, Work for Hire is an amazing way to meet legit famous people you'd never get to interact with normally. For example, if you get hired to Ghost Write a celebrity novel, you're going to get to talk to and work with that celebrity. Not to tip my hand on my own secret projects, but this is REALLY COOL. These interactions are a once in a lifetime experience, the sort of thing money just can't buy, and, at least for me, one of the biggest reasons to seriously consider any Work for Hire project that comes my way.

Fair Enough, Rachel, But How Do I Get These Projects in the First Place?

Like everything else in the publishing world, what Work for Hire project you have access to depends on your career. What sort of work you're offered will depend largely on your experience (ie, if you're a debut author with only one title to your name, you probably won't get picked to write a novel for a huge name like Star Wars) and what kind of author you are. Part of this is simple genre matches--if you're known for your terrifying Gothic Horror novels, you're probably not going to be approached to write a light-hearted contemporary YA--but part of it also your own professional acumen. 

Publishing clients are like any other employers: they want to work with professionals who will do their job well and on time. If you're a novelist who's chronically late on your manuscripts and who has public artistic melt downs, it doesn't matter how good a writer you are, you're going to have a tough time getting Contract Work. Creative professionals are still professionals. Even if you haven't finished a novel yet, if you want to have a juicy contract offered to you at some point in your career, start projecting that aura of competence and professionalism now. It's all part an parcel of treating your writing like a job.

All that said, of course, the one thing you absolutely will need if you want to break into this kind of writing is an agent. Not only are they the ones who actually know all the other agents/editors offering these contracts in the first place, if you're looking for Work for Hire, a good agent will actively market you as a contract writer to their network. For example, if they hear an editor mentioning they need a writer for such and such project, they'll pop in and say "Hey, I've got the perfect person!" and then mention your name. 

If that sounds like a "You gotta know people to know people" situation, it is, The Self Pub revolution might be in full swing, but Contract Work is firmly an old media/Trad publishing affair. If you want these kind of contracts, you have to be in this world. If that's a deal breaker for you, don't sweat it. If you're a writer who's firmly in the anti-New York publishing camp, chances are you'd hate contract work anyway. You thought normal publishing house contracts were restrictive? Wait until you see these puppies!
For me, Contract Work fills a very specific niche in my professional life, and so long as you accept all the hoops you're going to have to jump through, it can be a unique and rewarding experience. If you're not yet published and you're interested in Contract Work, my advice to you would be to focus on building your own career first. After all, Work for Hire clients are hiring an author specifically for your professional writing experience. If you don't have any of that yet, you have nothing to sell, and anyone who's willing to hire you anyway isn't the kind of client you want to work for.

For example, book packagers hire unpublished writers all the time. Many of the most well known long running series like Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High are written not by a single author, but by an army of freelancers managed by a packager, the company paid by the publisher to reliably produce new entries in these perennially selling IPs. But while there are many good book packagers who offer fair (if low paying) freelance contracts, there are also plenty of shysters who prey on writers' desperation to get people willing to write like slaves for peanuts and zero share of the rights. A perfect example of this is James Frey's YA book packager who paid young, then unpublished author Jobie Hughes a mere $250 to write what became the Best Selling YA hit I Am Number Four published under pseudonym Pitticus Lore. That $250 is all Hughes ever made for his work, despite millions of books sold and a movie deal. His name wouldn't even be known if the scandal about how little he was paid for the title hadn't broken. 

More like "I am Getting Screwed Over"
This kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME with book packagers. They are the dark underbelly of Write for Hire, and while there are freelance authors who've made a living using them, I can not recommend this kind of work. In my opinion, you are much better off writing your own work. Even if everything flops, at least you won't have to deal being exploited on top of it.

And That's What I Know About Work for Hire!

I hope you've found this post useful, or at least entertaining! If you still have questions or if you've had your own experiences with contract work, leave them in the comments below! And for those of you wondering where the hell the next Heartstrikers book is, have no fear. I'm going right back to it right now! Speaking of, it's time to go write. 

Thank you all a million times for reading! If you want more writing info, I do craft posts every Wednesday. Follow me on Social Media (TwitterFacebookTumblrGoogle+) to never miss a blog and for lots of other book-related fun! And if you're curious about my work for're just going to have to stay that way for now, I'm afraid. Trust me, though, when I get permission to talk about it, OH GOD, how I will talk about it! You'll wish you'd never asked. ;)

Thank you again as always for reading, and until next time, happy writing!

Yours 4 evs,


BG said...

Damn it, now I'm even more curious about your Work for Hire project!

Madilyn Quinn said...

Interesting! I'd wondered about all this!

Jimney said...

Oooh interesting! I hadn't ever thought about doing contract work until read your blog post. I'm mostly way too in love with my capacity to play God in my own work. On the other hand... practising my craft/the technical aspects of my craft also sounds very good. It'd be a challenge... and I'm not one to back down if one of those comes up! :]

Very interesting post all in all. There's so much more to the publishing world than self vs traditional publishing, it seems. ;)

Mallix said...

Will we definitely get to know what the project is once it has come out or is it still up in the air?

I dont like the thought that there will be some Rachel Aaron published words that I have not read and cant because I don't know where they are :(

Cate said...

Thank you so much for this info, Rachel! I'm wondering if you can talk about how you've found an agent. I'm very interested in this type of work, but am not sure how to go about finding an agent, as most don't advertise they represent ghostwriters. I've found one agency that does ghostwriting exclusively, but any info or tips you can talk about with finding an agent to do ghostwriting would be incredibly helpful. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for discussing 'work for hire.' In terms of the payment, were you paid an advance and royalties or just an advance? I am curious if royalties are ever part of the work for hire negotiation in your knowledge?

I'm being asked to do a revised book as a work for hire (I wrote the first edition as a work for hire) but feel like I want to get a better deal out of this. Also- is the advance neogotiable? Last time it was a ton a work and this time I know better and would like to be better compensated.