What Every Creative Ought to Know About Contracts


Image by NobMouse via Flickr

A friend recently said that she’d done a consulting project for someone, sent the results and a bill, and got… nothing.

I recently fired a prospect. Why? Because they wanted me to spill all my secrets… and then they’d decide whether to pay me.

Sorry. No. I’ll happily give general advice on this blog and answer quick questions. But an entire copy/marketing strategy designed specifically for one company? Without a contract or payment?  No.

I’m not mean. I’m a capitalist.

So, what’s the right strategy?

Start with a written contract.

What the client wants

Be specific about what the goals are. If you are an expert in SEO, this could be attracting a particular number of visitors, or landing on the front page of Google for their top keywords. Whatever it is, write it down.

What you’ll do

Not all the details, but the keyword research, the market research, integrating the keywords into the website, cleaning up broken links, submitting the site to directories, etc.

When you’ll do it

Set deadlines for each stage. Spell out what the stages are. This should probably include initial acceptance of proposal, submitting a plan for SEO, reviewing keyword choices, and measuring results. Include whatever reports you will submit.

Who owns it

Is it “work for hire” (meaning the client owns all artwork, design, code, words) or do you retain some rights? Be clear about who owns what and under what conditions. (For more on work for hire, how much to charge, and sample contracts  check out the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines.  You can get it from Amazon (and buy me a milkshake), or check your local library or bookstore. It’s aimed primarily at graphic artists, but the tips apply to writers and developers too.)

Costs and responsibilities

What’s included. When do you charge extra (for additional revisions or add-0n tasks that were outside the original scope of the project)? What are the client’s responsibilities? What action (or inaction) on their part could cause the project to stall? Or go over budget?  Do you mark up your expenses (stock images, other freelancers, domain name registration, travel).  If so, how much?


When they’re due. How much. Is there a “kill fee” (a payment if work is stopped or the project is cancelled in the middle)?  Set milestones for delivery of work, and delivery of payment.  Don’t deliver final files without final payment.

If you need more help with this, the Freelancers Union has a new contract generator.

Share your thoughts

Have you had clients like my friend did? Or prospects like mine?  How did you change your contracts as a result?

5 thoughts on “What Every Creative Ought to Know About Contracts

  1. Make sure to describe that both parties get something. In a no-fee speaking engagement, I received an 18 pg contract that was all about what the other party owns and gets. Described to the point where the no-fee meant free. The speaker was not allowed to sell or make an offer services, the speaker was not allowed any email addresses unless specifically, off stage, given the email address. When requested for a copy of the video, “yeah sure” but nothing in the contract. Now, why would someone sign a contract like this? I certainly wouldn’t.

    Yes, contracts protect you…contracts should be to protect both parties to be a win-win scenario. Even for a no-fee arrangement.

  2. Jodi, this is solid info, thanks. I’ve been lucky: I’ve only been stiffed a couple of times. I’m usually pretty good with spelling out what it is I’ll deliver for a client, and clarifying details on their expectations (though I have underbid a number of times).

    The last time a client wouldn’t pay and wouldn’t reply to emails, I sent an email saying I was going to report them to the Whispers and Warnings section of Writer’s Weekly (which I blogged about today), and they paid, by PayPal, ten minutes later.

    See, I could have been a gangster just like my mama wanted.

    • Ha! I bet your mama was sooo proud.

      For some truly frightening examples… oh wait, maybe I’ll save that for tomorrow.

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