The Wonderful World of Work for Hire

As the pandemic rolls on, more and more authors are having to find new ways to support themselves given the uncertainties in the publishing industry and the dearth of in-person events.

Traditionally, many writers have supplemented their publishing income with what we colloquially refer to as “work for hire” or WFH projects, although the Copyright Act definition of the term is more limited than its colloquial publishing use. I’m focusing here on the way we writers talk about WFH and, in this context, there are certain common elements as to what we regard in publishing as work for hire. These elements include:

  • A work created at the request of (i.e. commissioned by) someone else;
  • Usually for a flat fee although royalties are occasionally contemplated if a project is particularly successful or if the author is particularly well-known (it’s all a matter of contractual bargaining power!);
  • The work may or may not have the author’s name on it. Many work for hire projects are published under pen names created by the entity commissioning the work; and, most importantly,
  • Copyright in the work will belong to whoever commissioned it, rather than its author.

In publishing, we often think of work for hire projects in fairly limited terms—works that are commissioned by either a book packager or traditional publisher for traditional sale. (Book packagers are companies like Working Partners and Alloy Entertainment that create concepts for books in the children’s literature area, audition and commission authors to write them, and attempt to sell them to a publisher.)

However, there are lots of other kinds of work for hire projects available to authors who are looking for new ways to supplement their income. You can often get involved in curriculum and course development for online learning platforms which are burgeoning areas during COVID. The best ways to do this are to contact organizations that run significant online programming to see if they need content developers and/or to search their job boards if they have publicly available job ads posted.

You can also write content for advertising and merchandising. Many authors write content for retail catalogs and for websites for various organizations. Again, keep your eyes on relevant job boards.

Some websites invite bids from content writers for various projects, such as Upwork and Freelancer.com.

And you can always ask around your critique groups and writing friends to see what kinds of additional side gigs they’ve worked on in the past or are working on currently. Word of mouth is a great way to find out about these kinds of positions.

A lot of work for hire doesn’t pay all that well and it typically has rather tight deadlines depending on the project, but if you are good at budgeting and time management it may be worth considering whether these kinds of projects might be right for you.

A number of educational publishers are routinely on the lookout for writers for leveled readers for school curricula so it’s also worth familiarizing yourself with who publishes these books and how to apply to be a writer-for-hire. While you may need an agent to pitch your own original book to a publisher, many publishers work with freelance authors unagented.

If you are going to take up work for hire projects without an agent, it may be worth having a literary attorney take a quick glance at the first contract you’re offered with any given company to make sure there are no surprises, but these contracts are usually fairly standard. You don’t generally get any rights in your own work (those belong to whoever commissioned the work), but you do get money and occasionally attribution.

If you do have an agent, you can always ask your agent if they can find you work for hire projects. Some will be in a position to do that—but may take a commission for helping you. Others may not. But it never hurts to ask, right?

This has been less of a “legal” column than a “how to get by as a writer” column, but if you do pursue work for hire, it’s worth making sure that you understand the contract before you sign on the dotted line.

As always, nothing in this column is intended as formal legal advice, but hopefully it is helpful by way of background information.

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