Work for Hire Pros and Cons

Meme Vader

Over at Walker's Study, Bradford Walker informs authors about the pros and cons of work for hire projects. Here's Bradford:
I'm talking about this because, if you are at all serious about paying bills by writing fiction, then you're going to consider taking Work For Hire contracts. That's you as a hired gun, and you're not only following the orders of the paymaster, you're also using their material to do your work. You are using your skills as a creator to produce product that the paymaster owns, and (by default) get no residuals after the fact; if you do your part, you get paid and have something to point to for future Work For Hire contracts.
Yet you are on the hook, so far as the audience cares, for anything in that book. Just as R.A. Salvatore about having a moon dropped on Chewbacca in Vector Prime. It's one thing to get flak over something that is utterly yours. It's something else to get it when all you did was follow another's orders, which is what you're doing when you're writing Darth Vader.
The other problem comes from your hired gun status also. Be it writing a novel, a script, or whatever you're not the shot-caller; you have some wigging room, but you're still just someone else's tool used to make their vision happen. Sometimes that means you get stuck facilitating something that doesn't make narrative sense because it's good for business (such as all the Vader and Fett stuff), and it becomes your job to make it work as they intend- to use your creative skills to trouble-shoot their problem.
If you get a reasonable liason representing the property owner, this can be mostly painless; by all accounts, Christie Golden's relationship with Blizzard Entertainment was fantastic (she's now on the payroll as an employee) and Timothy Zahn continues to have a good one with Lucasfilm. Likewise, poor ones can be disastrous; bail as soon as you can and never go back.
So, if you get an opportunity to get hired to write sanctioned fan-fic for a property, don't turn it down out of hand; it worked well for Jon del Arroz, Jeff Grubb, Timothy Zahn, Richard Knack, R.A. Salvatore, and many others- Walter B. Gibson being the most successful example. Take the bad experiences as the cautions that they are, and watch for the red flags. Writer Beware, but Fortune Favors The Bold.
Bradford's take is right on the money in my experience. Whether it's Superman or the Thrawn Trilogy, some of the greatest pieces of popular entertainment have been produced on a work for hire basis.

Authors who have thus far written only original content--especially indies--are well advised to understand that accepting a job as the writer of a work made for hire differs considerably from the more free-form approach they're used to.

I use the word "writer" on purpose. An author is by definition the ultimate authority over a given work. The writer of a work made for hire answers to the parties that commissioned the work. You may have more or less creative leeway depending on the original IP holder, but if creative differences arise, it's the writer who must make compromises, period.

Bradford is also correct that work for hire jobs can be lucrative. But there's always a price; in this case, reduced creative control and often reduced author brand-building value. Time spent working on a project for someone else is time not spent working on your own IPs.

If you're approached with a work for hire offer, consider the terms carefully, weigh the potential monetary benefits against the cost in time that won't be spent working on your brand, and make the best choice for your current situation.

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The Soul Cycle - Brian Niemeier


  1. Brian,
    Thanks a really helpful article on the business side of writing
    Perhaps you and Bradford could address the following questions about this topic because work for hire is as important as being an authour:

    1) What are the red flags writers should be aware of?
    2) What should the writer do when faced with either a nonsensical plot point or a scene that breaks the 'enchantment' and inform the patron that the instructions need to be amended?
    3) When is it prudent to turn down a job and how to do without burning any bridges?
    4) This is a judgmental question: but how to balance between your writing and the writing for hire?
    5) How to minimize any negative criticism of a work for hire writing you did but wasn't good due to bad instructions without coming across as an unprofessional whiner?
    I realize that the writer is responsible but sometimes the patrons come up with outlandish plots or other narrative ideas that simply don't work but still must be integrated in the writings.

    These are the questions I can think of for now.

    The most important advice I can give as a non writer to a budding one: be professional. If you accept a work for hire job. You do it on time and following instructions to the best of your ability as a professional. It's a job so treat it with the respect and seriousness that it requires.
    If there's a problem immediately contact the patron. If the patron is 'unreasonable' or rejects your advice then troubleshoot (as per Bradford) the problem within the constraints of your instructions and your writing skills.
    As much you want to vent; don't; you're a professional so just do the job, get paid, move on to the next one or back to your writing.

    Thanks again guys. This is the type of advice I wish I had when I was much younger. I would've been far less intimidated about writing publicly but I can still act on it :)


    1. You're welcome. I haven't dealt with all of the situations you ask about, but here's my best informed shot at some answers:

      1) Any uncertainty over whether the patron actually owns the rights, followed closely by cash-in/knockoff style projects (e.g. Asylum Films) that may infringe on someone else's IPs.
      2) Communicate your misgivings to whoever your immediate supervisor is on the project in a clear and professional manner. Explain why you think the mandated plot point won't work. The supervising editor may agree with you and authorize a change. If not, you suck it up and do what any employee at any job does: what his boss says.
      3) You write original works for your readers. You write works made for hire for your patron. Those Venn diagrams can overlap, but they're rarely identical. If writing a work made for hire would be less lucrative and build your brand less than writing an original work, don't take the job. If you turn down the job, do it with a polite but assertive "no". Any outfit that would hold a grudge against you for exercising your artistic and economic rights wasn't worth working for in the first place.
      4) See above. It's a trade-off. You can't write two books at the same time. A work for hire job that interferes with your release schedule slows the growth of your brand, so make sure the job pays enough to make up for the lost time, or turn it down.
      5) The traditional way to shield your brand from an expected backlash or to keep your regular readers from getting confused by a project that's drastically outside your normal wheelhouse is to use a pen name.
      An outfit that's only interested in you as a hired gun who can turn in salable prose on time won't care which name they publish you under. That way makes it easy for everybody.
      A patron that insists on publishing the book under your name wants to tap into your brand. You can use their desire to leverage your name recognition to get more creative control. "You approached me because you want an [Author X] book. That's fine, but to deliver what you want, I need final manuscript approval."

  2. I honestly don't understand why people don't understand 'work for hire'. After all, all of us have been doing 'work for hire' for most of our lives.

    That day job?
    Work for hire.

    I've run into this before, usually with artists, who just don't seem to get the concept, and I've actually had to go over the law with some of them, because they just didn't understand, and it was getting them in trouble.

    Maybe I understand it better because I have worked under a lot of NDA agreements as well as on some Secret projects. That I've worked for companies as an engineer (which can be a very creative position because you are creating new things) and it was always made clear up front that you didn't own what you were working on, and if you didn't like it or go along with (the way the project was going) it, your only option was to quit (which I have done in the past, literally just getting up, packing my briefcase, and walking out of the office with a 'I quit').

    Writing for an anthology is work for hire, almost any short story you'll write for someone else is, but those are usually not very stringent cases.

    Writing in someone esle's universe however, which is also work for hire, can be. And the less of a name you are, the less freedom you're going to be granted.

    The two biggest things I would tell anybody is first: Know the contractual agreement and understand what's yours, what isn't yours, what are your responsibilities, and what rights you have afterwards.

    Second: Make sure you have the right to use a pen name instead of your real name. This way if it goes to crap, you can change your name on the credits. This actually happens in the entertainment industry fairly often. Yes, you won't gain any 'fame' for the work, but you won't gain any indignation either. You will however still get paid. It may also give you at least a little bargaining power after the ink has dried on the contract.

    1. Solid advice. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    2. Thanks very much guys. This is extremely helpful advice to think about and digest. Yeah i've never understood how some artist don't understand work for hire.

      In any case really excellent stuff. What donyou do if you can't show a work for hire contract to a lawyer just to be sure? That always raises my suspicions

      Thanks again!


    3. If they won't let you show the contract to a lawyer, Run, do not walk, Away.

    4. Good advice in any contractual situation.

    5. J Van:

      Commonsensical advice. That was my impulse; glad to know I wasn't wrong

      Man of the Atom:

      I live in a country that's excessively pro business and it's impossible to take employment contracts to a lawyer. So you have to grin and bear it.

    6. Xavier -- Wow. That sucks. No offense, but I'm steering clear.

  3. Depends on the property, of course. I was personally told by Paul S. Kemp that most of that stuff WASN'T true about his experience writing Forgotten Realms stuff for Wizards of the Coast; he had all kinds of latitude to do it however he wanted to. His characters, his corner of the world, his events—all he couldn't do was blow up any of the nations, basically.

    But I'm sure that they are a bit more prescriptive at Star Wars.