The bane of any hopeful professional author — one who writes for money to feed a family and a future fortunate — is the old “Work for Hire” kludge-as-cudgel and it is wielded against unwitting amateur authors, and even published, working, authors, by publishing houses as a “proper payment system” that is both fair to each side and an early warning windfall for the writer.  Unfortunately, none of that is true.

Publishers love to force writers into Work for Hire contracts because the benefit is all on their side of the dyad, and while initial risks are shared, the goal of good fortune tomorrow is not.

I warned of this impending trend way back on September 7, 2007 in my article: “Work For Hire is a Bad Idea” —

If you get royalties you are in partnership with your publisher.  If you are “Work For Hire” you’re used up when you’re done writing.

Publishers live to exploit that hungry author desire for fast money now — and in the process of the “Work For Hire” hiring — the author not only loses a potential profit bonanza, but also sells out their self-respect, self-worth, and fellow authors.

Like any boogeyman horror story, some terrors demand repeating and reminding, and the Work for Hire monster is something that, once again, must be unveiled under the bed and shown the enlightened light of day to new authors joining the ranks of the great unwashed — and the even-greater taken advantage of — in the open publishing market.

Work for hire is a horrible idea because it turns the author into an hourly wage earner.  Now, that can be fine for quick work, but if one is seeking a book publication, work for hire is not the way to go because it means that, once the book is written, the author is paid once, and only once, and any future revenue from the book belongs solely to the publisher.

Book royalties are one form of an author’s annuity. You write to preserve and protect your future — not to give your book away to the lowest one-time bidder. Unfortunately, there are a lot of desperate authors who will take any deal offered in the hope of finally becoming famous, but not rich.

Few authors make a lot of money — and that’s why NOT working for hire is an important rule to follow.   You always want some sort of royalty, some kind of future promise that if there is a lot of money to be made that you, as the original author, get a fair share of that prosperous spread.

Publishers do not want ongoing writer participation. They’re all about the book, not the person who wrote the book, and that’s a hard reality each author must confront during contract negotiation.

If you want a friend, buy a pet — don’t pet a publisher — because publishers are not out to be your buddy or to make your career. Their only hope and want and duty is to get you to sign a boilerplate contract on the worst terms so they can reap the whirlwind on the bet that your book will outlive you, and your heirs, by a century or two.


  1. Good topic. Reminders are helpful for those not especially exposed to this sort of process. Who’s going to tell the young author to tread ever so carefully? Not likely an agent if the young writer has that advantage.

    It is dismaying that even academic books are now being written not only on spec but also as work for hire. There’s no money in the mind. It’s pay as you go. Every word is a finite cent.

    1. That is a growing problem. How desperate are you to get published? Do you give away the store, and a life’s work, for pennies on the dollar? Or do you know your worth, and understand the business, and stand firm — and even say “no” — to a publisher who wants your royalty-free work forever?

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