I start a lot of posts by saying publishing is a relationship industry. This time, I mean that it is, at its worst, a game of boundaries Calvinball that (as in all situations where the rules change on a whim) benefits the powerful. At some point in your career, you will make friends. That friendship will hopefully be rooted in a common set of values. We don’t sign bad contracts, we don’t engage in anti-labor practices. But one day, despite this, you will be asked by professional contacts– your buddies!– to bend the rules, just this once. And because you trust them, because they can articulate why these practices are bad, maybe they know something you don’t. Maybe this one time will be fine.
Don’t do it.
Here’s a purely theoretical example: Your business bud has an opportunity for you! They have a bud at a big magazine who’ll look at your article if you write it up front. It’s way above your pay grade. You don’t have any clips, see, or not ones up to the standard of this esteemed magazine. This is a favor to you!
Only, this isn’t standard practice. Short non-fiction has you pitch an idea widely, then the idea is accepted, then you write. Typically, you work for tiny publications, get a bunch of clips (examples of your work), and work your way up. But ah, you’re skipping the line here! Punching above your weight! What an opportunity!
Getting a start in a medium or large publication is rare (as in, it doesn’t happen to most writers). It’s not rare in that you’ll see people without prior publication make their debuts in large nonfiction publications all the time. Believe me, if someone with more privilege than you doesn’t have clips (but is buds with the editor), then a lack of clips is not an issue. So maybe you’re the exception like they are! Reality check: when that happens, those privileged few follow the standard procedure. Pitch, then acceptance, then write.
But say you try it, because visions of an awesome byline dance in your head. Will it work out? Absolutely not. You’ve worked for free. You’ve communicated that you’re such a bad, green writer that they’re doing you a favor just by looking at your work. Well, they did. Favor done! That’s the relationship you have to them, going forward. You agreed to put a value on your labor, and that value was nothing.
Don’t do that.
Another example: morality clauses, which are now showing up in both book contracts and which I have seen in agency agreements (despite them being unnecessary; an agent may part ways with you on 30 days notice for any reason). These clauses permit publishers to release authors for bad behavior, and sometimes even over rumors of bad behavior. Right now, there there are entire forums devoted to organizing the harassment of women, Jewish people, PoC and trans people. With that in mind, morality clauses are plain irresponsible. Publishers use them as hedges against backlash– but not for their actual missteps. Did the fact Bill O’Riley has sexual harassment allegations prevent a large publisher from publishing a book per year from him? Did Don Jr.’s complicity in a racist, fascist regime stop his recent book? Hell no. It’ll only be applied to small authors. Do you plan on being a small author? Then don’t sign a contract with a morality clause.
People who want you to compromise will protest. They’ll say it’s not that cut and dry. It’s a matter of managing the relationships, you see. It’ll be fine. They (the editor, your agent, whoever) will have your back. Only, clauses are there to enforce, and your friends aren’t having your back now. They want you to sign contract that goes against your best interests. If you sign it, you’ll know whoever you’re working with doesn’t understand power, doesn’t understand the problems you as a worker face in modern publishing. And now problems that should “us” problems– online harassment (complete with slander) and the like — are something you, the author, are on your own with. If someone wants a codified out from the obligation to have your back, it’s because they will take it.
If you are ever offered rep or a book contract, it’s because you have something valuable. You do not have to compromise, so don’t. Ever. If a heavy hitting publication likes your pitch but wants to see the finished project first before they’ll accept it, somewhere else will also like it and pay you. If a prospective agent or a publisher wants you to sign a contract, you have the power. You’re in a position to walk if they don’t have their contracts in order. Do so. Read up on publishing standard practices (both pro-labor and anti-labor) and make sure the people you work with are not just on the same page, but put those principles into practice.
This isn’t just good business, it’s good relationship-building. “I’m glad you liked my pitch! I don’t do articles on spec, but thank you,” is a better start to a relationship than demonstrating you work for free. “I don’t sign contracts with morality clauses; I believe they are an anti-labor practice that empowers bigots to harm the careers of minorities with no upside,” establishes your boundaries and your expectations. Will you lose work because of this? Some, maybe. I can’t promise people will pay you and respect you simply because you require them to. But I can promise that if you don’t require respect, you won’t get it.