Don’t Sign if you Don’t Want to

I had an experience this past week that I think needs to be shared for creatives in the earlier stages of their careers; the joys of walking away. We’re regularly told that at the beginning of our careers, we need to take nearly every dang contract we can get ahold of. When you’ve got rent and other expenses breathing down your neck, the panic is real. Every time you enter into a negotiation on a contract, it can be an absolute panic if you don’t like something. Is it worth having questions, is it worth potentially losing the contract over some small disagreement, is it worth losing that potential money simply because you don’t like something?


If you have a concern with the contract and raise it in a respectful and reasonable way, and you lose the contract for it, you didn’t want that contract anyways. That’s what happened to me this week – I was sent a contract that had two clauses that I had issues with. I sent back an email saying as much. Excited about the project, would love to work on this, but these two things give me pause, can we talk about them. The other party was gone. Negotiations broke down, and I’ll never get that contract.

I say that’s good.

The negotiation process sets the stage for the entirety of your relationship. If they aren’t willing to negotiate on the contract, they should be at least willing to explain why that clause isn’t worth changing. Creative contracts are almost always on a project that is more than just an afternoon’s worth of work, and should be treated as such. If you’re writing work for hire, and they want to take your moral rights, you can ask why, or you can ask about an exception. If they say “no, this is important to us because of how we run our business,” that’s not the end of the world. It is a negotiation. They can say no, and you get to make the decision if you can live with that contract or not.

When one party shuts down negotiations or refuses to budge on any clauses without reason, that sends you a signal. They don’t want to communicate with you, they don’t treat this as going into business with you, and they don’t particularly care about you. None of that is a deal breaker, but you should be going in with eyes wide open.

Newcomers to the industry are definitely going to find this difficult. We’ve seen entire business models based upon creatives being hesitant or otherwise unwilling to negotiate for their rights in contracts.

So, I’ve set up a system that was useful for me getting used to that negotiation process. The first step is to ask questions about your contracts. Even ones that you are perfectly fine with all the clauses – ask about a specific piece of verbiage or a point of clarification (even if you’re pretty sure you get it). This is going to make you more comfortable talking about contracts, and more comfortable negotiating.

Don’t keep doing this forever – a single email or call with a couple of questions is usually plenty. From there you’re going to start to become used to the process, and then you can start to ask for minor changes. Maybe you want the terms of payment shifted slightly, or a small alteration to timelines. Even if the other party says they can’t make that happen, that should be part of the business process.

As you dip your toes deeper into the industry, and you keep asking questions and being respectful, you’ll get a better handle on how contracts work. That’ll make you more comfortable and, eventually, you’ll be able to talk about contracts with some experience.

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