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Can You Keep Your Freelancers Truly Yours?

Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 2:24 PM

Establishing long-term, loyal relationships with freelance staff.

It can be unnerving to discover that a freelancer is working for a competitor, and even using the same byline in rival publications. Is it reasonable to expect total loyalty from freelancers? Can we, as editors, discourage or even forbid our freelancers from contributing to competitors? In this Q-and-A session, we address this sensitive issue.

Q. I have a problem with our writers' bylines appearing in our biggest competitors' pages! It seems like once we find new writers and spend time breaking them in -- a competitor tries to snatch them up. This has been going on for a long time, even before I was hired. Now, when writers ask me whether I mind if they write for the competition, I have to be honest. I tell them I'd prefer they didn't. But it doesn't seem fair to discourage new authors like this when some of our freelancers just go ahead and do it anyway. I realize they're trying to make a living and they need to write for any publication that accepts their work. Nonetheless, it also doesn't seem fair that these authors do just go ahead and do it. What's an editor to do? Indeed, what is proper to do? It is hard to find new writers; it takes time to develop good ones; and, I hate to lose them. What am I justified in doing about this? Should I stop using those writers whose names also appear in the competing magazines?

A. Well, you've outlined some dilemmas that many other editors also face when dealing with outside writers. What are the rules regarding exclusivity? There are no hard and fast rules. In fact, it makes good sense to approach the various circumstances in ways appropriate to each case or category. For instance, if you were to be offered a really great article by, say, President Obama, you wouldn't ask that he agree not to write for any other magazines, would you? Of course not. Exclusivity certainly can be desirable. But there are times when either the stature of the writer, or the uniqueness of the content, outweighs exclusivity.

That's not to say you would want the same article to appear in a competing publication. But this comes down to the question of what rights you are buying from the writer. This should all be spelled out in your written agreement with the writer. Requiring an exclusive in your field for a particular article is certainly a reasonable position -- even if you're negotiating with the President!

But, I think you're most concerned over a different circumstance. That is when you find a diamond-in-the-rough writer. Maybe he or she is a reader of your publication who has some excellent information to share with other readers -- but lacks the experience with which to produce excellence in his or her journalistic approach. So you heavily edit the article, maybe even rewrite parts of it. And, voila, the article becomes a smashing success. The new writer learns from your editorial handling of his or her copy, and writes additional pieces for you, each becoming more and more refined. Soon your diamond-in-the-rough writer is looking like a polished gem -- an obvious target for an author-recruiting competitor.

Whether it's a case like this, or just an established writer you'd prefer to have on an exclusive basis, here are three approaches you might try:

1. Offer the writer more money. Explain that you value his or her association with your magazine, and that to assure it on an exclusive basis in the field in which you publish, you wish to offer an additional dollar amount per article.

2. Offer the writer a contract as a regular contributor. Put his or her name on the masthead. Agree to a specified number of articles per year. Make exclusivity a part of the deal.

3. Recognize that man (or woman) does not live by bread alone. Encourage a cordial and friendly relationship with the writer. Be sure to show your genuine appreciation for the work he or she does. Be open to article ideas from the writer, and follow them whenever it makes sense to do so, even if they wander slightly from your personal preferences from time to time.

If the writer feels that he or she enjoys a special relationship with your publication, one that adds enjoyment to the work, your request for exclusivity may cost nothing more.

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