As concerns grow over electronic piracy and the loss of rights, you may be asking yourself the same question thousands of other writers are asking: "How can I prove that my work belongs to me? What stands between me and those who seek to make a profit from my writing, without sending so much as a penny my way?"
The answer is "good records." Unfortunately, the creative mind is often not the sort of mind that enjoys administrivium -- such as developing and maintaining good filing systems. I'm constantly amazed by writers who say, "I don't even know if I have a contract with such-and-such publisher."
Fortunately, all you really need to develop a good filing system is a handful of folders or envelopes, a box in which to keep them -- and an act of will. The folders or envelopes are for your important papers; the act of will is to ensure that your papers actually find their way into those folders.
Freelance writing is a business. The quick and easy answer to this question, therefore, is that you should keep every file that relates to the running of that business. That includes the following:
Contracts and letters of agreement. Whenever you sell a "work" (an article, story, poem, book, whatever), you should have some sort of written agreement with the purchaser. Sometimes this will be a formal contract; in other cases, it may be little more than a letter saying "Thanks for sending this; yes, we'd love to use it." If you don't receive even that much, create your own letter of agreement specifying the rights you are licensing. For the greatest degree of protection, ask your editor to countersign a copy of this letter and send it back to you.
Such contracts and agreements may be your only evidence, in later years, that you sold (or did not sell) a specific set of rights. If you have no record of the terms under which your material was published, it will be very difficult for you to prove the terms of that agreement. (It would be nice to say that in the absence of an agreement, courts assume that you sold First North American Serial Rights, but one can't count on this, especially if the material was sold to an electronic publication or was used electronically by a print publication.)
Keep these contracts forever. You don't need a fancy filing system for them; a simple folder marked "contracts" should be enough. If you have lots of contracts, consider investing in an expanding "pocket" folder with alphabetical dividers, so that you can file your contracts by publication name. Never assume that you won't need a copy of that contract in later years; stuff of mine is appearing online that I sold 15 years ago!
Correspondence. Granted, a lot of your writing correspondence looks pretty trivial: "Do you want to buy this article?" "No." Even rejection letters are important, however. If nothing else, they demonstrate to the IRS (in case of an audit) that you really are attempting to conduct a writing business. Acceptance letters are even more important: Often, they spell out the terms of the sale. If so, put them in your "contracts" file.
While it may be tempting to set up alphabetical files for your correspondence, I've never found this necessary. My own system originally consisted of two folders: "Pending" and "Completed." Once a response arrived to a letter in the "pending" file, I'd staple it to my outgoing letter and file both in the "Completed" file. At the end of the year, I'd label the Completed folder for that year (e.g., "Correspondence 2007") and store it in a file box in my closet. When my correspondence became too much for a single folder, I subdivided it into "acceptances," rejections," and "everything else" -- all of which get stored in the box at the end of the year. You may never have to touch these files again -- but you never know!
Invoices. If you regularly send out invoices to editors, you may want to store these separately from your regular correspondence. As with correspondence, you may also want two folders: One for pending invoices, and one for paid invoices. Again, if you want to subdivide these alphabetically, fine; otherwise, a single "paid" folder will usually suffice for a single year of invoices.
Clips. Rare is the writer whose ego does not require a carefully preserved copy of everything s/he has ever published! This is your "clip" file, and it can be useful in many ways. It is, of course, the source of any "clips" that you send out with queries or proposals. It can become your portfolio if you choose to seek a paid position in the writing industry. It is also your source of reprints; when submitting reprints, it's often better to submit copies of the published article rather than your original manuscript. Finally, it is your history -- the story of your career neatly stored in plastic page-protectors.
Gone, thank goodness, are the days when we had to store clips in those dreadful plastic sleeves with the black paper lining -- the kind that stuck to the print of newspaper clippings and actually peeled the ink off the paper. Today, you can get acid-free page protectors in any office supply store; use the kind that have an extra strip on the side for binder holes, so that you don't have to punch holes in your clips themselves.
I file my most recent (or important) clips in a leather portfolio; the rest are kept in ordinary three-ring binders. The page protectors enable you to make photocopies of your clips without removing them from the sleeves. I usually make and store photocopies of newspaper clippings, rather than keeping the originals, which don't age well. I also ask for at least two complimentary copies of any publication in which my work appears, one for the clips and one to keep whole, in a magazine file container.
Manuscripts. Should you keep your old manuscripts forever? A few days ago, I might have said "don't bother." Then I realized, as I contemplated submitting a fairly ancient reprint, that I have only the published version of that article -- a version that was butchered by a grammatically challenged editor. Since I no longer have the original, I can't resubmit what I actually wrote -- I'm stuck with another editor's hatchet-job.
Fortunately, most of our manuscripts are electronic these days, so we don't have to worry about saving boxes and boxes of published (or unpublished) works. Just be sure to back up your manuscript files on disk periodically, or a computer crash could wipe out your life's work in a blink of an electron.
That raises another issue: Electronic records. Chances are, most of your writing and much of your correspondence is handled electronically nowadays -- you may never even have print copies of much of this material. That's great from the standpoint of saving trees (and space in the back of your closet). However, it does present a risk, in that a computer failure can irretrievably wipe out your most important records. It can also be more difficult to locate important correspondence in a confusion of e-mail folders.
The key to keeping good electronic files is to resist the temptation to purge them. It's very easy to think that you'll never need a particular e-mail record -- only to find, months later, that it had a vital bit of information that is now lost to you forever. If nothing else, keep an "archive" folder in your e-mail system that stores copies of every writing-related bit of e-mail you send or receive. (You can also model these archives on your hardcopy files, creating a new archive for each year or even each month.)
Need I mention the importance of backing up these files on disk periodically? While I admit that I often fail to practice what I am about to preach, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of making regular backups of everything that might be relevant to your writing records. Depending on the extent of your backup needs, you can back up files to CD-ROM, DVD, a flash drive, or an external drive.
One way to maintain backup files is to build an "archive" folder on your system that includes aliases to the various other folders that you would like to back up. Rather than manually moving or copying every new article you've written, every bit of correspondence, or every important bit of e-mail, just make aliases that "point" to your correspondence folder, your articles folder, your e-mail folders. Make sure that you instruct your CD-writing program to "resolve aliases," so that when you tell it to back up this master archive, it will automatically retrieve all the folders (and the files in those folders) that you've aliased. This will ensure that each time you back up your system, you'll have your most recent correspondence and the latest versions of everything, without having to "remember" to back up or archive each new item.
Another way, though more time-consuming, is to create a separate "archive" or "backup" folder on your hard-drive. Whenever you finish the day's work, copy the new files or folders into that archive - and then copy the archive to your backup drive. I keep an external hard drive plugged in to my desktop at all times, and keep this "backup" folder on the external. That way, I know my "backed up" files are always on the external drive as well as my main computer. This provides added protection against an unexpected computer crash. My external drive is organized to match my main computer - so periodically I go through the "backup" folder and move those files into the appropriate places on the external drive. This backup folder also makes a great place to store works in progress - I don't bother moving them to their final locations until they are actually finished.
Keeping good records isn't just a matter of saving what you're working on today. It's a matter of recognizing that you have no way of knowing what will suddenly become vitally important to you tomorrow. It can be so tempting to throw out that e-mail, that unsold article, those old letters. But we are entering an era when an increasing number of threats to our rights (and our livelihood) are coming down the pike -- threats we can scarcely anticipate today and probably couldn't have imagined yesterday. Good records are your best (and only) form of self-protection. When in doubt, don't throw it out!
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Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen