In the spirit of solidarity, and in the hope of helping new writers avoid certain common traps, we offer the following advice.

1) Contracts

Our first piece of advice is: Never let anyone publish your book without a signed contract. And do your best to make sure it is a good contract before you sign.

This point may seem self-evident, but sometimes writers feel so grateful that anyone is willing to publish their work that they don't think about a contract. But how can you collect your royalties without a legal agreement? How can you even find out how much money you are owed? And what if your publisher does something you do not appreciate to your work, like change it, put someone else's name on it, or sell it to a third party? A contract that will hold up in court is the best safeguard against such abuses.

Whatever publishers may say, publishing is a business, not a charity extended to authors. If a publisher thinks he will lose money on your book, he probably won't publish it. He is not doing you a favor. Publishers who care about their authors and about their businesses have contracts for mutual protection. Kali for Women, the oldest feminist press in Asia, is letting us post their standard contract so new authors can see the basic points that should be covered in such a document. The places that are left blank are negotiated with each author.

Contract laws and customs vary considerably from place to place. A number of countries have writers' unions or guilds that will help authors understand contractual issues and get redress if abused. Here are links for a few of them.

The Authors Guild (USA)

National Writers Union (USA)

The Writers Union of Canada

The Writers' Guild of Great Britain

Most countries also have journalists' organizations; some have dramatists' or screenwriters' unions too. It pays to join any writers' organization available to you. This is how you get information.

2) Copyright

Our second main point is: Make sure you own the copyright to your own work. Never give up your copyright. Publishers often want writers to do what is called "work for hire," which means the writer gets an initial fee and all the royalties and subsidiary rights and reprint fees belongs to the publisher. You may have to do work for hire on something like a website or encyclopedia, but always keep the copyright on your creative work.

Under normal circumstances, the publisher will help you copyright it in your own name. Laws vary from place to place, however, and you may want to research the question for yourself. UNESCO runs an international copyright information service on its website that gives details for many countries.

3) Speaking Engagements in the United States

Foreign writers occasionally lecture in the United States, usually at universities, to make extra income. We have observed people come to grief, or at least be seriously inconvenienced, because they assumed that the universities they were coming to had a good understanding of their needs. In fact, Americans usually expect people to ask for what they need, so you have to ask. Here are some points to keep in mind:

1) Negotiate. Someone will offer you a fee of a certain amount to do a piece of work. You are not obligated to accept the first offer and it is not considered rude to bargain for a better deal. In fact, doing so is normal in the USA. The fee you are being offered may seem very high if you have no access to dollars but it may be much lower than they would offer an American. Of course, the university that brings you over has to pay your airfare and that should be taken into account. But if you are speaking at more than one place, the places that are not paying international airfares should be able to give you a higher fee. Also private universities often can pay more than state supported ones.

2) Ask to be picked up at the airport and make sure the university tells you who will pick you up and what kind of sign that person will be holding. Often people fail to see the driver who was waiting for them because no one told them they would be met and they do not know what kind of sign to look for. Then they end up spending a fortune on a cab. Sloppy arrangements are common; make sure you have the information you need.

3) You will need to have some dollars when you first arrive. This can be difficult for travelers who have no access to hard currency. People at American universities will not think of this problem; you have to tell them about it. Say you will need part of your lecture fee in cash when you arrive. They will say this is not customary. It isn't. But you need it, so they must make special arrangements, which they can do if they know in advance.

4) Ask how you will be paid and when. Often universities don't give you the check until the last minute and then you can't do anything with it. If you will need to spend some of the money in the USA before you leave, you must insist they give it to you early, and help you cash it, or give you part of it in cash. Do not feel you are being rude to keep asking about this until you get what you need. As Americans say, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."

5) It is now necessary for a foreign speaker to get a US social security (tax) number before coming. People who do not know this can have a lot of trouble collecting their payment and get it months late. Ask about this when you first make your arrangements and make sure the professors that invite you know the law and that the university does the paperwork in time.

6) Ask what will happen if you get sick while you are traveling or in the US. The public health system is difficult to deal with and private doctors are expensive. You will need travel health insurance unless the university covers your health needs door to door. Even if you have to pay for the travel insurance yourself, you definitely need it.

7) Get a clear understanding of what you are being paid to do. Is the university asking you to make one speech, so the rest of your time will be your own? Or are they assuming you will also teach three classes, address a graduate seminar or two, have formal dinners every night, etc.? If they want a lot of your time, they should pay more than they would for just a speech. These things should all be spelled out in advance, otherwise you may be asked to do extra work informally, after you arrive, and feel awkward about refusing.

4) All these points are best covered in a written contract. You should say you cannot travel so far without a written agreement and if the university cannot provide one, you will make one up yourself and send it to them. It should cover all the points above and be signed and dated by both parties.


Women's WORLD is not equipped to give individuals professional advice, help people get published at home or abroad, or tell them how to negotiate contracts. Nor can we arrange speaking dates or lecture tours for anyone. But we hope to make this space a clearinghouse so we can all share information. If you have had bad experiences in any of these areas, and would like to warn others, please share your story with us at Women's WORLD.