From my writer friend Ellen:

Here’s my problem: A client calls me for a big PR project, or maybe a web site rewrite.

It looks like a few weeks work. I assure the client I can get the work done and meet their deadlines. 

So I do the necessary briefings with the client and begin re-writing the web content. Days later, the client decides to have their newly-hired staffer do the writing. I’m out.

Or, the client asks me to launch into a first draft, then inexplicably sits on it long past their original ‘deadline’. The thing eventually withers on the vine. They change priorities, or lose interest, or kill the project outright.

Of course, since I thought I would be busy for a while, I have put off hustling new work. So when these projects die unexpectedly, I end up with unplanned downtime.

Is there a contract that would protect you against this? Or do we just have to be choosier?

This happens all the time. Even to my dentist. On a given Tuesday, at least three patients with appointments won’t show up. Even when his receptionist phones them the day before. Supposedly they have to pay for the missed appointment, but they never do.

In Hollywood, you can make a handsome living writing treatments, screenplays and television pilots that will never get produced. For every movie that gets made, about 124 others fade into nothingness.

Fact is, the vast majority of projects, purchases, transactions and jobs just never happen. Including the ones that are discussed, budgeted, and begun. Things start out firm, then deflate. It is about entropy, or natural selection. I forget which.

You and me, we have no chance of changing that.

So we expect a certain number of projects to dissolve away. We invest a few phone calls or emails in discussing and quoting the project. And we offer perhaps another email or two outlining our ideas, our thoughts, our approach.

Beyond that, money needs to change hands.

In our ‘agreement’ we say, “If the project is cancelled or put on hold for some reason, you will only be invoiced for the work done to date.”  Which means if you hear nothing for a week, you send a bill for what you did so far.

I have also heard of freelancers adding a ‘kill fee’.  “If the project is cancelled for some reason, you will be invoiced for the work done to date, plus an additional fee of $X00.”  I have never heard of anyone actually collecting such a fee, however. Except maybe on an aircraft contract for the Navy.

On the deadlines, your note also says, “I see no problem getting this completed by December X, as we discussed, provided I get the necessary information, corrections and approvals promptly. If there is a delay on that end, I will do my best to get the project done as quickly as practical.”

The other option is to insist on receiving 50% of your fee before you begin. “This fee isn’t refundable once work gets underway.”  Obviously, any client willing and able to send half the fee in advance is more likely to follow through and finish.

I can’t envision a contract that could make up for a hole in your schedule, however.  “If the assignment gets cancelled, you still need to pay me for two weeks anyway.”  If you can get such a thing signed, and collect a check, that would be a coup of monumental proportions.

Okay. And the biggie.

Even with the ‘promise’ of a fat project, we don’t stop networking and pursuing other assignments. Ever.

When you are up to your ass in work, you are still contacting people. At least one or two a day. Even when you have no time, you do it anyway. That is one thing I wish I could do over. (Well, there are at least six others.)

I get lazy when there is plenty of work on the desk. And that has stung me repeatedly, and painfully. Don’t do that. Projects sometimes go away.

Yes, you do run the risk of ending up with two projects that need to be done simultaneously. But that is a good problem. That is a 30-minute problem.

Better that than a two-week problem.