Sunday, March 9, 2008

Publishing contracts, the bald truth

Yikes, it’s a contract! The magical day arrives. A contract for your book or article appears in the mail. You’re so happy you can barely read the small print because of tears of excitement. It’s a fun, fun day. Enjoy it. Take your friends, spouse significant other or next door neighbor out for a juicy steak or sushi (or whatever is your celebration food.) Buy a rich chocolate dessert and bask in your new found fame. Tell all your friends you’re about to be a published author.

When the excitement cools down a little, go back and reread the contract’s fine print. Now, I am not a lawyer and I’m not about to give you details of the specific wording you need to watch out for. But, I will share some experiences. I’ve been through 15 or so contracts, so I have some idea what’s going on.

First of all, the publisher is usually out for themselves. Period. Most publishing houses are part of a large corporation who watch nothing closer than the bottom line. They may be willing to pay you a few thousand dollars advance or offer you some other incentive, but they are calculating their profits all the time.

Do not, I repeat, do not blindly sign the contract.

I’ll confess.I did blindly sign one of my earlier contracts. Years later when the book was out of print and I had an offer to redo and republish it, I had to pay big bucks to a lawyer to secure the rights to my own book because the original contract allowed the old publisher to keep the rights even after the book was out of print.

Publishers want to get their grubby little hands on your work and keep it forever and distribute it in any form, universe-wide. That’s part of what the screenwriter’s strike was about – former contracts hadn’t taken into account the distribution of works on the web. The studio was making money, but not the writer. Within each contract are terms that not only spell out how the original work is to be published. It also gives the publisher certain rights to distribute your work in other ways. Often, a contract will give the publisher all or most revenue from these subsequent sales – unless you change the contract.

And yes, you can change the contract.

However, I’d advise against handling the contract yourself. Get a contract lawyer or literary agent to review and provide changes to the contract. You will have to pay the lawyer a fee. An agent, if they agree to represent you, will take a piece of the action – usually about 15%. What you gain from using a (legitimate) agent is that they can often negotiate a higher advance. They also (should) have the knowledge to change your contact so that it provides you with better terms – now and for the future.

The bottom line is this. The corporation has a covey of lawyers who want nothing more than to make money off of your work. To them you are a schumck who knows nothing about law and are fair game. (Okay, so there are some publishers who aren’t this callous.) But – better safe than sorry. Do your homework before you sign on the dotted line.

Once you’ve signed the contract – now it is official. You’ll soon get that giantnormous check in the mail and you’ll be able to pay for that celebration dinner you had earlier.

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