Friday, October 10, 2014

Deals With The Devil: What To Look For In Your Publishing Contract

You've finally done it. You finished your manuscript, sent it off to the publisher, waited week upon nerve-wracking week, and you were rewarded with that one, special email. The one that always seems to begin, "We are pleased to inform you that your story has been selected for publication." Then, flush with your accomplishment, you click the attached contract to print it out and put your name on the dotted line as soon as you possibly can.

Just step into my office, and we'll take care of these last little details...
Hold up.

That contract in your hand might be your meal ticket, but it might also be full of razor blades and piss. So before you take a big, hearty bite out of it you should know just what it is you're signing away when you prick your finger.


The first thing most authors look for (after how fat their checks are going to be) are the rights they give away. For instance, most publishers ask for "first print rights," which means you are promising they will be the first company to ever publish your work. That's par for the course, but chances are good your contract is asking for more than a single run of your story.

There are all kinds of rights you have to your work. There are foreign rights for when your story is printed overseas, there are film rights in case it's ever made into a movie, there are re-print rights, serial rights, anthology rights, and the list goes on and on. You need to check and see which rights you're giving away to your publisher, and whether or not you're giving away anything permanently.

All righty, this should do it. When do I get my check?
That's right, some companies don't just buy a right to your work; they buy all of them. Period. The end. Game over. If you sign one of those contracts then the company can do whatever they want with your story because you've essentially sold it into slavery. The Anarchist Cookbook is perhaps the most infamous case of this happening, especially since the author has fought for years to get the book taken off the shelves because it contains dangerously inaccurate information. Since he has no rights to the book though, his actions have thus far been largely in vain.

What (And When) Are You Getting Paid?

Whether you're getting a contract for a short story that's part of an anthology or your big, breakout novel, visions of sugarplums are likely doing the can-can in your mind's eye. There's a pre-conceived notion that book contract = big $, and that's hard to shake. Even if you've got experience to the contrary.

For that reason you need to take a long, hard look at what the contract is actually offering you.

I would happily accept this as an advance on a novel.
For starters, let's talk about your advance. An advance is a payment given to the author with the understanding that the book is going to earn more money. So if you're given a $2,000 advance you won't receive any more money until the book has been published, and your cut of the royalties goes over $2,000. If you never sell more than your initial advance, then the advance is all you're going to get.

This is when we get into royalties.

When your work is published you, as the creator, may be awarded royalties (if they're in your contract). A royalty might be 10% of physical sales, and 30% of digital sales, for instance. Sales will be tracked, calculated, and paid out to you as the author on a certain schedule. Some publishers will pay monthly royalties, others will pay quarterly royalties, and still others will only pay annually. Your contract will tell you what percentage you get, and when you'll receive it along with when you'll be entitled to updates on your sales.

What Can Be Changed?

We're all mortal (well, most of us), and we make mistakes. Authors by and large assume there will be spelling mistakes that need correcting, grammar that could be stripped out or re-arranged, and even some adverbs that could be set aside. What we do not expect is our main character's name being changed from Raziel to Jake, the plot-setting fight scene in chapter three being stripped out completely, or the explanation for what the Well of Souls does being deleted.

Depending on your contract though, that could very well happen.

Chapter One: Edited
There's typically a section in your contract regarding what changes an editor can and can't make to your manuscript. A good contract will state that only minor changes can be made without the author's permission, but other contracts may very well state that changes will be made without consulting the author at all. These tend to be paired with the "we now own your entire work" style of rights buying, so if you see one you're likely to see the other.

Just because a company has to consult you on changes doesn't necessarily mean you've got smooth sailing ahead. Creative differences and head-butting with a publisher happens, and you may need to make changes or concede to a company's wants in order to keep your contract; but you won't get a copy of what you thought was Ghosts of The Painted Desert and instead see a cover reading Colored Desert Spirits.

That could be awkward.

Always Read The Fine Print

The devil's in the details, and so are most of the traps in a book contract (even if they aren't expressly meant to be traps). The whole purpose of the contract is to tie you (the talent) to the publisher (the business) so that you can make them money. They want to keep both you and your work tied as closely to them as possible. You're a show pony, and you had better get used to the idea.

Now wave your plumage and sell some copies.
For instance, you need to see if the characters and the world of your story are part of the contract deal, because if they are that could make writing a sequel a bit of a problem. Some publishers want the right of first refusal (no one else can buy your new story unless they've seen it and said no) on any additional works with your published characters or settings. Some publishers will buy that world and only let you publish more stories set in that world with them for a given amount of time.

The fine print is also where details like your recourse in the event the publisher doesn't hold up its end of the contract are kept. It will also explain what happens in the event your book is cancelled from publication (and whether or not you get a "kill fee" as compensation for your time), and what you can and can't say about the book before its release. There will also be details about what promotions, if any, the publisher will do and how your image and words may be used by the company. There will often be a section stating what expenses the company has to recoup before you start accruing royalties as well.

Yes this is all going to make your head hurt. No you can't skip it.

Ask Questions

You're not a lawyer (I'm assuming), so you shouldn't be expected to speak legal-ese. However this is your contract, so if you don't understand something ask to have it explained (with sock puppets and a jingle if necessary). The point is you should never, ever sign something you don't understand because once your name is on that dotted line you're putting your bouncing baby book into the white gloved hands of a publisher who assures you the little one is going to be famous.

It's still a good idea to get a "we aren't going to cut him into little pieces and then not compensate you" assurance in writing. Just to be safe.

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