The Publishing Contract: Be Sure To Read Between the Lines

The publishing contract. Every writers dream. A legal document that binds writer and publisher in an agreement that will launch the writer’s creative product in the world. But as thrilling as a contract can be for those of us who have toiled on our novels for years, it also can be confusing for the non-legal mind to comprehend. For some, it can be a nightmare. Based on my recent experiences with two publishers, I urge you to get professional help before signing, especially if you want to avoid problems later. Remember: publishers want the best deal they can get, and contracts tend to be vague, written in legalese, a foreign language to many.

Unless you’re trained in reading such language, you could easily be misled and overlook things that give the publisher the edge. For example, in the contract I received from one small press that had expressed interest in publishing all three of my novels, the document was so patched together that I doubted it would hold up in court. When I asked a book publisher friend to take a look at it, he noted that it was very amateurish and the publisher either was “a very nice well-meaning person who doesn't need money and just throws things together” or he is “devious and the vague contractual language could work in his favor.” My friend then pointed out the various areas in the contract that were definitely not in my favor, including the publisher’s claim for all rights and his treatment of sub rights as primary rights. My friend said, “This means that should there be a translation of any work, he gets 85% of the licensing fees.” No wonder he was so eager to publish my work!

Another publisher wanted to produce another one of my novels. While the contract he submitted was much more professional than the earlier one, it also used veiled language to claim more rights than I wanted to give away. Fortunately, I found a great literary attorney to review it, and she pointed out the various areas where the language needed to be changed or expanded. Yes, I had to put out some up-front money to get her expert advice, but it was well worth it. I’ll end up with a document that protects rather than exploits my work and me.


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