Looking at Your Contracts: What I Did Right

All of what I’m about to say is in my capacity as a fellow writer giving writing advice to other writers. I am NOT a lawyer, I am NOT giving you any legal advice. I do NOT represent you or your legal interests in any way. Please do not give me any confidential information. Any such information will not be privileged.

Contracts are a Big Deal in publishing. Unfortunately, they’re also … well, contracts. They’re filled with legalese and confusing terms. Sometimes you can be absolutely sure it means one thing… but it really means something else.

That happened to me last week. I sent out my contracts to authors and got quite a few squawks back. This surprised me – because I’d been using contracts like this for years and never heard a complaint. I’ve even gotten compliments on how clear they were.

It turned out that some of the people who call themselves “publishers” are more evil than I even considered being. And there’s others who are in the same position I was in – well-meaning, but unaware of what was going on (and what impact it could have for the authors they publish).

Over this week I’m going to share some of what I learned – to benefit authors, editors, and well-meaning publishers. I’ll tell you what I did right, where I messed up, and I’ll share an (anonymous) example of a bad contract. I want your comments, corrections, and horror stories. That way we all know what to look for, and hopefully a bit of why.

And for the rest of you “publishers” who used contracts to screw over everyone else…

What I Did Right

There were some things I did right – and they’re things I look for in contracts.

Contracts should explicitly grant rights, and all others should stay with the author. I largely did this – for example, stating that I only wanted print rights. Audio, film, or any other rights to the story stayed with the authors – unless they’re going to use those rights. I erred by not explicitly stating that the rights were only in the context of the anthology.

Contracts should state how long they last. I clearly stated a one-year exclusive period. Where I erred was in asking for non-exclusive print rights for the life of copyright.

Contracts should explicitly state what each party gets Whether this was in terms of money, author copies, or the like, it was spelled out in the contract. Digital author copies and a print copy (or not). What percentage of royalties? When are payments due? All that kind of stuff is really important.

Contracts should have a publish-by or revert clause If a market holds your story (after the contract is signed) and they don’t bother to publish it, all rights should go back to the author automatically.

Contracts should be clear, but not contain extra clauses I had clauses for third-party sales that simply were not needed. If some amazing opportunity comes up later, then you create a contract rider (or even a separate contract). Adding in clauses for unlikely situations makes the whole document more confusing. At the same time, you want everything to be explicitly defined and explained and obvious.

Contracts should be clear about how they’re going to use your work If you are granting, say, short story rights without it clearly being limited to use within a single anthology, the publisher might be able to just sell your individual story as a single or put it in another anthology altogether!

Stay tuned for bad publisher tricks…


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