Forget the Money: Show Me the Contract

By Susan Spann

This September, I’m co-teaching a workshop at Colorado Gold with Midnight Ink editor Terri Bischoff. The workshop, titled “Contract Law: Where You Can Make a Difference,” is intended to offer advanced-level instruction on which publishing contract clauses are (and are not) negotiable.

In preparation for that, my guest posts between now and Colorado Gold will offer some entry and mid-level information about the contracts process, to help authors get up to speed for the information Terri and I will present at Colorado Gold.

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For many authors, obtaining a publishing contract is a lifelong dream-come-true.

It doesn’t matter whether you publish traditionally, through a self-publishing service like Amazon or CreateSpace, or with a hybrid publisher who gives the author significant control over things like cover art and pricing.

Getting your novels into print is both the fulfillment of a dream … and also the start of a business endeavor.

Smart authors remember to treat it as both.

No matter which publishing route you use, you must have a written contract. Copyright law requires one when rights are licensed on an exclusive basis (which is the case with most publishing contracts), and no smart author would ever publish a book without some writing governing the terms of the publishing deal.

In the case of self-publishing venues like Amazon, CreateSpace, and others, that writing is often the online Terms of Use.  Authors should treat those terms of use like a contract–albeit a nonnegotiable one, since website publishers generally will not change any terms of those contracts on an individual basis. Even so, online terms of use have been held just as binding as written contracts–so beware.

Many authors make serious contract mistakes because they allow emotion to get in the way of business sense. Don’t be that person.

When presented with a publishing contract (or preparing to self-publish your work), remember:

1. The financial terms (royalties and advances) are important, but NOT AS IMPORTANT as the sum of all of the legal terms in the contract. Don’t let royalties or advances blind you to the other legal terms.

2. Read the entire contract carefully, and get experienced legal help with anything you don’t understand. This help might come from an agent or an attorney — but it should always come from someone not affiliated with the publisher. The publisher may or may not be honest–but publishers have a conflict of interest when it comes to explaining your legal rights. It’s always more expensive to try and break a contract after the fact than it is to find out what the contract says up front.

3. Remember that contracts are legally binding documents — and that ONLY the actual words in the contract govern your legal relationship with the publisher. Emails, telephone calls, and other promises don’t mean anything if they’re not included in the contract. In some cases, a court may even prevent you from introducing evidence that “outside promises” even existed. Treat the contract as if it’s the only document that matters, and the only thing controlling your relationship with the publisher–and then make sure that everything is included.

4. Be wary of ANY contract which doesn’t comply with industry standards. In particular, beware: nondisclosure clauses (which prevent the author from talking about the publisher in public or on social media), non-competition clauses preventing the author from publishing ANY other works of any length without the publisher’s permission, a total lack of termination options for the author, and “out of print” clauses tied to inventory or “on sale status” rather than sales figures. These aren’t the only warning flags, but a contract which contains one or more of these must be approached with caution (and a lawyer in your corner).

These aren’t the only things to beware in your publishing contract, but they’re a decent start. Next month, we’ll take a look at some more contract pitfalls to avoid.

In the meantime – keep treating your writing as a business and remembering that, regardless of your publishing path, YOU are the one in charge of your publishing career.

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Susan SpannSusan Spann is a California transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. She also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014. When not writing or practicing law, Susan raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

2 thoughts on “Forget the Money: Show Me the Contract

  1. Patricia Stoltey

    Thanks, Susan, for another excellent post to help us navigate this contract business. I’m so glad we have you in our corner. Also, congratulations on the release of Blade of the Samurai. I’m looking forward to another shinobi adventure but plan to buy my SIGNED copy at Colorado Gold. Looking forward to seeing you there.

    Reply
  2. Charlene Bell Dietz

    I’ve decided it’s time to start learning about contracts, because it will happen, right? You’re advice is now “saved”. Looking forward to meeting you at Colorado Gold, and as Patricia said, congratulations. Save a signed copy for me. please.

    Reply

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