Dear Writers: You should be reading your contracts at least as many times and at least as closely as you do your prose or poetry. Because that misplaced comma that has you so freaked out in your story? That’s not half as bad as the misplaced comma in your contract.
Over the past few days I’ve been going over novel contracts for a new project. I’ve been posting notes on how I think about contracts and why reading them carefully is so important. This post gathers all of that information in one place.
We (writers) tend to focus heavily on craft to the occasional detriment of the business side of publishing. Contracts are vitally important and signing a bad one can be deeply harmful to both your career and your psyche. So far, I have been lucky in that I haven’t yet hit a bad clause in a contract that I couldn’t live with or get changed. But part of that “luck” is knowing that there is a point at which walking away makes more sense than signing, and being willing to push on stuff you don’t like. This is one of the reasons why I’m glad to have an agent, and why my first criteria for an agent is contract comprehension and negotiation. It’s much easier if you’ve got an agent to do the bad cop side of things.
Without further ado some random thoughts while reading contracts:
Just finished the third pass through the new contracts. This one was quickly cross comparing clauses with previous contracts. I.e. have I signed something like this before without it blowing up. If yes, hooray! If no, lets double check that bit there. Next up, close read of the whole thing with notes. Whee.
Beyond the important who gets paid how much for what stuff, one thing the boilerplate part of a publishing contract represents is a sort of archaeological record of previous author flame-outs. Also, previous publisher flame-outs, rights grabs, etc. It’s instructive reading in that way as well.
The how have things gone wrong with this publisher’s past deals portion of the reading is especially critical for smaller houses. (Catherine Lundoff reminded me of this bit)
Finished 4th pass (close read) through new book contracts. Brain melty now, so, I’m off to kill orcs for a bit (Shadows of Mordor). Next up: Reeading critical bits (things I’ve flagged on this or previous passes). Hopefully by this time tomorrow I can actually sign the things.
Finally, in response to a question about whether my agent shouldn’t be taking care of this:
Rule 1 of agents and contracts: No matter how good your agent is and how much you trust them, it’s still YOUR contract and your work on the line.
I like and trust my agent. I’m very happy with my publishing house and I adore my editor. Verifying everything is still part of my job. If your book is truly successful, that contract could be a big part of your life for the next 20 years. If it’s a smash hit, that contract could be a part of your heirs lives 20 years after you’re dead. You want it to be solid and as favorable as you can get it.
Post Script: This time I’ve done six passes through the latest contracts. Now I just need to briefly discuss two paragraphs with my agent to verify my reading and I can sign them and get them out the door.