Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reading Your Contract

It's a totally weird phenomenon, but I've had more authors hire lawyers to read the Author/Agent Agreement they sign with me than I have authors who have hired lawyers to read the publishing contract. Now, I'm not saying you have to hire a lawyer to read the publishing contract, since that's one of the things you pay your agent to do (read and negotiate), but when you do I find it odd you would hire someone to read the least important of the two contracts.

I appreciate that you trust me to negotiate a strong contract on your behalf, and I will certainly do that, but what I find most disconcerting of all is the recent realization that so many authors are signing these contracts without reading one word of either of them. Isn't that mom lesson number two? Right after saying please and thank you, aren't you taught to never sign anything without reading it first?

No matter what you think you are signing, you are responsible for it once you sign. Therefore, when getting your contract, it's important that you are aware of what it is you're committing yourself to.

Due dates? Those are your responsibility. That means if you commit to a due date that seems "absurd and ridiculous," well, you've committed to it, so if it is "absurd and ridiculous," maybe you need to discuss that with your agent and editor before actually signing the contract.

Manuscript length? The publisher expects your manuscript to be a certain length, and if you think it's too short or too long, discussing that with your agent and editor before signing is better than trying to argue the point with your publisher well after the fact.

Materials? If the contract says you are responsible for providing 25 pieces of artwork, permissions for copyrighted material, an index, or your firstborn child, you will be responsible for supplying that.

My point? Read your contract and ask your agent about anything that you have questions about. That's what you pay her for. I get that a 15-page legal document is a pain to read and can make your head spin. I read them almost daily and sometimes my head spins, and yes, I always think they're a pain to read. But they are important and they can be negotiated before you sign them. It's not so easy to negotiate after they've been signed and counter-signed and you realize you actually like and would like to keep your firstborn child.


Jessica

26 comments:

Loralie Hall said...

Whenever I do something like...sign a loan contract, I always have to sit and read each page. It amazes me how many times the person I'm working with looks surprised and irritated, since they've already explained what I'm looking at. I have to wonder, am I really the only one who reads these things?

You make a very good point ^_^

Anonymous said...

Why would you think it strange that someone would hire a lawyer to read over an agency contract? That's the contract they don't have anyone advising them about, since as an agent, you'd be advising them about the publishing contract. There are less than scrupulous agency contracts that take 15% in perpetuity. It is discussed here: http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2007/12/victoria-strauss-interminable-agency.html

BookEnds, LLC said...

Anon 8:33:

You make a good point. I think that, for me, I look at it so often that it seems so simple and straightforward. I guess I should be more concerned about those who will hire a lawyer to look at the agent contract, but not even bother to register the due dates on their publisher's contract.

--jhf

Noelle Pierce said...

Sadly (or scarily? Is that a word?), I see this in more than just contracts. I've taught students who signed every document at admission to the college, who have NO IDEA what they've signed. I've been doing graphic work for self-publishing authors lately, and have had to read the fine-print at the stock photos site, in case the license I'm purchasing only allows 10,000 copies or 50,000 copies. My authors need to know. I can't imagine NOT reading them. Oh, and user license agreements on software...

I'll stop there. :D

Shakespeare said...

It probably comes from fear. When a writer gets an agent to send a contract in the first place, the last thing the writer wants is to see any problems in what's being offered. Same goes for a publishing contract.

That's why so many people avoid cancer and diabetes screenings. They don't want to hear bad news.

I call it "intentional ignorance."

Anonymous 8:33 said...

Not reading your contract is asinine. Not noting your due dates, more so.

I think that kind of person is hiring the lawyer or agent to tell them that 'everything is fine' and 'you need to know this' so they don't need to be bothered. I think that might be a matter of setting expectations for yourself and the client. Perhaps they expect a letter with the contract saying 'check the dates and make sure they work for you' or 'these are the things you need to know'. You expect them to read the contract, but they don't think they need to.

It baffles me that anyone would be so trusting and unaware, but there are some people like that. I wonder if these are the same people that trust their spouse for all financial matters, and end up in hot water in death/divorce situations.

Rebekkah said...

Not read your contract? Really? I can understand hiring a lawyer to help you read it, if you have trouble with legalese, but I can't imagine signing a binding agreement over the life of your manuscript (and I point to the number of writers who occasionally refer to their manuscripts as 'my baby,' even in jest).

Also, as a stray thought - what if you adopt? Or what if you think of your pets as kids? I can just see Unscrupulous Publishing, Inc. finding a kitten in the baby basket...

deborahserravalle said...

Your bottom line makes sense: read before you sign.

seo company said...

Great post, I enjoyed ready reading it, Keep posting good stuff like this.

The Other Stephen King said...

All good points. On the other hand, if a Big 6 publisher wants to run my next book, I'll gladly give 'em the address of the firstborn up there in Alaska. If they can take him, they can have him.

Seriously, though--I walked in to work today to two separate instances of college students thinking that the world should be handed to them, and not just on any old silver platter. I can't fathom any of these kids ever lowering themselves to actually, critically reading a contract document. I know, I know, I'm getting distracted by the 10% who take 90% of my time, and the world really isn't going to explode into a cloud of ignorance anytime soon, but it sure feels like it.

All that said, your post was quite timely.

Anonymous said...

I learned how to do this years ago.

The one thing I'd like to add is that all authors contributing to small presses with regard to anthologies and short storie collections make sure they don't sign and "exclusive." Make sure it's "non-exclusive."

If you sign an exclusive the small publisher has the right to release the book in digital format (always worded ambiguously) and you'll never get a dime in royalites from the digital book, and you won't be able to re-release the short story yourself as an e-book. And that should be everyone's goal: royalties from e-books. If you sign a non-exclusive, you can re-release the story with an e-publisher, or by yourself, and still make money...in some cases forever.

These small publishers should not be allowed to pay flat fees for short stories in print books and then release them as e-books without paying out royalties. It's one of the least discussed topics in publishing and one of the most crooked ways publishers make money on the back end, and the author makes nothing.

Unfortunately, so many authros are so happy to get pubbed in short storie collections they'll do anything. And small publishers know this. And it's very, very shabby.

Carradee said...

I read my contracts. I even read my EULAs.

I've never had anyone be irritated with me for wanting to read a document before signing. So far, everyone's been pleasantly surprised. (To be fair, I look like I should still be in high school.)

Still, agency agreements are hardly less important than publisher agreements. Either one can contain rights grabs that tie up an author's work in perpetuity.

And I agree about watching those short story contracts. I've read some impressively bad ones, so please forgive me if I'm more concerned about rights grabs than due dates.

Due dates are important, yes, but that's something you look at and mark on your calendar, then work your butt off to meet. Missing a deadline might put you in breach of a contract, but you will still own your story.

Then there are non-compete clauses, payment date(s), rights reversions clauses, the whole nine yards. If you have those clauses negotiated, then deadlines can be worked with (and negotiated). If you can't reach an agreement on what you're willing to provide, why bother wasting your time haggling over when you'll provide it?

AlvaradoFrazier said...

Attorney reviews for both aren't a bad idea. I think of it as an investment in my writing future, especially after reading articles like thishttp://accrispin.blogspot.com/2011/10/guest-blog-post-fitzhenry-and-whiteside.html
and the other posted by Anonymous up there.
Great info from commenters, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Man, you must be kidding me. Totally weird? Trust the agent to handle everything? With all the horror stories about authors being ripped off these days? Good grief. Is it any wonder the legacy publishing industry is circling the drain?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't sign either one without my attorney going over them and making sure that I thoroughly understood them. That's not cheap, but I consider it a required investment I've never been given a contract that didn't require changes. No surprise. They are never written with my interests first.

Mia said...

Read your contracts - all of them - even if it is a self publishing one with say the kind and generous Amazon who only does what they do with the thought of profiting authors at the forefront of every business decision they make. (Okay, I am done laughing now.)

I'd like to say, "Doh!" on the advice to read your contracts, but I cannot tell you how many authors I've heard say they don't and then in the next breath complain about how "the legacy publishing" industry ripped them off.

You, the writer, author, signor of a contract, are responsible for whatever it is your signing. Your excuses for not reading it, "they won't change it anyway", "my agent read it", "I don't have time", aren't going to change the contract and no judge is going to accept such excuses in court as a reason for you not performing.

wry wryter said...

I'll read it, I promise.
I'll have my lawyer read it, I'll have my lawyer's lawyer read it. I'll ask questions, I'll be so informed that people will ask me for advice...scary...actually.

Just send the damn contract with all the hoops and hurtles I must jump through and over. Yup...just send it...pretty please.

bluemistlizzi said...

Jessica,
"you realize you actually like and would like to keep your firstborn child" .. this is clearly before they become a teenager.

Yes, it's the 3rd thing we learn a children! Remind me someday if I look to be doing something truly absurd with a contract!
Thanks,
Lizi

bluemistlizzi said...

No, really, I like teenagers. They can just be a bit "special" sometimes.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I think it comes down to this idea we tend to get as aspiring writers that once you get an agent, you're golden. A bad agent might screw you over, but no way would a good agent let a publisher do so!

But seriously, it's dumb to sign anything without reading, no matter how many people are telling you it's OK. Your well-meaning agent might think a contract is fine, but you could still have some extenuating circumstance that makes you object. Read it and find out beforehand!

Virginia Llorca said...

I heart Amazon.

Anonymous said...

"That's not cheap, but I consider it a required investment I've never been given a contract that didn't require changes."

As contracts become more standard across the board, which they are, and advances diminish, which they are, there's not much room to negotiate these days. Anyone who's been published by an e-publisher (not self-e-publisher) knows what I'm talking about. And if you do become known as a pain in the ass who wants all kinds of contractual changes...without having huges sales to back you up...the publisher will just pass you by and go with an author who is willing to sign the standard contract. And there are more authors eager to get published and sign these contracts than people realize.

And hiring an attorney to do something we can all do ourselves doesn't make good business sense...unless we're talking six figures and massive sales.

Elissa M said...

I do read before I sign. My husband REALLY reads. Because we moved around a lot, we've bought and sold several houses. The agents at closing have always been surprised and annoyed at the time we took to read everything. It made me think they scheduled, say, half an hour for the whole deal, thinking we'd just happily sign and go.

I don't think it's a bad idea to hire a lawyer if you aren't sure you understand everything. Just don't hire a real estate lawyer to look over your publishing contract. And, no matter what a lawyer's specialty is, he or she isn't going to worry about due dates as much as legal loopholes. It's still your responsibility to read the contract and ask questions until you fully understand your obligations.

Kate Douglas said...

LOL...this is a pretty timely post for me since I spent a long time yesterday reading a new contract and questioning Jessica about a few things, but one other note I would make--once you sign it, make sure you write down the RIGHT delivery date for your manuscripts on your calendar...

And yes, that IS experience speaking. Aaarrrggghhh...

girlseeksplace said...

It's vital to read any contract you're signing. Even when I work at summer camp and the contract simply states my hours and pay, I read it. It's a job just like any other and should be treated as such.

Anonymous said...

If you sign ANY contract w/o an attorney, you are a fool.

Agents do not work for you. They work for themselves. Does that make them dishonest? No. It makes them business people. Them 1st. You 2nd (or 3rd or...). Welcome to business. Any agent, publisher, real estate broker etc that says YOU are their #1 priority is a LIAR. Food on the table and clothes on their kids' backs are their #1 priority - you know the same reason we ALL got to work.

Lawyers get paid by you. Agents get paid by a check from the publisher. Piss you off, they lose a client. Piss off Random House, they might go out of business. Who are they keeping happy if the brown stuff hits the fan.

Do the math. It's business, not a social club.