The first time I was offered a book contract, I left footprints on the ceiling after my happy dance. After years of writing and polishing my novel, and another year of rejections and situations where I came close but left disappointed, I finally had papers in my hand certifying that somebody wanted to publish my book. Considering this momentous occasion, I took more than a day studying each paragraph and wrapping my head around the legalese before making my decision. In the years following, after I took on the position of acquiring books for a small press, I realized some writers are so excited by the prospect of a contract that they may not read it completely before signing. This, naturally has led to problems.
To receive an offer to contract your book is definitely reason for celebration. However, if the contract turns out to benefit a publisher more than you, you should definitely think before you agree to handing over your work. This is not to say that all publishers are out to take advantage of you, especially if you are a debut author. It is important to know exactly what is laid out in the contract and what rights you have…and what you give up.
You can search the Internet for writers’ advocate sites that spell out the finer points and red flags you need to watch for in an agreement. Let’s take a closer look at some of them here.
Rights – When you sign a contract to a publisher, you give the house exclusive rights to produce your work in the formats noted in the agreement. This is an important clause to read, because it lets you know which rights the house wants (typically hardcover, softcover or mass market, and digital), and the wording may indicate that the rights extend to include written formats that haven’t been devised yet. Publishers may contract anywhere from one year to seven for a work, meaning you cannot petition to revert the book back to you until the time has lapsed. Of course, you will need to read the rest of your contract for exceptions that allow you to dissolve the contract if you believe the publisher has breached the agreement in some way.
You also want to look for a clause regarding the right of first refusal, which refers to your next book. Some publishers ask for this right if you complete a sequel, prequel, or related work. This means that before you query other publishers about your next book, you are contractually obligated to let the current publisher decide if they want it first. Some publishers, too, draw up this clause to refer to your next book regardless of its relationship to your first book. Some authors are wary of this clause as it can bind them to a publisher with which they no longer wish to work. You may not anticipate trouble in the beginning, but you want to be careful about clauses that can potentially hold you hostage.
Distribution – A contract may include verbiage regarding the distribution of your work. Now that digital formats have come into play, publishers have more options when it comes to selling books. It should be known, too, that third-party retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble have their own provisions by which they want publishers to abide. Pay attention to this clause, as it will tell you how the publisher plans to sell your work.
In later installments, we will look at other clauses in a publishing contract that the beginning author should know.