Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Author Contract: Greed Ain't Good

Image result for images publishing contract
Signing a publishing contract can be a heady time. But if you're not prepared, it can also be very stressful. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes I made as a new author had to do with my first contract.


Regardless of when you get your first book deal, the day your agent puts the contract in front of you, it's going to be a great day.

One of the best things about it is that you'll finally be an official 'author.' Because your name will only appear once in the document - on the first page. After that, you'll always be referred to as 'The Author,' which will feel kinda nice.

However, the ego boost will be short-lived. A typical publishing contract is a long thick document full of legalese, so unless you graduated from law school, things get overwhelming in a hurry.

Just researching contracts to try to stay informed can be discouraging. But this document is the first big step you're going to take as a published author - so you want to get it right.

Bestselling author Ian Irvine has written 27 books and he has tons of advice for first-time authors. But his big caveat about contracts is this: sign the damn thing. You're not going to have a lot of clout as a new author and making waves with your publisher might cause problems.

I agree with this because I actually did request a change to my first contract with Simon & Schuster and I'm not sure I made the right decision. It had to do with the 'territory' for which S&S had acquired the rights to my book.


'The Grant and the Territory' is the very first section of your contract - even before the advance is spelled out. This section stipulates which countries the publisher has purchased the exclusive right to print and distribute your book.

Usually, the advance from New York publishing houses will cover the rights to at least three major 'territories:' the US, Canada and the UK.
 Image result for images sign contracts

However, North American agents sometimes request retaining the rights to the UK to sell to a London-based publisher - getting you extra money. Even Writer's Digest suggests you try to keep some international rights from your publisher. But that's exactly what I did on my first book deal and, as I said, it was mistake #1. I'll explain why.

The contract had taken about a month to be drawn up, so I was already working on revisions. But finally the paperwork arrived and my agent and I met in a coffee shop to ink the deal. The contract stipulated that Simon & Schuster was offering to buy the publishing and distribution rights for Canada, the US and the UK.

My agent had a lot of great contacts in the UK and had sold hundreds of books for serious money to publishers there. She suggested we amend the contract, retaining the UK rights to sell separately.

I was a little leery that S&S wouldn't approve of that, but I trusted her, so I agreed. We requested the change to the contract. You know what? S&S didn't mind at all. The contract was amended without any hard feelings. And I just sat tight waiting for my agent to start raking in the pounds sterling. ;)

Image result for author contract images

Cut to several months later. My agent could not sell the rights to the novel in the UK.

The book - Devil May Care - was a dark comedy about the TV business. But it was also what they called 'cross-genre.'  It wasn't one 'type' of book. It was romantic and funny and scary.

Cross-genre titles are much more popular now, but back then - just before Twilight invented the romantic horror genre all on its own - cross-genre books were much more difficult to sell. Marketing people especially didn't like them because it's much easier to target the audience for a straight-ahead thriller, horror, romance or whatever.

The end result was that British publishers passed on my cross-genre manuscript and the book was never published in the UK.

That always bothered me. If I hadn't amended the contract in the first place, at least the book would've been on the shelves in Britain for people to actually read and hopefully, gain some traction.  But that never happened. And I always regretted it.

By the way, this has nothing to do with foreign translation rights - which your agent will retain to negotiate separately.

Nor it is any indictment of my agent at the time. She's a consummate professional, nothing short of a genius when it comes to selling books, and she's made millions of dollars for her writers - even selling the film rights to that first cross-genre novel of mine. ;) It was just a matter of timing and the tone of my book.

But more than that, her advice is common. My lawyer even pointed out that retaining UK rights in a North American contract happens quite often - but it's always a risk.  So be aware of that.

My advice to any writer who's staring at their contract for the first time is this: don't get greedy. At least not when it come to English-speaking territories. Ian Irvine puts it this way:

'As a beginning writer, if a respectable publisher offers you a book contract, sign it. The chance may not come again. If you demand a lot of changes to a contract or cause interminable delays, the publisher may withdraw the offer ...'

So yes, make sure your butt is covered. Ask your agent for clarification of anything you don't understand. He or she should be able to clear it up for you. However, if you're still uncertain - and your agent isn't too miffed about having his or her advice questioned - hire an experienced literary lawyer to help (important that this is a literary lawyer). They can at least give you another opinion.

But remember, getting greedy doesn't pay. It didn't for me. In most cases, if you're dealing with a reputable publisher - at least when it comes to territory rights - be happy, ink the deal and start working really hard to make your book sell here, there and everywhere.

btw, when I signed my second book deal with St. Martin's Press, I let them keep the rights to the US, Canada and the UK, no problem. Lesson learned. ;)

There's so much more to cover in the contract portion of the workshop on July 11. Film & TV rights, Next Work obligations, advance breakdowns, deadlines, etc. Not to mention tons of advice about the reality of revisions, touring, promotion, etc. You're only going to get one chance for a successful debut book. One chance! Make the most of that incredible opportunity by learning to avoid the rookie mistakes I made.

For the studious, here's some more advice about the wide world of author contracts:

Publishing Contracts 101 from Writer's Digest
Improving Your Author Contract from The Authors Guild

Warning: I mentioned reading in bed is a great idea in my last post? This stuff is not conducive to a good night's sleep! Trust me!