Wednesday, 27 October 2021

T The Pro-Active Author

Why Writers Should Care About Contract Details

One of the important elements in every book deal is the publishing contract. Yes I can see you possibly yawning and clicking away but I hope you will hang in there with me. First, I am not an attorney but I have studied publishing contract law and read numerous books on the topic—plus I've signed over 60 book contracts. Two of these contracts were lengthy with six-figure advances—and yes from well-known publishers.  I've learned some hard lessons in this process and often I hire my own literary attorney to review an agreement before I sign it because of those hard lessons.

Most contracts are buried in file cabinets and not in the public domain to show you for this article. The exception that I'm going to show you in this article is because this contract is in the public domain from a court case.

As a writer, I get a lot of enjoyment telling stories—whether the stories of others or my own stories. Crafting those details on my computer screen is a lot of fun. Yet as a writer, the task is much more diverse than just telling stories. As writers, we must wear many different hats and play many different roles. One of these roles is to carefully read and review our contracts and ask questions and clarifications. If I need help in this area of contracts, then I turn to my literary attorney or The Author's Guild. Even if you have never published a book, if you have a contract, you can join the author's guild. As a part of your membership, you can get their feedback and suggestions for your publishing contract. The time to get these clarifications and understanding for your contract is before you sign it.

Some publishers have lengthy contracts for a reason. Normally some author before you has caused an issue, so the resolution to that issue is an additional clause to their contract. For this reason, many of these agreements are lengthy and can have some innocent words with big meaning behind them. Part of the reason many publishing contracts are lengthy is because some author ahead of you has caused a challenge for the publishing company and they added a clause so this situation does not happen in future books. The exact words are important and another reason why you want an expert (someone who is looking out only for your interest) that you get to review the contract before signing.

Every publishing contract has an “acceptability” clause where the publisher gets to determine if the writer has delivered a manuscript which is acceptable to be published. This issue is why one of these dusty contracts is in the public domain and something I can show you in this article. The contract was done in the pre-computer days so it has crossed out sections and handwritten sections. It includes a four million dollar advance for two novels. Hopefully I've given you some motivation to look at this Joan Collins agreement. You can follow this link to see the agreement from the public domain.

As I understand the story, her agent crossed out the acceptability clause and she did not deliver a novel to the specified requirements. Random House balked at paying the remainder of the advance and the parties went to court. Because this acceptability clause was crossed out in the signed agreement, Random House lost the case—and publishers will always have this clause in their contract.  

How did I get a copy of this contract to show you? Years ago, I chaired a workshop at the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conference in New York. I had three literary attorneys and a literary agent on my panel. One of those panelists was the former deputy consul at Simon and Schuster and brought this story and gave me the electronic version. When I heard these details, I pay attention. I also attend conferences and learn (something I recommend to every writer). Admittedly I've scratched the surface of a complex topic but hopefully given you some things to consider when you sign a contract in your future.


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Columnist: Terry Whalin

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W. Terry Whalin, a writer and acquisitions editor lives in Colorado. A former  magazine editor and former literary agent, Terry is an acquisitions editor at Morgan James Publishing. He has written more than 60 nonfiction books including Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams. To help writers, he has created 12-lesson online course called Write A Book Proposal. His website is located at: www.terrywhalin.com.

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