I haven’t yet received any of the book contracts my agents have negotiated (just a summary of the terms) but I thought I’d take a look at what should normally be in one. This stuff is not remotely sexy — it’s a tough read — but having come this far in the process, it doesn’t make any sense not to at least understand the basics.
The best summary I’ve seen so far of the general provisions that should be in a publishing contract is in Rachelle Gardner’s blog, Rants and Ramblings of a Literary Agent. A good point that she makes is that the contract should not stop at production, but cover marketing, too, and the expectations/responsibilities of both parties should be well defined.
A good outline of things to watch out for (those dreaded pitfalls) is listed on the website of Adler Books.
But probably the most technical and detailed outline of what ought to appear in the ‘standard’ publishing contract comes from (who else?) a lawyer who specializes in the area.
Now, there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ contract — in publishing, like anything else, everything is negotiable. Nonetheless, there is a long list of subjects that should be addressed — and like any good lawyer, he lists all of them.
What I’ve learned over the years is that it probably doesn’t matter how long or complicated a contract is, there’s always something that will happen that isn’t covered by it. And it never surprises me how many apparently clear clauses can be subject to differing interpretations. (You just have to remember the former Rhodes Scholar and lawyer, President Bill Clinton, arguing from the witness box that “it depends what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”)
I think if you’re going to have a contract, it should be done right. But even after it’s signed, pretty much everything rests, I think, on how the parties to it deal with problems when they arise.
I’ve relied on my agents to steer my book to reputable publishers with whom they have good relationships. And I’m counting on them to protect my interests when it comes to these negotiations as well. They’re the experts as to the potential problems that might come up and what we should do to avoid them.
But after reading all of these links, I feel the same way I do about real estate. Before I became a realtor, even though I was a lawyer, I wouldn’t have dreamed of representing myself in a transaction — there was too much money at stake and too many things that could go wrong. A lawyer who specializes in real estate knows what to look for, and I think an experienced literary agent is the same — whereas I can’t possibly know what I don’t know.
As difficult as it may be to find an agent, I think anyone who wades into a publishing contract without one is probably going to end up giving up rights they could have protected. And may even land in trouble. If only they’d known.