Originally posted on Zoe Winter’s Blog in March 2011.
I was offered a contract in October 2010 on Carnal Secrets by a fairly big epublisher. It was one I’d dealt with before when I published a romance novel under another name, and at first I assumed that the contract this time wouldn’t be any different from the previous one.
All the changes I’d managed to negotiate in the first contract were back to boilerplate. The new version also contained several unfavorable clauses and ambiguous terms, which the publisher refused to modify.
After over two months of negotiation, we couldn’t reach an agreement, so I walked. Some might wonder why I did that. Surely everyone’s gotta start somewhere, and I, being a lowly nobody, should be grateful to even get a contract. Right?
The thing is, I wouldn’t have gotten the offer if the publisher didn’t think it could make money off the manuscript. While I was happy that a publisher liked my writing enough to offer, my sense of gratitude wasn’t quite overwhelming enough that I was willing to sign a contract that allowed the publisher to take as much as possible from me, restrict my ability to earn income, leave me with an unlimited amount of liability, or reach into my bank account in perpetuity without my permission or consent in the name of “indemnity”.
In talking with some people here and there, a few expressed serious consternation at my position. They said that surely the publisher wouldn’t screw me over, even if technically the contract allowed it to. Didn’t I trust my publisher?
The thing is, it really has nothing to do with trust. A contract is a legal document that spells out each party’s rights and responsibilities, and it should always be written in such a way that it protects both the author’s and the publisher’s interests fairly. The publisher has no fiduciary duty to look out for its authors’ best interests. It has zero reason to do anything for its authors except what’s laid out in the contract. And a bad contract can really hurt your finances and career.
Given the stakes, what should you do if and when you get into a similar position? First, if at all possible, get a reputable literary attorney to review your contract. They actually don’t cost all that much. Second, if you really can’t afford one, at least get a copy of Negotiating a Book Contract (2nd edition) by Mark L. Levine. It’s full of great advice and is a guaranteed eye-opener if you’ve never dealt with legalese before. Finally, be willing to walk away. Do you really want to work with a publisher that refuses to remove or modify unfair terms?
Of course, easier said than done. Tomorrow, I’ll be blogging about how difficult it can be (emotionally) to walk away from a deal.