Chip MacGregor

February 29, 2012

What does an author need to ask about book contracts? (Part 3)


We've been exploring what you need to know when you approach a book contract. Here are five more questions to ask…

11. Are there restrictions on the sale of the contract? Check to see if your publisher has the right to sell the entire deal to another house. This doesn't happen often, but it can happen, especially with smaller houses, and you need to be aware of the possibility. It would mean you go through the entire process of negotiating a deal with one house, then suddenly you find yourself working with another house. I once had a sleaze-ball publisher sign a well-known personality to a book, then immediately start shopping the contract… In other words, he never had any intention of publishing the book; he just wanted to sign a lowball deal and flip it to a bigger house. (This is something he admitted to me, but denied to the author. Mr. Sleazeball is now an agent, by the way.)

12. If it all goes south, who pays for the lawyers? Remember that a contract is put in place to clarify two things: what will happen if everything goes well, and what will happen if everything goes to hell. A good contract covers both scenarios. In case of the latter, check to see who covers the cost of the lawyers. True story: A short while back I was sent a contract that called for the publisher to pick the lawyer, but the author to pay for it. Um… we suggested a minor wording change to keep the author from getting hosed.  

13. Does your contract clarify what constitutes "out of print"? It should be simple: When the publisher is no longer selling your book, it's out of print. Don't get caught up in windy explanations of why publishing-on-demand titles constitute a book for sale. (Years ago, I worked on a deal where a publisher claimed a popular author's book was still "in print" because they still were offering an audio version to libraries, so they still controlled rights.) Get a clear definition that includes having regular books commercially available. This has gotten much more complicated since ebooks became popular, so you're going to have to figure out if a digital book qualifies. Most publishers will say it does… so WHEN do you have a chance to actually get those rights reverted? Possibly never. So read your contract carefully. 

14. Does your contract have an option clause? There are various forms of options — everything from "you promise us your next book" to "we'd like you to give us a first look at your next one." Options aren't necessarily evil (they can reveal a commitment on the part of the publisher to an author's career), but you should know the risks and rewards of a proposed option clause. (True Item: In days of yore, one publisher used to insert an option clause that promised two books for every one you published… so an author could never actually get out from under the contract. For every book he wrote, he owed two additional titles. Ugh. That's no longer the case at that house, by the way.)

15. Is this a perfect contract? The answer, for those who aren't sure, is "nope." In a perfect world, you'd get a perfect contract. But, in case you haven't been paying attention to the war in Afghanistan and the Republican primaries, we don't live in a perfect world. So while you'll sometimes hear people make declarations about all contracts (things like "You should NEVER sign a multi-book deal!" and "I MUST have approval of my cover!" and "I would NEVER allow them to cross collateralize my contract!"), be aware that a contract is a negotiated settlement. You ask for some things, you give up other things. That's the nature of the business. Every good agent understands that. And it's why you might be best served having somebody negotiate on your behalf. Nobody gets everything they want, so learn to compromise and you'll find yourself more at peace with the process.  If you approach a book contract as a sort of partnership between author and publisher, rather than as a battle to be won, you'll be happier with the results. I'll talk more about how to negotiate a contract next week. 

What are your lingering contract questions?


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