Chip MacGregor

March 20, 2012

What's reasonable to ask for in a book contract? (continued)


Further thoughts on what is reasonable to seek in a book contract…

6. Beware the kill clause – this is something I think is often unreasonable. In some publisher's contracts, you'll find they have inserted wording that says, "This is the deal…but if we change our minds, you have to pay us all the money back." I find that totally unreasonable. A deal's a deal — it's why we're signing the papers. Sure, if you can't hold up your end of the bargain by writing a book and meeting a deadline, they should be able to cancel. But if they can get out of it at any time, for no reason, with no repurcussions, we don't really have a "contract;" we have "a sort of gentleman's agreement thingy." Ask to have that deleted.

7. Make sure the copyright is in the author's name, not the publisher's. That's always reasonable.

8. It's reasonable to contract that the book be produced within 24 months or so of turning in the manuscript. Anything beyond that and you start getting into unreasonable territory. Having no time limit is certainly unreasonable, unless it's a work for hire. I know of an author who turned in a completed work more than three years ago, and the book has never released… but the contract didn't give a publishing window, so it's still considered "in process." Ugh. 

9. It's reasonable to get paid as often as possible. Some contracts stipulate that you'll be paid once a year. Most pay twice a year — some quarterly. Ask to be paid at least twice a year. And a related issue: Get as much of the advance up front. I just saw a contract that wanted to pay in eighths (1/8 on signing, 1/8 on completion, 1/8 on turning in the marketing info, 1/8 on showing up in a clean shirt, etc).

10. Clarify your option clause. It might be reasonable to discuss giving your current publisher a first look, and you might even have reason to negotiate a full option with them. But read it carefully and know what you're getting into. In days of yore, one publishing company used to have a clause that granted a two-book option for every book you contracted with them…so the more books you did, the more you owed them! (It's not like that any more — that company has a pretty good contract these days. But know what you're signing.)

Again, a negotiation is not a win/lost proposition. Much of what you see in a contract is there to protect both the author and publisher. But knowing what you're facing is the best way to make sure the contract wording is reasonable. My former boss, Rick Christian, is the founder of Alive Communications and the first literary agent to specialize in the Christian market. Rick is a good guy, very knowledgeable, and the man who taught me most of what I know. He used to keep a plaque on his desk with an inspiring quote from Siegfried Unself that read, "One of the signs of Napolean's greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot." 

Okay, maybe it's not THAT inspiring, but it's something to consider the next time you're looking at a really bad contract… 


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