Friday 8 May 2009

Signing on the dotted line

You've slipped the fat contract out of the envelope — or opened the PDF attachment — and there is your first publishing contract looking alluring on the desk(top). It's a Hooray! moment. But wait — put down that pen! Don't sign it yet. They aren't going to take it away or cancel if you don't sign and return it immediately. A contract is just a suggestion. You are probably going to need to argue about those terms. Yes, you really do have to read it — all of it. And you really do have to say that they cannot have your first-born, nor can they extract a pint of blood every week. OK, this is your first-born and they already have it; you aren't necessarily going to give them your second-born.

A contract offers so many delicious opportunities for being stroppy that they can't all be covered in just one post. Being properly stroppy about the contract is something you have to build up to. For now, you can delegate to people who are professionally stroppy. If you have an agent, your agent should check the contract and argue. This doesn't mean you can't argue some more, later — but your agent can deal with all the obvious problems with the contract. I make it a point of honour to find at least two things my agent has not spotted. As a beginner, you could say 'Hmmm,' in a thoughtful sort of way, and agree that you can't see anything too dire in it — but do make it obvious you have read it.

If you don't have an agent you can ask the Society of Authors to check the contract for you. You can become a member of the Society of Authors as soon as you have a contract for a real book . They will then check your contracts for free. Or you can pay them to check your contract without joining. We will come back to the Society of Authors later, but it's a good idea to join. They have a nice ceiling, so if you go to an event and it's boring, you can look at the ceiling. There are more advantages. Later, remember.

If you want to get straight down to checking your contract, here are some red rags for your bullishness to look out for:
  • waiving moral rights
  • competing works clauses
  • grabbing of rights in all territories
  • grabbing of electronic rights
  • an atrocious deal on electronic rights
  • option on your next book
  • agreeing to do free publicity
  • outrageous liability clauses
  • reversion clauses that don't specify what counts as out of print.
Don't worry if any or all of those mean nothing to you yet. They will, in time. And they don't all apply to all types of publishing.

So: a contract is not cast in stone. It is a starting point for negotiation. You will have been sent a boilerplate contract that is sent out to all authors, whatever their book, and it is up to you and your agent (if you have one) to get it tailored to your particular book and needs. DON'T feel so grateful that someone wants to publish your book that you just sign it without looking at it or thinking about the terms.

Coming next... 'Do you draw the pictures yourself?'


  1. Oh hooray (and yes, the advent of Stroppy Author is a hooray moment). I can forsee that this is going to be Very Popular. Also Very Useful. I shall immediately put up a link.

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  3. Congrats Anne for starting this off. This has got to be a better use of your time than all those wonderfully useful emails you've sent so may of us but I guess we might miss them. So make sure you point us in this direction if we don't know about it.


    PS I deleted the last post as I noticed a few awful typos!

  4. Always good to have another stroppy author on the block! Consider me a Follower!