Good day readers. It’s time for another Author Etiquette. We started this little series because we love authors—we wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t. But authors are human and sometimes make mistakes or don’t understand some fundamentals in the writing world. Whether you are a new author or a seasoned pro, we hope this column will give you some perspective on issues and help keep you out of trouble.
If you’ve been in publishing long, you’ve probably heard stories about authors who have had issues with their publishers, editors or other people associated with getting books into the hands of readers. It can be as simple as a missed deadline or as complex as many thousands of dollars in lost royalties. For some, the situation is easily handled, but for others it’s an ongoing nightmare. Many of the issues do point to publishers but the issues can be on both sides of the publishing line, meaning sometimes authors are just as liable as publishers when it comes to making a mess.
So when an issue comes up who is to blame? And how does it get fixed?
The answer is in the contract.
Any time you work with an editor, publisher, promoter or even artist, you should have a contract. No if, ands or buts. No verbal agreements—unless it is a prelude to a contract—or “gentleman’s agreements.”
Contracts are written documents that outline the duties and responsibilities of each party. In the case of publishing it should include what rights are wanted by the publisher, when the story is due to the publisher, publication date, payment, when royalty payments go out and other features. It can vary from publisher to publisher but every contract should have the same basic features.
When there’s a dispute, authors and other parties can look back at the contract and reach a resolution. That would happen if everyone lived in a fair world. But not all contracts are the same. People don’t read what’s in a contract and some publishers take advantage of authors and artists. That’s why it’s important to read it and understand what you are agreeing to.
Do Your Homework
Before you even submit to any publication do your homework.*
Ask authors affiliated with the publisher if they are happy. Listen to both the good and bad.
Find out rankings on Amazon and look at sales.
Research the company. How long have they been in business? Has there been any controversy?
Where can you find their books at? Conventions? Online? Bookstores?
Who is the publisher? How long have they been in publishing?
Who is their editor, publicist, art director? What are their backgrounds?
These are all good indicators of the health of a publisher. If authors are generally happy, it has decent sales, has a professional website, has been in business for a few years, and you can find their books easily, it’s a pretty good indication that the publisher could be the real deal.
But don’t let your guard down. Some predatory publishers can disguise themselves very well.
After you submit and get accepted you get to the next hurdle. I can’t stress this enough.
READ THE CONTRACT.
Don’t just glance at it. Read it.
Many contracts are straightforward. An honest publisher simply wants your story so they and you can make money. But not everyone is honest. It is your job to protect yourself. Even agents can miss something, so don’t rely on everything they say.
If there’s a clause or line in the contract that you don’t understand, ask about it. Ask the publisher and ask a more experienced author. Ask two or three if you are really concerned. Maybe it’s nothing to worry about. But better to be safe than sorry.
Know the Terms
Like many legal documents, contracts can be confusing. The longer the contract, the more terms and clauses and subclauses which can lead to an author with glazed over eyes signing on the dotted line. Here are some that you need to watch for.
There are all sorts of rights in publishing. Print rights, electronic rights, English rights, Foreign language rights, video, audio, and many more can be given away with the stroke of the pen. Be sure that you are giving only the necessary rights away with the contract.
When a publisher purchases rights they expect that no one else will be publishing the story in the preferred format during a reasonable amount of time. Don’t sign a contract with an open ended exclusivity.
If you are claiming your work as original, make sure it’s not been posted to your blog, other public form that isn’t password protected or already printed elsewhere.
This is the name you want your work listed under. Publishers should be aware if you are using a pseudonym. (just for legal purposes such as earning reports)
The expected publication date of the work should be in the contract. This gives you and the publisher an idea of when the story will be available for viewing. It also starts the countdown as to when the exclusive printing rights will be released. (yes this can be revised if things go wrong but still read the amendments carefully.)
Termination/Breach of Agreement
These clauses will outline what and how to proceed when things go wrong. Depending on who is at fault, it could result in a return of prior payment or having rights reverted back to the author.
This one can be tricky. Some publishers put in a non-compete clause so that they can have first look at new works. While this might seem like a good thing, some contracts bind an author to ONLY working with this publisher. In other words, once the contract is signed, an author cannot work with other publishers until the contract expires.
A contract should outline how an author gets paid, how much and when. It should include how often royalty payments should be received--if that applies.
Ask for Changes
If any clauses of a contract make you nervous, ask for changes. A contract, even with a large publisher, shouldn’t be set in stone. A few changes here and there to accommodate both parties can make a business relationship run much smoother. Outline your concerns and suggest changes. Publishers can resist, but if you have good reasons then it shouldn’t be an issue.
However, when there are several clauses in a contract that do not favor authors and the publisher declines to make changes, it’s probably best to walk away. Better to search out other publishers or even self publish rather than be locked into a contract that takes away your rights as an author for years down the line.
It’s easy to fall into the desperation trap and look for anyone to publish your work. Predatory publishers trap the unwary and desperate. Clueless publishers trap authors into bad contracts even though they have good intentions. Vanity publishers talk up their products often asking for money upfront for things like editing, book covers and promotion. It’s up to you to make informed decisions about where and how you publish.
Read your contracts carefully. Know what is being asked for. Do your homework. Ask for changes but be prepared to walk away if you aren’t positive this is a good decision. It’s up to you to make the best decision possible for your work.
*You can find a lot of great information on contracts, publishers and complaints at Writer Beware.