How do I read them? What should I be aware of?

A reader asks:

I got a contract! What do I do with it to make sure I'm not signing away my life?


Now first: Is this a novel contract, novella contract, short story contract…?

If it’s a novel contract, I highly recommend working with an agent. People in the book industry vary on their opinions of agents — my opinion on the subject is that not all agents are created equal, and that a bad agent is worse than no agent, but that a good agent is worth their weight in gold. Your agent can tell you if there’s anything to be worried about in the contract and possibly help you negotiate better terms. And if you got an offer on your own, you can query agents with [OFFER IN HAND] in the subject line for a quick response.

Sometimes, though, it’s still not easy to get an agent, especially if you’re looking to work with a very small press. Or if it’s a contract for a short story or novella (some agents are willing to sign clients on novellas, some are not).

For short stories, my highest recommendation is SFWA’s Model Contracts, which not only cover what a good contract should look like, but explain all the different clauses and why you should care about the language in them. Bonus: if you want to negotiate the contract you’ve been sent, you can reference the SFWA document to the publisher as part of your communication about why you’re asking for the changes.

Though not everything in the model short story contracts is going to be applicable outside of magazines and anthologies, I recommend giving them a look no matter what kind of contract you’re ruminating over, as it gives a good grounding in a lot of the types of clauses writers care about. Just reading through a model contract and the accompanying explanations should give you a good sense of what red flags you’re looking for.

If you do find worrisome parts of your contract, your first step is to try to negotiate. I’ve successfully negotiated quite a few short story contracts, and my agent negotiates my novel contracts heavily. But sometimes a publisher won’t budge, or feels very strongly about a particular clause and you don’t want to burn a bridge. If you end up at an impasse like that, it may end up segueing into a choice of whether to walk away rather than sign.

This is an extremely hard decision for an author to make. It’s painful. Full of doubt. We want as many opportunities to publish our work as possible. But I’ve seen too many writers get locked into bad contracts — please, please protect yourself. Sometimes you’ll make a considered decision to sign a contract that you’re not entirely happy with, but if the publisher refuses to budge on the most important clauses, other times it’ll be better to walk away.

Here are the main things I’ve seen go wrong:

  • What we call a “rights grab” — where the publisher is requiring rights far, far beyond what they will actually use for publication, such as film rights for publishing a short story (a short story magazine should never ask for that). Sometimes publishers even ask for ridiculous grants of rights “in perpetuity” — forever — and that’s something to walk away from a contract over. As a writer, your intellectual property is one of your most important assets. And if you’re thinking, “well, what are the chances…”, I actually do know writers who signed away things like their film rights and then later got Hollywood interest and couldn’t do anything about it except refer it to their publisher (and wouldn’t ever see any money off it). Is it unlikely? Yes, but you never know which property lightning might strike on.

    And it isn’t only film rights — you want the contract to specify the smallest scope of rights for what the publisher actually intends to do with the work in question.

  • The contract should specify that the publisher cannot make changes to the author’s work, excepting maybe small copyediting alterations to match house style. The author should always be the only one to make any substantial revisions to their own work. And yes, I’ve known authors who’ve gotten bitten by this. Don’t sign anything that says the publisher has the right to change your words.

  • Publish-by dates / kill fees — One of the main ways I’ve seen contracts go wrong is if the publisher starts to struggle or go defunct, stops responding, and there’s no way for the author to get the rights to their work back. There should be a clause in the contract that gives date the work must be published by, and after that all rights refer to the author. That way you don’t ever end up in a situation where your work is in limbo and you can’t publish it elsewhere.

Evaluating contracts and getting help on gut checking them is one of the many reasons I’ve found writer communities to be so important. Sometimes even if you check clause by clause against the SFWA Model Magazine Contract, you still end up with questions, or you’re not sure whether a clause is really worth fighting over. But in addition to your own communities, there are professional resources for contracts you may be able to call on — SFWA has the Contracts Committee and, if things start going south, Griefcom and Writer Beware. I’m sure other genre organizations have similar help available.

Contracts are one of the stickiest parts of publication, and it is depressingly possible for them to trip you up down the road. The truism is that you don’t want to depend on anything you don’t get in writing in the contract — don’t settle for assurances from the publisher that they’d “never do such a thing” regarding any point. Though I agree with this, I am also firmly of the opinion that it makes everything doubly safe if you also try your best to submit to and work with reasonable people. First, because they’ll be reasonable about negotiating the contract with you if you need to, and second, if down the road something isn’t covered or a rights reversion needs to happen, they’re going to be, well, reasonable! You absolutely need to get everything in writing, but you generally want to be working with people who (1) agree that it’s good to get everything in writing, for clarity and transparency and matching of expectations, but (2) are going to be ethical and responsive if anything comes up later. Because chances are, if you don’t have #2, they might not even honor what’s in the contract anyway.

This isn’t meant to be depressing, though. A sale is exciting! Just don’t let that excitement override your business sense. And if you have questions on specific contract clauses, feel free to write in about them! I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve been doing this for a while now, I’ve seen a fair amount, and I’ve even had to walk away from perfectly wonderful markets because of oddball reasons. So if you’ve got specific questions, hit me!