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Read Your Contract

One of the best things about having a literary agent is having someone with knowledge and experience in publishing contracts. For anyone who has ever done a deal with a publisher, you know what I mean. It doesn’t take more than a few paragraphs before your eyes start to cross and your mind freezes. Not only are they filled with a whole heck of a lot of legal jargon, but to the layman it’s legal jargon few truly understand.

While having an agent relieves you of the pressure of negotiating a contract, it does not excuse you from reading the contract. While your literary agent should and will do her absolute best to make sure that what you sign is as fair as it can possibly be, in the end she is not responsible for the paper you are signing. In other words, she’s not responsible for turning in a manuscript by the due date you’ve just committed to. She’s not responsible for the art and illustrations you’ve just agreed to provide, and she’s not responsible for the word count you’ve just said you’d meet. And once that paper is signed you’re committed. Not even the best agent is going to be able to suddenly cut your word count in half or eliminate 90% of the illustrations that you conveniently forgot about.

The beauty of having an agent is you can ask about anything you really don’t understand or if there’s anything you should know, but do ask, please ask, before signing your contract.

Jessica

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24 comments

  1. Quite true. I just read my (draft) contract, and I was surprised to see that there was a word count requirement for the sequel I’m to turn in. If I hadn’t read the contract, I would’ve been in trouble at deadline time when I might’ve turned in 80K, and they wanted 100K.

    Plus, it’s really a fascinating document. I loved the little summary my editor did of the book so much, I’ll probably steal it for promotional purposes. 🙂

  2. If we’re writers, we should also be readers, and any sane person reads what they sign before grabbing the pen…unless you’re in my second manuscript, but that’s a second book!

  3. Bravo! I totally get what you’re saying and you are spot on. I’ve had several instances where I get in to the work of a gig and realize I woefully underbid a job because I didn’t fully read or understand the contract until I was neck deep in it…and that point…I really have nothing I can say or do about it except knuckle down and get it done (even when I realize I’m getting screwed) because the gig is already accepted.

    Once the commitment is made, you’ve got to get it done, regardless of whether you have shot yourself in the foot on the contract or not.

    I’ve had to pull some all-nighters over that one (a few times).

  4. I always read my contracts. When I was an epubbed author (before I was agented) I wrote a several page breakdown of what the clauses meant and how I felt they could be interpreted. Then I ended up spending about $1000 to lawyers to find out if I was correct. For me, that was an investment in understanding what I was signing, and it has paid off when I signed with NY publishers. It made reading the contracts much easier. It also meant I could really appreciate “good” clauses (i.e. beneficial for me) when they showed up in contracts.

  5. This is where a great agent comes in. My NY contract was many, many pages long, full of clauses I didn’t understand (some I did!). My agent did an amazing job, zeroing on the areas we needed to change, fight for etc.

    This is where you realize just how much an agent is worth and their 15%, totally worth it!

    And aside from the legal mumbo jumbo, it’s their advice that comes into play. I so appreciated anything my agent offered me in that regard.

  6. Excellent advice. I might add, don’t just read them once–reread them again before signing. I also, on occasion, pull out my older contracts and reread them, merely as a reminder. Each one is different in many small and subtle points. Even after all these books, I have to admit that I still get a thrill over the fact that I HAVE contracts–and an agent who makes sure I’m getting the best ones possible.

  7. My agent is simply brilliant with that legal jargon, and all for fifteen percent!

    I would like to keep more, but there you go, we can’t have everything…

  8. @Anonymous, ideally yes, you should always consult a lawyer before signing a contract. Not everyone can afford to drop a couple hundred bucks to do so, however.

    Here’s what I do with my consulting contracts: I rewrite them. That is to say, I translate each paragraph from legalese into English. Sometimes it takes a few passes 🙂

    If I find I can’t understand something, that’s a sign I need to get someone else to look at that document.

  9. Jessica:

    Out of curiosity, how do agents become knowledgeable in contract negotiation/legal jargon? Do you take some sort of class? Do you just learn it as you go?

    Mary L.

  10. If you have a knowledgeable agent you won’t need to consult a lawyer. If you choose to talk to a lawyer however you should make sure it is someone with expertise in publishing law, just any lawyer won’t do.

    Most agents learn about contracts through experience. Nothing readies you for contract negotiations faster then doing it. For us, it came from the publishing side. We learned as editors and yes, we took workshops and courses when we became agents. We also continually talk to other agents and members of AAR to learn and improve and keep updated on changes.

    –jhf

  11. Great post! This is exactly the reason you need to trust your agent. While the writer must double check the word count and expected deadlines, as you said, the agent ensures that the rights, the advance, the rolalties, etc. are optimized just for you! You need to review these aspects of the contract, as well, but your agent will know whether or not the publisher has given you what you deserve, based on your experience, exposure, topic, etc. And if the pub. hasn’t, your agent will fight for you! I can’t think of a better way to spend my 15%!

  12. My nickname is The Contract Demon From Hell. I worked in the contracts department of a publishing house and I’ve negotiated Broadway union contracts — all before I started negotiating my own contracts.

    It’s very important to read every clause and question anything that doesn’t sit right. And you’re absolutely correct — it is the responsibility of the person who signs the contract to understand and know what’s in it.

    I can’t tell you how often people come to me whining about their contracts and I say, “Why didn’t you bring this up in negotiations? Why did you sign this?” and the person says, “Oh, I never READ the contract.”

    Well, then you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. It’s words on paper, and they affect your life. Learn how to read and understand a contract, and if something sounds like gibberish — ASK.

    I’ve rarely signed a boilerplate contract (except for short stories or anthologies). There’s usually something that needs tweaking before the signature goes down.

  13. PS For those of you who need resources in learning about contracts, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts are great. I got my entertainment lawyer through them and he’s fabulous. The first consultation is reasonably priced, and, if you chose to stay together, you negotiate from there.

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