Get Smart: How to Tell Good Publishing Contracts From Bad

Publishing contracts are as varied as book genres. It’s easy for an author hungry to be published to be blinded by any contract’s lure, to the potential detriment of their career and their hard-fought creative work. Here are three things to look out for.
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Like many new and debut authors, I was eager to sign with a traditional publisher. After the hard work of completing a novel, signing on the dotted line with a publishing house was exactly the reward I envisioned would make it all worthwhile.

Any contract for publishing can, at first, seem like an offer too good to refuse—but that doesn’t mean you should take anything that comes your way.

Publishing contracts are as varied as book genres. It’s easy for an author hungry to be published to be blinded by any contract’s lure, to the potential detriment of their career and their hard-fought creative work.

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When I was submitting my debut novel for publication, the first book contract offer I received included bad terms—I’m grateful my agent and a close traditionally published friend helped me know what to look for. They helped me spot the three red flags below; things to be on the lookout for when considering contract offers yourself:

1. Typos on the contract:

As a contract is legally binding, every letter counts. So when I saw the title of my book misworded, I was surprised—and disappointed. Then I noticed the wrong date was typed. It wasn’t just a day off. It was an entire year off! Small errors make a big difference, and this reflected poorly on the publisher. If these types of errors slipped through in this instance, I couldn’t help but wonder how seriously proofreading would be undertaken when it came to editing and promotion of my work.

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2. An unfair option clause:

This is a portion of the contract that is negotiable, and agents can work for their authors to limit the option for a new book in a way that is fair. For instance, an author may want to get a quick answer regarding the status of a project, or if the launch of a debut goes badly, she may want to seek a new publisher. Limiting the option to the next book in the series (if applicable) or the amount of time the publisher has to make a decision (like 60 days) can be advantageous for new authors. Agents will also want to limit what is submitted to be considered for the option, such as a synopsis and three chapters rather than the entire completed manuscript. Any contract with unfair option clauses, or non-negotiable ones, is a red flag.

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3. Unclear reversion of rights:

If the “reversion of rights” portion of the contract is not negotiated—that is, the time period in which rights revert back to the author—a publisher may hold book rights beyond the life of the book. If there is no definition of what constitutes “out of print,” insolvency of the publisher or a bankruptcy clause, it may be difficult for an author to get rights back. If, then, a book only sells a handful of copies per year or if the publisher isn’t doing anything actively to push sales, having a clear reversion of rights clause may be a lifesaver, and is arguably the most important clause to have in a contract.

For me, a second contract came along, which resulted in my debut women’s fiction title releasing in April 2018, with its sister story releasing in July 2018. I am grateful I waited, as I now have much better terms in the two contracts I did sign.

Now, my advice to new authors is to read through the entire contract, ask questions and seek the advice of others within the industry to make a smart choice when it comes to publication. You—and your writing—deserve it.

Disclaimer: This post is not a substitute for legal advice. Please see a literary agent or lawyer for details that may apply to an individual contract.

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Audrey Wick is an author with Tule Publishing and a full-time English professor at Blinn College in Texas. Her debut women’s fiction title Finding True North released in April, and its sister story, Coming Home, hitting bookshelves in July 2018. Her writing has also appeared in college textbooks published by Cengage Learning and W. W. Norton. Audrey believes the secret to happiness includes lifelong learning and good stories—but travel and coffee help. She has journeyed to more than 20 countries—and sipped coffee at every one. See photos on her website audreywick.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @WickWrites.

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