Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Writer and the Contract

Over the last year the Authors Guild has been discussing with its membership what constitutes a fair book contract. This sounds ideal, but bringing it to fruition with the major publishers, the Big Five as they are now known, could be an impossible ideal. As part of their strategy, the Authors Guild sent an open letter to publishers urging them to amend their contracts to be fairer to writers. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a successful writer in several genres, has taken a look at this letter and offered a commentary. You can read it (see the link below), and I urge you to do so, but I have a few suggestions also. 

The Authors Guild program to improve contracts for writers seems to depend on publishers offering more generous terms, but in fact it depends on writers becoming better business men and women. It is axiomatic that a new writer will be so thrilled to get a contract for a first book that he or she will accept almost anything that is offered. Reputable publishers won't take even more advantage of this, since they already hold most of the cards anyway, but writers need to be aware of what they are getting and what they are giving away. This post is not about specific clauses, and how they should be written. I'm not an attorney and cannot and will not give advice. But I urge writers to be aware of what they agreeing to or even discussing.

The writer is licensing rights to his or her book. You're not giving it away or selling it; you're licensing it.  Learn what this means and what the limitations are. How long does the publisher have before it has to publish or return the manuscript; when is the book out of print? What formats will the publisher use? Is the publisher publishing the manuscript as a hardcover, ebook, serial? Ask questions if you don't know what something means.

I always keep the copyright in my name, and if the publisher doesn't register the book with the Library of Congress, I do it myself. It costs $35 and an hour of my time, but it's worth it. 

Learn the difference between the various sub rights. Some publishers begin by asking for everything, but if you ask in return, they will hand over the sub rights that don't matter to them. If you want the trade paperback rights, ask for them. If you want mass market paperback rights, ask for them. The publisher might say no, but you won't know what you can get if you don't ask. Of course you want to keep all the movie rights, translation rights, and other rights because you're an optimist and the publisher will just sit on them forever.

Some writers insist on cover approval, but this isn't always possible to get. The more successful you are, the greater the likelihood that you'll get to see the cover and make suggestions. Some publishers ask for ideas, but that doesn't mean the designer will follow them. I've been fortunate with Five Star/Gale, Cengage. They showed me the cover of my first Anita Ray mystery, Under the Eye of Kali, and followed my suggestions. Their covers have been perfect for each novel in the series, which means they are reading the detailed synopses I include with the manuscript.

In previous years the Authors Guild published a small guide to a fair contract, which I encountered in the 1990s. When a partner and I set up The Larcom Press, we went forward as writers who wanted to be fair to other writers. We accepted the first novel of a nonfiction writer who negotiated the contract like a professional agent. She was so precise in her requests, referencing the AG guide several times, that her agent called me and said he was going to let her conduct the negotiations. Working with Leslie Wheeler was an education, and her book, Murder at Plymouth Plantation, a success.

The rapid changes in the publishing industry mean that writers have greater leverage in negotiating contracts but they also have greater responsibility in understanding the industry and its terms. Anyone who wants to be a professional writer should learn to read a contract carefully, and be ready to refuse clauses that are unreasonable or patently unfair. Many publishers are reasonable, and writers must now do their part in the negotiations.

To read the letter to publishers, go here:

To read another writer's response to the AG letter, click on the link below.


  1. VERY interesting info...thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks, Pam. I think we all do better if we know more about contracts and our role in the business side of things.

  3. All excellent points. Thanks for posting.

  4. Hi, Susan,

    It is very important to understand the details of contracts and what we can negotiate to our benefit.

  5. Thanks, Anne and Jacquie. I hope writers will take the time to learn more about contracts. It can only help.