Friday, June 24, 2011

Online class: A Publisher's Guide to Contracts

I've never seen a publisher's contract before.  I had no idea of what to expect, and since this is my industry now, that's not okay.  So when I found a free online class through the RWA on publisher/author contracts, I signed up.  How could I resist?  Why would I resist?  I may not be at that stage in my career yet, but I expect to be there one day.  And in case I don't remember everything... well, I archived the yahoogroups daily digests.  You know, just in case.

Some things I didn't know before:

Right of first refusal:  Most publishers will include a "right of first refusal" clause in the contract.  What, exactly, is included in this clause is negotiable: sometimes it's anything that the author writes (Steer clear of this if you can!!!).  Usually, though, it's any other book containing the same characters, and often (but by no means always) it extends to include anything set in the same world.  If the publisher works with several genres, they may require anything between certain word lengths (and the instructor did mention that she knew of several cases where authors had successfully negotiated word lengths, for example, from 5K-100k down to from 5K-70K, leaving the author room to write longer works and publish them elsewhere.)  In most cases, however, that last clause isn't included, and I think I'd require it to be removed from my own contract before signing.  Also, just because a publisher is offered the next book, doesn't mean they'll take it.  Once they've turned the next one down,

Timelines:  These are actually written into your contract.  They seem pretty generous to me: for example, if you're requested to write a second book, you're required to produce the second one within (let's say 12 months; seems pretty standard.)  The publisher then has (12 months) to actually publish the book (which means it doesn't happen right away!)  If you decide you don't like your publisher anymore and try to slough them off by not meeting your deadline, you have to repay your advance.  Oh, and if you ever do finish that book, you stillhave to offer it to them.  (The next book, by the way, gets its own contract, even though it's written into this contract that you'll write it.  The contract process starts all over again when the second manuscript is turned in.)
Contract termination:  There are several ways to terminate a contract.  Most contracts automatically expire after a certain amount of time, rights immediately reverting to author.  Also, there is a sales termination clause: If combined sales of all publisher's editions (including both digital and print) fall below (150 copies in 12 months,) the publisher can pay ($500) and say the book is still in print.  Otherwise, it's not considered in print anymore, and the contract is terminated, rights reverting to author.  It's this final part that the instructor suggests you negotiate: if you want the contract to possibly terminate sooner, raise the copy numbers.  But 150 in 12 months is apparently pretty standard.

There were, of course, other things discussed in class, but those were three clauses in particular that I was interested in.

On the whole, I did really appreciate the class.  The instructor did a good job of presenting the contract, and explaining the "scariest" clauses (and really, all the main ones.)  She answered all the students' questions, including some that weren't directly mentioned in the contract (like subsidary rights.)  And she provided both publisher and author perspectives for most of the clauses, giving a rounded view on topics (like right of first refusal) on various and potentially sensitive topics.  On the other hand, it was still dense reading, and there was a lot of information.  Even after breaking it down into lay terms,  I can't say I completely understand the contracts now, just because there's so very much to digest and remember, and the class was only a single week.  And it's going to be little a while until I actually have need of the information, so it's not immediately useful.  Furthermore, I don't usually have too much of a problem reading legalese.  I had no idea, however, what's considered "standard" for most contracts, and without the class, I could have been ripped off by a less-than-sterling publisher and never known it until too late. 

Grade: B+ Extremely useful, but with more subject than time.

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