Publishing Contracts: Part 1 by Fran Walker

This week’s guest is Fran Walker. She is the author of several short stories (look here for a complete list), and the editor responsible for Year’s Best Lesbian Fiction 2008 and Year’s Best Lesbian Fiction 2009. She is also the creator of a resource book about publishing lesbian fiction called Lavender Ink: Writing and Selling Lesbian Fiction.

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A publishing contract is an agreement between author and publisher in which the author leases specified rights to the publisher under specified conditions for a specified length of time.  Contracts come in an infinite range, from the publisher taking all rights for the length of copyright to the publisher taking one-time rights to publish the work in a single format in one language and to sell it in a limited geographical area.  But because contracts tend to be many pages long and full of legal gobbledygook, authors tend to skim rather than read them. And because a publisher saying “I love your book and want to publish it” often catapults authors onto Planet Giddy, where rose-coloured glasses lead the author to believe that their Wonderful Publisher will of course send a fair, balanced, friendly, industry-standard contract, she may sign the contract without even reading it.

Bad idea.

Lesfic authors often tend focus on the wrong contractual aspects.  Not too many small press novels will get translated into foreign languages or made into movies, so why not bend a little and let the publisher have print and electronic rights as well as sharing the profit from some subsidiary rights?  Technically speaking, a print press with no distribution other than the general warehousers Ingrams or Baker & Taylor doesn’t need world rights, but the odds of an author selling her book to a US publisher and a UK publisher and an Australasian publisher are pretty slim. And since most lesfic books don’t sell more than a few thousand copies, it’s really not going to affect your long-term earnings if your royalty rate is 7.5% instead of 8%.

Instead, take the time to think about Murphy’s Law. What’s going to happen if your publisher tanks, or gets sold, or goes out of business? Look at how many lesfic presses have changed hands in the last decade.  Look how many have folded up their tents.  Look how many authors have found their contracts sold on to a new publisher, who they may or may not want to work with.  What’s going to happen if you find you just can’t work with this publisher, or if a bigger, better publisher becomes interested in you?  Look at how many lesfic authors have published with first one press, and then another, and then another.  Look at how many authors publish their science fiction with Press A, their romances with Press B, and their mysteries with Press C.

Now think about that happening to you. Does your contract provide for those contingencies?

How long does your contract run?  Barring the rare classic, few novels sell well in the marketplace for more than a few years.  An author who becomes hugely popular may find her backlist continues to sell for up to a decade, but that’s not the norm in lesfic. So, why would your publisher want to hold the print rights to your book 50 years from now?  All rights should revert to the author after a specified time (3 – 7 years) or when the book is Out Of Print, which the contract will define as not selling above a certain threshold (usually around 200 copies per year for a small press).  Any contract that does not contain a rights reversion clause is not industry standard and should be a red flag for you.  If the publisher doesn’t know your contract should have one, they’re pretty clueless.  And if the publisher does know but is hoping you don’t, they’re likely planning to screw you over.  Neither is a publisher you’ll enjoy working with.

Does the contract cover anything but this particular novel?  If the publisher wants an options clause, or a right of first refusal, or a no-compete clause, this will prevent you from submitting at least some of your future works to other publishers — maybe for a year, maybe for five years, maybe for all eternity.  What’s in it for you to commit your future works to this publisher, who in all likelihood you barely know?  Consider the worst possible scenario — maybe you’ll absolutely hate the editor you’re assigned, or maybe your publisher will become BFF with your horrible spiteful ex-girlfriend, or maybe your publisher will set up a notorious vanity imprint and you’ll not want to have your name associated with them.  Remember the eggs and basket saying.

Most authors hate reading contracts, and who can blame them?  But reading them is a lot better than not reading them and finding out, too late, that you’ve got yourself into a nasty situation and can’t get out.  Lesfic authors are a friendly, helpful lot, and you can always find one who’ll be willing to give you advice and assistance.  If you’re a new author, ask for help.  If you’re established author, offer help.  It’s the best way to support the lesbian community.

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If you would like to learn more, check out Fran’s book, Lavender Ink, and keep an eye out for future blogs from Fran. She has promised to come back and share more at a future date.

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