It's your contract...know it, understand it, be it

Dear Miss Snark,

When a publisher retains "all rights" and the option clause grants "first look" -- is this bad? Specifically, does "all rights" mean that should the novel under the contract be made into a movie (or an audio book, ebook, plastic candy dispenser, micro-print tee shirt, or bad Spanish translation), the author gets nada and all profits belong to the publisher? Or does it simply mean the publisher gets a slice of the pie? (Assuming, of course, that the publisher attempts to sell said rights.)

Also, "first look" just means that you must allow the publisher to consider publication of your next novel in the same genre (or whatever the contract specifies) before you submit elsewhere, does it not? Or am I completely uninformed, and should I just go back to blindly signing important-looking documents because they promised to put my name on a book cover?

Ok, you know I'm yelling "understand what you sign" here but let's just get past that.

"All rights" doesn't mean they own it, it means they CONTROL it. You get a slice of the proceeds but you're dependent on someone else to sell the rights to the movie (or an audio book, ebook, plastic candy dispenser, micro-print tee shirt, or bad Spanish translation). That can be ok if you sell the rights to a publisher who can exploit them. It's stupid to do that if the publisher can't do anything. (This is one of those hidden benefits of having an agent--all contract terms are not created equal).

There's probably something other than "first look" in your contract. It should specify what they get to look at (second novel in the series; next work of fiction; next work using same characters); what form (outline, chapter, full ms); and how long they have to get back to you. It probably also says they have the right to match other offers.

(insert endless loop of Miss Snark chanting 'do not sign what you don't understand')

If you want to know more about what you've gotten yourself into invest in a copy of Kirsch's Guide to the Book Contract. Don't get a copy from the library. Buy one. You'll need it. Everyone I know owns one, even those of us who send our contracts out to review specialists.

Never ever EVER sign what you don't understand. NO reputable agent or publisher will balk at answering questions like this. NONE. If they do, that's a HUGE red flag.


s.w. vaughn said...

Thank you, Miss Snark! I've already signed one not so good contract (and thankfully escaped) so I wanted to know this before I decide whether to do it again.

No signing before reading Kirsch's. Got it. :-)

Thank goodness for Amazon Prime!

*heads over to Amazon to order Kirsch's*

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip about Kirsch's. This is just what I need (and want). And I'm one of those odd people who like contracts (not just getting them, but reading and reviewing all the details).

Bella Stander said...

For crying out loud! You're in the writing BUSINESS. Act like a business person and understand exactly what you're signing your name to before you ever pick up the pen. All contracts are negotiable; you have to know which parts and how much.

If you've already been published in a periodical or book, for just $90 you can join the Authors Guild, which offers FREE expert legal advice on contracts, etc., as well as a useful quarterly bulletin. Also check out the extensive posts on "Agenting 101" in the archives at Pub Rants.

Anonymous said...

Good advice. I signed what seemed to be a great contract for a terrific 2 book deal with a wonderful editor at a tippy top imprint -- and now my editor is gone. Second book is just out. So I am about to have to offer them my next novel even though my relationship with my new editor is quite abysmal. My agent and I are now hoping to get away. Remember that your contract is not with your editor, it is with the publisher. Think ahead.

Anonymous said...

Please forgive the innocence of the observation and feel free to flame this newbie into crispy blackness, but it would seem to be a good thing to get a contract lawyer to look over anything this important before signing it.

Once one has an agent I can see letting them defend an author against contract language but the first time out is it acceptable get professional advice? I would like to think so, even if it can be fairly pricy. The last contract I had review (for a completely different industry, but it was a personal 20 or so page one) cost $600.

Though they did have an espresso machine in their office that I got some of that back from :)

Anonymous said...

It's so important to understand what you're signing. Don't take it lightly.

litagent said...

As Bella noted, you can get your contracts reviewed by The Authors Guild -- but you don't have to be a published author to join. You can get an Associate membership (I think that's what they call it) as soon as you have a publishing contract from an estabalished publisher in your hand.

While it's a good idea to have a contract reviewed by a professional, some agents are also attorneys, and many agents have much, much more experience in dealing with book contracts than any old "contracts" attorney. Publishing contracts are idiosyncratic -- certain language means certain things -- and you would be wise to make sure that the person reviewing your contract is famililar with industry standards and jargon. The same goes for film contracts -- you want an entertainment lawyer or film agent reviewing those contracts.

Bella Stander said...

To Anon. said:
Maybe you could write a lousy first 3 chapters--or dig up something cringeworthy you wrote Way Back When--that yuck-editor is sure to nix. Then shop your actual brilliant work elsewhere. Or is that too devious?