For Career Writers

The Best Career Advice I Can Give: Read Your Contract

Contracts are not sexy.

I taught a course on publishing contracts at The Loft Literary Center recently–a long-held dream come true–and one of the first things I told my students is that contracts are not sexy.

It’s easy to glamorize the publishing industry and the life of a writer. It can seem like an endless swirl of cover reveals and starred reviews and book tours. Even the difficult parts can be romanticized: the struggle to put words on the page, to find an agent, to land a deal.

But it’s also important to remember that, for those who publish, writing is a career. I’m passionate about publishing contracts because I want to help empower writers to take control of their careers. And I believe the single most important thing a writer can do to take control of their career is read and understand their contract.

If you have a publishing contract have you ever read it? I mean really read it, not just skipped ahead to the section detailing your advance payments, or grinned like a maniac at the sight of your name on the signature line. I know a lot of authors haven’t. And I get it. Contracts are intimidating. They’re long, full of a lot of complicated language, and sometimes have entire clauses dedicated to things that will never happen (Force Majeure, anyone?).

I implore you to read yours.

If you have representation, your agent should be well-versed in contracts and will handle all the negotiations on your behalf. So in that case it isn’t particularly important for you to force yourself to read through your entire contract, right? Wrong.

Your agent isn’t a party to the contract; you are. You are required to meet all contractual obligations and you should know what they are and what happens if you don’t or can’t meet them. You should know how your current contract affects your future books. You should know how long the Publisher will own the rights to your work, and when and how you can get those rights back. You should know what warranties you’re making to the Publisher, and be sure they’re all true. Even if your agent negotiated the best possible deal for you, it’s still your responsibility to understand the terms.

Writers today have more resources at their fingers tips than ever before. If you have an agent, use that resource. After you’ve read your contract ask your agent to explain things that you don’t understand. If you don’t have an agent, ask your editor. Talk to other authors. Google. And do it before you sign.

I have heard so many horror stories from writers who did not properly read their contracts. Some signed on with scam Publishers and got their hearts broken and their books ruined. Some signed on with well-respected Publishers, and were unhappy to discover that their contract was more restrictive than they had assumed.

I know as a culture we’re conditioned to scroll to the bottom of User Terms and Conditions and click “agree” without so much as a backward glance; I’m guilty of it, too. But don’t be so cavalier with something as precious as your intellectual property. Don’t be so indifferent about the fate of your career. I’ve worked in publishing for a long time doing many different things, but the most valuable insider advice I can give you is to read your contract.

If you want to learn more about contracts I’ve written about what it’s like to be a contracts manager here.  We’ve also talked about contracts in various episodes of the Pubcrawl Podcast.
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