Mar 21, 2011

Know Your Rights

I'm no expert at publishing contracts, but I do understand copyright, rights and entertainment contracts. I once handled television programming contracts for a network.

Over and over, I hear these nightmares authors are living. If you do not have an agent helping you, it is imperative you understand what you are signing. Find someone to explain the terms to you if you do not understand them.

We had a standard contract. It was rarely signed 'as is'. It was a starting point. Contracts are negotiable. If it is not negotiable and the terms are unfavorable to you, walk away. Never be so desperate as to give your work away. You can give it away if you want to, but make sure the 'gift' has an expiration date and the rights are limited to the purpose. For instance, if it's an American publisher, you don't want to be signing away world rights without due compensation. If it's a print publisher, you don't want to be signing away audio and epublishing rights.

The most important things to look out for - when does the contract end and how. This should be specific and it would be prudent to put in multiple 'out' clauses. Termination upon notice if the publisher is nonresponsive. An end date when ALL rights revert back to the writer. Specifically spell out what rights the publisher is purchasing and specifically state all rights not mentioned are retained by the author.

Do not let someone keep your work forever and publish it forever without paying you. There should be a clause speaking to subsequent publishings and payment plus accredidation -- that they can not publish your work without giving you the byline. That your title and name are inseparable.

Talk about your rights to use excerpts, etc ... for promotional purposes. What can you do to help promote sales, what can't you do.

But most important is to have multiple ways to get your rights back and end a bad relationship. You do not want to be stuck. You do not want your work published into infinity without getting paid for it or acknowledged for it. You do not want to give away subsidiary rights. Some of those are extremely lucrative. Ie, film rights.

And again, if you don't understand it, ask somebody. The other party to the contract can not lie to you about the terms and negotiate a valid contract. So, you can ask the publisher to explain its terms. I used to explain our terms to producers and was always very honest about what parts of the contract protected them and what the convoluted legal speak meant. But I realize not everyone is ethical. So, it would not be unwise to go visit a lawyer and have him / her explain the terms to you. Make sure they understand rights / copyrights. It's not an easy field to understand unless you have experience in it and know what can be bought and sold and what can't.

Most of my company did not understand our contracts and what the terms meant. There were several times I had to stop them from breaking contract terms. But again, you probably won't have someone as conscientious as I was looking out for you. You have to look out for you and police what your publisher does and doesn't do. They are most likely not going to notify you if they violate the terms of your contract.

Get everything in writing. EVERYTHING. Even ask them to send 'written' explanations of terms. It may seem unimportant to you in the moment, but later on you might be mighty glad to have that 'proof'. For a contract to be valid [in the US], it must be entered into in good faith. One party lying to the other is not good faith. You being ignorant does not violate good faith. The contract will stand. Require written notice every time they publish or use your work, or a periodic statement of sales, publication, promotional use, etc ...

How can they use your work? Can they hack it to bits and publish it in a shortened form? Do you want to get paid for that? Can they use your work in promotion? How? Think about these things.

There are many sharks out there ready to pounce on the desperation of aspiring writers. Don't be a victim. You research your book, research a potential publisher [especially if you've never heard of them]. Science Fiction Writers of America keeps a list of the unscrupulous. Ask to speak to other clients, especially for a novel. Be skeptical. Be suspicious. Write terms of the contract with the worse case scenario in mind.

Research copyright and rights. Know the possibilities of what and how your work can be sold and used. Know your rights.

I hope this cautionary post will keep you from floundering into a nightmare. Protect yourself.

Have any words of wisdom to add on this topic?