Yesterday I signed and mailed a contract for EAT CROW AND DIE to Five Star Publishing a subsidiary of Gale/Cengage Learning. Of course, before I signed, I read through the contract and began thinking about all of the different contracts I have signed over the years.
My first contract with Harlequin Books (signed in 1983) was 15 pages long, and by the time I finished reading through it I wondered if I’d promised them my first born. (Back then, there were days I would have been willing to give him to them.) Luckily I was working with an agent and she’d already gone through the contract and assured me what was being offered was standard (boilerplate).
My first contract with a magazine was one-page in length and the only difficult part was I had to state that the story was true. (The story was for one of the confession magazines.) Well, it was true, sort of. Maybe? Kindda?
By the time I sold my first Silhouette Romance (1990), Harlequin’s contracts were up to 18 pages. (By then Harlequin owned Silhouette.) Most of the material in the contract dealt with rights I was granting them, how the manuscript was to be submitted/edited/revised and so forth. Payments were also outlined: so much on the signing of the contract, so much more on the acceptance of the manuscript, and then accountings every six months after publication. Oh, and there was a promise of publication within so many months and a bit on how I could get my rights back, if/when I so desired.
The biggest difference between the earlier contracts and the later ones were (1) how the manuscript was to be delivered (By the early 90s a hard copy and a disc copy were requested) and (2) what rights were being requested. (By 1997 the list of rights granted to the publisher was over a page in length.) Only near the end of the 1990s did the contracts include electronic reproduction, but even then ebooks weren’t seriously considered.
June 2006 I signed a 3-page contract with Tekno Books to have my book published by Five Star Mysteries. The main reason the contract was that short was the only rights being requested were for the hardcover edition. I retained all other rights, but could not exercise them until one year after the hardcover edition was released. (Again, the publisher did not consider ebooks that important.)
Fast forward to the year 2014. Five Star now handles their own contracts and the one I signed was five pages in length and now includes assigning more rights (paperback, large print, ebooks, etc.) to Five Star. Harlequin/Silhouette is also paying more attention to ebook rights. It took the publishing houses a while, but they have caught on that money is to be made through electronic rights.
Whether you have a one-page contract or a 50-page contract (thank goodness I’ve never faced one that long), make sure you read through it and make note of anything that you’re not sure about.
Do you need an agent or contract lawyer? Personally I don’t think so as long as you’re dealing with well known publishers and standard contracts. The nicest aspect of having an agent is she/he can often negotiate some changes that you, the writer, might not feel you want to bring up, either because you’re afraid it will kill the deal or you don’t feel you have enough clout.
Don’t hesitate to ask the publisher about anything that’s not clear. It’s in both of your interests that you know exactly what rights you’re granting, for how long, and how you can get them back in the future. And if you’re really worried about a contract (It’s with Flyby Night Publishing), contact The Author’s Guild (http://www.authorsguild.org/). Even if you’re not a member, they will help.