Contracts

To Comma or Not to Comma?

I came across this entry in Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. The book is a classic on punctuation. (Although based on British English usage, it is still a great book.)

On his deathbed in April 1991, Graham Green corrected and signed a typed document which restricts access to his papers at Georgetown University. Or does it? The document, before correction, stated: “I, Graham Greene, grant permission to Norman Sherry, my authorised biographer, excluding any other to quote from my copyright material published or unpublished.” Being a chap who had corrected proofs all his life, Greene automatically added a comma after “excluding any other” and died the next day without explaining what he meant by it. A great ambiguity was thereby created. Are all other researchers excluded from quoting the material? Or only other biographers?

Which do you think he meant to write? Comment below.

Expensive Fruit

There is a true story from the late 1800s where the U.S. tariff law included a comma that did not belong. It ended up costing the government nearly $40 million of lost revenue in today’s money (about $2 million back then). The original law created in 1870 said that “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” could be exempt from tariffs on imports.

In 1872 the law was revised and a comma added between fruit and plants created a series comma (“fruit, plants, tropical and semi-tropical”). It changed the meaning to make fruit of either kind to be tariff free. Took two years for the error to be corrected.

Oops.

Expensive Cable Costs

In 2006 there was a problem on page 7 of a 14-page agreement between two Canadian companies, Rogers Communications and Aliant Communications. The contract for five years allowed Rogers to string their cables across Aliant’s 91,000 utility poles at a set licensing price per utility pole. One year after the agreement was signed, Aliant canceled the deal and said the price was going up. Why? Because the contract allowed them to cancel before the end of the five-year term. That contract sentence in question reads:

[The agreement] “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

One way to read it: The contract is good for five years from the signing date. And auto-renews for five more years unless terminated with a year’s notice. But cannot be canceled during the first five years.

Another way to read it: The contract can be terminated at any time as long as a one-year notice is provided.

What the ruling by the communications regulator stated: “Based on the rules of punctuation,” the comma in question “allows for the termination of the [contract] at any time, without cause, upon one-year’s written notice,”

The tripling of the license fee cost Rogers an estimated $2 million extra.

Funny Examples

Let’s eat, Grandma.
or
Let’s eat Grandma.

Commas are important people!
or
Commas are important, people!

A woman without her man is nothing.
or
A woman, without her, man is nothing.

Man bacon makes anything good.
or
Man, bacon makes anything good.

How to cook crack and clean a crab.
Step one: use commas.

I like cooking dogs and kids.
or
I like cooking, dogs, and kids.

We may laugh at things like this, but commas matter.

[A much shorter version of this post ran in July 2012.]

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What if You Get a Book Deal on Your Own and Then Want an Agent?

One of our readers asked this via the green “Ask us a question” button.

What happens if you get a book contract before you have an agent? What if, by some miracle, an editor sees your work and wants to publish it? (1) would having a publisher interested in my work make an agent much more likely to represent me, and (2) would it be appropriate to try to find an agent at that point (when a publisher says it wants to publish you)? My fear is that querying an agent and receiving a response could take several months, but I’d need to accept a potential contract with a book publisher right away (I would think). Is it appropriate to ask the editor to speak with an agent on your behalf to speed the process?

This is a great topic but there are a few questions within the question. Let me try to break it down.

Many times have had authors approach us with contracts in hand and seeking representation (happened just last week). Of course this will get an agent’s attention immediately. But there are caveats:

a)      Who is the publisher? There is a big difference between a major company and your local independent publisher. Not all publishers are created equal (see the Preditors & Editors warnings).

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Learn the Lingo

The opening scene of the Meredith Wilson musical The Music Man begins on a train, as a bunch of salesmen debate the best sales techniques. One salesman, however, insists repeatedly, “You gotta know the territory.” That applies not only to selling “the noggins, and the piggins, and the firkins,” but …

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Where Is My Money?

Before I became a literary agent I had no idea how much energy this profession spent being a “collections agent.” Recently someone asked us the following questions (use the green button to the right to ask your question!):

What do you do, as an agent, when a publisher does not pay advances on royalties on time as per their legal contract?

What if a publisher is consistently late (months) saying they have cash flow problems and will pay when they can? Shouldn’t authors be able to count on getting paid the amount and on the date stated in their contract?

Is this common and is there anything that can be done or said regarding what seems to be a breach of contract?

This is an excellent series of questions. The full non-answer is “It depends.” Generally publishers are very good about making the payments according to contracted schedules. The above situation is much more dire and is a good reason to have an agent who know who to talk to inside the publishing house. There are ways to approach the situation that gets results, just remember, “Don’t Burn a Bridge.”

However, there are a few possible reasons that authors should keep in mind before getting impatient with a tardy paycheck.

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How Long Does It Take to Get Published?

How much time does it take to get published?

I came to the publishing business from the retail side of the equation. The biggest adjustment was understanding how long the process takes. In retail there is instantaneous gratification. But book publishing is a process business.

There is no question the timeline varies from person to person and project to project. In the world of major publishers the diversity can be quite extreme.

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Many Happy (?) Returns!

by Steve Laube

Every first-time author is confronted by the reality of “Reserves Against Returns” as part of publishing economics. It is usually a shock and elicits a phone call to their agent crying “What happened to my money?”

Did you realize that book publishing is the only “hard goods” industry where the product sold by the supplier to a vendor can be returned? This does not happen with electronics, clothing, shoes, handbags, cars, tires…you name it. If it is a durable good the vendor who buys it, owns it (which is why there are Outlet Malls – to sell the remaining inventory). Except for books. Somewhere along the line the publishers agreed to allow stores to return unsold inventory for credit. In one sense, publishers are selling their books on consignment. Bargain books are actually resold by the publisher (after getting returns or to reduce overprinted inventory) to a new specialty bargain bookseller or division of a chain (which buys the bargain books non-returnable).

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Good and Bad Advice on The Writing Life

After graduation from college, I got an entry level job at a radio station, programmed with call-in talk shows. I carried out the trash, conducted regular “Frosty-runs” to Wendy’s for the news director, painted the sales office, screened callers for the shows during off-hours, took transmitter readings, got coffee for …

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Morality and the Book Contract

Seven years ago I wrote a post about the morality clause in book contracts. It was met with a collective yawn. Today the landscape is a little different and I hope you will take the time to read this carefully. From Hollywood suddenly trying to find a moral compass to …

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Deadlines Are Friends, Not Nemeses

When is your next deadline? What? You don’t have one? Why not? Aren’t you a writer? I know some writers create fine prose or poetry without deadlines—I just don’t know how they do it. “But,” you may protest, “I don’t have a contract yet. How can I have a deadline?” …

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