Today’s headline sounds like a blinding flash of the obvious, but you’d be surprised how many writers are not careful about the agreements they sign. Those with a literary agent have a business partner who will review their book contracts; that is a given. But that does not remove the writer’s responsibility. And what about their magazine or online article contracts?
Years ago, the Condé Nast media organization, which includes magazines like Vogue, Wired, Glamour, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, surprised their freelance writers with an agreement that has Condé Nast controlling the film and television rights to articles published by their magazines, with a cap on the revenue paid to the writer. Why? Because past articles turned into big box office hits like Argo, Eat Pray Love, and Brokeback Mountain.
This contractual assertion placed the writers in a bind because they did not want to lose the chance to write for these well-known magazines.
This is not something new, per se. A few years ago, a radio personality and I were in conversation about his book project. But then his flagship station was bought out, and the new owner gave the radio host a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Either he gave up his show or he signed a new agreement that gave the owner 25% of all revenue from books derived from ideas he discussed on his show. He felt he had to sign the agreement to keep his job as a radio personality. But it meant that if a book earned him $100, he would have to pay $25 to the station and $15 to his literary agent.
Another author discovered that 100% of any income they derived from their books had to be first paid to the ministry for which they worked. The money would pass into their account, but the organization had to receive it first. The issue was the ministry attached an administrative fee for passing it through.
A pastor was sued by his church for writing books that were based on sermons he gave from the pulpit. The church claimed he wrote his books on “company time” and, therefore, the church should receive the income derived from his royalties. The problem was a lack of an agreement in the pastor’s employment documents that addressed that situation.
Sometimes you have enough clout to negotiate the most onerous terms out of such agreements. Sometimes you do not. Having an agent or a lawyer may help, but ultimately it is your responsibility because it is your signature on the contract.
The bottom line is that it is wise to review every line of any agreement you sign and make sure you understand the implications. Claiming later that you did not understand won’t solve a situation.
Read every contract? That’s a given. I never sign or agree to a contract before my attorney reviews it. (And isn’t that what an agent will do with my book contract?) It’s better to pay up front than to wish in hindsight that you’d have been more careful. I am currently involved in a real estate situation where my attorney reviewed and modified the contract before I signed it. When the seller breached the contract, I was protected (and still am as the process leading to closing is protracted). In this worst case scenario, I am being saved from the future consequences of all the bad decisions the seller and his predecessors made. And someday, when I sell the real estate, there will be no latent issues for someone else to contend with. So, if I cannot read and understand all the implications of a contract, I hire a professional and anyone who is preparing to execute a contract should do the same.
Is this the US of A you are talking about? I am appalled at the changes in the companies and their greediness that has come about over these many years. It appears to be a company run nation with no heart and soul. Sad. Yes, every contract should be read carefully and looked over by the appropriate attorney/professional even without the changes in the times. . . one can’t afford not to. Thank you for your great advice always. Blessings, Janet
That’s just the truth–especially in these changing times!
Great reminder. The importance of having an agent in your corner 🙂
Reading the contract is only half the problem. The other half is the ability to put on our business hat when dealing with a publisher. It’s hard to play “see who blinks first” when a new writer is finally getting a contract place in front of him. I’m in B2B sales so I know it’s hard to channel your inner businessman when you really need the sale. You have to remember that the customer has a need as well and you are the best person to fill that need. Otherwise there would be no contract at all.
Yes. This. Which is why I think Mary DeMuth’s piece from awhile back (“Publishing Doesn’t Validate You” or along those lines) is pure gold. It’s a lifesaver, and possibly a career-saver, to be able to remember that there’s more to life than signing today’s deal. Being the person for the job, and finding the job that fits, is what matters.
Also, I might be an outlier here, but I think of the agent as the deal negotiator, and the IP lawyer as the contract interpreter and legal advisor to the author. Those two and the accountant are the core business team the author relies on.
At the knee of my lawyer father, I learned to read every word of everything I sign. I’ll admit, though, that I haven’t always read every agreement to publish a magazine article. Thanks for the reminder, Steve, especially in this era of demands that absolutely shock me.
Wow, those are some shocking demands. It sounds like writers/personalities sometimes have to choose either/or with no third option. I was raised to read every word of something before i sign it. It sounds like a necessary practice if/when I get to the place of signing a contract. I definitely would want my agent (when I’m represented by one) to look it over with me and help me have a clear understanding of the implications of the contract.
Thanks for that heads up, Steve.
Thank you. Another reason writers need good agents! All those fine prints.
Contracts are your paper fetters,
everybody wants their cut.
What’s written in the littlest letters
is there to bite you in the butt.
Lawyers spread their web of ink
in the deepest dark of night,
and sometimes it makes you think
that maybe Shakespeare, he was right.
It’s Jurassic times out there,
T. Rex. snarling in the mist,
and you cannot cry ‘Unfair!’
’cause fairness, bubba, don’t exist
and decency’s put in the shade
when there’s money to be made.
Sharon K Connell
Thank you for this sound advice, Steve. I’ve posted it in my Facebook group forum for the writers.
Even though I’m an independent author, I truly appreciate all the help you give. My author-friends are dear to me, whether they are traditional or indies, and I like to keep them well-informed. Your knowledge is greatly appreciated by us all.
Yes, indeed. I represented myself for my first three books (Steve, that was before I met you) and thought I had read my contracts carefully. Then, during an industry book signing, a bookstore own gushed, “You are the bestselling adventure writer in South Africa.”
I smiled, signed her book, and then turned to my publicist and asked, “Aren’t my rights exclusive to North America?”
“They are,” she agreed. “But, as long as we print the books here, we can sell them anywhere.”
Thanks for this article, Steve.
Writers should READ their contract. This sounds funny–a writer needing encouragement to READ crucial information.
The medical reports regarding cancer and blood clots are boring, difficult, and not fun to read, but I do it. I’d became my own general contractor, after being diagnosed with life-threatening illness.
If I there’s something I don’t understand, medically, I ask the doctors on my trusted medical team–including oncologist, holistic doctor, pulminologist, hematologist, and urologist. I challenge their answers, if necessary. If I’d have done everything each suggested, during my thirteen year journey, I’d be long gone.
Authors need to be their own GC’s, which isn’t a pleasant task.
A boring, hard to understand contract should be read and digested, like medical correspondence. It’s yucky, but we must suck it uppie, and protect ourselves.
This is the conundrum I find myself in right now. I have the contract but I don’t have the legal expertise or agent representation to verify I’m not signing my life away. :-/
If anyone has a suggestion for a good entertainment lawyer to help me cover my basis, I will definitely reach out to them. Thanks!
For the first time I have submitted 4 poems to The New Yorker. I have a book’s worth.
I am retired. As I read on the life of a poet consists of giving readings. This fits me
Because I give art showings for my wife. I have sold 3000 pieces and her work has been
On tv and the movies. Anyway I want to promote what I have written. My prior
Career consisted of me being an institutional stockbroker and an owner and developer
Of properties. I just started looking at what I have written and think it will be well received
But I would like an agent so I don’t waste a lot of time. Even someone that will help with
Promotion. Phone: 720-401-7769. Peter Paulos