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.