by Steve Laube
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 that business partner who will review their book contracts, that is a given. But what about their magazine article or online article contracts?
Earlier this month the Condé Nast organization, which includes Wired, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, surprised their freelance writers with a new agreement that has Condé Nast controlling the film and television rights on 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 has put writers in a bind because they do not want to lose the chance to write for these prestigious 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 man a take-it-or-leave it proposition. Either he give up his show or he sign 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 continue his job as a radio personality. It meant that if a book earned $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.
A pastor was sued by his church saying that he based his books on sermons he gave from the pulpit, wrote his books on “company time” and that the church should receive the income derived from his royalties.
I’ve also seen agreements where the content of the article becomes the property of the magazine or newspaper in perpetuity. That means the author no longer owns their own story. Think about the implications of that agreement. It means that the author can write their amazing story only one time.
Sometimes you have enough clout to negotiate the most onerous terms out of such agreements. Sometimes you do not. If you have a literary agent see if they would be willing to look over such agreements as part of the service they provide, but are not paid for. We do this for our clients whenever they ask.
But the bottom line is that it is wise to review every line of any agreement you sign and make sure you understand the implications of it.