Your First Book Contract

5:44 PM Posted by Lori Calabrese

Five Things To Watch For.

First, off, let me say this: I'm no lawyer.

Second: Your best line of defense in signing a book contract is to get an agent or a lawyer to look over it before you sign it. If you go the lawyer route, make sure you find one who specialized in literary contracts. (Try The Authors Guild for help).

Contracts are tricky things, and it's in the publishers interest to get the most out of their authors. Obviously, they'll slant the contract in their favor, so it's up to you to make sure your concerns are covered. That said, below are five seemingly minor points that you might want to take some time to consider. (The wording used in the examples below comes from typical sample contracts available on-line (google 'sample book contract') and in publishing books, such as The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published.)

1) Conflicting Publication/Non-compete clause.
The sample contracts I reviewed state something like this:
"The Author agrees that until termination of this agreement, s/he will not, without the written permission of the Publisher, publish or permit to be published any book that is directly competitive with the work."
So...the million dollar question here is, what exactly does 'directly competitive with the work' mean? I asked about this on a message forum, and was happy to have the esteemed Harold Underdown respond with the following:
"...in practice, "directly competitive" should mean what it says. A picture book is NOT directly competitive with a novel of any kind, and actually I tend to feel that a middle-grade fantasy should not be considered directly competitive with a realistic middle-grade novel."Directly competitive" should also take time of publication into account. Usually, clauses like this are meant to prevent two books of the same type by the same author from coming out in the same season. And that's pretty reasonable, actually, and not something most people would mind. This clause should not be set up in such a way as to prevent you from publishing a middle-grade fantasy with another publisher three years after a middle-grade fantasy with this publisher...."
Does your publisher agree with Harold? Best clarify that before you sign. Some publisher's may feel that any middle-grade fiction would be directly competitive. Other's may define it more narrowly, ie, another middle-grade vampire book.

2) Which brings up another point: Length of contract and territory. As pointed out above, your contract will run for a specific length of time. It will also cover a specific geographic area. Most boiler plate contracts list "throughout the world" or "all countries of the world". This is normal, though it does not include translation rights. The rights to your book in various languages are seperately granted for each language, and are usually negotiated seperately, at a later date. Length of contract can sometimes be a stumbling block. Some contracts define 'length' as "the term of the copyright" which is 95 years. If your non-compete clause runs the term of the copyright, it could be a very long time indeed before you can sell a vampire story to another press.

3) Promotion. Not all contracts involve promotion. Many I looked at didn't even mention it. However, if you're publishing with a smaller press (who might have a limited marketing budget) you may be required to do a fair amount of promotion on your own. If so, there will be a section in your contract addressing that. This isn't a bad thing. Obviously, you want your book to do well and so does your publisher, so you're both on the same side. Just make sure the wording in your contract is very clear and specific about what you'll be expected to do. Create and update a book website, throw a launch party and create a marketing plan are typical requests. Beware the vaguely worded clauses, though, such as "participate in publicity events as organized by the Publisher." Depending on where these events are, what they entail and how much time they take, you may be biting off more than you expect. If the publicity event is a huge trade show in New York, and you're required to get there on your own and pay for your stay, etc, you might spend more on marketing than you make from your book. Clarify this, or ask that the promotion events be mutually agreed upon, before signing.

4) Book signings. This is another form of promotion that may be governed by your contract. If so, make sure the requirements are very specific, ie. five book signings in the first twelve months of publication. Some contracts will require a certain number of books to be sold at each signing for it to 'count'. If your contract lists this as a condition, make sure the number is reasonable. For a new author with little fan base, twenty books sold would be a very successful signing. If your contract specifies a higher number, consider renegotiating with your publisher before you sign.

5) Termination. Verify in your contract under what conditions and in what time frame either you or the publisher is able to terminate the agreement. Some contracts specify that either may terminate the contract at any time for certain reasons. Others may say the publisher can terminate at any time for any reason, but you may be limited to certain conditions/time frame. In addition, all contracts are governed by the laws of a particular state, which may affect the way certain clauses are interpretted and enforced. This is where a lawyer or agent really earns their bread and butter.

In the end, a book contract is an exciting thing -- definitely cause for celebration. Having a professional look it over will protect you down the road and help you sleep easier. Cheers!
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