Attorneys are expensive. Few of us starving writers can afford to hire one, but when faced with a publishing contract, can you afford NOT to hire an attorney?
Before I get into the meat of this post, I want to make a few things very clear:
- I am not qualified to give legal advice. (That’s why I’m telling you to hire an attorney.)
- There will be no legal advice offered in the post. (Except for the repeated plea for you to hire an attorney.)
- I am not naming names (publishers, agents, authors) nor will I be shaming authors who have fallen for a publishing scam.
- Please don’t name names in the comment section. The publisher or agent you declared to be the Great Satan, might be the next reader’s BFF. Let’s all be friends.
The prospect of publishing your first novel can be both exhilarating and overwhelming. By the time your manuscript has been polished to perfection, you generally have a good idea where you’re headed in regards to your publishing options. Let review those options briefly:
- Query agents in hopes one will accept you and find you a kick-ass contract with a Big Publisher
- Directly submit your manuscript to small, independent publishers
- Sign with a Vanity publisher who will publish your manuscript, generally at a cost to you
I’m not here to tell you which option is best for you, because I don’t know you or your personal situation. Even then, I wouldn’t venture to tell anyone else what to do with their intellectual property. I am not an expert. What I can recommend is that you hire an experienced attorney to look over any legal documents you might sign–before you sign them.
When you finally (after months of querying and rejection, in many cases) receive a contract from an agent or publisher, it’s only natural to want to sign your name right away, but DON’T! A reputable agent or publisher will understand if you need to take a few days to seek legal counsel. I know you’re smart. I know you read all John Grisham’s novels and you might think you know how to interpret a simple ten page contract. I know your cousin Jimmy went to law school for a year before he got kicked out, and he told you he already learned everything he needed to know. Unless you or Uncle Jimmy are licensed attorneys, you aren’t qualified to review that contract. Sorry, but you aren’t.
There are all sorts of scary things in a publishing contract–things you might not find in a real estate contract or any of the other contracts you’ve encountered. Some of these strange clauses might seem reasonable when you’re still basking in the warm glow of someone else telling you your book is good enough to publish, but you might see these clauses in a new light once you’ve worked with the publisher for a while and things aren’t going the way you expected. Is there a first rights clause? Is there a time limit on it, or did you just sign over rights to all your future work until the end of time? Is there a reversion clause? What happens if there are major errors in the final manuscript and the publisher refuses to fix them? Or, if the publishing company is composed of a married couple who decide to divorce? There are so many, many things I haven’t listed here, or haven’t even thought of, and you need an experienced, licensed attorney to make sure you are protected.
Not all agents and publishers are reputable. Not all agents and publishers are competent. While seeking the advice of a licensed attorney might put your mind to ease that the contract is in order, the attorney might not know whether or not the agent or publisher is experienced, or well-respected in the industry. It’s up to you to do a bit more research to make sure that choosing to sign with the agent or publisher is a good decision, or a good match for you and your book.
There are some excellent writer’s resources out there that can help you vet publishers and agents. Some of these sites even have forums where authors (both published and unpublished) discuss common publishing contracts and clauses to watch out for. While these sites are great places to visit in order to get an initial feel for a publisher or agent, I do have a few cautions:
- P&E lists recommendations (good or bad) for various publishers and agents, but many small publishers are not listed at all because they’re too new. Don’t assume that ‘no news is good news.’
- Absolute Write is a wonderful site, but be careful not to substitute the advice of an author for the advice of a licensed attorney. If things go badly, the author on AW can’t help you in court.
- Writers Beware breaks down the differences between small publishers and vanity publishers, but I’m not sure how often they update their Thumbs Down lists. Again, don’t assume that ‘no news is good news.’ Just because your prospective publisher or agent isn’t listed on their site doesn’t mean you should sign a contract with reckless abandon.
So, how can you tell if the agent or publisher you’re considering is a match made in heaven? Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes things don’t work out. It happens. But, a carefully constructed, well researched contract which has been tweaked and approved by a licensed, experienced attorney could be the difference between you spending a couple of tough years with a lazy agent, or you spending eternity locked into a contract with an incompetent publisher.
What can you afford?