When Not to Sign

Most writers would like to be published. Even some of those who do not readily aspire to, and write mostly for amusement or self-gratification, would likely consider it should they have the opportunity. For writers who range from those who would like to be published or are desperate to see their name in print there are still times when it’s better to shake one’s head and walk away. After all, there are opportunities for self-publication these days and for some that option will be better than signing dubious contracts or supporting vanity press.

To clarify, vanity press is NOT self-publishing. A vanity press praises the writer, tells them their book will be a best seller and for X amount of money they can make that dream come true. These ‘services’ minimise their costs, often use Print on Demand technology (although bona fide markets use POD too), and then leave all the marketing to the author, whilst they take a percentage of the profits. True, many mainstream publishers also leave all or most of the marketing to the author these days (which is why many authors at least consider self-publishing), but vanity definitely will. Either they’ve already taken a fee and/or they simply sit back to rake in profits from the hard work put in by the author. What they count on is having many hopeful writers on board who will all have at least a few family members and friends who will want copies of the ‘published’ book. The author may sell only what they can flog to acquaintances, but if the vanity press has many people doing this those many small payments all add up to a large profit, while the writer may receive almost nothing and not even recoup costs. In short, they are crooks out to scam you. Please avoid.

Even if the writer can manage the marketing to become a success, then he or she would have done better to self-publish and keep a much larger percentage. There are self-publishing services that are not vanity, although they do charge, but they give a genuine service and distribution. They are not to be confused with vanity publishing although the difference can be difficult to spot. Go with a recognised firm and do your research. Currently, well-known companies are those like Amazon and Lulu to name two. Be aware that there will be much more work required in going it alone, although even those with a publishing house usually need to do a great deal of marketing. If the author will undertake this side of things completely alone, then they can become their own business.

Remember: Money always goes TO the author, not the other way around. The only time this isn’t the case is if one goes the self-publishing route and purchases publishing/distribution services.

Avoid anyone asking for lifetime rights/life of the copyright. There are exceptions and some have no problem with it, but for me to even consider this it would have to be a HUGE deal with a mainstream publisher. In the UK/US at present copyright lasts the life of the writer plus 70 years, during which profits from the writer’s work would go to any remaining family, charity, or whatever the author had stipulated in their will (such as with Peter Pan and Great Ormond Street). If no such stipulation exists for what happens at the end of copyright that work then becomes ‘public domain’. If an author signs ‘life of copyright’ over to a publisher, he or she is essentially giving the work away, and depending on the rest of the wording one might not get out of this even if the publisher folds or removes the work from the market. It’s what many refer to as a ‘rights grab’ and IMHO is criminal. I would never become involved with a publisher (exceptional circumstances are this can be a money-grab for ‘throwaway’ work) who put this in their contracts even if they claimed it was negotiable because I do not feel I should condone poor practices.

World rights may or may not be beneficial depending on the terms. The same goes for Foreign Rights. I would not sign a contract that allowed a publisher to seek publication for my works in foreign markets without my final refusal. I once came up against such an offer, but the contract would have given the publisher full leeway to negotiate the terms on my behalf with no final agreement from me, and I could not allow that. Ideally, that is something an agent should do for the writer, and even then the writer needs to maintain control.

First Refusal Clauses can be a pain but are standard—these usually list the right of ‘first refusal’ on works in a series, featuring same characters or worlds previously brought out by the publisher. Few publishers list the right of first refusal on ALL future works, and again, if they do, I recommend avoiding. If the writer no longer wished to work with a publisher, but had signed this condition, then he or she could not send ‘any’ work elsewhere, stuck signed into one publisher because of this clause.

There are likely many pitfalls, but I’ve listed only a few here as an example of what to look for and are best avoided. If in doubt, research, and do not sign until happy. Any publisher wanting the writer to sign without some ‘grace’ to read the contract and/or consult a legal source is questionable. That doesn’t mean you can think about it for months, but days or weeks is not unreasonable, particularly if the justification is one of seeking legal advice.

And, although I’ve never seen this, never sign a contract where the publisher states the terms may be updated. Future contracts for newer works may change but terms of existing contracts should not. Banks among other ‘services’ catch customers with this clause—it wouldn’t surprise me that someone in the publishing industry will have thought of this.

Also, be aware that many publishers will ask for all kinds of rights on a work including print, digital, audio, film, and merchandise. Things to consider are how successful the work may or may not be, and what terms of payment the publisher is offering on these other stipulations. Make sure there is at least a negotiated payment for all forms. Imagine what would have happened if J.K. had signed away the merchandising rights to a certain wizard and the fortune she would have lost. Although it’s unlikely, such successes happen and could be disastrous.

Another warning, although I’ve only come across one case of this: avoid publishers who insist they own all ‘edits’. A publisher contracts a work, assigns an editor, publishes said work for the agreed number of years, and when it comes out of contract, the story publishing ‘rights’ revert to the author (the author ALWAYS retains copyright). There should be no exception. For a publisher to state they own the edits is as good as saying the writer never owns the finished product. I don’t see how a publisher can justify this when the writer has as much input in the editing process as the editor and certainly should be the one adding any sentences or passages. The ownership of ‘edits’ means that the writer would own no changes to the story after it entered the editing process even if those suggestions came from the author. This is petty at best, possibly criminal. Do not sign.

For all new and even existing writers, please check what you are doing before subbing work or entering competitions. I again stress do NOT send your work to anyone requesting ALL RIGHTS or WORLD RIGHTS, and do not sign any contracts that include a non-specified time limit for the publisher to publish; without a timeframe, the publisher could hold onto the work and never publish. In all these cases, you are essentially handing away the rights to your work indefinitely.

Last, this post on the EREC blog is from 2011 but the advice remains good today, where they detailed a perfect example of a contest taking advantage of hopeful writers, and charged them a whopping amount for the privilege of relieving authors of the right to their work. Read HERE.

Always think before signing. Always be aware of what rights you are giving away. Sleep on the decision overnight. Seek advice where necessary; there are plenty of authors out there who will help if you’ve no other resource.

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