The Biz–Contracts

The Biz–Contracts



Ask the Author: Aaron Gansky–Where did the idea for your first novel come from?

Aaron: Good question, Aaron. I’m so glad you asked. My first novel was never published, and never will be. But the idea came originally from a dream. It’s a little embarrassing to say so, but I had a dream as a teenager that I’d fallen in love with a ghost. The idea sounded like an interesting book, so I started writing. Of course, I couldn’t write romance, so I went to a murder mystery set-up, and the ghost has to help the protagonist not only to love again, but to stop the killer before he strikes again.

AL: I had been messing around with writing, uncertain of what road to take or if anything would come of it. I sold a few small articles and reviews and assumed that I’d go on to write nonfiction books (which I did but only after a dozen or so novels). I was a young pastor when I was called to Children’s Hospital to see a family whose child had fallen out of a moving car. I expected the worst but it turns out good. The car was barely moving and the youngster got off with some bruises and a few scrapes. Children’s Hospitals have always been tough on me. That was my first visit and I kept my gaze down. As I left, I felt a great sense of shame. I felt for those kids and thought, “If I could heal people with a touch, this would be my first stop.” Then I began to wonder what would happen to the hospital and the community. From that question came By My Hands, my first novel.

MJ: I’m currently writing my first novel. Prior to this, I’ve published short stories and poetry. I remember having a few ideas for a short story that I wanted to develop, but the more I sussed it out, the more I realized I had too much to keep it a short story. I don’t remember how the idea came to me. I just remember being conscious of certain moments when I knew it was bigger than I originally planned.  

THE BIZ: Contracts

Aaron: Pops, you’ve been at this “writing” thing for a long time. You’ve signed several contracts. Is this something people can do on their own without an agent, or do you recommend having someone help you navigate the contractual waters?

Al: First, we need to make a disclaimer. We are not lawyers. This is not legal advice.

It’s true, I’ve read a lot of contracts over the last two decades. It’s not for the squeamish. Contracts are written for courts, not people. I sold my first five books without an agent, which means I reviewed my own contracts. Even with an agent, however, the author needs to read and understand the contract. It’s you name on the contract so you are ultimately responsible for it.

Most writers will have two contracts to think about.

Aaron: Two contracts?

Al: Yes. The book contract is the first one we think about, but there is also the agent contract to think of.

When considering contracts there are a few ground-floor observations to consider:

  1. No two publisher contracts are the same. Some have 15-20 pages long; others less than five. Both need careful consideration.
  2. Contracts favor the one issuing the contract. They’re drawn up by lawyers who get paid to protect their client and to keep the company within the boundaries of the law. This means that the contract is designed to protect the publisher from you.

MJ: What do you mean, “protect the publisher from you?” What harm could I, a small, up-and-coming author do to a publishing firm?

Al: Unscrupulous writers have tried a number of things to take a publisher to the cleaners: delivering something different than promised, stealing someone else’s work, missing deadlines, failing to turn in the project after receiving the advance, etc.

  1. Contracts also layout what the writer can expect from the publisher.
  2. I have seen some very balanced contracts. I’ve seen some that need revision before I could sign.

Aaron: Okay, so what do you think are the most important aspects of a contract a writer should be aware of? What should they be looking for?

Al: Big questions but here are some things to keep in mind.

  1. First, don’t let your longing to be published cloud your vision. You must protect yourself just as the publisher must protect himself.
  2. Most publishing contracts are divided into sections. Look for:
    1. You name and info. Did they get the right name, spelling, address, and other contact information?
    2. Is the contract dated?
    3. Is there a line for your signature and the publishers? (You will have to sign first; they will countersign. This allows you to make changes.
    4. Your work.
      1. Is it for one book or multiple books?
      2. Is the book described the one you’ve been talking about?
      3. “Delivery” is a section that describes what you will submit. It includes a description of your work, its length (usually as a word count) and a delivery date.
    5. You
      1. Affirm and warrant that the work is yours and not someone else’s. That you are the sole author and no one else can make claims on the copyright.
      2. Moral turpitude. The term refers to dishonest and immoral behavior that may embarrass the publisher or hold the publisher up to legal scrutiny. Stealing someone else’s work and claiming for your own, or presenting “facts” in a book that you’ve made up.

Aaron: Everyone wants to know about the money. What should writers be looking for in terms of advances vs. royalties?

Al: That is the one section every writer reads first. The money section should contain:

  1. Total advance. “Advance” is shorthand for “advance against royalties.”
  2. Royalties refers to the money the writer receives on book sales. It’s usually a percentage of the cover price or of the net income. You will need to know which. The two are very different.

MJ: Is one better than the other?

  1. The contract will describe the royalty “points.”
  2. Frequency of royalty payments. Usually twice a year. This is a little confusing because the publisher may wait three to six months before sending the royalty statement. There will be no royalties until the advance earns out.
  3. Avoid anything that implies a return of advance money for any reason.

Aaron: What about other publishing rights? World publishing? Movie options? All of that?

Al: With book-length work, the publisher usually buys all rights to publish the book any where and in any manner including other languages, large print, audio, DVD, and “and other means yet to be invented.”

  1. Most agents do their best to strike some other rights such as those dealing with movies and plays. This can be a bit sticky. Be careful what you give away.
  2. There should be a paragraph describing when and how rights will be returned to the writer after the book goes out of print.

Aaron: If you don’t like something in the contract, how would you recommend talking with the publisher to get the change you want?

Al: Ideally, your agent will take care of that. Of course, you may have to tell your agent what makes you uncomfortable. Usually, the agent/writer just crosses out the unwanted passage. Of course, the publisher can insist on it, so a conversation needs to take place.

MJ: How common is it for newbie authors to have unrealistic expectations with contracts? How can we tell the difference between being uncomfortable and reaching for the moon? What are a few unrealistic expectations we should let go of?

Aaron: Do you normally see anything in the contract regarding editing and cover design? That is, are authors usually able to stipulate graphic designers or editors they’d like to work with?

Al: Cover and editing are rights retained by the publisher. In fact, the author doesn’t own the rights to cover art unless the author owns the art itself.

Only the bestselling authors get rights of refusal on covers. Most publishers will listen to a writer’s concerns but it will be the publisher who makes the final decision.

No, you don’t get to choose your editor. I have, when dealing with a publisher who uses an outside editor, suggested an editor, but the publisher was under no obligation to act on my suggestion.

Remember, in many ways, you’re giving your “baby” to  someone else to rear for awhile.

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