When a writer is offered a contract—whether it’s for publication of a work or for representation by a literary agency—most writers are on their own. They feel flattered by being offered a contract. They’re eager and excited, or they’re humbled and grateful.
Because contract negotiations can be so emotionally charged, some writers find it difficult to negotiate well on their own behalf.
Here are the 5 most important things to keep in mind when you’re negotiating a writing contract.
5. Don’t assume you know everything or that the contract writer knows best. Some writers assume that the lawyer who wrote the contract they’re about to sign obviously knows best about the situation. But as a writer, you must be your own advocate.
Remember: Don’t let an If it were important, I would already know it attitude cloud your judgment. And don’t assume the contract writer is looking out for you. When in doubt, hire a literary lawyer who is an expert and will specifically look out for your best interests.
4. Don’t be overly trusting. It’s only natural that a writer who is flattered by being offered a contract of any sort might be inclined to trust the person offering the contract. After all, if said publisher or agency is smart enough to see that a given writer is worth a contract, doesn’t that make them implicitly better and more trustworthy than the companies that didn’t offer a contract?
Remember: It’s easy to say “I wouldn’t think that” if you aren’t in the thick of it. Just be aware that many writers make the mistake of being too trustworthy when going into an agreement. A healthy amount of care, even skepticism, is important to your writing career.
If you weren’t offered a written contract and were instead offered a handshake deal, remember that it’s okay to ask for something in writing.
3. Don’t rush and don’t allow yourself to be rushed. When you’re offered a contract, it’s tempting to fall in line quickly, agree to everything, and give in to the urge to hurry the process along. Add that with the pressure from a publisher or an agent to sign the contract now, now, now, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Remember: You can take your time. Did it take years to write your book? Months to write your short story? If so, what’s a few days more? Patience in all things related to writing helps.
2. Don’t let gratitude turn you into a doormat. Some writers are ignored for years. So when they finally are offered a crumb of attention from an agent or an editor, it can be easy to become overly agreeable. This can lead a writer to agree to terms that aren’t necessarily in his/her favor.
Remember: You can be grateful and glad without agreeing to everything. If you feel uncomfortable about an element of your contract, talk about it. You and your publisher or agent want the same thing: to come to an agreement that you BOTH can feel comfortable about for a long time. Give your agent or editor the benefit of the doubt, and don’t be embarrassed to bring up any terms that make you feel uncomfortable. If you receive an unprofessional or insensitive response, then you’ll know it’s time to head in a different direction.
1. You have the power in a negotiation.
If you’ve been offered a contract, it’s because you hold the rights to a commodity that’s desirable. That means the ball’s in your court—to an extent.
Agents, editors, and publishing professionals who have been in the business for years can be intimidating to a new writer. And intimidation, coupled with intense emotions, can lead a writer down a slippery path.
So take your time, step back, and remember: Nobody but you owns your writing. And nobody can replace you. You are in a unique position, and you deserve to negotiate a contract that works in your favor.
Photo by Michael Morgan.
QUESTION: Tell us about your experience with contracts and negotiations as a writer. What have you learned?
Be wary of ‘literary lawyers’ who work as anything other than Intellectual Property attorneys or who double as agents themselves, and be sure there is no conflict of interest in the work they are doing or services they offer. If you want unbiased professional advice on your contract, the Author’s Guild has a legal service that will evaluate your contract for free for members. A ‘literary lawyer’ charges anywhere from $400-$600 or more to read your contract, often more than an agent will collect in commission on smaller sales. Happy Sales!
When a publisher accepts your work for publication, it is not necessarily a promise to publish your work.
They may be buying the rights to the book to make sure it never gets published!
Maybe…but why would someone want to keep a book of poetry from being published??
Thanks for the thought, Nckamdar! Never thought of it that way.
Wow! That was deep. I will certainly pay more attention to my negotiating power then. Besides, it’s my book i want to publish. I should know best what to want than for it to be dictated to me. Thanks for the tips.
The best way to be your own best advocate is to read any contract you are getting ready to sign completely. You’re writers, right? So you can read. Read the contract and ask about what you do not understand. If you hire an intellectual property lawyer, tell them what you want, “I want to keep my digital rights,” for instance. And what you don’t want, “I don’t want to grant away my subsidiary rights.”
The same is true for digital click to accept contracts like Amazon’s KDP contract. Read it, understand it. You are not just a writer, you are in business. You have a responsibility to yourself.
This is an interesting and thought provoking post.
I am in the process of writing my first novel and can already see publication as being an even greater challenge.
Can anyone suggest a useful “contract template” which is fair for both the author and publisher?
I agree, don’t rush to sign a contract. But if you wait too long, the pub might move on to someone else. (I’ve gained a couple of deals that way.) They need to finalize their Spring catalog, and they can’t wait around for someone who won’t make a decision.