Contracts are something that every writer needs to know about, even if you’re 99.999% indie the way I am. I freely admit right here and now that I don’t know much at all about publishing contracts. Do not look at this as legal advice. It’s not. It’s me talking, very vaguely, about how I got myself burned with a publishing contract.
And then never looked back at traditional publishing again.
(Though I may someday try to publish short stories in magazines and do anthologies and the like, I’m not currently. It’s an active choice on my part.)
So, contracts. What do you need to know about contracts as a writer?
Well, first and foremost, never, ever, EVER sign a contract that you don’t understand fully.
I do mean fully. All the clauses have to make sense to you. You have to know how they combine. You have to understand their implications. And you need to understand how the legal precedent where the contract is written affects how it can be enforced.
How does a writer learn all this stuff?
You don’t. At least not when you’re starting out.
Which brings up the second point: Get an Intellectual Properties lawyer who focuses on publishing contracts to review your contract before you ever sign it. It’s not that expensive (between $500 and $1000 I believe) when you consider just how terribly screwed you could be if the contract is bad. Or the publisher changes their staff. Or something happens along the way and you need to get out. Or, heaven forbid, the publisher goes bankrupt which happens a lot with start up publishers.
Why is this lecture coming now?
Ah. Well. Guess who got a publishing contract way back in the dark ages of 2012 and signed it without understanding it and without having a lawyer look it over?
This is a lessons learned the hard way post. I’m not going to name the publishing company or the people I worked with. They’re still publishing at this point in time and frankly I do wish them well. As long as they stay far away from me and my stories. I’ve learned a lot from the experience and one of the biggest lessons I learned is that I have a control streak a mile wide and I don’t do well when put into a traditional publishing context. So be it.
So what happened?
Well, in 2011 a friend online privately messaged me saying that she and some friends of hers were working on putting together a new publishing company that would focus on stories with a fandom feel, erotica focused. She suggested that I might want to participate because my stories (all fanfic at the time other than occasional original fic I shared just for the fun of it) fit what they were going for.
A little later I got a request to submit to the newly born company. I had a NaNo novel I’d written the previous November that fit more or less with what they wanted. It was a little rough around the edges but not too bad in my opinion so I sent it in.
And then was over the moon when I got accepted and received a contract offer.
True fact here: I have always wanted to be published author. I have an English, Creative Writing degree. I’ve worked on my writing since I was 14. I tried submitting stories to magazines and such and they were all rejected. So getting that email was one of the highlights of my life.
I sort of knew that I should have a lawyer check it out but finding an IP lawyer in my area seemed impossible. And horribly expensive. Frankly, $500-$1000 is still a huge chunk of money for me. So I asked a friend of mine at work to look at it. He’d been in law enforcement and knew contracts better than me. He thought it looked okay. I asked my husband who does contract assessment (for airplane retrofit) every day what he thought. He thought it looked okay.
So I signed.
I shouldn’t have. I should not have signed a contract that I did not understand. I should not have signed that particular contract because there were major issues that would have been immediately obvious had it been looked at by an IP lawyer. That were, in fact, immediately identified when I got an IP lawyer to look at it two years later.
Because yes, two years on, my book was not yet published. We hadn’t even finished line edits on it. The publisher and two editors I worked with had had many problems including computer failures, personal tragedies, and just general horrible life events. Communication failed for months at a time.
After two years of that I finally asked for my rights back. No response for five months when I got a… letter saying that I hadn’t understood the contract and that no, I needed to get the edits done even though the editor hadn’t gotten the final set of edits to me.
I asked a writer I’d been taking classes from and he directed me to a major IP lawyer in the publishing industry. His fee for reviewing a contract seemed very cheap after 2 and a half years of edits, waiting and frustration.
I should have spent the money initially. There were clauses in the contract that were illegal under their state’s law. There were all sorts of requirements for me, as the writer, to finish the story but none for the publishing company to actually publish my book. And there were no hard deadlines for when my rights reverted if the book wasn’t published.
I sent a letter back to the publisher stating that a court of law would likely find it invalid due to the illegal clauses and said that if the edits were given to me then yes, I’d finish the damned book just to get this over with.
No response for another six months.
So, I contacted the lawyer again and spent another $850 to have him draft letters informing the publisher that the contract was null and void due to the illegal clauses and, particularly, their failure to fulfill their responsibilities according to the contract.
Still no response. A second and then a third set of letters followed, records of which will be maintained for the foreseeable future.
I am, probably, free now. Probably. I’ve done everything that I can to get a response and none has been offered. I’d love to have true closure but avoiding going to court would be a good thing. That’s entirely too expensive.
I can hear people asking if the publisher was actually putting anything out. Yes, they were. Between 4-8 books every quarter, I believe. Other people’s books were published pretty well, apparently quite quickly. I mean, in my personal opinion, some of the covers were terrible but then this is part of why I indie publish. I have particular tastes on covers.
But yes, they were publishing books. Short stories. Collections. Just not me.
So, now that I’m more or less free, I can finally finish my novel and release it myself. All the while with my fingers crossed that I won’t get a DCMA notice saying that I don’t have the rights. It’s probably not going to come out until summer this year but it’s on my schedule at long last.
Final analysis: 1) Always get a lawyer to look at your contracts and never, ever sign them if you don’t understand them. 2) Sometimes the costs of assessing a contract ahead of time are cheap compared to the cost of what can happen.
And that’s my post for today. I have no intention of naming the publishing company or the people there that I worked with (though I’ll gladly point you at the lawyer I worked with because he’s seriously awesome and a really nice guy with a very good blog on publishing).
Off to work for me. I’ve got books to write, edit, and publish and so many books that need updated covers and blurbs. There’s always work to do and I love being an indie.
I hope that you enjoyed reading this. Please do ask questions if you have any. I like sharing my world building but writing these takes time away from writing stories that I could publish. Thus, it would be greatly appreciated if you would consider leaving a donation. All money received goes toward keeping me writing and posting these columns. Thank you very much!