Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Writers: Don’t Sign Your Short Story Rights Away With a Bad Contract!

You know that exciting feeling when you get that acceptance letter for the story you sent out months ago on a wing and a prayer? Excitement! You prepare your awards ceremony speech as you glance at the contract and sign it with a flourish before—wait a second! You mean you didn’t read it?

“Well Mason,” you say, “Those contracts are all pretty standard, don’t you know.”
I recently had a short story accepted by a publisher, but when I got the contract I quickly saw that it would not be in my best interests to sign it.

(As it is, I'm hoping the publisher will negotiate. It never hurts to ask, right?)
The publisher asks for exclusive publishing rights to my work for the full term of copyright.

Not content with just that, the publisher also asks for exclusive rights for the full term of copyright for every known conceivable media form. But I’d only submitted my work for a print anthology.

Like most short story writers I’d like to sell my work as a reprint to some other market one day. But in case I didn’t understand it the first time, there’s a line way down in the copyright infringement section (hidden on purpose?) that tells me that “THE AUTHOR WILL NOT SUBMIT WORK TO BE INCLUDED AND/OR PRINTED IN ANY OTHER PUBLICATION.”

I don't think they wrote an author-unfriendly contract on purpose. But contracts are naturally weighted in favor of the one with leverage.

“You want to get published, right? Sign here.”

But the contract is the final act of negotiation. It sets boundaries that protect the parties involved as they engage in business together. Just like the rest of the negotiation process, a contract can be modified until each party gets the rights, terms and conditions that best serve their interests.

And not all publishers are out to get you. Some have really fair contracts. Some contracts are simply overreaching. But there are some which are exploitative, yet are signed because writers don’t know any better!

Literary agents are great because a huge part of their job is to negotiate the best, most author-friendly contract in the universe. But agents don’t deal with the short fiction market, so us writers are left on our own.
So what’s a more author-friendly rights-granting clause?

What about granting exclusive first North American printing rights [world for stuff being published online] for a set term length? Exclusivity begins with the signing of this contract and lasts for 90 days [or 6 months, or 1 year] after the date of first publication.

Hey look, now you can resell the story as a reprint! And you’re not signing the exclusive copyright over to some little magazine forever! Wow!

But what about if the publisher wants to reprint the story in a “Best Of” compilation? Well, ideally you get paid a reprint fee. Or if you’re feeling generous you can grant them a non-exclusive right to reprint. It can be for however long you want, but I’d rather limit it to a term, say 5 years. Since it’s non-exclusive you still can sell it to other markets as a reprint and your rights aren’t bound up in the publisher who first printed the story.
Another thing to look out for are contract clauses that contradict or effect others in an author-unfriendly way—whether intentional or not.

For example, the contract I got with all the “exclusive rights forever” stuff has one little line buried way down in Article 8 that says (very casually): “ALL WORK SHALL REVERT BACK TO THE AUTHOR ONE YEAR AFTER PUBLICATION OF BOOK”

Well it seems that my fears were unfounded, they say the work shall revert after a year. But what about all the “exclusive” and “for the full term of the copyright” language contained in the Rights Granted section? Do we just throw that out? Can we safely forget about it because this one little line exists?

But take a careful look at the wording. The Work shall revert? Or the rights to the work? And why isn’t this clause part of the Rights Granted section? Not to mention that it contradicts the rights already specified.

Again, I don't think there is any malicious or sneaky intent on the publisher's part. It's just a clunky contract. Lawyers make millions on parties squabbling over such contradictory and weakly worded contracts.

So, WRITER BEWARE! Read your contracts. Know what kind of rights you are willing to grant, otherwise you’ll lose’em.

Here’s a helpful copyright and contract clause website for writers and content creators: also check out WRITER BEWARE

* Hey! Before you get all clicky on those links, why don’t you leave a comment?

1 comment:

  1. I can understand how tempting it would be to sign away all rights to something just to get it published. I'm glad you caught that in your contract and hope you can negotiate a better deal with them!