Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Scary Stories to Tell Authors in the Dark

A convicted madman is on the loose. Police say he's carrying a pen, and where his right hand should be is . . . A CONTRACT!

I know, half of you have stopped reading already so that you can put your head between your knees, take deep breaths, and try to go to your happy place.

Many, many authors dislike contract negotiations. And I mean that they'd rather be in an exam room naked, hearing, "You need a shot, but we've run out of everything except horse needles."

But it's ok. That's not a lawyer scratching at your window, and there isn't an indecipherable clause hiding under your bed.

Envision, instead, that your editor (who is a nice person: just about everyone in children's books is) does not see a contract as a chance for either side to take advantage of the other. It is an agreement--and that means that just like later when you and your editor talk over suggested changes to your manuscript, she doesn't want to win. She wants to agree.

She'll talk to you about the things she thinks are important, and you'll talk to her about the things you think are important. She may ask you to clarify your concerns, and you should have no fear about asking her to explain what parts of the contract are about. Negotiation, to your editor, is natural and friendly (yes, really!). She wants the contract you sign to be one that everyone thinks is fair.

Now, in the wake of the furor around S&S's new boilerplate, it should be pointed out that editors cannot openly disagree with their company's contracts policy, so you should absolutely have read something like Negotiating a Book Contract by Mark Levine. Your editor, who, again, wants you to feel satisfied and fairly treated, will be very happy to discuss changing the company's boilerplate if you suggest it.

Sometimes the changes that authors suggest are not ones that publishers feel are fair to the publishing house, and in those cases we will explain why and hope that you'll understand. If you don't agree, keep talking to us--tell us just what worries you--and we'll really do our best to accommodate your concerns.

There are always several places where compromise is possible. And in order to achieve that compromise, there is no need for combativeness, paranoia, or hyperventilation. We aren't car salesmen or hucksters. Quite the contrary--in a community as small and talkative as children's books, it is in fact bad, bad business sense for publishers to have staff who are going to treat authors as marks rather than as valued colleagues.

This is the first step in navigating contract negotiations: realizing that your editor wants to talk this through with you, and while she'll side with her publisher whenever she has to, she'll side with you whenever she can. Let's face it, she likes you better.


angelarene said...

This is good info to know!Thanks! Since I have not been exposed to the momentous moment of signing a contract,how long does a writer get to consider the contract before they sign? Just an estimate mind you.

Anonymous said...

Hey EA,

Can you explain a bit about option clauses? What if your subsequent works aren't necessarily a great match for that particular publisher? Should you send 'em on in anyway? Or does the clause really only apply to the second book? It seems like it might be annoying to send the editor who's editing your picture book a three-volume YA fantasy when she doesn't do much YA fantasy.


Anonymous said...

Well...maybe. I recently submitted to a publisher whose boilerplate contract is NOT author-friendly (an agent friend had already warned me about this). They were excited about my manuscript and made me an offer. I sent back a friendly letter suggesting changes to the contract, and even quoted various books as to why some specific clauses were not standard in the industry. I ended with a suggestion that the editor make me a counter offer if she didn't agree. I never heard back--not even to say "no thanks" or to return the manuscript.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Wow. Which publisher?

CJ Omololu said...

The problem with writers negotiating contracts is that we usually don't know enough to know what we don't know. We'd gladly bring up our concerns if only we could figure out what they were.

Anonymous said...

I'm working on ED2 with a major company and my contract is still not in the mail. Since it's the sequel to a great selling book, I'm not too concerned... or am I? What if.... they change their mind after all the editing!

Editorial Anonymous said...


You mean you still feel unsure about what you're signing after having read a book on book contracts?

How come, do you think?

Editorial Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CJ Omololu said...

Hi EA,
I answered this on my blog (thanks for the visit), so here's the condensed version. I did read up on contracts and found the Verla Kay and SCBWI board really helpful with my questions. Because it was a PB and pretty standard, I had no problem signing once I'd clarified a percentage question. There is just so much more to deal with when you're selling a novel that it becomes even more daunting, which is why I love my agent. It's not that we don't trust or like our editors - I have a great relationship with mine - but we see the company behind you and it gets intimidating. Ultimately, you work for the publisher and that is how this business works. There is always that little nagging twitch in the back of our minds wondering if there is something we missed or should have included. While we have wonderfully creative minds, negotiating fine print isn't always up our alley.

Natalie said...

This is such an interesting discussion, and one that is truly daunting to most authors. CynJay and I share the same wonderful agent, and having her in our corner is a huge relief.

For me, the big mystery is the "how-hard-should-I-fight?" factor for each clause. Most of us know about boilerplates, and know they aren't in the best interest of the author. We've also heard about some of the clauses agents will fight to retain/delete for their authors, thanks to agents like Kristen Nelson, Rachel Vater and the late Miss Snark who have blogged about these issues.

So let's say an agentless writer reads over her contract and asks for 4 changes. The publisher then comes back and agrees to one, but not the other three. How does the author know if she should sign, or go back and try to still negotiate the other three (or at least one or two of the three)? What would be a potential deal-breaker?

I know publishers turn down some of the things agents ask for, too, but agents know when to say, "We didn't get everything we asked for, but it's still a good deal." Without an agent, how is an author to know when she should send back the contract signed, or send it back, period?

Editorial Anonymous said...

These are fantastic questions and very legitimate concerns. I'm not sure there's a way for me to address this on my blog, but I'd like to see it addressed. Anyone have any ideas? I'm going to think on it.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add that it's not necessarily a black-and-white choice between getting an agent or negotiating on your own. I found working with a contracts attorney specializing in book publishing to be hugely helpful. She not only negotiated the contract but has been available to answer questions after the fact. I bet SCBWI could recommend names if you wanted to take this route.

Editorial Anonymous said...

I wonder if SCBWI has considered having a contracts attorney available to their members who is paid (in whole or part) out of member dues?

Anonymous said...

I don't think the SCBWI has such a lawyer but readers should know that the Authors Guild absolutely does. They review loads of contracts, which gives them a good overview of what's going on in the industry generally. It's a members-only service but it's worth the cost of joining all by itself.

EA, love the blog. I think you're the only blogger whose complete archives I've taken the time to read through. Keep it up!

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