5 contract tips for first-timers

Hey, peeps!

A colleague of mine and I were talking recently about things like contracts (woo. We’re wild, I know) and it occurred to me that maybe I’d do some tips for you regarding those.

Before I do a brief checklist, Women and Words has a post from a few years back on contracts, done by writer Fran Walker. Check that out HERE. A lot of that still stands, if you’re an author who is considering working with a traditional house. To be clear, I’m not weighting trad over indie here. Not at all. I myself am a hybrid (I do both trad and indie). I’m just offering some tips if you’re considering working with a traditional house.

Also, see my previous link HERE regarding things to watch out for in contracts. This post here is geared more toward the first-time author, but hey. It’s always a good thing to revisit stuff like this.

Okay, so let’s say you approached a trad house and they read your submission and they dug it, so they’re going to offer you a contract. You get that contract via email and you’re all stoked. What should you do?

1. READ IT. You’d be surprised how many authors — especially first-time authors — don’t read their contracts all the way through. They’re all excited and stars are in their eyes while unicorns and sparkle ponies gallivant through their living rooms. And I know we’re living in a sound-bite world, folks, and maybe attention spans are half what they were twenty years ago and those unicorns and sparkle ponies are distracting, but seriously. READ THE CONTRACT ALL THE WAY THROUGH. This is a legal document, friends. Don’t treat it like those online agreements for using the free WiFi at a coffee house or some such and just sign off on it. This document will determine the next 3-7 years of your publishing life. READ IT.


2. Publishing contracts generally have all kinds of legalese mumbo jumbo, so when you read it, you may not understand all of it. If you don’t, contact the publisher and ask about it. If a publisher is author-friendly, the person you’re working with will be more than happy to respond and try to explain it to you so you understand exactly where they’re coming from and why. If the publisher a) ignores your request b) puts you off/doesn’t get back to you in a timely fashion and/or c) douchecanoes you with regard to a straight answer, re-think working with that house. Remember, this is 3-7 years of your writing/publishing life. Don’t throw those away on a douchecanoe. There are myriad options these days to publish. Don’t just fall into the proverbial bed with the first one who tosses you a little bit of chocolate.

3. I strongly recommend that you also have an attorney (someone versed in contracts) look over the proposed contract. Yeah, that might cost you a bit of money (or, if you’re lucky, you have a friend/family member who handles that), but it’s money well worth the 3-7 years you might be signing over to the publisher. If the publisher freaks out about you having an attorney look at the contract, that’s a major red flag, people. Run, don’t walk to the exit on working with that publisher.


You are totally within your rights to have an attorney check the contract over. After all, this is a legal agreement and you need to know what’s what. Most professional houses expect that an author considering signing with them will do that. It’s in the publisher’s interest, too, because then everything’s out on the table and an author knows exactly what she’s getting into before she signs. If the attorney finds things in the contract that are problematic, bring those up with the publisher for negotiation. If the publisher refuses to negotiate, well, that might be another red flag about working with that house.

I’ll put some links below with sources you can use to educate yourself about language in book publishing contracts.

4. Once you get all the details figured out through your advocacy organizations and/or attorney, let’s say you’d like to negotiate different terms on a few things. This is nothing unusual, people. Contract negotiations are part of the process. Contact the publisher and clearly state which aspects you’d like to negotiate and clearly state what you’d like to see. This part of the process is like going to a marketplace, where you haggle over a price with various merchants until you settle on one that works for both parties. Sometimes it doesn’t work in that one haggling session, so you or the publisher have to come back with a different offer and haggle again. It can be time-consuming. But so what? We’re talking, again, about 3-7 years of your writing and publishing life. Take the time to haggle, and give the publisher opportunity to explain his or her position.

In a perfect world, this is a normal part of the process. If the publisher you’re trying to strike a deal with, however, refuses to negotiate on anything, even if you come back with different offers, well, that could be another red flag. If the publisher is that unwilling to negotiate terms with you before you even sign a contract, what will that mean in terms of working with that house in the future?

The contract process is your chance to see how a publisher responds to you and your requests. If the publisher refuses to work with you at this stage of the game, do you really think that’s going to change down the line? Put that in your food-for-thought pipe and have a think while you puff away for a bit.


Caveat: don’t be a primadonna about this. There are certain things that you definitely can try to negotiate, like right of first refusal, royalties, and reversion of rights as well as ebook rights and foreign language rights. But if you’re trying to re-write everything in the contract to fit your high diva needs, well, you might actually be riding your own douchecanoe into the rapids. Publishers need to protect themselves, too. And guess what? Publishers talk to each other. So you, too, need to think about how you approach this process and the message you might unintentionally be sending.

5. Okay, suppose you and the publisher have come to terms after all the haggling sessions. WOOO! The publisher sends you a new copy of the contract. Heads up, friends. READ IT.

Let me repeat that.


You want to make sure all the language you agreed to is in there, in the places it needs to be. Publishers are human (at least for now), and make mistakes. Somebody could’ve forgotten a clause somewhere. Or — and I don’t like thinking this, but it’s part of my CYA (Cover Your Ass) philosophy — they might have deliberately left something out or added something just to be a douchecanoe. 99.999999999% of publishers are not going to do that. But mistakes do happen, so read it through and compare it to the previous version. And if you’re not sure, have an attorney go over it again.

If you do these things before you sign, then you’ve done your due diligence. If you sign without doing these things and things end up being a suckfest, well, sorry. Now you’re probably stuck and it’s going to take some time and possibly legal maneuvering down the line to get you out of a bad relationship. Granted, you might not do your due diligence, sign, and things work out fine and you’re perfectly content. That’s great. But suppose down the line you decide you’d like to change something and you contact your publisher with the request and she comes back at you with, “sorry, no can do. It’s in the contract, clause [whichever]” and you read it and realize that you screwed yourself because you didn’t read through it and understand the implications of these clauses.

This is a long-term relationship, friends. You don’t just go on a couple of dates and then no harm, no foul. You basically get married at that signature, and if you haven’t done your due diligence, you could end up in a messy divorce. Protect yourself. And you’ll also be doing a publisher a favor, too, by keeping yourself informed. Most publishers aren’t necessarily douchecanoes, and they appreciate authors who like to write for them. Happy authors make happy publishers and vice versa. So when you read a contract, read between the lines, too, and see if you can get a sense of that publisher. Don’t get hitched without some research.

And if you’re a self-publisher working directly with platforms like Smashwords or Amazon, same thing. READ THE CONTRACT and make sure you understand everything before you sign. If you’re working with a self-publishing house, again, READ THE CONTRACT and make sure you understand everything. It’ll save you a lot of “ouch” down the line.

Okay. Here are some links for further info (also available at my previous link, “Contract Killers”):

Authors Guild with contract negotiation tips
PublishLawyer with book contract trouble spots
Adler & Robin with contract trouble spots (includes self-publishing houses)
Victoria Strauss with an awesome post about contracts along with resources

My take on right-of-first-refusal (ROFR)
Some info on royalties or, no, authors do not roll in the dough (read the comments, too, for even more info)

4 thoughts on “5 contract tips for first-timers

  1. I’d also recommend reading The Passive Voice, as the fellow who runs it is an IP lawyer, and though he doesn’t offer specific legal advice, I learned a ton from his posts about contracts. And don’t be afraid to look up specific clauses to find out more information.

    As to the 3-7 years — most publishers want life of copyright, and when signing, consider that you may never get back that control over your own work again. It pays to pay an attorney to look things over. 🙂

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