No Contract Is Better Than a Bad Contract

Know Your Rights

People ask why I haven’t published my young adult novel although the unpublished manuscript has won awards.

The answer is simple: I haven’t received a good contract.

Sure, I’ve had offers, but they’ve all been lacking in one way or another. Because I don’t have an agent, I’ve had to review and negotiate the terms and conditions on my own. Most publishers have been reluctant to address any of my concerns. They prefer not to alter any of their broiler plate language unless agents or attorneys are involved.

Here are the top five contract deal breakers and how to avoid them:

1. No advance. Traditional publishers are willing to pay a sum of money to an author before the manuscript is published. Often they will pay half of the money upon signing the contract and the other half upon delivery of the final manuscript. After all, authors need money to fund research and writing expenses as well as pay their bills. Without an advance, authors must rely on royalty payments, which are often paid only quarterly after the book’s release. With the traditional publishing cycle taking an average of one year between acceptance and publication date, an author without an advance must find another source of income.

2. Exclusive right to everything. Most publishers will want exclusive rights to print and electronic formats of a manuscript for a certain period of time. Some publishers, however, want blanket rights to everything related to the manuscript, from movie options to merchandising rights, often without extra payment. If an author signs a contract with blanket rights, that author could be missing out on additional sources of income.

3. No promotional plan or budget. Even with the proliferation of free online marketing, a publisher unwilling or unable to offer either a promotional plan or budget is setting the author and the book up for failure. Many authors do not have the luxury of spending their advance on book tours, advertising, and a full-time publicist. Publishers need to partner with their authors to ensure the book’s success.

4. One way termination clauses. Many contracts stipulate that if an author does not deliver an “acceptable” final manuscript by a certain deadline, the publisher reserves the right to terminate the contract and demand repayment of the author’s advance. What about the publisher not delivering an “acceptable” finished product or fulfilling its obligations in the marketing plan? Unless an author stipulates in the contract the terms and conditions in which the author can cancel the contract, the one way termination clause does not prevent the fallout that can happen during mergers and acquisitions in which books get canceled before publication because they no longer “fit” on the publisher’s list.

5. First rights to purchase future manuscripts. It can be flattering to be offered a contract in which the publisher reserves first rights to accept the author’s next manuscript. Although this agreement can work well for both parties, troubles exist if the author doesn’t like working with the publisher on the first book and is now obligated to sell the second book to them. More problems arise if the first book does exceptionally well and the publisher refuses to negotiate a more equitable contract.

When I find a publisher willing to accept my deal breakers, then I will sign a contract to publish my young adult novel.

Until then…enjoy the books I’ve already published.


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