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The Book Contract ‘Red Line’

Recently, I presented a research paper at a publishing conference which was themed around the experience of negotiating, and signing, book contracts. The paper, based on a series of interviews with Australian-based authors, publishers and agents, looked at all kinds of questions around book contracts. One of the questions which aroused a lot of interest was the idea of the contract ‘red line’—when do you know, whatever side of the publishing table you’re on, that you need to walk away? I thought WU readers might be interested to read some of the things people said.

General comments:

All publishers and all creators are different, but they all need to be able to communicate clearly with each other. If a creator is uncomfortable with discussion at the contract stage, this is a good time to consider whether there is a good fit with the publisher (publisher).

The time to walk away is when an author or publisher comes to believe they won’t be able to sustain a positive relationship any longer, because if you can work together and communicate effectively then there may still be a way forward, regardless of the written contract (author).

I think you should walk away if you feel unduly pressured into making decisions that you are not comfortable with. Perhaps another publishing house may suit you (publisher).

If the publisher won’t negotiate on something important to you, don’t sign. Once you sign the contract you’re bound by it, no matter how unfair it is. Authors have more options than ever before to get published, so just walk away (author).

What about specific ‘red lines’? These ranged from:

The money being offered was not worth the amount of research I would need to do (author).

New authors and illustrators who are prima donnas! The worry would be that such high maintenance individuals will forever remain so (publisher).

If a publisher is not prepared to include a fair reversion clause – allowing an author to revert rights if the Work is not selling a reasonable number of copies (ie 100 in 12 months) then I recommend authors to walk away (agent).

The publisher refused to use a professional editor on my book (he wanted to use an English teacher who was a friend of his!) Happily, I managed to find a clause in the contract which the publisher had broken (i.e. when the book would be published) so was successful in breaking the contract (author).

After a lot of changes to the contract, the author wanted to meet me and I agreed. Half an hour before she was due and I’d had the contract printed out in duplicate, she emailed me with another lot of changes she wanted. I emailed the author straight back and told her that I’d changed my mind (publisher).

If the book is not going to be properly marketed or available in stores; terms are unconscionable, or if it looks like the publisher is not going to hold up their side of the bargain: FLEE! (author).

There are many other reasons why book contracts fail, of course: from the big question of copyright assignment to unfair out-of-print stipulations, or from the other point of view, from the big one of plagiarism to authors making unreasonable demands. But it’s over to you now: where is your own ‘red line’? When do you think authors(and/or publishers) should walk away from a book contract?

About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie’s new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.