The time has come, my friends, to talk of cabbages, and sealing-wax, of walruses and kings… and of contracts, those sheets of paper that hold so much power in them. Whether you have submitted to a traditional publisher, or to a small press, or to a micro press, the time will come when you’ll get that email (or, more rarely, slim paper envelope) with a contract, because they love love love your work, and want to buy it.
The first impulse is to go bouncing all over the house doing a happy dance. This one should be followed, even if it’s your umpteenth sale. You done good… now, the second impulse needs to be throttled. Don’t just whip out your pen and sign it, scan it, and send it back. If the publisher is pushing you to sign and return within hours, or even days, back away slowly, something is wrong. Take your time, and most importantly, try to be objective.
Legalese is a foreign language to most of us. I’m not fluent in it, although give me enough time and I can puzzle it out. If you have the contacts, or there’s enough money riding on this (actually, these days, your entire career could be riding on any given contract, but we will get to that later) then I highly recommend you employ a lawyer, one familiar with contracts, to take a look. But even before this, let’s go back a step or two. Before you submit, you should research the venue you are submitting to (be it anthology, magazine, or publishing house) and if you omitted that step, you should definitely do it now, before you sign the contract. The best place I know of to do that is Preditors and Editors, and simply by googling, to see what bad reviews are out there. If you find known issues with the publisher, all the more reason to go over the contract with a fine-toothed comb.
Another good thing is to do your research more generally, on the publishing world as it is now. Just like they say about the weather, “if you don’t like it, wait ten minutes, and it will change.” I personally delayed seeking publication for years, knowing what the underbelly of the publishing world looked like, and the chances that I had for not being swallowed up by a shark. I’m not the only one with reservations, no less than David Farland and Dean Wesley Smith have written in the last month about not submitting books to traditional publishers. Take some time to read and digest that post.
So you have a contract in front of you… and it’s not right. Check out Passive Voice, a blogger who is also a lawyer in the industry. He’s collecting contracts, and blogs about the more interesting clauses he has found. I found a post pertinent to this topic on his blog, but written by Laura Resnick, which is very encouraging toward those of us who choose to control our own destinies. Poke through his archives a while, there is excellent material on publishing, contracts, and more.
So don’t rush into signing, parse the words until they make sense, and if the publisher is pushing you to sign within hours, back off. Publishing, even in this day and age, doesn’t work that fast, and as within every industry, a hard sell is usually hiding something. You should be looking for reversion of rights: your story comes back to you at some point in the future. If there is no reversion, you never get it back. Ever. Would you sell your child into slavery? If you give up rights, be sure you understand the extent, and why. If it is a shared-world anthology, it’s ok to give up very unique characteristics that identify that world created by someone else. It is not ok to give up character names, settings that are not unique to the world (Australia? I’ve heard of one contract that asked an author to never write a story set there without permission. Yes, it’s that bad and ridiculous), or to give the publisher first right of refusal on anything you write, ever.
I’m going to wrap up by urging you to avoid Literary Stockholm Syndrome, to steal the phrase the inimitable Kate Paulk coined. Her blog post on the topic is an excellent read. Stand up for your rights, young author, and challenge the accepted notion that this is the way it is, has always been, and always shall be. I’m a survivor of abuse, and I know it when I see it. Publishers have the power, but it is slipping out of their grasp, and we the authors finally get our chance at freedom. Don’t throw it away in a moment of joy.