New Story Contracts

Like the description “New Stories”, the modifier “new” can have at least two meanings.  The first and probably most common and familiar interpretation for that phrase would be a story that is newly published, it never having been in print (or electronic print) before (except, of course, it can also mean that its publication is new to the general public, versions of it having been offered in limited distribution or privately).  Generally, “newly exposed to the world”.

Another usage might be “new to you/me”, as in, an individual has not seen it before.

This is the usage that should be applied to the title of this article.  As in – a story contract that is “new” to the individual receiving it – even though it might be a standard contract, exactly the same as ones you’ve seen before from the same party, except for the title, word count, word rate and fee(s) being offered (minor changes as well – the date, perhaps some changes to additional rights being obtained).

Here is the first clue.  EVERY contract received by an author (or their Agent) is a “NEW” contract.  Even if the parties are the same, the rates are the same and all of the other particulars are the same, because a “NEW” contract should be read, in its entirety, even unto the boring and familiar boilerplate sections.  Yes, your eyes  will glaze over, you will yawn, you will ponder the horrors of words being put to such base usage, but read them you should.  Every time a “New” contract is received.

This ought to be common sense, but in many cases, that common sense is not employed.  Most people do not enjoy reading contracts (go figure), and many make the general assumption that what they verbally discussed while making an agreement is exactly what will be put down on paper.

That is, of course, not always the case.  Contracts are written in “Legal English”, where words have very specific meanings and relationships (often included in a boilerplate section termed “Terms”).  “And”, for example, is not a casual connector, but means specifically that the combination of two elements, and only those two elements in  combination, are being addressed.

Say, for example, that a previous contract from a publisher stated that the publisher would advertise a new title “online AND in print” (with definitions elsewhere) but that the new version changes that “and” to an “or”.  If you glossed over that while reading it, you’d be surprised in the future when demanding to know what happened to the print advertising for your new book.

Such changes do not have to be deliberate acts attempting to take advantage.  (Gernsback and HG Wells had a bit of a tiff over payment, until it became clear that one was talking about dollars and the other about Pounds Sterling:  both read numbers and assumed the reference was to their local currency.)  Mistakes get made.  Typos too.  Suppose a 5 was fat-fingered to a 3 in regards to the length of the contract and not caught during a proof read.  Surprise, surprise in year 4.  (Good people involved in that negotiation would admit the mistake and a modification to the original contract would be created and then signed…after paying attorney’s fees for the additional work of course.)

And then, of course, there are those circumstances where someone IS trying to take advantage.  (I’ve had a Credit Card processing company forge my wife’s name on the “personal reliance” section of a contract;  I’ve had a copying machine service and supply company attach the signature page from the contract we signed to entirely different, onerous, pages.   Both incidents suggest that you should not only read your contracts thoroughly but also that you should keep a copy.)

Suppose someone stuck some website EULA style language into your book contract: a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, and worldwide license to publish, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content and you didn’t notice it because you didn’t read the  whole thing, just confirmed the title and the amount you’ll be getting a check for.  Guess who  won’t get a film or TV contract?  Guess who will.

That’s extreme (though, of course, those are exactly the rights you have granted to Facebook for any of your content that you’ve put up on that site, as well as most other social networking sites), but – Caveat Emptor, though in this case, it would be venditor cave – seller beware.

Changing the pages of a signed contract is illegal.  Changing the terms prior to signing (even in the face of discussions to the contrary) are not – so long as the changes themselves are not illegal or in furtherance of illegal activity.  (“Failure to meet delivery due dates will result in the summary execution of the author” won’t pass muster in a court.)  Even if you implicitly trust the person you are negotiating with, their assurance that the new draft of the contract contains exactly what was discussed should result in trust AND verification.

There’s a world of difference between biting the bullet and signing a contract that you are not entirely happy with “for reasons” (best offer you’ll get, need the dollars now, better to make something rather than nothing), accepting lower rates or giving up more rights than originally intended and being blindsided when the other party does or doesn’t do something allowed under the contract that you weren’t aware of. Because you didn’t read it in its entirety.

Kinda tough to write, let alone sleep at night, what with that giant flashing neon billboard advertising your book out on your front yard.  Well, you DID discuss advertising the book. (And it’s a “for the life of the author” agreement.)

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