Contracts are a way of life for the self-employed. If you freelance, you probably sign your name nearly as often as you write anything else. Reading those contracts carefully is absolutely essential. There are a few resources that can point out the worst contract clauses (I’ll list those later), but the first thing to do when someone offers you a contract, when they offer you anything that requires your signature is to read Every. Single. Word. And then do a common-sense analysis. You’re a writer. You know what words mean. Think about the ones in your contract and what they’ll mean to you.
For example, I once sat in a lawyer’s office preparing to sign a limited power of attorney form before a hospitalization. But there was a spare “not” in the form. I read it four or five times before pointing it out to the lawyer, who said “What the hell? How did that get in there?” It was a boilerplate form. He had it in his computer and just printed it out. But the fact was, somehow that extra word got in there. It was an easy fix for him to take it out and proceed, but if I had signed the contract as it stood, it would have said that the person I’d placed in charge could NOT do the things I wanted him to do in case of need!
Over the years, I have signed a large number of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), which is a part of life in the tech industry and, as the publishing world moves further into tech, also a part of that. Recently I was asked to sign one that had a number of clauses to which I could not agree. The people who asked me to sign it were understanding. They struck one clause and altered another so that the thing was workable for me, but if I hadn’t asked, if I’d simply signed, I’d be in a whole lot of trouble later on down the road. They didn’t mean to create a problem, they simply hadn’t thought about what the implications were for me.
For authorial contracts, some resources are:
- A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever (The Author’s Guild)
- From the Writer Beware blog:
- The “Contracts” Category of Daniel Steven’s blog
- Forbes article on some of the bad contract clauses that were (I don’t know if they still are) in Random House’s early e-only contracts.
But as I said above, it’s not just author contracts you need to read carefully. Any time someone asks for your signature, read what you’re being asked to sign and be prepared to ask for changes. In both of the above cases, all I had to do was ask and I received the changes I had requested. It may be that whoever you are dealing with will not alter the clauses in question, in which case you will have to make a decision about what you’re willing to sacrifice. But in general, a bad contract is worse than no contract. Just as a bad agent is worse than no agent and a bad publisher is worse than no publisher. Always look before you leap.
And write on.