Byte Experts: Being Canny About Contracts by Janey Burton

Posted by Justine Solomons on 5 February 2019, in Byte Experts, News

Janey Burton did her degree in Law and then spent a few years writing for Sweet & Maxwell’s journal Current Law, and teaching Criminal Law, before moving into the publishing industry. She worked in varied Editorial and Marketing roles at literary agencies and a small publishing house, before moving to Penguin to work on their ebook rights project. She now works freelance as a Publishing Consultant, offering general publishing advice as well as editorial and contracts services. Most recently she negotiated a paperback rights deal with Lightning Books, on behalf of the author Nicola May, whose ebook edition of The Corner Shop in Cockleberry Bay was the bestselling ebook in the Kindle Store.

She thinks it’s important that unrepresented authors advocate for themselves when offered a publishing contract, and here she offers some advice for so doing.

Contracts really aren’t as scary or impenetrable as some think. They’re more a bit dull, in the way that tedious but necessary aspects of life are. As with arranging a yearly check of the boiler, it’s miles better to make the effort than suddenly to find you have no heating or hot water, and are hostage to a large bill for parts and labour.

In all the excitement of receiving an offer to publish a book, and its attendant possibilities, it can be easy for the author to regard the contract as mere paperwork, not requiring much attention. This is a mistake, and once the contract is signed it’s a hard mistake to remedy. Here’s a few tips to insure against regret.

  1. Read the contract: You don’t have to feel daunted. These days, publishing contracts are often relatively short, maybe only five pages, with fairly straightforward language, and almost no Latin or instances of Heretofore or Whereas. The type may not even be unreasonably titchy, but 10 or 12 point.

Still, you may find you don’t understand all of it and there are a few points you want to query – this is fine and brings us to the next point.

  1. Ask questions: Even if you think they’re silly or you ‘should’ know the answer. An unrepresented author is not expected to know anything much about contracts or the publishing process, and as a general rule people who work in the industry are very friendly and won’t mind questions. So, ask the question, honestly it’s much the best way to get the answer.
  2. Understand what you’re giving, and what you’re getting: First, look at the Grant of Rights clause near or at the beginning. This clause will outline which rights the publisher is getting, in which languages, and in which territories they may sell their editions.

The Term of the contract may also be here, or in a separate clause – is the publisher getting the rights for the full term of copyright (author’s life plus 70 years), or a shorter defined period such as 10 years?

Also, look for the Termination or Reversion clause, which explains in what circumstances the rights may be returned to the author.

And, of course, look at how you’ll be paid: there may be no advance, so what is the split of royalties? The royalties may be calculated on the book’s RRP, or on the publisher’s net receipts, or even on net profits, and each way will affect how much the author receives, so you may want to ask questions about how the calculation is made.

If you read the Grant of Rights clause and think ‘oh, I didn’t realize I’d be tied in for so long’ or you read the Termination clause and think ‘I don’t understand how I could ever get the rights back’ then bring it up – these things can be changed. And so to our next point.

  1. Negotiate: An unrepresented author will be offered the ‘standard’ contract, and far too many just sign it without negotiating even one point. Some of those authors come to me later and ask for help changing the contract or getting their rights back. The fact is, there’s very little I can do at that point – the author agreed the contract and, short of an actual breach, it remains valid.

Here’s another fact: no competent agent would recommend their client sign a publisher’s ‘standard’ contract without first negotiating it and getting changes (perhaps putting in some of their own wording, written by their own contracts manager). You deserve no less.

The ‘standard’ version of the contract is the version that favours the publisher most of all! You are allowed to ask for changes – they won’t think you’re being unreasonable unless you are unreasonable.

Even better might be hiring someone suitable to negotiate for you. This can keep the relationship between publisher and author comfortable and friction-free, as it’s a third party who’s presenting the argument for changes, and it may be more effective as the intermediary you choose should have lots of familiarity with publishing contracts and a solid understanding of the industry and what changes may reasonably be requested.

  1. Get Help: If you’ve done all your research and you feel you understand publishing contracts very well, you may genuinely not need any more help and in which case, go ahead with my blessing. If not, and if you are not represented by an agent, please consider the value of spending a little money on getting the contract right before signing it. There are individual freelances and small companies that offer this kind of service, as does the Society of Authors to their members.

Getting some help does not negate my advice above about reading and understanding the contract – you could consider it an insurance payment, to avoid future regret.

Janey can be contacted via or on twitter @JRFBurton





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