There is one area of writing that I really don’t enjoy: contracts. It’s not the contracts themselves that is the problem, but the fact that so many are badly written and most are irrelevant. Of course, one might expect a contract where a lot of money is involved, but I’ve found absolutely no correlation between the amounts involved and whether a contract exists – I’ve had to sign contracts for stories where the odds of ever earning anything (such as an editor’s choice award) are low, while the highest paying stories I’ve sold didn’t involve a contract at all.
Given the small amounts of money involved, many contracts are effectively unenforceable due to the cost of court proceedings (especially as I’m usually on the wrong side of the Atlantic), making the signing of them a waste of time. (I’ve had one publisher apparently fold without sending the complimentary copy or payment specified in a contract, although the book remains available on Amazon, and been unable to do anything about it.)
Unfortunately, not only do many publishers insist on writers signing this pointless agreements, but a lot of them are badly written. Now, the vast majority of publishers are decent people who don’t intend to scam writers, but I’ve encountered more than one contract that, unintentionally, was worded so that I would lose control over my story, and some that are just plain incomprehensible or contradictory.
The problem is that very few writers are contract lawyers and, for most of us, writing is either a hobby or a very-low-paying occupation, making consulting a lawyer for every contract a financial impossibility given the amounts involved. However, there are three things you can do before signing a contract. The first is to ask a professional writer. Of course, we’re not contract lawyers, but we have the experience to spot the more obvious problems and offer advice. The second thing you can do is post your question in an online legal advice forum (just make sure you choose the right country, as laws may be different elsewhere). The third is to ask the publisher to clarify any points in writing and keep a copy (save a screen grab if it’s an email or online message); although this doesn’t override the contract you’re signing, if they later claim to control rights you didn’t realise you were granting, it may help prove a case of fraud if they misled you when directly questioned about the contract.
I hope any editors reading this will give consideration to whether they need writers to sign a contract and, if they do, whether it needs to be complicated. If all you want are first publication rights and a period of exclusivity, why do you need a dozen clauses? Nor does a contract doesn’t need to be written in legal jargon, so keep it simple!