Terms You Need to Know Before Signing a Publishing Contract

read the fine print publishing contract-587249_960_720Here at Indies Unlimited we work hard to help you make good publishing decisions without getting scammed.  We talk about scammy publishers, scammy services, and scammy agents. Some of us learned through the school of hard knocks, while others were cautious from the very beginning.

Still, not a month goes by that I don’t see someone make a decision that has me shaking my head. Quite often, that decision has to do with contracts.

Several years ago I wrote a book, now out of print, warning of some red flags when it comes to signing with a publisher. One of those red flags had to do with contracts. I said:

Does your contract match the statements made on the website? A friend originally agreed to a contract with her previous publisher partially because their site stated they would put books on local shelves and send copies out for review. She had found information during previous searches to support that claim. She had also been pleased to find that some of their authors had placed in various contests and competitions. Those were all good signs.

Unfortunately, these promises never came to fruition. She was told books would no longer be sold in brick-and-mortar stores because the return fees were too high. She never received any official word regarding reviews, contests, or copyright registrations, but could only assume those fees were also too high, as nothing was ever done.

Had she known these policies would change, she’d never have signed on. Unfortunately, she didn’t make sure those items were specified in her contract. They weren’t. Lesson learned. Make sure your contract specifies all the promises listed on the website.

That warning sign is pretty basic, but others are more complicated. A new author recently asked me to look over a contract for her. I am not a lawyer, which I made very clear upfront. But having been scammed myself, and having since begun my own tiny publishing company, I’ve gotten familiar enough with contracts for the biggest of the red flags to catch my attention.

This is what I found, and what I subsequently wrote to her. Pay attention to the bolded terms so that if you ever see them in a contract, you’ll be prompted to read that section very carefully.

Section 1:  Term of copyright. They want your book for the full term of copyright. Copyright in the U.S. is for 70 years after the death of the author. In essence, you’re giving them your book forever, unless they decide to terminate the contract for some reason. I didn’t see any provision that allowed for YOU to ever terminate the contract. This means if you’re unhappy with them, too bad. They have your book forever.

Section 9:  Competing works. If you sign, you’re agreeing that while you’re with this publisher you won’t publish any works on the same subject with any other publisher.

Section 10:  First option. You’re giving them first option to publish any of your future writing. This goes along with Section 9: If you write a book on a similar topic, they get the first option to publish it. If they don’t want to publish it, according to Section 9 you’re still not allowed to publish it anywhere else.

These sections worry me, because what they essentially say is that if you’re unhappy with them, that’s too bad. You can’t terminate the contract, and you can’t go to another publisher to publish a book on the same topic.

Then I again urged her to consult with an attorney before signing.

Last I heard, she’d signed the contract. I don’t know if she ever consulted with an attorney.

I hope she did, but the scary thing is, these terms are pretty standard. I’ve seen them in a few contracts the past few years.

If you receive a contract like the one above, please read it carefully. And please consult with an attorney before signing so you know what you’re getting into.

Author: Melinda Clayton

Melinda Clayton is the author of the Cedar Hollow series, as well as a self-publishing guide. Clayton has published numerous articles and short stories in various print and online magazines. She has an Ed.D. in Special Education Administration and is a licensed psychotherapist in the states of Florida and Colorado. Lear more about Melinda at her Amazon author page

18 thoughts on “Terms You Need to Know Before Signing a Publishing Contract”

  1. Holy cow. I had no idea contracts were getting that aggressive and iron-clad. That is scary. Back when I made the mistake of signing with a scammy company, the term of the contract was only five years, and I was able to duck out after only two for an “administrative fee.” The terms above are extreme and unwarranted. I’m sorry your advice went unheeded.

    1. The term of my old contract, if I remember right, was two years. They didn’t provide a way out, but not getting paid or receiving statements gave me a way out, anyway (thankfully). They also didn’t have a first option or non-compete clause when I signed on, but I know they did do that later with another author. It’s hard, I think, as a new author not to be so excited by an offer we jump to sign without really understanding what’s being offered.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Melinda! Contractual terms are so important for any writer – fiction or non-fiction – to know and understand. I’d always heard of “Term of Copyright”, but not the other two. Too many writers get wrapped up in their creative dreams they often forget the business aspects of the profession. Like paying the bill for an extravagant dinner, people don’t really like it, but they have no other choice.

  3. I signed a contract with a publisher once. They provided me with a great editor, and we thrashed my work into a pretty good book. Then the company was bought out by another company, which promptly cancelled the educational program I was hired under. Then somehow in the shuffle they “lost” my contract.
    As far as I was concerned, that was fine. If they didn’t have a contract, I had my book, professionally edited. So I published it myself. The beginning of my self-publishing career. (I have made more money from that book than anything since. Is there a message for us there somewhere?)

    1. I had a similar experience with an agent my first time around, Gordon. She disappeared, but the changes she’d asked me to make made for a much better book.

  4. This is very worrying. It becomes harder and harder to get published without being scammed these days. A year back, I had a contract sent by post (without speaking once with them), and I was over the moon. However, the terms were all wrong, and I refused to sign. I believe there were way more red flags than the ones mentioned here. I can’t remember them though.
    Anyway, since then I decided to self-publish and stay away from publishing companies.
    Thank you for this.

  5. Great artical! Good advice!
    And some good responses to it too. The scammers never seem to get stopped. You really should update your book and republish it on kindle to help those who do not know the pitfalls.

    Thank you

  6. “Work for Hire” is another term to be wary of when doing freelance writing. A company sent me a contract using that term, I sent it to my Father expressing concerns as it didn’t feel right. His response was not to sign it as I would be giving them the copyright, and if I sell a modified version elsewhere or write a book that I could be infringing on the company’s copyright! I refused to sign the contract until the work for hire section was taken out, which they did.

  7. I did read my publishing contract carefully. I retain the copyright, and we both have a 90 day get out clause. I feel so lucky not to have a contract from one of these scammy publishers. It’s so easy to get taken in in the excitement of getting a ‘real’ publisher.
    I got an agent, briefly, that managed to get me a contract with a publisher who was asking for half the publishing costs. I turned it down, and left the agent.

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