Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[writing] Contracts — You are responsible for your own career

There has been a bit of a dust up over anthology contract funkiness on a mailing list I'm on. The details aren't mine to share, but the situation is sufficiently common that I thought it bore comment here. I can sum this up in seven words:

"You are responsible for your own career."

No one cares about your writing more than you do. No one cares about your copyrights more than you do. No one cares about your career more than you do. Not your mom, your significant other, your editors or your agent, should you be so fortunate as to have representation. When you sign a contract, you and only you are binding yourself to the terms of the agreement that's drawn up therein.

That's true whether you're a new writer with your first sale wriggling on the hook or a SFWA Grand Master with a bibliography from here to Cleveland.

This means that no matter how much you might want a sale or to be in a certain market, you need to read the contract. When you read that contract you have both a right and a duty (to yourself) to make sure it has the conditions which are right for your career.

I am not an attorney. I am not competent to give legal advice, and I am not giving it now. However, as writers we should all be prepared to read and understand our contracts. To that effect, on a peer basis, here's a few observations from me:

  • No contract is non-negotiable. A publisher can certainly decline to negotiate, but that's a specific business decision on their part, not "just the way things are."

  • Anyone who tells you a contract can't be negotiated isn't playing fair with you, and should not be trusted. Note this is different from declining to negotiate as noted above, which is them taking responsibility for standing by the terms they've offered.

  • A contract sets terms between two people with competing interests. It's not a matter of faith or trust or what everyone else in the anthology agreed to, it's a matter of you looking out for your career.

  • Common pitfalls in short story contracts1 include an excessive exclusionary period, a poorly-defined exclusionary period, no provision for exclusionary exceptions in the event of Year's Best selection or a single-author collection, excessive claim of rights, and oddities in copyright indemnification.

I'm not saying you should approach contracts with fear and suspicion. The vast majority of publishing contracts I've signed were clean and fair as presented to me. The contracts where I've asked for changes in exclusionary periods, rights claims and so forth have gone well. I almost always have to change the provision about copyright and by-line, because my copyrights are registered to "Joseph E. Lake, Jr." while my by-line is "Jay Lake."

It's easy for me to preach about holding firm on bad contracts. I've got bookshelves full of sales. When you're just starting out, the desire to be in print can be overwhelming. You might, as a matter of deliberate choice, sign a contract with one or more flaws if the publisher declines to negotiate. I don't recommend that, but I can't say what you'd do.

I can say, again, that you are responsible for your own career. Being pressured or shamed about asking for contract changes is at best unprofessional business practice, if not a signal of disaster or outright deception. In the long run, I can confidently predict you'll be much happier if you do it right.

1. Novel contracts are a whole different animal, though the principles about preserving your interests remain the same. I strongly recommend having an agent for any novel contract of substance, and especially any complex novel contract, such as those from a major house.
Tags: process, writing

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