How To Understand Writing Contracts

Writing contracts are necessary for any freelance writing project where money is involved, even most that do not offer pay for the writing.

  1. Know what rights you will give away. If you are looking at publishing a book, novella or short story in print, the contracts will likely have many rights that you will give up in exchange for the money you will receive. These usually include republication rights, meaning that you can not have the work published anywhere else. These may be simply North American rights, for example, meaning that you are free to market the work outside North America, but your rights for republication are given up within North America. The amount of rights that you will be asked to sign away vary with the publisher. At the extreme end, there have been some cases where a publisher asks for the author to give up the name associated with a specific work. This means that a pen name that you use for a work may not be used for works that are published with any other publisher.

    When publishing online, it is common for the publisher to ask for all rights to the work itself, even if the work is not published. Because the internet is worldwide, there is no North American clause for online publication. It is important to read online contracts very carefully, even before a deal is made, as the reams of fine print may include things that you never intended to give up. There are a few publishers who declare that anything submitted to them is their property, meaning that even if they don't want it and will not publish it, you can never submit it to anyone else.

  2. Deadlines.  Deadlines are an important thing to understand in any writing contract. Just about any contract will have deadlines that you are expected to meet. For print publications, this will usually include specific dates for your first drafts to be in, which will allow time for your editor to make suggestions and corrections. There will then be another deadline specifying when those changes are to be made. You should feel confident that you'll be able to meet these deadlines, and should allow for a little extra time for any emergencies you may have. Many contracts specify that if the deadlines are not met, you forfeit some of your pay, the advance or even the entire contract.
  3. Negotiate your contract. Most publishers allow a little negotiation room in their contracts. An agent will often negotiate for a writer and attempt to increase the writer's rights, such as through a reversion clause. This stipulates that if the publisher allows the book to go out of print, the rights will revert back to the author. An agent may negotiate larger percentages for royalties, a larger advance, or a longer deadline as well. Though an agent is often the best negotiator, having experience with many different publishers, writers are free to negotiate on their own. You might try to offer something in exchange for getting more rights for yourself, such as building a website to promote your book. Within online writing, you might offer to help promote their website or make your work longer in exchange for a higher rate or more time.


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