Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 12, 2023

The Intimidating Business Details of Contracts

by Laura Vanarendonk Baugh

Contract with pen for signing

GOOD MORNING, WRITERS! Today’s topic is Intimidating Business Details, and I’m your host, Laura VanArendonk Baugh!

Not like it’s not hard enough to develop a craft and manage time and set priorities and finally get a complete story on paper in a coherent form which someone other than your mother will also like, now we have to sell the darned thing. Let’s talk about some terms or concepts in contracts.

First, there’s that little subject of PAYMENT.

This is primarily about short fiction, as novel payments aren’t generally calculated by the word. When you’re shopping short fiction or checking out calls for submissions, you’ll see these terms, and here’s what they mean.

Non-Paying:

Exactly what it says on the tin. Will probably include a contributor’s copy. I’m not going to tell you never to do this, but do know exactly why you’re giving your work away for free.

You’re working for exposure, and unless you have a pretty good idea of what exposure you’re getting and its value, it may not be a professional choice. Generally speaking, these are better than nothing but are not going to impress publishers as credentials when submitting something else.

There are exceptions to everything, but if you look closely, they’re not really so exceptional. I have done professional-quality work without getting a paycheck—because the publisher paid me in advertising instead. (Take $200 for an article once, or expert-boost a book already doing well to a receptive audience?) I have donated work for a good cause (an anthology to raise money for literacy programs). Those were not “exposure” sales, those were calculated business or charity decisions.

Likewise, I’m currently in a project with several other authors to which I will contribute money or other resources toward production. But we’re co-authors co-producing a project for mutual promotion. Yes, it’s exposure, but it’s our own choice, our own business model, and our own informed decisions. No one else profits from my work while I do not.

Token Payment:

Also what it says on the tin. This is a flat fee regardless of word count and below professional rates. This is a great entry point, and you should probably be submitting here! Token rates may be $10 or $100+; they vary widely, depending on the project. Writers are generally paid upon publication. (I do these a lot; they’re often useful for discovery and reaching new readers. They can also be fun projects.)

Semi-Pro Rates:

This will be at least a penny a word. It starts to get a little fuzzy at the top end of the range, because some major organizations define “professional rates” differently.

Pro Rates:

Correspondingly, the bottom end of this one is a little fuzzy. SFWA adjusted their professional rates definition a couple of years ago, so some people think of it as the old terms and some as the new. Rely on at least $.05/word or $.08 for SFWA pro rates.

Royalties:

These can come in several ways. You may get royalties in addition to one of the above payments (which makes them “token payment plus royalties”). You may get no payment upon publication but share royalties among contributors, per author or by word count (I have an anthology contract that specifies my 15,100 words get me 6.58% of the total royalties).

Regardless, any reputable call for short form submissions will include payment in the call. See attached images. Accept no excuses on why payment is not mentioned. “We’re waiting to see how many submissions we get” or “how it sells” is just neon evidence of someone not actually doing any of the business side of publishing.

(Likewise, a project which requires money from the writer to get in with a dangled potential of royalties after is a big red flag. Projects which choose content by which checks clear rather than by quality or theme are not projects designed to sell well, and a publisher who already made their money off hopeful writers is less motivated for marketing to readers.)

Next scary topic: CONTRACTS.

You don’t need an agent or a lawyer for short form contracts, but you do need to pay attention.

(Obligatory disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, I have not played a lawyer on TV, and I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. My expertise comes purely from dozens of contracts and keeping my ears open in the writing community. Use what you find useful.)

I’ve seen simple and detailed contracts, but every contract should define the work being sold (and usually has a clause confirming the author did not plagiarize it and bears sole responsibility if it turns out otherwise) and specifies the rights being sold.

THIS IS A REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT PART:

What rights? Are those rights exclusive or non-exclusive? If exclusive, for how long?

Non-exclusive rights (Book A):

The Author hereby conveys to the Publisher the continuing, ongoing non-exclusive right to reproduce and/or publish (in book or other form, including electronic form, including audio form, including print on demand form), and to distribute and sell or license other parties to distribute and sell, this Work and all the contents thereof as part of an anthology entitled: “BOOK A” (the Anthology).

  1. This right to publish, license, distribute, and sell shall be applicable to the original English language version of the Work, and shall extend to all nations and territories of the World without exception.
    1. All other rights not herein granted to the Publisher are retained by the Author.

Exclusive rights (Book B):

The Author hereby conveys to the Publisher exclusive right for one year from publication date (after which author may reprint or republish provided attribution is given to the original publisher) to reproduce and/or publish (in book or other  form, including electronic form, including audio form, including print on demand form), and to distribute and sell or license other parties to distribute and sell, this Work and all the contents thereof as part of an anthology entitled: “BOOK B” (the Anthology).

  1. This right to publish, license, distribute, and sell shall be applicable to the original English language version of the Work, and shall extend to all nations and territories of the World without exception.
    1. All other rights not herein granted to the Publisher are retained by the Author.

Non-exclusive eBook rights (Book C):

The Author hereby conveys to the Publisher non-exclusive right to reproduce and/or publish in eBook or in printed trade paperback, and to distribute and sell or license other parties to distribute and sell, this Work and all the contents thereof as part of an anthology entitled: “BOOK C” (the Anthology).

  1. This right to publish, license, distribute, and sell shall be applicable to the original English language version of the Work, and shall extend to all nations and territories of the World without exception.
    1. All other rights not herein granted to the Publisher are retained by the Author.

In the first example, BOOK A, the publisher gets to publish my story forever and ever, in eBook, print, or audio—but I also get to publish my story elsewhere, so I can release my own collection or give it to my patrons outside of the anthology or whatever.

BOOK B gets my story exclusively, but for only one year. (This time varies by contract.) After that, I can resell or republish it, but I have to give them credit for first publication (this is the “originally published in” line that you often see).

BOOK C gets unlimited publishing rights, but only in eBook or paperback, not in hardback or audio. Also those rights are non-exclusive, so I can still resell (at lower reprint rates) for eBook elsewhere.

There are many possible iterations! Additionally, all of these examples are specifically for English only, not for translations. And critically, all of them specify that anything not specifically granted to the publisher belongs to me—so that’s film rights, theater rights, holodeck rights, etc.

Rights Reversion:


If this Work is not published in book or other form, and offered for sale to the public, or licensed for publication by another party, within one (1) year(s) following the date of signing by the Publisher, all rights herein conveyed shall revert to the Author.


This bit means that if a publisher runs out of money, changes editors, or just drops the ball, I get my story back if they don’t do anything with it. That’s nice to have. (That’s happened to me.)

Contracts will also specify payment and may also specify contributor copies and which state/province/other will have jurisdiction if there’s a dispute.

Remember this—it is always acceptable to ask and negotiate. Contracts are open to negotiation.

I got a contract with a related-company rider that would have given away 50% of all my revenue on a character if the story was picked up for film—not just film revenue, but ALL REVENUE, including published stuff that company hadn’t handled. And it was a series character, though they had only one title in the series, so that would have been 50% of everything connected to the series. Um, no, I didn’t sign that. (And I got no push-back at all for opting out of it.)

I received another contract which asked for exclusive rights without an end date. I went back and said I would be happy to grant exclusive rights for a fixed period, how did they feel about a year? And publisher instead asked for non-exclusive. Sweet, done.

Point is, know what you’re signing, and most of the time a real publisher is not trying to take advantage of you and is happy to work with you. Just be nice while negotiating.

I hope that helps you to feel more prepared for selling your work. Good luck!

Discussion: Have you ever asked for a change in contract? What points are most important to you in a contract?

* * * * * *

About Laura

Laura VanArendonk Baugh

Laura VanArendonk Baugh writes fantasy of many flavors as well as non-fiction. She has summited extinct, dormant, and active volcanoes, but none has yet accepted her sacrifice. She lives in Indiana where she enjoys Dobermans, travel, fair-trade chocolate, and making her imaginary friends fight one another for her own amusement. Find her award-winning work at http://LauraVAB.com.

8 comments on “The Intimidating Business Details of Contracts”

  1. Hi Laura,
    What important information to look out for in contracts. They can make your dreams of publishing a nightmare if you don't pay attention as you said.

    I had a publication problem in 2020 when my then-publisher switched names and figuratively disappeared. I was happy to take back my little YA sci-fi novella that was off brand for their new venture. I grabbed my promised promotional copies and took my rights with me.

    It was my first publication, and I asked a trusted publishing friend, along with his writer lawyer-friend to look over the contract before I had signed it.

    Another good resource for contracts is to join the Author's Guild, if only for the legal help. https://authorsguild.org/

    I appreciate your clear tips and clarifications for this part of writing that can make or break your publishing experience all you ever wanted it to be. Thanks, Laura!

    Kris

    1. Ooh, yeah, I'm sorry about your publishing experience and so glad you got your rights back. I've had a bit of publishing issue as well and some contract knowledge in advance saved me both money and angst. So good that you had resources to look over things!

  2. It's important to read the fine print.

    When one publisher was going out of business, and I was getting my reversion of rights, they suddenly wanted to charge me for things (editing and something else) which were covered by the publisher in the contract. I reminded them--with the specific clauses in the contract--that these items were part of the original contract, and they couldn't charge me for them. I don't know if the other authors paid the nickel and diming of false charges, but I didn't.

    They offered to sell me the cover art, and I declined.

    They didn't like some of the legalese I used in my letter of request for the reversion of rights--but I had to cover a few things which had been listed in the original contract.

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