Mind the contract nits

In a once-in-a-decade event, the Authors Guild just released its new “Model Trade Book Contract” last month. Though Guild members alone are privy to the document, the Guild’s lawyers recently held a conference call to discuss highlights.

The big topic, of course, was digital rights. The Guild still believes authors should receive 50 percent of proceeds on sales of digital books. That’s in spite of the emerging publishing standard of 25 percent of net receipts.

Pressed to suggest how authors could ever negotiate more than 25 percent, the lawyers suggested that small, aggressive publishers could lead the way. Eager to snag a particular book, an acquiring editor could offer an author, say, 30 percent. Things could snowball from there.

The lawyers highlighted two other concerns of nonfiction authors. The first was the “options clause,” which compels authors to give the publisher rights to, in essence, both first and last refusal on publishing their next book. That clause ties authors’ hands in redirecting their publishing future.

Guild attorneys urged authors to amend the publishers’ option-clause boilerplate. Don’t allow publishers the coveted right to automatically publish your next work on the same terms as the current one. Insist on flexibility—and requiring publishers to make their decision on your next book based on a proposal, not on a full manuscript.

The second concern highlighted by attorneys was the “non-compete clause,” which forbids authors to publish competing works on the same subject until the current book is published. The non-compete clause can be a showstopper for authors who write on only one subject—especially when it’s their premier area of expertise.

So authors should narrow the definition for subject matter considered competitive. Spell out exceptions to permit separate publication of blogs and articles on the same topic. Also limit the time period for which the clause is in effect so you can get started on your next book even if a publisher delays release of the current one.

The Guild’s model contract discusses 29 separate clauses in most publishing contracts. Almost any one of them, and their many additional sub-clauses, can trip up unwary authors. Publishers will remain unwilling to negotiate every single clause, but authors should be ready to target a half dozen items of key concern.

Join the Authors Guild to get the model contract yourself, an invaluable document (full disclosure: I’m a member). Members also get free advice from Guild attorneys on each and every contract they sign. This is a great deal.

In the meantime, plan to leave time in your book-development plans—at least six weeks—to conduct contract negotiations. In the long term, as the proverbial saying goes, the devil will be in the details you forgot to examine..

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