It doesn’t matter what sort of writer you are these days – features, fiction, non-fiction, corporate, web, whatever – you are going to be asked to sign a contract at some point. Probably several. I am old enough to remember a time when features writers just wrote for publications, kept all rights to their stories and could syndicate left, right and centre. Not anymore. With the advent of the internet came a desire by publishers to gather all rights to all stories so that they could be used anywhere the publisher so chose.
My thoughts on this practice – and, as you can imagine they are colourful and detailed – don’t really matter because that’s just the way it is for most working writers.
With that in mind, I thought it would be a great idea to get some advice from someone who really knows her way around a contract. Alex Adsett is a consultant and literary agent with more than fifteen years in the publishing industry. She offers commercial contract advice to authors or publishers, with expertise including ebook, translation, book-to-film and self-publishing contracts. As an agent, she represents genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, crime, mystery and romance), and in 2013 has placed six of her authors with publishers.
Obviously, I have aimed my questions to Alex around her area of expertise – authors – but her advice about contracts is pertinent to all writers. Read it carefully.
Where do most authors go wrong when it comes to contracts?
Alex Adsett: “Firstly, by not actually reading them, and secondly, by believing the publisher who tells them this is just standard. Never assume that just because it might be standard for that publisher that it is standard to the whole publishing industry. It’s important to read the whole contract and pay attention to what is not included as much as what is.
“Authors need to make sure that everything they have been verbally promised is included in the contract, don’t just assume the publisher filled the contracts person in on all your conversations. If you were promised a launch party in the Opera House, make sure this is included in the contract!”
What questions should an author ask before signing any contract (agent, publisher, other)?
AA: 1. What rights am I giving away and what do I keep?
2. Will the publisher actually be doing something with the rights I am giving them? (That is, try not to give print rights to a digital only publisher, or to give overseas rights to any Australian publisher without overseas connections.)
3. Does the publisher/agent have more experience than I do? (That is, check credentials! It is as easy to call yourself a publisher these days as it is to self-publish. Make sure you’re signing up with someone who has skills and knowledge to help your career.)
4. Am I being paid a fair rate for my rights?; and,
5. What are my obligations under the contract, can I meet them, and what are the publisher’s obligations?
6. Can I get the rights back if the publisher is no longer selling a certain number of copies?
How have things changed over the last few years, with the huge growth of ebooks?
AA: “The biggest change is that authors have so much more choice now than they used to have. Traditional publishers – who offer an advance, fair royalties and produce a print and ebook edition – are still often the best option for authors, but are no longer the only option. Digital publisher and self-publishing are also available, and authors who have a great manuscript that might not be an obvious commercial hit are now able to get their work in front of readers.
“At the same time as it has become easier for authors to by-pass traditional publishers, the market has been flooded with thousands upon thousands of manuscripts, many of which were actually rejected by publishers not because of their unidentified genius but by virtue of not being any good. Despite the shortcuts now available, authors still need to put the same care and attention into crafting the work as ever.
“With the wave of terrible-to-mediocre works flooding the market, it is harder than ever for authors to get their work noticed, particularly with the decline of bricks and mortar bookstores. We have far more books in the market than we have readers, and being noticed is the biggest challenge authors and publishers face.”
Can you explain the difference between your contract services and your literary agent services? Why would an author use a contract service rather than taking the offered publishing contract and going to an agent?
AA: “I offer my contract advisory service to authors who need commercial advice, and this is usually in relation to a publishing contract. If the author has been successful in getting their own publishing contract, I help them negotiate the contract on a flat fee basis and then walk away. I first offer a written report on how the contract compares with industry standards and where it might be improved, and then the author can use that information to negotiate for themselves, or I can negotiate for them. There’s no judgment, I don’t need to love your manuscript – I just come in and do the job, being as much or as little involved as you want me to be.
“As an agent, I do need to love the manuscript and my colleague and I are being very selective about the titles we take on. An agent generally does three key things for an author: they place the manuscript with a publisher, they negotiate the contract, and then manage the author’s overall career (there’s lots more to it than that, but those are the core of it). Instead of any kind of fee, an agent gets a 10-15 per cent commission based on selling the author’s work. There should never be any upfront fees involved with agency work and the agent only gets paid their 15 per cent commission if they have successfully found a home for the book. So the agency side of the business is where we read and read and read through the submissions, always looking for the next manuscript that will amaze us. There’s an awful lot of work, for only the ‘one day’ promise of an income, but we do it because we love it.”
How do you see your role changing over the next few years ? Would you, for instance, offer co-publishing services?
AA: “That’s the big question! I honestly don’t know how things will pan out. My contract consultancy business is always growing, and it’s great to see the Agency side of things beginning to take off. I’d love to keep doing what I’m doing with both these sides of the business. I’m also involved with the Small Press Network (SPN) and work closely with micro publisher and bookseller Pulp Fiction, so I have a personal interest in helping to promote independent publishers in Australia, so who knows what direction this will take over the next few years.”