Happy Contract Thursday, Part I

It's April 8th and spring has officially sprung in most places, or it's at least beginning to show its lovely and most welcome face. Today is also a Thursday, and you all know what that means, don't you?

Time to talk contracts!

That's write, er, right. As you all know, ever since the earliest of times, even in the farthest reaches of the world, Thursday has been reserved for the day when family and friends skip work and convene in a meadow with flowers in their hair, hope in their hearts, and lots of picnic baskets filled with sweet breads, cheeses, fruit, cakes, and wine. Children dance gaily around the trees as lambs bleat, bunnies frolic, and doves circle above. There's singing and laughing and eating. As the merriment grows and excitement and eager anticipation fill the air, mostly due to the wine consumption, everyone pushes the goats out of the way, pries the boy bunnies off the girl bunnies, gathers around a fire pit, and, as the early evening dawns, the young and the old alike engage in one of life's most cherished traditions.

They argue for hours about contracts.

They screech and holler and sometimes pelt each other with leftovers while they debate and nash teeth about nothing but contracts. Contracts, contracts, contracts! Mortgage contracts, marriage contracts, little Johan's attendance contract at the Husker Doo Yodeling School, contracts made with lumberjacks in swamps like in that one Washington Irving story (um, avoid those), service agreements, consulting agreements, lease agreements, divorce decrees...any kind of legally binding document will do. It is as it has been for centuries, ever since the first caveman agreed to share half his cave with the prettiest cavewoman, and she made him chisel it in stone before she'd cozy up by the fire.

I know what you're thinking. I need to write, not worry about contracts! Well, my response to that is poopy, with a capital "P." So I guess that would make my response "Poopy." Anyway, I know forcing this discussion isn't a popular thing to do, but somebody's got to do it. I just signed one, so that makes me an expert. Okay, that really only makes me a chick who just signed a contract, but I'm going to pretend to be an expert just for the sake of making the information in this post seem as legitimate as possible and for making myself feel incredibly important.

Contracts can do that, you know. They can take the average writer, like me, and make her feel twenty feet tall. They're the end result of hard work and persistence and getting one can be a bigger thrill than finding Antonio Banderas hiding in your birthday cake. Finally, some company wants your writing badly enough to sacrifice a sapling, or, depending on the size of the contract, an oak tree, to get you to agree to let them do something with it. Contracts are an important part of the entertainment world in which we all survive and hope to thrive, so I thought I'd expound on the topic and offer my vast knowledge and insights to all our readers.

However, that would take about a sentence. A short one. So I'll just offer up what I actually do know from selling my own work and maybe repeat it once or twice to fill space. Before I do that, though, I think it's important to mention to readers that contracts affect us, too. When a writer, dancer, singer, songwriter, musician, actor, etc., signs a contract, it can affect the availability of his/her product. The Party of the First Part (the writer, for example) can grant certain rights to the Party of the Second Part (person/company wanting to work with the Party of the First Part's book). If the Party of the Second Part doesn't use those rights, then the book might not be available in all forms the readers need it to be in, for example, Klingon or Elvish. Fans who speak these languages fluently will have to scrounge up an English translation to read, along with, perhaps, a wider social circle.

This applies to more than books, and I speak from bitter experience here. There have been songs I really want to download, but they're not available from the artist I like except as a part of a very expensive album. Oh sure, I can get covers of the songs by some other artist, but that's not what I want. Whatever agreement the singer made with the recording company limited the release of that song, and this directly affected ME, the listener.

So contracts are important to all of us. That's why I'll be writing about them for my next few posts, beginning with today's. Shall we begin?


Read the blasted thing.


I know you're thinking this is a no-brainer, but I've had friends who've had a Goo-Goo Dolls or TLC moment and, in the glow of getting the offer, skimmed through the legalese faster than Lindsay Lohan tweets about her father. You remember the rock group the Goo Goo Dolls, don't you? And TLC, the all-girl hip hop trio? While the results in both cases were slightly different, the cause was the same. Both groups signed on the dotted line without either fully reading and/or understanding what they were signing, or they simply were so excited to be "signed" that they didn't care.

In the more widely known case of TLC, the members, though they sold millions of records, had to file bankruptcy. Fans, friends, and family didn't understand how they could have sold so many records and still have so little to show for it, but there were items they agreed to in the contract that didn't benefit them, to say the least. By the time they paid the expenses they were legally obligated to pay from the small percentage of profits they agreed to accept, they were left with very little profit. It took them years to settle the disputes with their production company and finally re-negotiate a contract that served their interests more effectively.

Contracts can seem scary, what with all the legal mumbo jumbo that makes about as much sense as Kate Gosselin competing on Dancing with the Stars, but reading them, and more importantly understanding them, is vital. Some writers just don't read them, some read but don't understand them, and some simply can't face the fact the offer they've been waiting on for so long has finally come, only to be an offer that's really not good for them.

Many authors, unlike the friends I've mentioned, have read their contracts but had questions. Unfortunately, they signed anyway, leaving the questions unasked and putting themselves and their careers at great risk. Publishers don't think you're dumb for asking questions, unless it's something like, "Now what's a book again?"

They expect us to ask questions, and those who get angry if you do have concerns before signing or don't address your concerns are probably not really those companies you want to work with anyway. I have a rule, not matter what type of agreement I'm signing, I take my time to read it and ask questions, whether it's for a mortgage or a novel. If I ask questions and get impatience in return, that's a big red flag for me. I'm not afraid to look dumb (mainly because I make dumb look goooooooood, heh heh heh) and I'm not afraid to realize that maybe that oh-so important contract in my hand may not be good for me or my work. It's disappointing, sure, but much better than signing something I don't understand or may discover I don't like later.

It's almost overwhelming when you finally get an offer on a story, and sitting down to read the contract can really kill the buzz. It represents the businessy side of what we do for one thing, and for another, it means we have to view our story differently and start thinking about it like it's a product instead of the beautiful fruit of our labor. I've never really been that attached to any of my pieces, but I know writers who have been, and going through publishing agreement was a scary and almost painful process. So many unknowns and so much to think about, and all they wanted was to be back in Storyville...I think you all know what I mean. :)

I once read a story somewhere years ago, which is probably more of an urban legend than fact but still illustrates my point, that an editor at a large publishing company stuck a clause in the contract he sent to a writer that in essence stated she had to remain a virgin for the duration of the contract, or something along those lines. The editor thought it was funny because he knew the writer either wouldn't read it or would and sign without questioning it because she'd been so desperate to get published. The editor thought it was funny. I thought the editor was a jackass.

However, the moral of the story remains: Read your contracts carefully or you could end up the playing the role of the dork in some urban legend, or worse, wearing a chastity belt made up of "wherefores" and "forthwiths" and "insomuchases."

So that's Lesson One. Not much there...or is there? Have you or do you know of someone who signed her John Hancock and regretted it before the ink was dry? If so, dish baby!! Ahem, I mean, please share for the benefit of the group. The first thing to do when dealing with a contract is facing the fear--the fear of it falling through, the fear of not understanding it, the fear of success (yes, this is a problem for writers as well)--so let's hear those horror stories! Muhahahaha!


Nicole North said...

Awesome post! I look forward to more of your contract info. I do read mine carefully and ask questions.

Carly Carson said...

Very important topic. I happened to be facing a contract this week. I'd been told these types of contracts are not negotiable. But, I wrote them back and said here's 2 things I'd like to change. They wrote back and said, go ahead and change one of them (1st surprise, I had basically thought I'd never hear from them again). I wanted to show my husband the new contract so I didn't immediately return it. A few hours later (same day) the publisher actually called me (2nd surprise). The point is, as writers we become conditioned to the idea that "they" are all powerful and we are the beggars waiting for crumbs. When the crumbs are tossed, we tend to jump on them in gratitude. But here's what I learned - they won't withdraw their offer just because you negotiated the terms. They may not give you what you want, but you won't be worse off for trying.

Danica Avet said...

Great information. I like to think if I were offered a contract that I'd bring it to someone I trusted to have them look it over (just in case I missed anything important), but I'm afraid I'd be so excited, I'd slit open a vein and sign on the dotted line. Not really, but I'd be tempted to.