Review Any and Every Contract You Sign

by Steve Laube

Signing contract

Today’s headline sounds like a blinding flash of the obvious but you’d be surprised how many writers are not careful about the agreements they sign. Those with a literary agent have that business partner who will review their book contracts, that is a given. But what about their magazine article or online article contracts?

Earlier this month the Condé Nast organization, which includes Wired, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, surprised their freelance writers with a new agreement that has Condé Nast controlling the film and television rights on articles published by their magazines, with a cap on the revenue paid to the writer. Why? Because past articles turned into big box office hits like “Argo,” “Eat Pray Love,” and “Brokeback Mountain.”

This contractual assertion has put writers in a bind because they do not want to lose the chance to write for these prestigious magazines.

This is not something new, per se. A few years ago a radio personality and I were in conversation about his book project. But then his flagship station was bought out and the new owner gave the man a take-it-or-leave it proposition. Either he give up his show or he sign a new agreement that gave the owner 25% of all revenue from books derived from ideas he discussed on his show. He felt he had to sign the agreement to continue his job as a radio personality. It meant that if a book earned $100 he would have to pay $25 to the station and $15 to his literary agent.

Another author discovered that 100% of any income they derived from their books had to be first paid to the ministry for which they worked. The money would pass into their account but the organization had to receive it first.

A pastor was sued by his church saying that he based his books on sermons he gave from the pulpit, wrote his books on “company time” and that the church should receive the income derived from his royalties.

I’ve also seen agreements where the content of the article becomes the property of the magazine or newspaper in perpetuity. That means the author no longer owns their own story. Think about the implications of that agreement. It means that the author can write their amazing story only one time.

Sometimes you have enough clout to negotiate the most onerous terms out of such agreements. Sometimes you do not. If you have a literary agent see if they would be willing to look over such agreements as part of the service they provide, but are not paid for. We do this for our clients whenever they ask.

But the bottom line is that it is wise to review every line of any agreement you sign and make sure you understand the implications of it.

10 Responses to Review Any and Every Contract You Sign

  1. Diana Harkness February 4, 2013 at 5:21 am #

    Read every contract? That’s a given. I never sign or agree to a contract before my attorney reviews it. (And isn’t that what an agent will do with my book contract?) It’s better to pay up front than to wish in hindsight that you’d have been more careful. I am currently involved in a real estate situation where my attorney reviewed and modified the contract before I signed it. When the seller breached the contract, I was protected (and still am as the process leading to closing is protracted). In this worst case scenario, I am being saved from the future consequences of all the bad decisions the seller and his predecessors made. And someday, when I sell the real estate, there will be no latent issues for someone else to contend with. So, if I cannot read and understand all the implications of a contract, I hire a professional and anyone who is preparing to execute a contract should do the same.

  2. JKW February 4, 2013 at 5:37 am #

    Is this the US of A you are talking about? I am appalled at the changes in the companies and their greediness that has come about over these many years. It appears to be a company run nation with no heart and soul. Sad. Yes, every contract should be read carefully and looked over by the appropriate attorney/professional even without the changes in the times. . . one can’t afford not to. Thank you for your great advice always. Blessings, Janet

  3. Connie Almony February 4, 2013 at 6:21 am #

    That’s just the truth–especially in these changing times!

  4. Lisa February 4, 2013 at 6:54 am #

    Great reminder. The importance of having an agent in your corner :)

  5. Ron Estrada February 4, 2013 at 7:14 am #

    Reading the contract is only half the problem. The other half is the ability to put on our business hat when dealing with a publisher. It’s hard to play “see who blinks first” when a new writer is finally getting a contract place in front of him. I’m in B2B sales so I know it’s hard to channel your inner businessman when you really need the sale. You have to remember that the customer has a need as well and you are the best person to fill that need. Otherwise there would be no contract at all.

    • C.L. Dyck February 8, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

      Yes. This. Which is why I think Mary DeMuth’s piece from awhile back (“Publishing Doesn’t Validate You” or along those lines) is pure gold. It’s a lifesaver, and possibly a career-saver, to be able to remember that there’s more to life than signing today’s deal. Being the person for the job, and finding the job that fits, is what matters.

      Also, I might be an outlier here, but I think of the agent as the deal negotiator, and the IP lawyer as the contract interpreter and legal advisor to the author. Those two and the accountant are the core business team the author relies on.

  6. Meghan Carver February 4, 2013 at 8:59 am #

    At the knee of my lawyer father, I learned to read every word of everything I sign. I’ll admit, though, that I haven’t always read every agreement to publish a magazine article. Thanks for the reminder, Steve, especially in this era of demands that absolutely shock me.

  7. Jeanne T February 4, 2013 at 10:31 am #

    Wow, those are some shocking demands. It sounds like writers/personalities sometimes have to choose either/or with no third option. I was raised to read every word of something before i sign it. It sounds like a necessary practice if/when I get to the place of signing a contract. I definitely would want my agent (when I’m represented by one) to look it over with me and help me have a clear understanding of the implications of the contract.

    Thanks for that heads up, Steve.

  8. Jan Thompson February 4, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    Thank you. Another reason writers need good agents! All those fine prints.

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