‘The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away’ – a case for independent contract reviews (Part One)

The murky world of the publishing contract has long been shrouded in mystery. They are traditionally drawn up on a delicate vellum, in a book-lined opium den down a little-known alley near Postman’s Park. Once complete, they are rolled tightly and stored in a tall contract-shaped hat. The hat-wearer, as she is universally known, then casually cycles her penny farthing around the great publishing houses of the capital, where she is greeted with awe and responds with silence.

From there, the lesser lights of our industry pass the scroll from manicured hand to less-manicured hand until it reaches the trembling palm of the newly appointed editorial assistant. On hearing the knock at her desk, she will emerge, blinking, from the mass of proposals and spreadsheets that wall her in. She will open the dusty ledger and carefully update the programme; she will ring the bell, release the dove, and lo, the contract will be sent off in the post.

Or …

Each publishing house will have a template, somewhere on the server, and this will be the contract you get. The name and address will change, the name of the book and the delivery date will change, but nothing else is ever likely to.

And, in the main, there is nothing to worry about within these contracts. Of course there are exceptions, but, in the main, each publishing house will have a contract that pretty much fits with what you might expect from the genre they are publishing in. We will explain this point a little more fully.

Firstly, if you have an agent, you won’t really have to worry about any of this. They will know what to look for, they will argue your case over the aspects of the contract that can change and know what doesn’t need to be argued over.

If you are looking for a major advance, and by that I mean more than £10,000, then you probably have an agent.

If you don’t have an agent, but are dealing with those sorts of numbers, you should probably get an agent. You will get less in the short term but it may benefit you greatly in the longer term, particularly when it comes to subsidiary and foreign rights. Again, publishers are not out to get authors. They need them, want them, and often are them; but it is a business, and when the money involved becomes greater, so too do the commercial responsibilities.

The area in which things become slightly more difficult, however, is for that tier of authors below that level, whereby you are being offered a publishing contract, but it is not really commercially viable for an agent to be involved. This might be because it is your first book, or it’s a niche subject area, or because it’s an academic monograph, but still being published by a recognized house. These are the contracts that, for the moment, we think it is worth discussing.

And over the next couple of days we will. So do stay tuned, world, and if you have any queries, or there is anything you completely disagree with, or if you just want to hurl abuse at someone, please feel free to get in touch.