Friday, April 2, 2010

Can You Change a Contract?

Your chance of making a profit from a book or article hedges on the contract you sign for it. Contracts can be as short as a page or as long as 30 pages. Some publishers call them agreements, but they’re contracts, nonetheless. It pays to read them carefully because whatever is included in them is binding for both parties.

Publishers have revised their contracts since the Internet came into prominent use to garner every business advantage. In today’s market, that means electronic sales, among other things. Publishing to their Web sites or publishing your work as an ebook are options they never had before. And with the success of Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s ebook reader, those options have stepped right out front. This applies both to books and article, but not as much to short stories.

Signing a contract put you into a legal binding agreement . However, it also binds the publisher into the same agreement. Once, a magazine I wrote for sent me contracts for every article. In it was a line about electronic rights. I changed the wording to say I wouldn’t sell them or sometimes, I said I’d sell them for 10-15 percent of the article fee. His editor agreed. The publisher ignored the changes and published them on his Web site anyway. After two years and many articles later, I called him on it, and his lawyer said he basically didn’t have a leg to stand on because he had ignored the original contract changes. The publisher ended up paying me over $400 in back fees.

Another time, a client, who had hired me to write an extensive four-page advertorial for a big-city paper, ignored the phrase in it which said he had only one full edit of the manuscript. This was to prevent him from changing his mind lots of times before publication–a habit of business executives. In the end, he had to pay me 100 percent more because each additional edit cost him $1.00 per word. Again, his lawyer said he didn’t have a leg to stand on.

You can change any of the wording in a contract before you sign it–as long as the publisher agrees. A publisher usually begins with a standard legal contract, then adds whatever details he or she needs for the individual project. A standard contract gives all the monetary and legal advantages to the party who draws it up. In the above examples, these were the magazine publisher and myself. You, as the writer, have the right to change anything in the contract, should you not find it in your best interest.

If this is your first contract with a particular publisher, you don’t have the bargaining power to change much. But as you continue working on projects for that same publisher, your bargaining power increases.

And it isn’t just about your advance, should you be writing a book. Other items that you can change include deadline dates, reversion of rights back to you after publication (used mostly for articles), electronic rights (Web site and ebooks), royalty percentages, subsidiary rights (T.V., film, worldwide rights), and more.

So the next time you receive a contract from a publisher, read it very carefully. In fact, make a copy and underline or highlight sections on the copy that you find questionable. Don’t hesitate to ask for changes. Remember, it’s in your best interest. The publisher already has theirs covered.

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