An author, a publisher, and a divorce

It may be better to give back the engagement ring before taking the vow.

It may be better to give back the engagement ring before taking the vow.

A publisher and I parted ways recently because we had a different view of contracts.

The debate, and ultimately the separation, stemmed from this provision in the contract:

“The Author shall provide one blog post per month, a day each month to be designated and agreed upon, to be placed on the [REDACTED] Blog. The 8th of each month starting in Sept 2014.”

The publisher expected long-term relationships with writers for a continual output of various book series. He pictured the team of writers as partners who help all the other writers through the years. Thus, an end-date, or conclusion, to a project was unnecessary since the relationship would span multiple projects.

On the other hand, I asked to know how much work he expected of me. I wanted to know whether or not I had clearly completed my part of the project.

The questions dealt with the vagueness of the contract language. What if this was the only project I worked on for this publisher? How long would the publisher expect me to write for his blog? I found no definitive answers.

I realized vague contracts are like karma. You never know how much you owe and how long it’s going to take to pay it back.

A first lesson for writers: Get details.

The provision’s wording seemed straight-forward, at least for the start of the monthly blogging duties. However, “each month” was missing a concluding date. That can get sticky.

The publisher may be a guy with the kindest heart. He may willingly release his blogging authors from their monthly duties if they opt not to work on a future project. Nevertheless, he doesn’t have to, if he doesn’t want to. The blogging author then may be locked into writing for the publisher for a long time with no way out.

A second lesson: Recognize that a contract is a legal agreement before signing it.

Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, defines a contract as “An agreement creating obligations enforceable by law.” The key phrase is “enforceable by law.”

A contract isn’t a document that makes people friends. It brings together two parties for the sake of business.

If you sign the contract, you’re in it for good.

A third lesson: Decide whether this publisher is your only option.

My underlying question was whether or not I would willingly work with the publishing company, even if I wasn’t making any money. If I didn’t write for an upcoming series, I would have to continue writing for his blog. The blog had web traffic, so there would be some benefit, but was there enough to justify writing for the blog?

The answer for me was no.

A fourth lesson: Determine if the publisher will hear your side.

I asked for clarification in the contract, and he reacted. “I can’t believe you’d ask these questions about the contract. You’re missing the whole point.”

A few days later, I sent him a revised contract so we could begin a discussion about what he wanted and what I wanted. He was not pleased. He was flabbergasted that I would offer a revised contract.

“I just got back from a Labor Day picnic, and I get a contract like this in my inbox. My cheeks are getting red I’m so upset. I need time to cool down,” he said.

I learned from these discussions that being an actual author is not worth being locked for years into a contract with a publisher who would not listen or discuss the issues at hand.

I decided there are plenty of other options out there.

Have you faced a similar situation? What lessons would you pass along to young authors about signing contracts?

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Comments

  1. This is a very interesting post! Sounds like a good way to generate the publisher’s blog, but you questions about value to your own success are the key. And, any time a publisher reacts instead of responds with at least the willingness to negotiate details it’s a red flag.

    • Hi Vie – I told Matthew the exact same thing. I’d never heard of a publisher reacting this way. Thanks for stopping by today!

  2. Thanks, Vie.

    I wonder what the people at the convenience store thought as the publisher and I debated contracts over the phone. The publisher was bristled enough that I had to calm him down several times so I could respond to him.

    That discussion, and the other interactions with the same publisher, taught me some valuable lessons. Mainly, be willing to walk away. The publishing world is changing as independent publishing and print-on-demand have become more prevalent. It may force publishers to be nicer. At least I hope so.

    Matthew.

  3. Michelle – very interesting info. I am not qualified or knowledgable in this niche however; am a small business owner and I see your dilemma and agree you have valid concerns. Business is a 2 way street. There is no room for reactions like this to satisfy both parties. Business is about negotiation and this publisher is not a good listener nor fair. Shake the dust off and trust your instincts — move on it appears one sided and a waste of your talent. No one deserves to be used. You will find other options with good karma. Good luch! Anne

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