Ten Book Contract Traps We Can Help You Avoid

As a member, you can receive a free contract review from Legal Services. Here are some basic rules of thumb applicable to most publishing agreements:

Trap 1. Giving up total control of your work.

Never assign or transfer your copyright to a publisher; grant only specific rights (e.g., book publication, not film and TV) and review each rights grant carefully. Consider what specific territories and languages you want the publisher to have and be sure the grant of rights is limited to those territories and languages. Make sure you understand and agree to all of the rights and formats granted to the publisher, including all electronic and audio book rights, and insist on a clause reserving to you all rights that you don’t specifically grant to the publisher.

Trap 2. Putting your book in limbo forever.

Demand a deadline for publication and demand that you be able to terminate the contract and keep your advance if the publisher fails to bring out the book on time.

Trap 3. Giving up the benefits of your copyright.

Require your publisher to register your work with the Copyright Office in your name within three months of publication.

Trap 4. Restricting your ability to write what you want.

Make sure your contract does not prevent you from creating “competing works” on topics similar to the ones in your book. Don’t sign option clauses that tie you to your publisher for your next book.

Trap 5. Letting your publisher change your words without your approval.

Insist that your contract stipulate that you must approve any substantial changes that editors or copyeditors make to your work.

Trap 6. Getting cheated on payments.

Make sure your royalties meet industry standards and can’t be severely reduced by special deals that can allow the publisher to offer deep discounts at your expense. Include an audit clause in your contract so that you or your representative can examine the publisher’s sales records in connection with your work. Don’t allow the publisher to reclaim any portion of your advance if your royalties don’t earn it out.

Trap 7. Accepting unlimited liability for libel and other lawsuits.

Demand to be included in the publisher’s media liability insurance.

Trap 8. Having to pay back your advance if the publisher rejects your manuscript.

Insist that if you deliver the book and the publisher rejects it, you can shop it elsewhere and that any amounts you’ve received to date as part of your advance don’t have to be repaid until and unless you are paid such amounts from a second publisher.

Trap 9. Letting your publisher do important things without even telling you.

Make sure your contract requires your authorization to grant licenses for excerpts, anthologies, and new editions.

Trap 10. Allowing your publisher to maintain control of your book forever.

Demand that your book can be declared out-of-print and your rights to it will be reverted to you if the publisher pays you less than a certain dollar amount of royalties each year.


*Contract review services are unavailable for emerging writer and student memberships

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