One of the most exciting times in a writer’s life is when a contract arrives. Long form, short form, reprint, big money or small… it’s still Exciting! And a lot of time, especially when we’re still new but even when we’re Old Pros™, the impulse is to skim and sign. Sooner it’s done, sooner we can crow on social media about it/collect the check, right?
Stop. Take a deep breath. Put down the (virtual or otherwise) pen. Now go back and look at the contract. I’m going to assume you’ve already checked to make sure the essential pertinent details (name, title, payment) are all correct, that’s Contract 101. And you’ve already made sure that they’re not claiming any rights you didn’t previous agree to/know they were going to ask for, right? (Right?)
Now take another breath, and look at the contract again. Read all the clauses. And if you see something you don’t particularly like or seems even slightly hinky, do NOT just shrug and sign. Seriously. Fucking don’t.
Herein begins the lesson.
Recently I received a contract from a small press for a short story to be included in a Kickstarter-funded project. I’d agreed to the length, due date and payment, but hadn’t seen the rest of the contract. So when I got it, I read through the thing carefully. Which is when I noticed:
1. Although the payment amount was stated, the delivery of that payment was “after revisions and after the Kickstarter was done.” Said Kickstarter hadn’t even launched yet, not had I gotten my revisions notes. Either of those things could be delayed indefinitely. Hrm.
2. There was a clause in the contract that allowed for the publisher to repackage the stories in other editions, even after the limited term of exclusivity was over. Which, okay, fine. But nowhere in that clause was there any mention of the writer being compensated for that new use (neither additional up-front money nor royalties). Hrm.
3. Historically, writing something for a Kickstarter project has “higher pay for the writers” included in their stretch goals. As the Kickstarter hadn’t launched yet, I had no idea if they would be doing that (bad sign) and there was no mention of any escalators whatsoever in the contract (very bad sign ). Basically, they could have a wildly overfunded Ks – and the publisher would take all that profit for themselves, despite the writers being the ones who made it possible. Hrm.
So at this point, I had two options:
a) I could shrug and sign – after all, they were paying good market rates, and I’d have the right to do whatever I wanted with the story after their exclusive term was up, right?
b) I could push back.
Spoiler: I pushed back. Politely, but I did push, pointing out to the editor of the anthology that #1 was an issue of timely payment, which is standard in contracts (and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise), #3 was… bad optics, and also kinda shitty, and #2 was a dealbreaker. And I asked, again politely if firmly, if these three things could be addressed to mutual satisfaction.
And I was quite clear that if we did not reach mutual satisfaction, I would decline to participate.
Because yes, I wanted to be part of this project, but not that badly. And if they refused to negotiate, or tried to justify their contract as-was? Well, I’d probably be naming and shaming the company in this post.
Spoiler: they negotiated. In fact, they gave me everything I asked for. A set timeframe for payment was added, as was clarification of the Kickstarter payment status. And the dealbreaker clause about repackaging was removed entirely. Because, and only because, I pushed back.
More to the point: I was told that yes, these changes would apply to everyone who was part of the project. Which is good, because when I asked around, the people I knew who had signed had not questioned any of it. And these are not newbies, but writers I consider fellow jaded pros. You’re all welcome, and you owe me a goddamned drink.
This is a lesson for writers, but it applies to far more than that. Gather up your self-worth, choose your words carefully, and push back for what you deserve for your work.
Here endeth the lesson.