Before You Sign | Over-Reaching Contracts

14 March 2018 Before

Keep in mind that some contracts can affect your writing life far beyond the confines of just the work which is officially the subject of the contract. The main dangers to watch out for are inappropriate option, non-compete and revised edition clauses, and assignments of copyright.

Some authors agree multi-work deals, with advances relating to each work included, and that’s generally a good thing – so long as first-time authors, especially, can cope with the pressure of writing books two and three under the pressure of expectations and deadlines.

However, rather than committing both parties to further books, some contracts simply demand that the author give the publisher a 'right of first refusal' on their next related work, meaning that publisher must be given the option of accepting or refusing the work for publication before the author can take it elsewhere.

If you're happy with your publisher you might want to submit your next work to them regardless; a publisher compelling you to do so against your will is another matter. Contrary to popular myth, option clauses are as legally binding as any other commitments in a publishing agreement.

Fiction writers lucky enough to secure film or TV deals can find themselves unable to control spin-offs from the adaptation of their original book. Non-fiction authors, in particular, need to be very wary of clauses which restrict them from writing other works on the same topic – generally described as ‘non-compete’ clauses.

On top of this, watch out for contracts which give the publisher, rather than the author, the right to produce revised editions of an existing work, without necessarily even involving the original writer. This situation can arise via the wording of a revised edition clause or simply as a side-effect of the author assigning copyright.

These restrictions may or may not be reasonable, depending on the individual situation. If you are updating the 17th edition of a long-established work you are likely to have much less say over revised editions than if, for example, you created the first edition of a seminal work of reference.

A non-compete clause is much less onerous if it has a clear definition of what constitutes a competing work, and if the restriction lapses after a given time or when certain conditions are met (such as if the author’s royalty income from that work falls below a stated level).

As always, we urge you to bring all contracts you're unsure about to us for checking. The devil is in the details and our highly-trained advisors are always happy to break them down for you.


Alwynne Gwilt 05/10/2018 13:02:00
" Hello,

I am embarking on my first book and I have been given a contract by the publisher. I’m not sure if what they are offering is fair or what the standard is, and I was wondering if someone at SoA might be able to assist? I need to meet the publisher soon and they’re asking me to sign the contract ASAP but I don’t want to leap into anything without further understanding.

Many thanks,

Richard 21/03/2018 09:26:44
" As a new writer faced with a contract, your free service was incredibly helpful. It's one thing to think "I have issues with every clause here" and another to be able to say "I passed this to the SOA and they had this to say.""
Sarah Waights 18/03/2018 20:25:29
" I welcome this comment and the excellent advice of the SoA. Whilst one has some sympathy for a publisher who wants their commitment in launching a new author to be returned, there is no benefit at all to any clause which keeps the writer unhappily chained to a publisher they would not have otherwise offered further material to, for any of a number of legitimate reasons. I have sadly heard of situations where publishers appear to exploit these clauses and authors' expectations to tread water. They then secure signed contracts for work on the promise of ending frustrating delays, simply to wait for the contract to "time-out" having - it would appear- no real intention of using the material they have obtained rights over. 'Dog in the manger'? It can look like it sometimes... I suspect no industry will ever eliminate unattractive behaviour like this, but striking at the contractual element will make it more difficult to get away with, as will shining a light on it for all to see. Sadly, new writers in the industry will always have their heads turned by the prospect of a longed-for contract - like a giddy new love affair - they will hear no criticism of their newly discovered partner."
Anne Rooney 17/03/2018 10:59:47
" I have always found it quite useful to have a book to hand that a particular publisher will never want to publish. They can turn it down, and you've fulfilled the obligation to offer them your next book. If they publish adult science books, offer them a picture book about fairies. If they publish picture books, offer them a humorous book on quantum theory."
Hazel 17/03/2018 06:00:35
" As a writer with a relatively new publishing company, we have both found your suggestions re contracts extremely useful. They have been taken on board by my publisher, who has been only too happy to welcome amendments.
Your free service to members is invaluable."
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