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In the beginning there was the contract. An agreement, a meeting of the minds, a legal document that outlines the responsibilities of both parties regarding that agreement. Offer, acceptance, consideration. But what the hell does all that actually mean?

When I got that emailed contract I was almost there. Just a hair’s breadth away from my ultimate goal of getting my writing published and available for people to purchase. Now I had to read this document, digest and understand it, and then determine if I agreed with it. Even though my novel is about a murder case, I am not myself an attorney. But I know people who are. I sent the document to my friend, also named Don, to get his professional opinion.

The reason you send legal documents to an attorney is because, as your advocate, your attorney reads that contract with an eye to any potential harm to you. In my situation, Attorney Don pointed out a certain section where I would be surrendering all rights, and two other sections that needed clarification on fairly technical legal specifics. Attorney Don made the corrections he felt were necessary to protect my rights, and I sent his suggestions (three total) to the publisher.

Within half an hour the publisher roundly rejected the corrections.

Among the things that fill my day, I am a mediator, I help other people resolve their disputes. I can recognize when someone is negotiating from a disadvantaged position, and in this matter I was that guy. I had never been published before, and this offer was a close as I’d ever gotten. They had what I wanted, and if I walked away chances were good another opportunity wasn’t going to come along. The worst case scenario for them, if I didn’t sign, was that they moved on to the next author; the worst case for me was going back to Corporate America with its enforced mediocrity and 10 Federal holidays a year. I absolutely had to sign. Right?

Not so fast. People make bad decisions when they’re rushed. That’s why those timeshare sales places are terrible, they want you to buy TODAY. I mulled my options over: sign a document that was almost but not quite what I thought it should be, or refuse to sign it because it wasn’t precisely to my liking. The details are unimportant to this story, the point is I had a choice to make, one I’d seen many, many people face during my time as a mediator. When is ‘good enough’ not really good enough? When do you walk away?

I did sign. I decided that the details of the contract meant the publisher was as invested in me as I was in them. Aside from a few quibbles about wording where I didn’t get my way, I believe they’re approaching it as a partnership, just as I am. In it together, which, honestly, is a fairly freaky proposition for me (see Publishing vs. Writing).

More on the details of the contract in part 2.

Signing a contract checklist:

  • Get an attorney to read it. Yes, this will cost you money.
  • Take your attorney’s suggestions seriously. They’re your advocate, they’re looking out for you.
  • Read the entire contract yourself. Understand every part of it. You will probably need your attorney’s help here.
  • If your attorney suggests changes, understand what those changes will mean for a revised contract.
  • Recognize your position, there’s always a strong side and a weaker side. Understand your side when you negotiate.
  • Negotiate in good faith. That means you don’t have a hidden agenda and you’re not trying to cheat, swindle, or screw over the other side. You’re going to have to trust the other side is approaching it as honestly as you are.
  • When you have a final proposed contract, read and understand it thoroughly. Do not let anyone rush you. If you’re pressured to sign before you’re ready, walk away.
  • After you sign a contract, make a list of everything you’re obligated to do. Post this list prominently, and add any dates to your calendar. Structure your work towards these obligations.
  • If questions arise, talk them through with the other party. Over-communicate. Bad things happen when people don’t talk to each other.

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Previous – Publishing vs. Writing

Next – The Contract, part 2

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