On May 28, 2015, at Book Expo America in New York City, the Author’s Guild announced an ambitious new program — a must-read for every writer — named The “Fair Contract Initiative.” This initiative is a series of commentaries that will take “a fresh look at the standard book publishing contract.”
According to the announcement, the “guiding principle . . is to restore balance to the author-publisher relationship and help authors achieve a fair return for the efforts they contribute to the joint venture of book publication.” A tall order!
The commentaries will be published on the Guild’s web site (authorsguild.org) and will address “the major inequities in many boilerplate contract terms today, and then move on to educate authors on the standard contract terms that publishers often will change if pressed, but which too many authors don’t know to negotiate.”
The launch statement gives a brief menu of the critical issues in many publisher’s boilerplate contract terms, deemed unfair by the Guild (also by attorneys who represent writers):
• In exchange for some money, you give the publisher all rights to your book for 35 years—or your lifetime plus 70 years (let’s just call it “forever”) if you or your heirs forget to terminate after those first 35.
• The publisher gets to reject your manuscript for any reason or no reason, and if that happens, you have to give back all the money you’ve received before you can publish the book with somebody else.
• The publisher can publish your book when the company gets around to it, which may take as long as two years from the time it accepts your manuscript—or even longer. You have no control, and you may have to wait for the last part of your “advance” until the book finally appears in print.
• If you are even one day late delivering the work (time is of the essence, it seems, only when it comes to the author), the publisher can opt to terminate the agreement and ask for the advance back.
• You can’t publish another book under your name or even a pseudonym anywhere in the world until this one is published—even if the publisher has put it off.
• You have to offer the publisher the rights to your next book, but the publisher can wait to decide whether to offer you a deal on it until two months after this one comes out.
• You have no say in what the cover, jacket flap, and ad copy will look like.
• If the publisher does anything you don’t happen to like, such as assign you an incompetent editor, fail to exploit subsidiary and foreign rights, print too few copies to satisfy customer demand, forget to register your copyright, consistently forget to pay you on time, or go bankrupt, you have no real recourse.
I have addressed these issues (often more than once) over the years. Hopefully, the Guild’s presentation will give an organizational imprimatur to support attempts of authors to revise these often onerous terms.
The full launch statement can be downloaded here.