Jenny Bent, founder of The Bent Literary Agency, graced the Pennwriters Conference with her expertise and shared pages of information with us on contracts. Her presentation was the first I attended on Friday and it was dizzying.
I didn’t keep count but Jenny had a favorite phrase and used it repeatedly when asked a question. “It’s so complicated.”
And she was quite correct. Jenny has over 15 years experience in the publishing industry and has seen many changes but also some things that stay the same. She brought along two thick handouts to help us understand. One was a seven page checklist for contracts written in ‘everyman’ terms instead of legalese. The other was a 19 page sample contract from Simon & Schuster, Inc. That’s nineteen pages of six point font.
I have notes written all over the pages but let me hit the highlights. First off was the granting of rights. I learned publishers always want audio, first serial and a few others. These you can’t negotiate but some you can such as foreign rights and even foreign rights can be complicated by such distinctions as British Commonwealth or World English rights.
Then Jenny discussed separately the digital rights and the scramble of the publishing industry to keep up with expanding technology. As many of us already know or can guess, the publishers try to grab everything they can. Some of them also try to pay the same percentage royalties for ebooks as they do for print. Don’t let them do that. Also don’t let them ask for rights to any future technology that might be used to produce or sell your work.
The other contract item Jenny spent a lot of time on is the option clause. Usually publishers want some type of option to see the next work of an author. It is very important to make sure the wording is as specific as possible to include only one more book in the same genre and of the same length. Also the amount of time the publisher gets for its first look at a new work should be specific and limited.
Jenny briefly mentioned how more publishers are paying advances in three or four segments instead of the traditional two payments.
Many of us working with small publishers plow through the contracts as best as we can and fear to negotiate in terror of losing the sale. Jenny pointed out things we must all consider to make sure a tight contract doesn’t impede our career.
Have you ever negotiated a change in an offer without the help of an agent? Have you ever been stuck in a contract you regretted signing? Do you believe publishers are giving authors their fair share of ebook royalties?