Writing Contract Red Flags

©Judy Bagshaw - All Rights Reserved


Note: As I have stated before, my publishing experience is with small independent presses, predominantly romance e-publishers, so this article represents my experience in that arena only. You will have to do further research regarding contracts offered by the bigger houses.  



If you’re serious about your writing career and you submit your work regularly, there will come a time when you will receive a contract for one of your submissions. As thrilling as that moment is, it’s important for a writer to keep a cool head and examine the document carefully. Not all contracts are created equally, and it’s easy for an author to get into an unpleasant situation. 


Here are a few tips to get you on the right track. 


  • Consider the length of the contract term. As an author you probably don’t want to be tied into a contract for more than two or three years. It allows you enough time to market your book and see how sales are going, and how smoothly the publisher works. If it’s a happy experience, and your contract provides for renewals, you can simply renew at the end of the contract period. If it’s a bad situation, then you are not locked into something uncomfortable for an interminable amount of time. 


  • Be mindful of the rights the publisher is taking. You, as the author, do not want to relinquish your copyright, and will want to retain your intellectual rights to characters, premises etc. As well, you may wish to retain rights to certain formats, for example, audio book rights or large print rights, in order to pursue contracting these rights elsewhere. 


  • Check that there is a clear clause for reversal of rights if, for any reason, the publisher closes down. You need to have this reversal in writing or you will likely not be able to publish your orphaned book anywhere else. Publishers are very sensitive to the legal ramifications of reversal of rights, and so they should be. 


  • Make sure you will be receiving competitive royalties for your work. Royalties are best when they’re based on the cover price, but you rarely get that in epublishing.  Royalties then, will likely be based on net sales. For ebooks, the standard is between 35-50% royalties. For print, it’s around 7-15%. This will vary from publisher to publisher, of course, but you’ll want to be in this range. It might be prudent to ask the publisher for a definition of “net sales” for their company. For example, does this mean whatever money is received from the resellers? Or is it that money less upload fees, PayPal fees, editing fees, etc. 


  • Also make sure that a reasonable timeline is stipulated regarding getting edits before the book is released. In other words, you as the author, do not want to be doing galley proofs or edits, two weeks before your book is due to be released. You need a fair amount of time to do the job thoroughly. 


  • You should also receive a certain number of free author copies, print and ebook, that you can use for things like promotions, contest prizes, gifts, sending to reviewers, or sales. 


  • Many publishers will include “first right of refusal” for sequels to books, or books in a series. In other words, they get dibs on seeing the sequel before anyone else. You will want to make sure there is a time limit on this. Thirty days is reasonable. If at the end of thirty days they offer, you can choose to decline and submit elsewhere, or you can choose to accept. If the thirty days comes and goes without an offer, you are then free to submit the book elsewhere without a problem


  • An important clause is an audit clause. You want the right to examine your publisher’s books at any time. This protects you in the event that you feel that something is not right with the money you are being paid.  


  • Beware the “kill fee”. This is a clause that is starting to appear in contracts, requiring the author to pay a termination fee if he/she wishes to terminate the contract before the contract term is up. Supposedly this is for the publisher’s protection, allowing them to recoup the money they may have already spent on editing, cover art, typesetting, printing etc.. But some houses seem to be taking advantage. The most extreme case of which I am aware is a company demanding $1000.00 as the fee. Outrageous! 



These are just a few of the items to watch for, and have a clear understanding of, in your contracts. For more information, you can check out any of the following: 


EPIC (Electronic Publishing Internet Connection), has an extensive  “Red Flag/Yellow Flag” discussion on contracts that is invaluable in understanding what constitutes a good contract. You can find it at www.epicauthors.com  


Renowned fantasy author Piers Anthony has compiled a comprehensive list of e-publishers which he keeps fairly current. Many of the postings contain information on contracts. It’s a good general stop in researching e-publishers. www.hipiers.com  


The Absolute Write Water Cooler is another good place to glean information on all things publishing, including contracts. http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=208 


And Preditors and Editors, an industry watchdog, has a good publishers section, and warnings section. http://pred-ed.com/ 


And if you are still unsure about anything regarding your contract, I recommend you find a lawyer and have them go over it with you. I suggest finding one who specializes in publishing contracts, as a regular contract lawyer won’t necessarily know what the industry standards are, and therefore won’t know if a contract is bad or not. 


You as a writer should expect to be dealt with fairly, just as your publishers would expect you to conduct yourself in a professional manner. Professionalism should be present on both sides of the publishing table. 


For further reading on this subject, consider: 

Understanding Your Contract by Cheryl Wright




*Note:  this article is not meant to replace legal advice.  Please contact your legal representative for relevant information. 





About the Author:  Judy Bagshaw has been published since 2000. Writing romance featuring full-figured heroines, her publishing credits include several novels, a collection of short stories, and short stories in multiple anthologies. She was also part of the writing team for the Ginn Reading Series, and Reaching Readers Series, used in many elementary schools. Retired from teaching, she writes full-time from her home in Ontario, Canada. Visit Judy's website www.judybagshaw.com



Easy Way to Write Romance - by Rob Parnell