Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Contracts: One Little “s” Can Change Everything


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Publishing contracts may not be my favorite part of the job, but I have to admit, they are never boring. Case in point, this past month I’ve been working on an Australian contract for one of my clients. All the requested changes had been handled; we were simply awaiting the final clean contract in PDF.

When a contract arrives, I always compare the signature copy to our master redline. Just in case. When a contract goes through five or more drafts, it’s likely something was accidentally added or omitted.

In reviewing this particular contract, I noticed one very small change in the Out of Print clause that hadn’t been present in any of the previous drafts. “The Work” had been changed to “The Works.” To make a long story short, and to diminish the narrative tension here, it was simply a drafting error on the publisher’s part. The final contract was corrected quickly but I highlight this error because the addition of an “s” radically changes the Out of Print clause.

Let me explain why. In OOP clauses, we include sales thresholds as one of the determiners of whether a title is out of print. For example, a contract may include a line that reads that if “The work” is has sold fewer than 250 copies in two accounting periods, then it is considered out of print.

This is a simplification of the whole clause, but it will give you the general gist of where I’m going.

If this contract happens to be for multiple books, then the addition of an “s” can have major consequences. If the line is changed to “The Works,” suddenly it’s not just one title that needs to sell fewer than 250 copies in two accounting periods, it’s ALL the works in the contract together that need to fall below the sales threshold.

As you can imagine, if the sales of more than one book are being counted in the total for the sales threshold, that will make it that much more difficult for the author to ever get his or her rights back. The definition for Out of Print has changed substantially.

To think like an agent, know that it’s not necessary for there to be a major word change in any given clause to radically change the contract. In this instance, one little “s” can change everything.

4 Responses

  1. Lyn Alexander said:

    I have experienced this very problem in four different contracts offered last summer by four different publishers. If I’d had an agent there wouldn’t be a problem.
    I had offered a series of four historical novels, connected by a single protagonist. The publishers wanted to cover all four novels in one contract. When I asked for minor changes, the common response was, Take it or leave it. I had to leave it, or they would have owned my soul for the rest of my natural life.
    Hmm. I think my magic number is 4

  2. Maureen said:

    Wow, just goes to show how important it is to read everything very, VERY carefully – both for the agent and the author. Even if it was more or less a typo here, those things can have huge consequences… and they don’t always happen by mistake. At my job, we once had a client subtly change a contract so that the NDA went from two-sided to one-sided (only covering, of course, our end). Not a word lost about the change…

    It’s not quite as little a change as that single “s”, but even subtle changes in wording can make a huge difference to your contractual rights and obligations. Thank the heavens for agents and other people who know their way around these things! 🙂

  3. roshe run all black said:

    So, if I ever tell you to give up on your dreams, on the things you want most in life, please ignore my words for they probably came from a place of fear and pain caused by my own past failures. Instead, please prove me wrong so that perhaps I could once again believe that I too can achieve my own dreams and have the courage to try again
    roshe run all black

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