Why I Just Signed the Worst Publishing Contract I Ever Got

And why I probably won’t regret it.

Moments ago, I put my signature on a contract to create a series of videos based on one of my books. Details beyond that are neither prudent nor required for this blog post. Let’s just say that the book is one of my better-selling efforts and the publisher is one that I’ve enjoyed a good relationship with for a while.

The contract, however, sucked.

My main concerns with the contract fall into two areas:

  • The language of the contract makes it nearly impossible to understand without drawing a flowchart or having a lawyer at my elbow to translate the legalese. We’ve come a long way since 1995, when the owner/publisher of the company signed the contracts and all checks and I, the author, was referred to throughout as “Maria.” Instead, it’s “we” and “you” and the single-spaced monstrosity stretches for six full pages, with numerous cross-references to other paragraphs. Whoever wrote this thing could easily get work writing government documents in legalese, such as FARs for the FAA or the latest version of the health care bill. It’s a shame they’re wasting their talents on publishing contracts, where contract recipients actually have a chance of understanding what they’ve written. They could be confusing a much larger audience.
  • The rights clause(s) in the contract require me to give away all rights to the work. All of them. For every possible means of publication and market, existing now or in the future. Forever and ever. It even says that if they need me to sign some other document to give them rights, I’m required to sign it. (Have you ever heard of such a thing?) I get it. I’m writing something for them and I should never expect to have any right in it ever again.

You might be asking why I would sign such a thing. After all, why should I give away all rights in a work I create? After 20 years in the business of writing technical books, don’t I have enough of a track record or reputation or following or whatever to successfully push back and keep some of those rights?

My response: Why would I want to?

Let’s face it — what is the life of a computer book these days? I feel fortunate when I see sales on a book that’s a year old. What good is having the rights revert back to me on a book that’s too stale to sell? Especially when I’ve already written and published the revision?

And do I really think I can sell something better than the marketing machine that my publisher controls? While I don’t think they do as well as they could, they certainly do better than I could.

But the real reason I signed without dwelling on it was the money. There. I said it.

The contract did not offer an advance against royalties. It offered a grant to compensate me for production expenses. The difference between the two is huge:

  • An advance against royalties is applied against royalties as they’re earned. So if you earn $8K in royalties in a quarter and they paid you $5K in advances, your first royalty check would be for just $3K.
  • A grant isn’t applied against any royalties. That means you start earning money on the very first unit sold. Using the same example, if you earned $8K in royalties in a quarter and they paid you a $5K grant, your first royalty check would be for $8K.

The royalty rates in this particular contract weren’t the greatest, but they weren’t bad. If this works out well and they want me to do another one, I think I can push a bit harder for better royalties or perhaps a larger grant. But not this first time.

You see, this is the first project of this kind at this particular publisher. We’re all sailing uncharted waters here.

And that’s probably the third reason I signed. I wanted an opportunity to try this.

Publishing is changing.

I remember the day about 10 years ago when I received six book contracts in the mail. All on the same day. The total advances for those books exceeded what a lot of people I knew earned in a year. And that year, I wrote ten books.

Things are different today. Titles that I thought would last forever — Microsoft Word for Windows Visual QuickStart Guide comes to mind — have died. Too much competition, not enough novice users needing a book, too much online reference material. The Internet’s free access to information is cutting into the royalties of the writers who used to get paid to write the same material. Paper and shipping is expensive. Ebooks have a lower perceived value than their printed counterparts. Brick and mortar bookstores have limited shelf space and a fading customer base. All this spells hard times for the folks who do the kind of writing I do: computer how-to books for the beginning to intermediate user.

When opportunity knocks, I answer the door. If the deal looks good, I shake hands, accept the offered check, and get to work. Even if the deal isn’t as good as I’d like it to be, I’m more likely to take it than I was 10 years ago.

After all, who knows when I’ll hear another knock on my door?

2 thoughts on “Why I Just Signed the Worst Publishing Contract I Ever Got

  1. Wow, you really nailed it. It’s a fascinating new world. I remember those one- or two-page contracts, the world’s friendiest (and most helpful) royalty reports, and the sense of family. And I’ve seen the change. I signed a contract a few years back (non-computer book) that actually spelled out all the rights I was giving away, including (I’m not making this up) the right for them to create a theme park based on the book. But there are options besides just saying “yes” to whatever is offered.

    Good luck on this new project, Maria!

  2. David: I know there are other options, but at this point, I’m simply not willing to take a more active role in production and marketing. I’m juggling two businesses — writing and flying — and this is my busy season for flying. In April, when flying stuff slows down, I’ve got a few other ideas I’m going to chase down. In the meantime, however, there’s nothing quite as comforting as guaranteed income on a project.

    Thanks for the good luck wish. One of these days, we need to chat.

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