Ripley Patton (rippatton) wrote,
Ripley Patton

Negotiating Short Story Contracts

You've just sold your first short story. You're thrilled. You're giddy. You get your first contract, and it is full of legal mumbo-jumbo, but what do you care? They are going to put you in print and pay you something. You would sign away your first born for your first byline.

And sadly, some editors and publishers may be counting on just that.

I know that I personally never dreamed of negotiating my first short story contract. I read it, sort of understood some of it, signed it, and did a happy dance. I thought complex things like contracts were mostly to protect long works like novels.  I thought most editors and publishers were being held to a contractual standard. I certainly didn't think of the contracts I received as negotiable. And I have been very fortunate. 

As I began to publish more, I began to pay more attention to my contracts. There was a case where I had to utilize my contract to encourage a publisher to keep their end of the bargain (like paying me), and that was the point when I realized that THE CONTRACT is the only legal thing that empowers me, as a writer, to insist on fair treatment.

Then, I received a contract that didn't feel right.  I wasn't even sure why, but it sent up some red flags. I compared it to some of my past contracts, and I began to see differences. Subtle differences, but things that niggled at me. I didn't want to sign that contract and do a happy dance, like I had all the other times. The pages sat on my desk for days, haunting me a little. I felt guilty. Surely, I was making something out of nothing. Finally, I pinpointed the areas that had been bothering me, and sent off an e-mail to the editor, asking about them. But I felt terrible. Like a nag, or a "trouble-maker".

While I worried about the editor's response, I decided to do some research on short story contracts.

The information I found was fascinating, and surprising, and so I've decided to share it in hopes of helping other short story writers handle their contracts.

1 All contracts are negotiable before you sign them.
If you are like me, you tend to think of legalize as official and binding, even if you haven't signed it yet. I think we writers also tend to think of editors and publishers as more knowledgeable than we are about what is standard practice in the publishing world, which is often true. We also don't want to come off as "difficult to deal with", because, let's face it, we're hoping to sell another story to that editor some time in the future.  However, it benefits us to remember that all initial contracts are negotiable. If the contract asks for too many rights, pays less than was promised, removes us from the editorial process, or anything else that puts us in harms way, we can ask for that item to be changed before we sign it, or we can attach a rider to the contract amending it.  For great information on how to do this see this article.

2. It is human nature (and good business) to favor one's self.

I have had the good fortune to have many wonderful experiences with editors and publishers.  I have rarely felt like I was being slighted by a contract. However, after reading the article mentioned above, I began to see how many contracts are written to favor the publisher, not the writer. This is not bad business. In fact, it is good business to negotiate in such a way as to favor one's self.  That is why it is totally okay and appropriate for writers to do it as well. At the very least, the process of negotiation should bring the benefit to both parties closer to the middle, rather than leaning to one side.

3. Know your rights.

At the top of any contract the issue of what rights are being sold should be addressed.  Again, this is negotiable and you should understand what rights you are selling and when those rights will revert back to you. The best policy is to negotiate for the most limited rights the publisher needs to publish your story in their given venue.  Here is a great article on the various publishing rights one can sell, and what they mean.

4. It usually doesn't hurt to ask.

I know the actual saying is, "It never hurts to ask," but I'm a bit more realistic than that statement allows. I can say that many short story writers I know negotiate their contracts, and query editors about concerns, and add riders to their contracts, and it is rarely a deal breaker.

Asking will probably improve your contract.  At the very worst, an editor or publisher may categorize you as "difficult" or say the contract must stand "as is".  If so, you always have the option to sell your story elsewhere. In some cases, it may be appropriate to report the editor or publisher to your local writers organization or the Preditors and Editors website for practice that does not adhere to professional standards.

5. Support new writers by encouraging better standards of practice.

Looking back to the days when I was a new writer shopping around my first born story, I wish that I had known what I know now.  Occasionally, I've had new writers ask me about contractual issues, or I've negotiated a contract and felt proud that perhaps the next time, a new writer with that publisher will get a slightly better contract than they might have otherwise.

Do you ever negotiate short story contracts?   What are the red flags for you in a contractual agreement?
Do you have any contractual horror stories?  Or any heroic contractual stories?
Tags: contracts, the writer's life
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