Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Cautionary Tale

Earlier this month, I conducted a workshop about how to land a contract with a traditional publisher. In addition to the ins and outs of proper preparation and the importance of following guidelines, I advised the class to carefully review a contract before signing, to ask for clarification about things they didn’t understand, or to even reject clauses that were not in their best interest. I don’t know how much of it sank in, but I did refer them to The Writers Union of Canada website (TWUC), which provides plenty of good information, including a Writers Bill of Rightsfor the Digital Age, which offers ten principles about digital rights and royalties.

It’s too bad that this stuff wasn’t around when author Roxanne St. Claire was signing a contract for a book over a decade ago. As she states in her blog, she was so excited about signing the contract (and don’t most of us fall into this trap?) that she didn’t see a problem with the clause that said, “The book will be considered still in print as long as it is available for purchase in any format, including electronic”. More than ten years later, she still cannot get her rights back because the publisher refuses to revert them to her, and legally they don’t have to. St. Claire notes that her book sold only four copies last year. In a standard contract of the day, rights would immediately revert to her, but since the contract stated, “including electronic”, things changed.

Today’s contracts extensively cover digital rights, and writers need to understand what each clause mean, particularly when dealing with big five publishers who ensure that the contract is stacked in their favor. All this digital wrangling makes things exceedingly difficult and frustrating for writers. As St. Claire points out, her words, imagination, and heart went into that book. She’s gone on to self-publish and has produced a total of 45 books over her career. Yet she still wishes she had that book back. It was her favorite.

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