amongst books

amongst books

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Book Publishing Contracts: A Cautionary Tale - when the fish stinks, it's usually rotten

Recently I was excited to learn that a publisher wanted to publish one of my poetry manuscripts. It’s been tough to get a second poetry book published. For the first, Kiki, published by Chaudiere Books in 2014, I had a great experience. I was working with two dear friends: rob mclennan and Christine McNair, the publishers of Chaudiere Books. rob sent me an invitation to send a manuscript and accepted it quickly. The contract was straight-forward and had reasonable terms. Christine’s design and layout was wonderful, the book itself is a work of art. rob did a great job of promoting the work. Unfortunately after a few years, the press wasn’t able to continue. Chaudiere couldn’t get any support from the Canada Council for the Arts, which is vital to new publishers in Canada. Invisible Publishing took ownership of the catalogue and has done a superb job of promoting and supporting Chaudiere’s titles. I even received royalties for the book this year from Invisible after more copies were sold.

I have 8 unpublished book-length poetry manuscripts, along with a visual poetry work-in-progress I am seeking homes for. This year I decided to send out my manuscripts for consideration again. Most of them had already been rejected a few times, and I’ve made some serious edits to them. For the most part, I received kind and timely rejections, which is totally fine. I can handle rejection. I won't put up with silence or fishiness. 

When I received the acceptance for one of my poetry manuscripts, I admit I was cautious about being happy about it. The publisher didn’t send me an e-mail acceptance, but instead insisted we talk over Zoom. I was immediately on my guard. If it was accepted, why not just send an e-mail? The conversation went ok. The publisher wanted to me to describe the work for some reason, and also wanted to discuss the previous publications of part of the work. The work included several sections that had been previously published as chapbooks, but most of them are out of print, so I didn’t see the big deal and the publisher seemed to agree. Then I was sent the contract. Big red flags. A noncompetition clause that would mean I wouldn’t be able to publish any poetry book anywhere else for an unlimited term because the term of the agreement had no end date except “term of copyright” which in Canada, it turns out means 50 years after the author dies. There were lots of other red flags as well. Even though the publisher knew that parts of the manuscript had been previously published, I had to agree in the contract that the work wasn’t available elsewhere. I couldn’t do that. The contract didn't state anywhere that I hold the copyright to the work. 

 I talked to friends, read some of their contracts and went up to the Writers Union of Canada’s site where I purchased their Contracts Self Help kit:

Comparing the warnings in the kit against the contract from the publisher, I realized this was a bad deal. They offered an advance that was significantly lower than other contracts I’ve seen and my own contract with Chaudiere Books, and half the number of complementary copies as well.  This isn't a big deal since I was planning to donate the advance and royalties to a charity supporting homeless women because the book dealt with homelessness, but it was an indication of the publisher's nature already. The publisher even gave me only seven days to review the contract. TWUC recommends at least sixty days. Many people would negotiate to get a better contract, but since I was faced with bad faith right from the earliest contact with the publisher, I took it as a sign that they are not interested in treating me fairly.

I know it’s tempting to just agree to any contract as long as you’re published, but I think it’s dangerous to accept bad terms. I’ve seen contracts like this go awry in my previous experience in business. Bad faith at the start of a business relationship usually leads to bad business practices and unfair treatment. While the publisher wanted to talk on the phone about it, they didn't indicate in any way that they agreed with the issues I had with the contract. Unwillingness to put anything in an e-mail is also a bad sign, in my opinion. 

My advice is to do your homework before signing a contract: read the documents from TWUC, ask to see other friends’ contracts. And don’t be so willing to get published that you’ll sign a fishy contract.

This is not about money. It's about making sure you aren't agreeing to something that will hamper your future abilities to have your work published elsewhere. As a writer, you should always own your own copyright and that should be clearly stated in a contract. And you shouldn't have to agree to a limitless and vague noncompetition clause just for the "privilege" of being published. A poet is someone who understands the value of words. Why would we disregard them in a contract?




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