THE BLOG

Inside Traditional Publishing: Good Agents Geek Out About Contracts

04/01/2015 11:41 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

I recently watched a video of a panel discussion from the Backspace Writers Conference video archives in which Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency, Scott Hoffman of Folio Literary Management, Suzie Townsend (then of Fineprint Literary Management, now with New Leaf Literary), and Diana Fox of Fox Literary discussed the nuances of publishing contracts.

One of the things I learned is that publishers often change their contracts to give themselves more favorable terms. Agents who are paying attention pick up on the differences and understand the ramifications. Agents who aren't, don't.

As an example, the agents explained how a few year ago, Simon & Schuster removed four sentences from the end of the rights reversion clause. These sentences defined the sales threshold, which states that rights will revert to the author if the number of sales drops under a specified amount. Removing these sentences meant that if the publisher also bought digital rights, the book would in effect never go out of print, and the publisher would own the rights to the work in perpetuity.

This created a furor among agents who were paying attention. But not every agent caught the change. Some even let their clients sign the contract, then had to negate that contract and start over again. And some didn't catch the change at all, which left their authors with no possibility of ever getting the rights to these novels back.

I also learned that agents "geek out" over contracts, as one agent put it. It's a good thing they do, because as I listened to these agents enthuse over the finer points of contract details, my eyes glazed over. Not that the panel wasn't interesting and enlightening -- it was. Rather, I quickly realized that the nuances of contracts were so not my thing -- like signing up for a study course and finding out two weeks in that you have zero interest in the subject.

"I go over every contract with a fine-toothed comb," Diana Fox said. She then writes a detailed memo and sends it to her contracts manager, who goes over the contract again. "If Random House puts a clause in their boilerplate, I'll know it."

I read my first contract carefully. All 11 legal-sized pages of fine print. Four times. I also asked my agent questions, because I wanted to be sure I understood what I was signing.

But agents drill down deeper. An author might not even see the earliest version of the contract their publisher offers. "There are very few things publishers aren't willing to negotiate on," Scott Hoffman told the audience. "Some are deal-breakers, and it's up to the agent and author to decide if a contract clause is in the author's interest."

So thank God for agents who geek out over foreign rights, audio rights, boilerplate contracts, and out of print clauses. Good agents watch out for their clients in ways authors don't even know.

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Karen Dionne is represented by Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management. This panel discussion along with the full Backspace Writers Conference video archives are available exclusively to Backspace subscribers and online conference registrants.