I’m just going to say it: I love contracts. But that’s not enough. I want you to love them too.
Contracts are not a dull, essential adjunct to our activity. They are the sure ground on which our business is built, the tracks along which the publishing train steams. All the creative, innovative work you do: you work to contract. All of your exciting collaborations: set out by contract. Why you aren’t an amateur: you have a contract. How you are protected: by your contract. Your friend in times of need: your contract. Your road to profit in good times: your contract. The most important thing you’ll ever write: your signature, at the bottom of your contract. If you love your contract – give it attention, understand it, read it carefully, talk about it, do your best to improve it – it will love you back. Don’t be frightened of your contract. Do you know what frightens me? How frequently fear stops authors from reading and understanding and querying their contracts with their agents and publishers. Don’t be scared, join my love-in.
Why should you love contracts? A good contract offers us a beautiful thing: Clarity. However complex the relationship between author and publisher may be – however confused things can become, when humans do business together – a good contract reminds us of the simple obligations each party has to the other, and the consequences of failing in those obligations.
Badly drafted contracts are as distressing to me as badly written novels: just as I audibly tut and sigh when struggling impatiently through narcissistic prose, so can I be physically unsettled by the clouded meanings, lost intentions, clunky sentences and incomprehensible jargon of a badly written agreement. A good contract has a pleasing geometry to it. At DHA, we draft all our UK and translation rights contracts – as opposed to using publishers’ templates – and they are written in a style I have named DHA Simple – short, plain, minimal. If contracts may be compared to works of art, then good contracts are drawn using the ligne claire of Hergé – an artist whose first sketches were a lifelike forest of pencil lines and expressive movement, but who searched out the one perfect, single, defining line from the forest for his finished work. That’s what a good contract offers: definition, a blueprint. Even though the reality of the publishing relationship is joyfully coloured and shaded, as are all creative endeavours, all human relationships, those dynamics need to be represented on paper by the ligne claire.
Why should you love contracts? A good contract offers us a second beautiful thing: Stability. Even though author and publisher are interdependent, often sharing mutual interests, the balance of power between parties shifts constantly due to multiple factors: the success of the author’s last book, the strong advocacy of individuals within publishing houses, market appetite, luck, how long it is until the next book is due to be delivered, or published. The role of the contract is to ensure that, even as the wind changes direction on the landscape of publishing, the author and publisher do not move position – what was agreed, stands.
Why should you love contracts? Here is a third beautiful gift a contract can bring you: Protection. When I read contracts, I always ask myself: How will I like this contract in the worst case scenario? And I run through all the worst scenarios in my head, and see how the contract will protect my author, if she is ill, or her publisher fails to publish, or her editor doesn’t like her next book. And then I ask myself: How will my author like this contract in the best case scenario? And I imagine that the contracted book is an international bestseller, and see whether the contract properly caters for my client’s success.
Why do I love contracts? Because negotiating a good contract is like solving a puzzle, and in this case the puzzle is an even more wonderful game, because my competitor is holding some of the puzzle pieces, and will only hand them over if persuaded to do so, or forced to do so. Don’t you like puzzles, and games? I do – and I like to find new solutions to puzzles, too, and to win games, especially when the prize for winning is better terms for my clients.
The consequences for an author of signing a poor contract can be so disastrous, so career-wrecking, bankrupting, soul-destroying: surely reading and understanding your contract is of the utmost importance? And the consequences for an author of signing a great contract can be so enabling, so liberating, so reassuring. Good terms will allow you to control your future. Good royalties may enable you to write full-time. A good contract can offer you clarity, stability, protection. Your contract is important: love it, and it will love you.
This blog about How to Love your Contract is Contracts: Part I. Soon, I will write Part II: How to Read your Contract.