Thursday, December 07, 2006

It's Not ALL Fun and Games

Any assistant or former assistant to an agent will tell you that the most aggravating job is to review a contract. This comes up from time to time, especially when there's considerable negotiations between a bestselling author and the publishing house. The job I'm given is to make sure that the version we have lines up with the version we want, which is usually the standard boilerplate with some revisions. There are multiple reasons why we do this. We could have forgotten something to add or ask to be deleted, there could have been an honest miscommunication, or (very occasionally) the company deleted a key line here or there and hoped we wouldn't notice. This is why you should get an agent. We have all of the standard company boilerplates around in the office for each major company, and we can line them up.

It's more difficult than it sounds. A publishing contract is anywhere from 10-18 pages long, in legal-sized paper with lots of small print. Often for some ridiculous reason the font size or alignment has changed between revisions and it makes it hard to "line up" the lines with a ruler. Sometimes entire paragraphs are just realigned and I have to flip through and find them on the old version. Sometimes words are just rearranged, which is technically a change but not a significant one - it just throws you off. It's a very tiring mental activity; I'm glad I only have to do it once in a while.

The reason the contract is so long is because it covers every eventuality for anything ever, including (1b) "acts of [G-d]." The contract is meant to protect both the author and the publisher and make sure the money goes to the right people by the right time. More recently paragraphs have had to be added not just about audio books, but e-Books, "electronic media," and "media that may be invented in the future."

Standard topics include:

- The author's responsibility to get the manuscript in on time and the publishing company's deadline to ask approval for changes

- Who pays for what legal fees if the author and company are sued for content in the book (called "the Work")

- What happens if the publishing company goes bankrupt or the author expires in terms of rights to the material

- What percentage of royalties are given to the author for bargain book contracts and bulk orders.

The good news is that the language is pretty plain, and if you happen to be an author negotiating a contract without an agent's help, you just need to read it very carefully and make sure it doesn't sound like you're going to get ripped off at some point or abandoned if you get sued.

Sound exciting? The publishing world is for you!


Kay Lockner said...

Great post! We're featuring it in this week's "Best of the Biz" report on the AuthorMBA blog (


Anonymous said...

I used to work for a lawyer and do that a lot, ugh. I feel for you.

Anonymous said...

I am a current legal assistant and you're right, it can be brutal. At least I'm a litigation assistant, where I get to look at (somewhat) fun stuff involving breach of contract and the like. The worst are real estate attorneys. God help the person who has to put together a Declaration of Easement!

Anonymous said...

Great, I have this to look forward to at work.

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who is a lawyer, and he agrees--the law is boring!

Nancy Beck said...

I work as an administrative assistant to an employee benefits lawyer (pension plans and the like), so I feel for you, too! (Small type - yuck!)

However, as crappy as having to read and type 18 pages of small type, my boss has to deal with past acquisitions, divestitures, etc., as it pertains to certain plans. The document I just worked on comes to a whopping 154 pages!!

Is it any wonder there's a highlights brochure so normal, every day people don't have to wade through this stuff?


Anonymous said...

Comment from the I.T. world: If these documents are in electronic formats such as .doc or .txt, check out a piece of software called "diff." The utility compares two files and reports on the differences. I haven't used it in Windows, but I'm confident you could find a shareware program that will make this work easier. If the documents are in .pdf then you're probably out of luck, but I thought I'd mention it.