It’s a bad sign if…
A rather enigmatic Tweet by Dean Wesley Smith pointed me toward a Tweet by a literary agent, Terrie Wolf. Allow me to quote:
Terrie Wolf @AKA_Terrie
Authors, listen up. Unless you’ve passed the bar – don’t argue contract law with agents/editors. We get it. Promise. #pubtips
Here’s a big #pubtip: Any time someone with a financial interest in a deal suggests that you don’t need to get lawyers involved, or that you should trust their read (they being a non-lawyer) on a contract, run. Fast. Far. Nope, not far enough. Why are you stopping? Keep running. Like the wind.
Contracts mean lawyers and lawyers are like guns: if the other side has one, you sure want one (or two, and much bigger caliber). Not because, in this case or any other, you’re expecting to engage in a battle. Absolutely not. Because lawyers have trained their entire adult lives to be able to negotiate the arcane language in a contract. Phrases that mean nothing to laypersons—and even the best agent is a layperson in this regard—can be critical, based on a precedent set yesterday. Agents are likely to be current on the business—we hope so anyway—but I don’t expect the same to be true of contract law, where a case outside publishing sets a precedent which alters one contract can change them all.
And the idea that an editor should be trusted vis a vis a contract? Remember, editors work for the publisher, not the writer. Editors are not lawyers. Publishers have a legion of lawyers who write up the contracts, and your editor may have no say in which of the myriad contracts you get offered. Sure, the editor may negotiate piddling little details, like the number of author copies you get, or deadlines—things which really don’t matter—while it’s company policy that decides what your split on ebooks or how your advances will get paid out.
Publishing contracts are notorious for having wordage that doesn’t apply. Even in the 90s the clauses about authors being able “purchase the printing plates” after a book went out of print showed up, despite the fact that no one was using that sort of printing plate any more. Heck, my mid/late 90s Star Wars® contracts demanded I turn the book in on disk and include two copies of a physical manuscript! An agent counseling writers not to argue contract points with an editor is downright scary.
I don’t want to shift this into a discussion of whether or not writers need agents, but looking at the above quote, I wonder if some agents are needed. Authors must remember, agents work for you, not the other way around. If I want to discuss/whine about/argue points of contention in a contract, that’s what I get to do. I’m the boss; and if I’m not happy, nobody is happy. The employee’s job is to explain things to my satisfaction or decide I’m not worth the trouble and quit.
Or, in this case, say to me, “Good questions. I don’t have a law degree, so you should consult an IP lawyer to get these things ironed out.”
Bottom line for all authors is this: without us, without our practical application of imagination, skill and hard work, agents have nothing. Editors have nothing. Publishers have nothing. Booksellers have nothing. Because of that, there is no vice in our wanting to make sure that contracts say what we’re told they say, and will do what we are told they will do. Any agent or publisher who will counsel you to abandon that point, clearly isn’t working for you.