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Last month I sent my completed novel, my first, to my agent. She submitted it to several houses and now tells me that she is quietly optimistic that a contract may be coming my way soon. Of course I'm thrilled, but shouldn't I take it to an attorney before I sign anything?
A: Dear Ginnie,
Congratulations! I hope that contract comes your way very soon, and yes, of course, you will want an attorney to review it, however, please bear a few things in mind.
Number one at the top of the list: While editors and publishers assume you will have an attorney review the contract, they don't want to know about it. This forms a basis of trust between the author and the editor/publisher. And for the many months you will be working together to produce the book, this element of trust is very important.
Second: Educate yourself on the usual terms and conditions of royalty contracts such as responsibility for returns, editing, royalty percentages and payments. For example, most contracts spell out that the cost of returns will be deducted from sales, and that the author does not have final say over editing. Remember, when you sign a royalty contract, you sign away your rights. The publisher then not only owns the right to publish that book, but has the right to fold, staple, or mutilate it in any way they wish. In exchange, they bear all the expenses for development, publication, and distribution.
Number three on the hit parade: Find an attorney who specializes in entertainment law and understands the publishing business. An attorney who has family law and probate as the bulk of his practice, and who does not understand the publishing industry, can get you into trouble by suggesting all kinds of changes that fall outside the usual parameters of a publishing contract. An attorney with experience in the publishing field cannot only explain the contract, but how things work, if there is anything unusual about the contract, and can point out the usual terms and conditions.
Four: Let the attorney write all over a copy of the contract. Take notes as he or she explains things to you and any suggested changes. These notes and attorney comments will form the basis of your next conversation with the person offering to buy your book.
Five: If you have no questions or concerns at this time, sign and date the contract and follow directions for returning it. On the other hand, if you still have questions, call the editor or publisher. Thank her for the contract. Tell her you have reviewed it and have a question or two. Then talk about it. DO NOT return the contract with your comments written in, unless you are instructed to do so. If the contract came to you via email, DO NOT make your comments in the file, unless instructed to do so. In any case, only make those changes you agree to with the editor or publisher. DO NOT edit the contract or make other changes, that is, of course, unless you'd really like to lose the offer. Having this conversation will either further strengthen the trust between you or kill it completely. You may find that you are not a match.
Once you have gathered all the pertinent information, the final decision to sign or not to sign belongs to you. Carefully consider, then sign or decline the offer, but whatever you decide, make sure you're comfortable with it.
Good luck with this!
Q: Dear Joan,
I've been to several writers workshops and the instructor always says, "Study the market. Analyze it. Determine the style." Why and how will this improve my sell rate?Mae Thomas
A: Dear Mae,
Your instructors are right. You have to know the market before you can sell to it. You must study the ads, the stories, the features, the fillers, poetry, table of contents, and editorial staff to determine your target audience. In other words, you must determine the publication's demographics, or who reads this particular publication. This little exercise will help you determine some basics such as: age, sex, education, occupation, income, marital status, children, interests, hobbies, political ideology, and in some instances, even religious affiliation.
Once you know all this information, use it in your query letter, and use it to your advantage in the article. Let me share an example with you. You could have the best story ever written about a single, divorced, woman of color with three kids, living in the inner-city, holding down two jobs to make ends meet. But if you send it to a publication in the American northwest which targets married, white, lumberjacks with disposable incomes of over $50,000 a year, you can bet you'll get a rejection. The only question is how quickly it will come.
On the other hand, if you send it to a woman's magazine that publishes women's inner-city fiction, and targets the kind of woman in your story, get out your pen. Your contract is in the mail.
Now go out there and study!
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