Archive for October, 2010

A Tale of Contracts: One Children’s Author’s Experience

October 10th, 2010 116 comments

A little more than ten years ago, I sold my first children’s book with the help of an agent who worked on a project basis. The agent told me that since this was my first book sale, I should pretty much just sign the contract offered – she referred to it as a “boilerplate contract,” meaning that the terms are accepted as is.

Three months later, I sold my second children’s book with no agent.  I wasn’t savvy or confident enough to do anything more than sign the contract – yes, the “boilerplate” again.

The next sale came a couple of years later. I didn’t have an agent – the agent that had worked on a project basis was long gone from the business. (Fortunately, she relinquished her commission.) I’d learned enough to know that with two book sales under my belt, I should have a bit of wiggle room when I negotiated the contract. Being someone who was taught to “not make waves” however, my proposed contract changes were barely enough to cause a small ripple.

So then came book number four. It just so happened that book number four was being acquired by the same publisher as book number two. Aha! Some legitimate leverage, right? But when you’re going back and forth with proposed contract changes with the editor you’ve forged a great relationship with – and hope to continue to sell to – how much is too much to ask for?  I needed a buffer.

With no agent waiting in the wings, I remembered someone telling me that The Authors Guild offered free contract advice for members.  I paid $90 for a year’s membership, and in return, got a comprehensive contract review, plus the option to contact the Guild for guidance if needed during negotiations. They also sent me The Authors Guild Model Trade Book Contract and Guide, which I still refer to.

Armed with this information, I felt more confident negotiating the contract. I decided to flex my muscles a bit and ask for a few of the items The Authors Guild had suggested.  I was a bit scared of my editor’s reaction – was I being outrageous with my demands? Did she think I was a greedy pup? – but the excitement of asking for what I wanted, and getting some of it, far outweighed the fear.

When I sold my fifth book, I felt like I knew the areas where I could push, and which places I’d just let ride. I pushed and got more free authors’ copies, a larger advance, and royalties that escalated as book sales increased.  As for those foreign rights? The thought that my book could be acquired by a publisher overseas was, well, foreign! Let it ride. Electronic rights? At the time I signed the contract, electronic rights, at least for the children’s book market, were largely limited to books-on-tape.  I’d written a 32-page picture book, not a novel. I thought the chances that anyone would want to record my book on tape was pretty slim. Let it ride, too. And as for film and TV rights? Not a snowflake’s chance in hell. Or so I thought…

Fast forward to 2010. Three of my books have been acquired by foreign publishers and translated into Korean and Japanese. Who knew? Electronic rights? Forget books on tape. Now it’s digital downloads. But who would want to have an e-book version of a picture book? Plenty of people, it turns out – especially teachers.  The digital rights to my newest book, WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO HUMPTY?, have been acquired by at least three different online publishers thus far. But those film and TV rights? Not a chance, right? Or so I thought, until three weeks ago when I received an email from someone inquiring about the film/TV rights for WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO HUMPTY? I had to refer this person to my publisher, since they own those rights.

I’m enough of a realist to know that the chances of having my book become a Saturday morning cartoon are pretty darn small. But  I’ve learned from my experience with contracts over the past ten years that stranger things have happened.

As I get closer to getting a contract for my sixth book, you can bet I’ll think twice about those rights I so freely gave up in my previous negotiations, thinking that they wouldn’t really matter.  I may not ever be the best contract negotiator, but hopefully I’ll be a lot smarter.

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