This past week, I signed my first book contract. Yes, someone actually paid me to publish my book. The book in question is Fire, which you've seen me talk about a lot if you follow my blog. In the process, it has been renamed Heirs of Fire. So, it looks like the book will definitely be published, by a real publisher. Since it is a small publisher, they can move more quickly than a large publisher, and it will likely be out sooner rather than later. I'll hold off on naming the publisher until they announce it themselves (I make a point not to steal other people's thunder).
For now, though, I thought I'd talk a bit about the contract. I'm not going to discuss the actual terms of the contract, aside from saying that I'm overall happy with it. Rather, I want to talk a bit about what I was looking for in the contract, and what points I made sure I was clear on. Whether I was concerned about the right parts or not, only time will tell.
Indemnity clause. This is a clause that says that if the publisher gets sued because you plagiarized someone, you're the one who has to pay. The better versions of this clause say you only have to pay if the suit is successful. More worrying versions would have you paying legal fees when anyone sues, whether they're successful or not.
Rights clause. This is the clause which says how long the publisher has rights to publish your work, where and how he can publish it, and whether they're exclusive. You want to make sure the rights have a limited term, only covers places you're willing for them to publish, and if they're exclusive, don't prevent you from publishing somewhere you want to be able to publish.
Royalties. Aside from making sure the amount is satisfactory, you want to compare this to the rights, and see if there's a way for the publisher to sell your book where you wouldn't get paid. You also want to see if there's any way for the publisher to give away your book for free without paying you. The second one is less worrying, as there's not much evidence that giving away books actually cuts into sales, but if that's part of their marketing plan, make sure you're okay with it. The other thing to make sure of is that you don't have to cover the publisher's expenses before you get royalties, such as editing, or printing, or cover art costs.
Advance. I don't worry too much about this. The idea of the advance is that it's a pre-payment of royalties. Just be careful if the publisher stipulates circumstances where you're required to give back all or part of your advance.
Reversion of rights. What happens if the publisher ends up not publishing the work after all? That's why you need a reversion of rights clause. This isn't as important if the term of the rights starts as soon as the contract is signed, but if it doesn't start until the book is published, or that term is particularly long, that could be a problem if the publisher never gets around to publishing your book. You'll want the rights to return to you so you can try somewhere else. You should make sure that the reversion of rights clause names a time period, rather than saying it occurs when the publisher decides not to publish, since that can allow them to sit on your book for years. If the term of the rights is especially long, you may also want reversion of rights to you if the publisher ceases to offer your book for sale. You need to be especially careful here, since the publisher may consider "offering for sale" to consist of "making available for order through a limited number of bookstores in another country," as one author discovered to her horror. That's why I prefer a limited, not-too-long term of rights, since it avoids complications like these, and your book won't be unavailable for too long. And if you are happy with them, you can always negotiate a new contract when the term ends.
Right of First Refusal. This means that the publisher gets the first chance to look at your next work, before you can send it to anyone else. It's best to avoid this altogether, but if you do end up with it in your contract, make sure it requires your publisher to respond within a set time period (months, not years), so they can't sit on your book forever, preventing you from publishing it anywhere.