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Commandment 6: Never Sign Anything You Don't Understand

The title pretty much covers this point, but let's go into a bit more detail. When it comes to business dealings, most people aren't necessarily trying to take advantage of you. They are, however, trying to sweeten the deal for themselves, if only because that's the job of the lawyer drawing up the contract (a professional publisher definitely has a lawyer working on their behalf). And let's not forget about the shady people who are trying to take advantage of you. How will you know if you're dealing with one of them if you don't understand what you're signing?

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If you do sign a contract with questionable clauses (and plenty of publishing houses have some less-than-stellar clauses in their standard contracts—I've seen them), you're stuck, unless you can prove that the clause is illegal in the state where the contract is executed. Often, even if you could hypothetically do that, it would cost you an exorbitant amount of money. 

So it's your job, as an author but also as a responsible adult, to know what you're signing—and to understand the repercussions. And if you don't understand a legal contract without a shadow of a doubt, it's up to you to find someone who doesn't have a vested interest to explain it to you, because publishers will absolutely use your desire not to make waves—caused by your deep desire to have a publishing deal—to pressure you into signing something that's tilted heavily in their favor. 

If you're negotiating on your own behalf, it's also your responsibility to understand industry standards and do just that—negotiate. The other party isn't coming to the table with their best offer if they're expecting you to counter; they're leaving themselves room to sweeten the deal. If you don't even try, so much the better for them. And if you aren't aware of industry standards, you won't be able to call a publisher on their (false) assurances that everything included "is standard."
    Another thing to remember: if it isn't in the contract, it doesn't count. When things aren't going well, all those promises someone made to you (about marketing plans, or a forthcoming print edition, or anything else) never existed if they weren't written into the contract.

Some publishers will tell you that their contract is non-negotiable. This on its own isn't necessarily a red flag, if the contract itself is fair. In my experience, however, those non-negotiable contracts are usually far from fair. Most importantly, you once again have no way of knowing which category the contract falls under if you don't understand it. Someone could tell you it's standard to have a clause saying you'll purchase a minimum of 100 copies of your own book every month for three years, and if it's written in legalese you can't decipher, you might agree. And if you don't read the contract at all? Eeesh.

If you do have an agent negotiating on your behalf, to some extent your job will be easier: the actual back-and-forth with marked-up contracts won't be up to you. But if you understand contracts and industry standards, you can discuss your priorities with your agent and then judge for yourself whether s/he is doing everything possible on your behalf—especially if your relationship with that agent is new. Best of all, it's part of an agent's job to explain the contract to you, so you don't have to look very far for answers. Eventually, once you've established a deep trust with your agent, you might be able to make an argument for signing without reading too deeply. I would still recommend at least glancing through any paperwork handed to you, because ultimately it's your name, and your future, on that bottom line.

If you need some help wading through the inner workings of publishing contracts, check out:

** Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and I am not offering you professional legal advice on your contract decisions. The main takeaway you should have from this post is: do your homework and understand what you sign.

Ready for more? Check out Commandment 7: Respect Your Editor

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