I recently saw the new (and most excellent) Shrek Forever After with the kids. It occurred to me that the movie taught an essential life lesson. That lesson is something all writers (and everyone else) need to sear into their brains. The lesson is: Read The Contract Before You Sign It.
The plot involves Shrek making a deal with Rumpelstiltskin, which should set warning bells off in his head immediately. But he signs a contract based on what Rumpelstiltskin tells him it means, and doesn’t bother to read it. Not only did Shrek make this mistake, but the King and Queen did the same thing when they signed their own contract with Rumpelstiltskin. I’m in the audience smacking my forehead at the idiocy of doing this.
Oh sure, I understand that it would be a lousy movie if the characters spent 30 minutes each reading a contract. And I understand that the writers needed the plot device (although they could have used invisible ink or enchanted paper or something better than sheer stupidity). Still, I’ll give them some slack. It’s just a cartoon.
The sad truth is, most people don’t read the contracts they sign. Substite Rumpelstiltskin with an unscrupulous agent, and you have a situation many writers have faced. Since failing to read it and understand it isn’t a defense to enforcing it, the time to fully understand what you’re agreeing to is before you sign on the dotted line. Don’t believe what the drafter tells you it means. Get legal advice if you don’t understand. The Author’s Guild in the US and the Society of Authors in the UK will advise you on your contracts if you don’t have a lawyer.
Are you giving away e-book rights too cheaply? Do you really understand how the publisher is going to compute your royalties? Who is going to bear the expense of marketing your book? Is your book going to be printed on endangered rainforest paper or recycled?
If you’re signing with an agent, are you signing for all your works or just one? What is the percentage they’ll get if they place your work? How is it calculated? What happens if they don’t place your work? How does the agreement get cancelled?
The law allows few excuses for failing to understand a contract. Don’t speak English? You’re expected to get it translated. Don’t read? You’re expected to have someone you trust read it to you. The person tells you it says something it doesn’t? Too bad. You should have read it. So why do so many people sign important contracts like car leases, real estate purchases, publishing contracts, and agency contracts, without bothering to read them?
I know it’s exciting to get a publishing contract or an agent’s contract. But read the darned thing before you sign it. Otherwise, you might not have a happily ever after experience in your writing career. Take it from Shrek.