Monday, May 20, 2013

Comprehend the Contract

There’s been a bit of chatter on the Internet about a new contract one magazine publisher appears to be introducing.

The world is changing, and all magazine publishers are having to change with it, and rightly so. Who’d have thought 18 months ago that we could buy copies of some of the oldest women’s weekly magazines on our tablets or smartphones? As a result, these publishers need more than the traditional First British Serial Rights, that they’ve always bought, which is why these changes are being made to contracts. This provides a good opportunity to remind writers they should always check what they are signing.

There’s a growing trend for publications to ask for more and more rights. And in some ways, it is understandable. After all, if they make a publication available to download over the Internet, then it’s available to be downloaded anywhere in the world.

Some publications ask for All Rights. For example, the guidelines for Yours magazine are available for download from their website: and the fiction guidelines clearly state at the end: All successful submissions are accepted on an All Rights basis that gives Bauer Media exclusive copyright

So, if you submit a short story to Yours magazine and they accept it, you’ve allowed them to have All Rights in your work, thus preventing you from doing anything else with that text.

Some magazines are open to negotiation, however, with publishing businesses consolidating across the world, the flexibility editors once had is being taken away and replaced with standard contracts.

The decision about which rights to sell, or whether to sign a contract, falls down to the individual writer. No-one forces you to sign a contract. It’s your decision whether you sign a contract or not. But when you do, be sure you understand exactly what it is you’re signing. 

If you there’s anything you’re unsure of, seek professional guidance. Members of the Society of Authors can get free advice on book contracts, whilst National Union of Journalists members can get contractual guidance from their organisation. (As a member of the Society of Authors I asked them for feedback on a contract I’d been offered by a magazine that published fiction, which was a bit cheeky because the SoA specialise in book contracts! However, they did look at it for me, and they pointed out that the contract contradicted itself several times and wouldn’t stand up in court!)

Know what the contract allows you to do and, more importantly, what it restricts you from doing. For example, a contract that asks writers to give them the exclusive right to be the first publication to publish the piece anywhere in the world means you can’t offer that work anywhere else, until that publication has published it. That might not seem too restrictive, but I shall always remember the article a publication accepted from me (and paid for) in 2005, yet did they didn’t publish it until 2011. Hanging on for six years before being able to offer material elsewhere might be bearable for the occasional piece of work, but I wouldn’t want to have to cope with it for a lot of my work!

However, if there’s something in the contract you don’t understand then your first port of call should be the editor. They’ll be able to explain things for you … and probably in language that everyone understands! (Which begs the question - why can’t contracts be written in plain English? It would make everyone’s life, so much easier!)

Good luck!