When you think of contracts, do you think of page after page of incomprehensible legal jargon full of traps and pitfalls just waiting to catch you unaware and cheat you out of a fair deal?
Unfortunately, those types of contracts do exist, but a legally binding contract doesn’t have to be that way. At their best, contracts aren’t about protecting two rivals from taking advantage of each other. They’re about facilitating a harmonious relationship between two parties—in this case, between author and editor.
This post is meant as a brief overview. If you’re interested in a deeper dive into editorial contracts, I highly recommend The Paper It’s Written On by Karin Cather and Dick Margulis. It’s a fairly thin volume but full of much better and more in-depth information than I’ve presented here.
What is a contract?
In its simplest form, a contract is an agreement between two parties. That includes verbal contracts. Unfortunately, those are often hard to prove.
An email exchange can be used as a legally binding contract, as well. However, there are advantages to a formally written-out contract. It lays everything out clearly in one place, rather than in bits and pieces scattered through numerous emails.
What is the purpose of a contract?
Of course, in the event of a legal dispute, a contract can be presented as part of your court case. But I prefer to think of contracts in much less adversarial terms.
A good contract is as useful for preventing such disputes as for settling them. They're a means of creating clear communication.
If you’ve drawn up a clear, mutually beneficial contract that both parties understand from the outset and agree to, you can often avoid the dispute altogether.
Plain language, please.
As I mentioned above, a good contract doesn’t have to be full of henceforths and hertofores and persons in the third party. Perhaps there are complicated legal situations that require that kind of language, perhaps not, but regardless, it’s unnecessary and even counterproductive for our purposes.
If it’s written in plain, understandable English, both parties know what they’re agreeing to, which is the whole point of using a contract to prevent disputes.
Do I have to create my own?
Most publishers have their own standard contracts, but you should still read through it and make sure you understand exactly what you’re agreeing to. Likewise, many editors have their own contracts.
However, if your editor doesn’t present you with a contract, there’s no reason to be hesitant about suggesting one. The contract is there to protect both of you.
Ask for clarification or changes.
Whether you’re working with a publisher or an editor, if there’s anything in the contract you don’t understand, you can and should ask for clarification. It doesn’t reflect poorly on your intelligence. It may be that you simply don’t have a lot of experience translating the contract language. Or maybe the contract is poorly written and needs someone to speak up about it.
If you’re working with a major publisher and don’t have a lot of clout, you may not have a lot of room to negotiate the contract.
But if you’re working with an editor, the terms of the contract can probably be changed. Remember that the contract isn’t there to lay down any law but, rather, to clearly describe the details you and your editor have already agreed on.
What goes in the contract?
As I said, the contract simply lays out the details of the author-editor relationship for a certain project.
Therefore, it includes a description of the parties and project involved.
It also covers the tasks each person is responsible for with dates and deadlines. There should also be a section on payment: how much, when it’s due, and how payment will be transferred. Likewise, the contract should lay out things like software, style preferences, and how files will be passed back and forth.
Of course, there are sections covering unexpected events and consequences for either party not fulfilling their part. For example, what happens if an emergency comes up and one of you has to back out in the middle of the project?
Also, what exactly is the editor promising? And how is copyright affected?
If you’d like to see an example you can download a rough template here. It lacks the details of a specific client, but it’ll give you an idea of what a contract could look like. Though, contracts can come in many different forms; mine isn’t the only one or even probably the best.
Whatever shape your contract takes, clarity is key. There should be no doubt on either side of what’s going to happen.
Cather, Karin and Dick Margulis. The Paper It’s Written On. New Haven: Andslash Books, 2018.
Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.