There’s a new contract in town. One you have to sign BEFORE a publisher will even look at your submission. It’s called a submission agreement. But should you sign it?
I came across this a couple of weeks ago, when I was about to submit a non-fiction book proposal to Frances Lincoln. There have been a few changes at the company since the last book of mine they published (Best Walks in the Welsh Borders). They’ve been taken over by an American publisher called Quarto.
Many publishers offer some guidance to potential non-fiction authors about what they like to see in a book proposal, and Quarto helpfully point out on their website the key ingredients they require. But at the bottom of the page they state that all proposals need to be accompanied by a signed submission agreement. You can view that agreement here.
I had no real concerns about the first paragraph. It basically states that you have no claim on any projects that might currently be in the pipeline, or might be developed in the future, by the publisher, which may be similar to the proposal you’re going to submit.
Writers have similar ideas all of the time. It is possible for two writers to submit similar ideas at the same time - it happens. I’ve experienced this myself. So this clause basically means you can’t get upset if your proposal gets rejected, but another writer’s proposal (which happens to be very similar to yours) is accepted.
But the second paragraph worried me. Firstly, I wasn’t sure I fully understood it. And that should always set the alarm bells ringing. What concerned me though, if my understanding was correct, was that they were claiming I had no claim to any new ideas that may have arisen following any discussions I had with the publishers regarding my proposal.
Now again, it’s not uncommon for a writer to pitch an idea only to have it rejected by a publisher, but during a discussion between both parties a new idea might emerge which is of interest to them. Sometimes ideas need further development. But what worried me was that the clause seemed to suggest that the publisher could take my idea, tweak it slightly, and develop it without any further credit, or recompense, to me.
So I did what all writers should do: seek help. I contacted the Society of Authors. As a member I’m entitled to use their free contract vetting service.
You can imagine my shock when Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society, got in touch directly and advised me not to sign the agreement as it stood. My fears were correct. Apparently, this is a common clause in the American movie world (and remember, Frances Lincoln is now owned by an American company). However, the Society have never seen this used in conjunction with book publishers. They felt this was an extremely troubling development.
Nicola did make a valid suggestion though: that I contact the publisher, explain my reservations about the second clause and ask if they would still consider my book proposal if I signed the agreement but struck out the second paragraph.
Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. So I did.
Now the Frances Lincoln website has an error on it, which I didn’t spot at first. When I clicked on the UK email address for book proposal submissions, it actually inserts the email address for the US publisher, not the UK one, into the email message. So my query went to the US publisher not the UK one, as I originally thought.
It was only when the US publisher replied about half an hour later that I realised what had happened! And their response? Well, to paraphrase it, they said that so many writers were querying the clause because they didn’t understand it they were looking at proposals that didn’t have the signed submission agreement. The US publisher then gave me the UK email address in case I wanted to try them! (Which is when I discovered the website’s error.)
So I emailed the UK publishers with the same query. Again, within about an hour I had a reply. They said I could make a submission and strike out the second paragraph in the agreement, and they might look at my proposal.
Not as clear cut as the American publishers, admittedly. But it does clearly illustrate a point: if you don’t understand a contract, or don’t like something in it, then there’s no harm in asking to change it.
As a result of me making my query, the Society of Authors are now looking into this matter further, with their American counterparts. It’ll be interesting to see what transpires.
If the publisher had insisted I signed their original submission agreement as it stood then I wouldn’t have submitted my proposal to them. (Perhaps that’s their intention: to dissuade writers from flooding their inboxes with non-fiction book proposals. Who knows?)
But by getting the contract clarified, and asking for it to be tweaked, I’m now in the position where instead of dismissing this potential publisher because I didn’t like their submission agreement, I can now submit my proposal on terms that I find more acceptable.
It’s a useful reminder that we shouldn’t sign anything we don’t understand. Nor should we assume that an agreement is written in stone. If you don’t like a particular clause … start negotiating.