I’ve met writers who refuse to learn the basics of a publishing contract, or who skip reading the entire thing before signing. This always drives me crazy, because they’ve just signed a legally binding document that could result in all kinds of heartbreak because they wouldn’t accept that publishing is a business, like any other business. You can get sued. You can go bankrupt. You can discover that you can’t exploit certain rights to your work because you signed away all the rights when you shouldn’t have.
A publishing contract is a business contract. If you sell your writing to a publisher, congratulations, you’re now a small business of one. And if you sign a bad contract, you can be dealing with the repercussions for decades. Or out of business entirely. Doing the writing is art, selling the writing is a business.
So, where to start learning the business law basics a freelance writer needs to know? I started with the THE WRITER’S LEGAL GUIDE: AN AUTHOR’S GUILD DESK REFERENCE, THIRD EDITION by Tad Crawford & Kay Murray. Get the most recent edition to read since publishing law and technology change quickly. This book provides a great summary of the business law a freelance writer needs to know, from copyright to publishing contracts to agent-author agreements to IRS tax law. By the time I finished this book, I felt I had a good understanding of the legal basics.
There’s another book to consider reading next, even though it’s from 1999–KIRSCH’S GUIDE TO THE BOOK CONTRACT by Jonathan Kirsch. Kirsch is a practicing attorney in publishing law, and he had lots of valuable anecdotes and examples to provide as he went through an entire sample publishing contract.
For both books, I found it best to read 10 pages or so, and then stop for a few hours. The legal matters can be mentally tiring to wade through quickly. Also, there were times it was helpful to mull over a newly learned fact or law before moving onwards.
Some writer organizations have sample contracts you can look at or lectures about contracts at their national conference. Definitely check to see if any organization you are a member of provides such services. Also, sometimes Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch do a contracts & copyright workshop.