Dear Agony Editor,
I recently got an offer for my first book. The publisher seems great, but I’d feel better having the contract reviewed by someone knowledgeable, someone who could provide me with an opinion. Trouble is, I don’t have an agent or a lot of money to hire a lawyer. Do you have any recommendations for me?
Dear Legal (Un)Ease,
First off, congratulations on your offer. Publishing your first book is a huge accomplishment and I hope you take a moment to celebrate.
It’s wise to raise the question about your contract. It can be all too easy for first-time authors to slip into daydreams of seeing their book on the shelf and imagining what their tour rider will say. (I said very explicitly, “NO hydrangeas in the green room!”) But publishing is a business, after all, and, as a writer, you need to look out for your own interests. You could hire a lawyer to review the contract, but as you point out, that could be costly. And, depending on the amount of your advance, you could end up falling behind before you’re out of the gate. (A note for emerging writers: it’s always good to build up a writer’s nest egg. Although it’s tempting to assume you’ll only be making money from your writing, there are times when out-of-pocket expenses – like hiring a freelance editor or, as in your instance, seeking legal advice – are necessary.)
Given your current financial limitations, I suggest you check out Artists’ Legal Advice Services (alasontario.ca), which is operated by volunteer entertainment and intellectual property lawyers, creators, and law students. There are a number of resources provided on their website, such as information about copyright and how contracts work. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can also book a free 30-minute one-on-one session with a lawyer. Given the limited time window, it’s best to go into your consultation with specific questions about your contract. The Writers’ Union of Canada (writersunion.ca) also offers a digital “Contracts Self-Help Package” for just $15, which includes information about author contracts and more.
There will always be an element of risk when it comes to business negotiations, but you should feel knowledgeable about that risk. In other words, don’t sign anything unless you understand what you’re signing.