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Publishers' contracts | Factsheets



WritersServices Factsheet 19 by Michael Legat

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Agreements between an author and a publisher, or a theatre manager or television company, are extremely complex documents, and you will undoubtedly need help in assessing whether the terms are acceptable or not.

This is not to suggest that whoever is drawing up the contract to publish or otherwise use the author’s work is likely to be a crook, or even willing to exploit the author’s ignorance of standard terms to their own advantage.

On the whole, even if such people want to cheat you, it does not pay them to so, because word about their regrettable practices will spread rapidly, and agents in particular will not submit work to them.

What does happen, however, is that the purchasing organisations may not go as far as to cheat, but will attempt to get away with something slightly less than their best terms. They cannot really be blamed. They are in business to make money.

The organisation which has presented you with an agreement to sign will quite possibly suggest that the contract is a standard one throughout the industry. That may not be so. 

Before the advent of the pc, an agreement would appear on a printed form, which was in fact a standard one, at least for the purchasing organisation. Nowadays agreements are produced on a computer, and look as though they are printed, and therefore standard, but have been amended to apply only to the work purchased.

Because the agreements with which authors are concerned are naturally suited to the sphere in which the work will appear, a local solicitor may not be capable of giving the right advice – after all, we cannot all be expert in everything. 

There are specialist solicitors who know exactly what is involved, but they are usually fairly expensive. 

The best solution for the beginner is likely to be found by joining one of the organisations for authors, such as the Society of Authors, The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and the National Union of Journalists, which will be ready to advise you, or any smaller association which also looks after authors’ interests.

In fact, these organisations for writers have in most cases drawn up their own standard agreements which are naturally based on terms which are acceptable to both authors and purchasers.

If you have a literary agent, you should be able to expect her/him to check the contract for you. However, even if you have advice available from that source or from one of the unions for writers, it is always sensible to know something about the standard contracts in the various spheres of writing, and books are available which will guide you through the clauses.


If you are offered a contract for a book you will probably find that it is no longer as difficult to get on to an agent’s books as it was beforehand. If you are writing material other than or in addition to books, the larger agencies usually have departments to deal with, for example, film scripts or plays. There are also, however, agencies which work only in a specialised field. Smaller literary agencies usually have a link with one of the latter.

Further information on all the items in this Factsheet is available in An Author’s Guide to Publishing and also in Writing for a Living, both by Michael Legat



© Michael Legat 2001