Read the Contracts

It astonishes me that writers, who make their living from their words, don’t bother to read the contracts that they sign. If you want a good example of this, read the  Wall Street Journal interview with Vampire Diaries author L.J. Smith.

Vampire Diaries Cast
Vampire Diaries Cast

She was hired by Alloy Entertainment to write a horror book series that they had in mind about a woman in love with two vampires. When she signed the deal, she failed to notice that it was a work-for-hire contract and that Alloy owned the underlying rights…. because she apparently didn’t bother to read her contract.

The books were an enormous success, and inspired a TV show, but she wanted to take the series in a different direction than Alloy did. So they fired her and hired another writer to continue the series.

 Ms. Smith was stunned.

“I knew that they were a book packager, but I didn’t realize that they could take the series away from me,” she says. “I was heartbroken.”

She should have read the contract before she signed it. She was dealing with a book packager, after all. What business did she think they were in? How did she think they made their money? Okay, so she made a dumb, rookie mistake. You’d think she would have learned an important lesson from that “heart-breaking” experience. You’d be wrong.

Now that Amazon is offering people the opportunity to write, publish and sell Vampire Diaries fanfiction through their Kindle World’s platform, LJ Smith has decided to write new Vampire Diaries novels and take the series in the creative direction she always wanted it to go. But she was stunned to learn that she doesn’t own the work that she’s publishing on Kindle Worlds:

Ms. Smith says that when she began publishing her Vampire Diaries fan fiction on Amazon this past January, she wasn’t aware that she was giving up the copyright to those stories, too. Nor did she realize she’d be giving Alloy a cut of earnings from the new stories. But had she known, it wouldn’t have deterred her, she says. “It wouldn’t have stopped me,” she says. “I didn’t do these books for money. They’re entirely a labor of love.”

If Smith had bothered to read her simple, and very clear, Kindle Worlds contract, none of that would have been a surprise. I hope she takes the time to read the next publishing contract that she signs or she could end up writing entirely for love.



8 thoughts on “Read the Contracts”

  1. I wanted to joke about this, (‘fool me once’), but I can’t. Amazon’s KW contract is blindingly shorter and clearer than your typical publishing contract, and it’s clear that the original creators own the rights to exploit your work. That’s some expert not-paying-attention there.

  2. Along the road, I’ve studied ‘the life insurance contract’ and ‘life insurance contract law’ and I know enough to know that I don’t know very much. As I see it, contracts must be read, but they should also be discussed, in detail. There are all sorts of nuances to contracts, but the basic idea is that the person signing the contract is giving away all sorts of rights. So it’s most important to understand, in advance, what you are giving up, exactly. This isn’t always easy to understand. And that’s why there should be lots of discussion before signing. I went to and found a number of books available on ‘the literary contract.’ I guess every writer should read one.

  3. “It astonishes me that writers, who make their living from their words, don’t bother to read the contracts that they sign.”

    I love that. I’ve talked with people and told them I would’ve loved to be trade published if the contracts I was offered didn’t have such abysmal and restrictive clauses in them. And I don’t have the clout (yet) to negotiate these contracts, so I prefer to go the self-publishing route.

    But whenever I warn authors not to sign contracts with, for instance, ‘non-compete clauses’, they fail to understand the consequences. Maybe it’s time authors actually took the unsigned contract with them and showed it to an IP lawyer, or at least googled the legal terms in the contract so they knew what they were signing.

    It’s one reason why I wasn’t eager to go beyond the Quarterfinals of the ABNA 2010: I wasn’t interested in pre-signing a publishing contract just to be eligible for the top spot. And at least the Quarterfinals netted me a Publishers Weekly Review.

    Martyn V. Halm, author of the Amsterdam Assassin Series.

  4. Maybe we’ve become conditioned by all of those internet contracts we sign by clicking “I Agree” without reading a word.

  5. One thing that was drilled into me early on in my writing career was to pay attention to what the contract says as opposed to what you think it means or what the publisher tells you they intend with regards to specific paragraphs and such. For example, many contracts I’ve been offered specify I’d be giving the publisher all rights to merchandise, movies, etc., with me receiving a small percentage of the gains of any such deals. Now, I work in non-fiction and none of the publishers with whom I’ve worked get involved with selling T-shirts with my book titles on them, nor are any of my books likely ever to be optioned in any sort of movie deal. But, even knowing that, I’m not giving up those rights. The publisher can tell me repeatedly that they have zero interest in selling merchandise but the contract says they can so I ask for that to be changed or deleted outright.

    The other thing to keep in mind, and this is very important for new authors to understand, is that EVERYTHING in a contract is negotiable. Don’t ever be afraid to push back and say no to something or to request a change in the contract before signing. Obviously, you want to do this politely and in as non-diva a way as possible 😉 Too many authors zero in on the advance or other monetary issues and forget the other stuff, and that other stuff may be much more important at some point in the future.


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