© 2011, Vicki Hinze
Long ago, a president used the term Trust but Verify about a foreign policy issue. It struck me as good advice so I remembered it. And over the years since then, it’s been advice that has proven valuable.
I’m amazed at the number of people who agree to terms and sign anything shoved before them without reading the documents. At those who make agreements and sign contracts never bothering to review the fine print.
We’ve all heard the saying that the devil is in the details. So when I receive notes like one yesterday, where an author was livid because of a contract term she didn’t know was in her contract and now must abide by on the contracted project and future projects, the first question that comes to mind is: Why didn’t you know that was there?
In this case, the agent told the author the contract was fine to sign. So the author signed it.
Don’t get me wrong. Agents can be wonderful assets and they routinely go the extra mile to protect their clients. This wasn’t an unusual term; it’s seen in a lot of contracts. But it’s one that this particular author did not want in this specific contract.
The simple point is that if the author had reviewed the contract, there would not have been any surprises. The author would have known exactly what was in it and would have known to negotiate out or strike that clause from the contract.
Now the author is upset with the agent and the publisher. But is that fair?
Every author knows that an editor is an employee of the publisher and as such is to do his/her best to protect the interests of the publisher. That the editor is expected—and paid—to contract the best terms and conditions for the publisher possible.
Every author knows that there is nothing—not a word—in a literary contract that isn’t there for a specific reason, and that contracts vary from publisher to publisher and indeed from author to author within one publishing house. Some agents have their own boilerplate contracts with verbiage they want in all of their agency’s contracts.
Authors too have specific clauses that they want and don’t want in their contracts. They’ve learned what they want and don’t want from previous experiences and acquired specific knowledge, but if they don’t read the contract then how can they know what’s in it?
Trust but verify is not an antagonist approach to contractual agreements. It’s not an antagonist approach to working arrangements, strategic business alliances, to anything that has to do with your professional or personal lives.
In this specific case, the author signed without reading. Now that author is bound to the agreement. Perhaps in the next contract this clause in this contract can be renegotiated. If so, great. If not, the author is legally (and morally) bound to honor the agreement made.
Reading a legal document before you sign it seems like a simple thing. We all get busy, we’re all time-crunched, and often authors think that’s what they pay agents for. But if, as in this case, a legitimate and common clause is one to which a specific author objects, then the agent relies on the author to state that objection. If the author does not, then the agent can’t know it. And if the agent can’t know it, it is not a reasonable expectation to hold the agent responsible for the clause being in the contract.
As authors we have responsibilities on the business end just as we do on the creative end. It’s our responsibility to read our contracts before signing them just as it is our responsibility to honor our agreements.
It serves us well, and makes for better alliances with agents and publishers, who also have responsibilities, if all involved trust but verify. *
1. THANK YOU. I wanted to publicly thank readers for coming out so strongly to support BEFORE THE WHITE ROSE. You’ve made it a bestseller in the U.S. and in the U.K. and I so appreciate it and your reviews and notes on how this project has touched you. Those comments of yours mean more than any ranking ever could!
2. Seascapes. You know Bell Bridge Books is re-releasing many of my backlist books. They’re starting with the general market Seascape trilogy. The covers are in on the first two, Beyond the Misty Shore and Upon a Mystic Tide. (Beyond the Misty Shore is out now and Tide will be shortly.) I thought you might like to see the covers. I think they’re beautiful. What do you think?