What A Sticky Mess: Managing Contracts, Money and More


Out of all of the erotic columns I’ve ever written — including the ones where I give advice on what your characters should call their hoo-has or what they probably shouldn’t say during fucking — this is probably the scariest column of all. Because it has to do with money and rights and legal issues. And to me — and I would imagine, to most erotic writers — those topics are far more intimidating than a public threesome outside your parents’ house. Okay, maybe not that intimidating, but a close second.

I feel that I should start by saying right up front: I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV. In most cases, I can’t read legalese. My only qualification for writing this article — and offering this advice — is that I’ve been signing (and creating) contracts since 2001, and have yet to run into a serious legal issue. (Ahem. And now that I’ve just jinxed myself… Onward.).

All of that being said, please take what I’m about to say as a series of suggestions and guidelines and not as hard and fast rules. Because in truth, if I could offer one serious and important piece of advice about money, contracts and rights, it would be this: Think carefully about everything you read, and make the informed decision that seems best for you before you sign.

Let me say that again, because I think it’s important, and because it’s very easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the wild world that is Contractland. It’s a place that makes you forget what you know, question what you believe, and, occasionally make poor choices in an attempt to just make a decision at all. So again:

Think carefully about everything you read, and make the informed decision that seems best for you before you sign.

Breaking It Down

Now, on to some specific things to look at so that you can follow the above statement more easily.

  1. Understand that not all contracts are the same. In fact, they run the gamut from a single emailed paragraph written in simple language to a professional e-contract that can be signed electronically to a twenty-page diatribe in a language that can barely be considered English. In my experience, the longer and more complex a contract is, the more likely it is to contradict itself, cancel itself out and generally make no sense.
  2. Get help if you need it. You can probably understand the single-paragraph contract on your own, but if there are things you don’t understand, get help BEFORE you sign anything. This can come from a lawyer, a smart friend, and even from your publisher/editor (although you might be surprised to discover that your publisher/editor doesn’t understand their own contract any more than you do!).
  3. Understand your rights, and know exactly which ones your contract is hoping to purchase. There’s a wonderful breakdown of writers’ rights over at, not surprisingly, Writers Write. It’s a little old, but I think it’s still a very good place to start when it comes to knowing what rights mean and what you should look for.
  4. Pay special attention to e-rights and all other rights, because it is a brave new world out there. Any contract that buys “all rights” is a scary thing. Not just because you won’t own any of the print rights anymore (which means the publisher can reprint your story wherever they want without asking or paying you), but also because there are always new kinds of rights coming available: digital media, e-books, movies, comics, graphic novels, holograms, and a million other formats that no one’s thought of yet. I even recently saw a contract that bought all rights, including “everything not yet created, thought of, or put into use.” That’s a lot of rights — and a lot of balls — to ask for everything in the universe. My suggestion? Don’t sign anything that tries to buy this kind of thing because it cuts you out of re-selling your piece to another publisher, as well as ever setting your story up as a pdf or Kindle offering.
  5. Also pay attention to payment. When do you get paid? When the publisher receives your story? When they accept it? When it’s published? After it’s been out for six months? What about advances, royalties, percentages? How do you get paid — check, cash, Paypal? If math isn’t your strong suit, again, it’s a good idea to ask for help. Make sure you understand exactly what’s being offered in terms of payment amounts and schedules.
  6. What else? Everything else. If there’s even a word, a sentence or a clause you don’t understand, break it down into plain English. I’ve been amazed at how often one section of a contract will cancel out another section, or how the same thing is often in a contract twice, just in different words. I’ve also been amazed (as I think I mentioned earlier) how often publishers and editors don’t understand what their own contract is asking for.

What’s Next?

Once you understand exactly what rights are outlined in your contract and how you will be paid for said rights, you need to decide if those terms are acceptable for you. If they are, then you’ve got it easy. Sign, seal and send.

If you want to make changes, it’s important to do so with confidence, professionalism and a plan:

  • Be confident by knowing exactly what the contract says.
  • Be professional by emailing or phoning your editor or publisher and asking for the opportunity to talk over the contract and seeing if they’re open to changes.
  • Be prepared by knowing what’s not working for you in the contract and being ready to ask for exactly what changes you’d like to see.

Your editor or publisher may not be able to accommodate all of the changes that you’d like, so be sure you know which ones are the deal-breakers for you and which ones would just be nice to have. In fact, there’s a chance that you may not get ANY of the changes you request, in which case you have to make the incredibly hard decision of, “do I still want to publish with this company if this is the contract that I have to sign?” It’s a very personal decision, and the only way to properly answer it is to have a very clear understanding of your rights, of the contract, and of the legal issues ahead of time.

If you can do that, you’ll be way ahead of the rest of us, who are still debating whether we’re going to jump into the fray of that public threesome, just to avoid walking into that daunting, wild, scary place that is Contractland.

Shanna Germain
November 2010

“The Fine Art of Submission” © 2010 Shanna Germain. All rights reserved.

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