Early in my career, a publisher sent me a book contract which I ungratefully didn't sign but showed to a friend who already wrote for a living. He wasn't impressed: "The only thing this lacks is the clause specifying that the Author shall deliver his wife, suitably garbed in see-through chiffon gown, for a period of full copyright." Another literary pal was reminded of the old Dobson Books contract, which he swore had conditions like "in ye euent of tardie Deliuerie, ye Scribe shall be flogg'd."
After negotiation, that contract was rewritten for author-friendliness – but I'd been terribly tempted to sign the dodgy version anyway, for fear of missing out. Publishers, splendid folk though they are, can't resist trying it on.
There was a fuss when HarperCollins slipped a new clause into their standard contract this year, giving them the right to cancel if "Author's conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, or if Author commits a crime or any other act that will tend to bring Author into serious contempt ..." Involved in a scandal that stirs up colossal publicity for your book? You may have to pay the advance back; pure-minded HarperCollins doesn't like the wrong kind of fame.
The great Ursula K. Le Guin responded with a tongue-in-cheek confession addressed to HC bossman Rupert Murdoch: "Before I wrote my book Emily Brontë and the Vampires of Lustbaden, which you published this fall and which has been on the Times Best Seller List for five straight months, I committed bad behavior and said bad words in public that brought me into serious contempt in my home town of Blitzen, Oregon. In fact the people there found me so seriously contemptible that I am now living in Maine under the name of Trespassers W..."
More funny business came to light when an outraged US literary agent reported on Macmillan's new contract, in which clause 6b allows the publisher to create "derivative works" based on the author's book – rehashing its characters and settings. Who owns the copyright to these "new works"? Why, the publisher, of course! Just imagine if J.K. Rowling had signed a deal like that when new and inexperienced. "Don't worry, Ms Rowling, our soft-porn series beginning with Harry Potter and the Suspenders of Enticement is totally legitimate. It's simply a derivative work that we've created and own all the rights to, just like it says in your contract."
Sometimes, alas, spotting the nasty clause doesn't help. A few years back, a minor imprint of a major publisher wanted me to write this nonfiction book in a hurry. They offered a modest sum up front, with more when the text was delivered and approved. That's normal. What wasn't normal, as my agent spotted, was the clause saying that if they didn't like the result of my months of toil – or if they changed their mind for any reason or none at all – even that first miserly instalment of advance money must be repaid in full. Ridiculous, said my agent. Deal's off, retorted the publisher: "We cannot work with an author who refuses to accept editorial direction." No, not when the directive is "Shut your eyes, Luke, and sign the Clause!"
Long ago, SF author Damon Knight offered three maxims for young writers: "love your work; read your contracts; make friends when you can." Wise advice still, but today we need a fourth: read that contract again.
David Langford still feels grumpy about flightless Antarctic birds in evening dress.