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Ask Author Law

Do I really need a lawyer for a simple book contract?

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: I’ve just been offered my first book contract from a small independent publisher. I didn’t use an agent and I really want this deal, so I plan to go ahead and sign the contract, even though it’s not perfect. I don’t want to spook the editor by asking questions or making waves. A friend of mine said that if I don’t have an agent I should have a lawyer check the contract over, but I don’t want to pay a lawyer to raise unnecessary questions. No offense, but my experience is that lawyers just make things overly complicated. And they charge an arm and a leg to muck things up.

A: First of all, any legitimate publisher is not going to be offended by reasonable questions about a contract and no good attorney is going to be offended by your concerns about the way the attorney will approach a contract review or by a request to keep fees reasonable. That said, I do understand that you might be uncomfortable raising contract questions, especially if there’s nothing seriously wrong with the contract. But there’s no reason you can’t ask an attorney to do a quick review, look for any serious problems and, should any important questions arise, make suggestions as to an appropriate way to raise them with the publisher. The charge shouldn’t be unreasonable for a simple consultation (but ask the lawyer to quote a fee first).

You may also be more comfortable just asking an attorney to handle all the negotiations on your behalf. If you tell the attorney you don’t want to stir up any unnecessary trouble, the attorney should be able to step in and spare you the agony of negotiation. The fee might be a little higher for such extended involvement, but it can free you and the editor to concentrate on producing a good book while someone else handles the legal details. Many publishers actually prefer to deal with lawyers or agents. Also, having an attorney handle the negotiation for you is a way to communicate your status as a serious professional writer.

If you really don’t have the resources to pay an attorney, or if you can’t find an experienced publishing attorney to help you, you should be aware that the Authors Guild (www.authorsguild.org) provides a free legal evaluation of any book contract to its members. Your contract review will be competent and very thorough. The Authors Guild will only provide you with advice, though. They won’t represent you in a negotiation. And the turn around time is sometimes longer than busy writers are willing to wait. But the Guild legal program is an invaluable resource to keep in mind.
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