Book Contracts: The Drunk Lawyer Clause

Some contract clauses are so stupid you swear only a drunk lawyer could have written them. With book contracts, this lawyer was the drunkest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A number of years ago I was the freelance editor of a four-volume set of books known as the Banned Books Series that were published by Facts On File, a major reference publisher. I was offered a modest advance — well, not too modest; it enabled my wife and me to make the down payment on our first house.

Contributors Give Me Editor Royalty

They offered me no royalty, just the advance, because that’s how book editors were traditionally treated. I told my agent I wanted a royalty also. I knew it wouldn’t be a major windfall; the writers deserved more for their efforts than I did as the editor.

But, I said, “I know who I am. When the book comes out, when I see my name on the cover” — because I negotiated that placement — “I know I’ll be out there selling the book. My efforts will help the authors. My efforts will help Facts On File. I deserve a royalty.”

And I got it. Of course, it was only 1% or so, and it came out of the authors’ royalties (with their agreement) rather than from Facts On File. But I was pleased to know that, according to the publisher, I was the first editor ever to receive a royalty from Facts On File. And I did promote the book, to everyone’s advantage.

But not because of the 1% royalty, which, in Yiddish, would be known as a pitzelach, a teeny bit.

Only a Drunk Lawyer

In the boilerplate contract was a clause, known as the resale clause, which said that the volume authors and I could purchase a minimal number of books, ten or so, at some modest discount, between 30 and 40%. But then the next phrase said, “but not for resale.”

The sentence after that said, “Royalties will not be paid on books purchased at author discount.” This is a common clause in boilerplate contracts, especially academic press contracts, which are the worst in the business.

We know that boilerplate contracts are written by publishers’ lawyers, and that the contracts are generally to the advantage of the publishers. But this clause was destructive to both the publisher and the author. I’m sure it was written by a drunk lawyer because it harmed his own client. It treated the contributors to the book as competitors to the publisher.

Getting a Return on My Dime

I said to my agent, “I want to be able to purchase books at 50% off or the best distributors’ discount, for resale, and with no risk to my royalty. If Baker & Taylor purchases books at 50% off to resell to libraries, I don’t lose my royalty. Why should I lose my royalty if I purchase for myself at 50% off?”

Further, I argued, I knew I’d be walking into bookstores and libraries that their salespeople would never approach. I knew I’d be setting up speaking opportunities on my own dime. Why should Facts On File get the money?

No Drunk Lawyer Here

Fortunately, Facts On File was enlightened enough to see the logic. They allowed the revised clause. And I made it worthwhile for them. The set sold in hardcover for $140. Libraries loved the set. They still are a mainstay of Banned Books Month every year and, in fact, the second, expanded edition came out a few seasons later.

For me, I would walk into a library, show the purchaser the set, walk out with a check for $140, and bank half of it. It was free money for the publisher because I found outlets their best sales force couldn’t find.

Facts On File may have only made 50% of $140 but it was a lot better than 100% of nothing. And they did no better when distributors sold it. In fact, I was a distributor. That’s how they related to me.

They treated me as a partner, not as a competitor.

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This piece was adapted from Ken Wachsberger’s You’ve Got the Time: How to Write and Publish That Book in You. Ken’s other books may be found here and here. For book coaching and editing help, or to invite Ken to speak at your meeting, email Ken at [email protected].

Do your members need to understand book contracts? Contact Ken at [email protected].

Schedule your complimentary 30-minute coaching and editing session now.

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