A conversation with a friend got me thinking about advice I'd give to someone facing their first book contract. If you're in that rare and enviable position, congratulations! You've already cleared some very high hurdles that many talented people never surmount! That's great!
I'm no expert. I've had two graphic novels published, both with the same editor and publisher. I don't have an agent--just haven't felt the need yet (Catch-22: it's easier to get an agent after you've been published . . . which is why you need an agent). My perspective on the literary world is narrow. Still, I've learned a few things that I wish I'd known when I started. Just remember: this is based on my experience and yours may be completely different. I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. YMMV.
So somehow you got a book editor to notice your proposal (everybody I know has a different story about how they achieved that miracle; I mailed mine in blindly, but that never works). They want to publish your stuff and put it in real bookstores! They sent you a contract! You're ridiculously grateful. You don't want to make a fuss. This may be your only chance to ever be published--your lifelong dream!--and you don't want to screw it up.
Don't sign the contract.
If you have an agent, this is where they earn their cut. If you don't, you should hire an attorney experienced in literary law. Either way, you need an expert on your side. The way I see it, your publishing house may be a wonderful company and your editor may become a genuine trusted friend (both true in my case), and as soon as the contract is signed you're all working toward the common goal of making the best book you possibly can. If you're lucky, your future together is nothing but creatively fulfilling candy-colored rainbow-farting flying unicorns. But right now you're adversaries.
The mental switch that you, the humble supplicant, must throw is to realize that you have all the power. At this point, all the rights to your work are yours. Your publisher wants as many of those potentially profitable rights as they can get. They'll ask for them all; they don't expect you to agree. Your negotiations begin. Don't be afraid to strike entire clauses from the contract and send it back. Your agent or attorney can be an excellent "bad cop" to your "good cop." Blame it on them. Unless you turn into a completely arrogant, unreasonable jerk, your publisher won't get mad and go away.
The copyright to your work should always stay in your name, never your publisher's. I understand that isn't necessarily standard procedure in the comics world, but for an original work by you, published by a reputable company, I think it's essential. (A "work for hire" situation is different, know why.) I would walk away from any deal that insisted otherwise--it's probably the only point I absolutely wouldn't compromise on. It's more important than money. Keeping your copyright prevents you from ending up like Siegel and Shuster, who signed away Superman for $130. It prevents anyone else from taking over your characters and publishing new stories without your approval. Bad deals like that didn't go extinct in the '30s; there are still plenty of sharks preying on desperate minnows, often in the guise of "contests."
You're going to grant them the right to publish your work in North America (if that's where you are), that's a given. Foreign rights, merchandising rights, film rights, and a whole bunch of other subsidiary rights are up for grabs. The best advice I heard on this topic was to try to retain all the rights that you think you might be able to exploit better than they can. I actually let my publisher have some rights that other authors keep because I thought they'd handle them better than I could. Don't give up anything without getting something in return.
You may be offered an advance--more accurately, an "advance against royalties." That means they'll pay you $X now and subtract it from the royalties (a percentage of sales, also negotiable) you're due when the book is published. If it doesn't sell well, $X may be all you ever earn. Good news: even if your book totally tanks, you get to keep the advance. If it's your first book and you're not already rich and famous, it will likely not be enough to quit your day job or buy that Lamborghini you have your eye on, but be sure to treat yourself to a nice celebratory dinner. You deserve it.
I don't remember how long we negotiated my two book contracts, but I think it was several weeks of back and forth. A lot of people get involved. There may come a "take it or leave it" point where you're not getting everything you want from the deal but you can live with it. You have to decide where your personal line in the sand is, and it helps to have thought about it ahead of time. Meanwhile, as a good-faith time-saving gesture, you might be talking to your editor and getting started on the work itself. Regardless, as soon as the contract is signed, you want to be ready to hit the ground running. You're a professional now; act like it.
It took me a while to see my relationship with my publisher not as beggar-benefactor or worker-boss, but as a 50-50 partnership: we're going into business together to make the best book we can that earns us both a fair profit. You need them, but they need you, too.
So here are some bullet points that, despite my relative inexperience and caveats, I think are pretty solid:
- Don't sign anything without the advice of an agent or attorney.
- Don't be afraid to negotiate. It's expected.
- All the rights to your work belong to you until you assign them to someone else. Understand what your rights are, and don't give them away for nothing.
- Know what you're willing to compromise on and what you aren't--your line in the sand.
- Hardest of all: if they won't bend on an issue you don't feel you can compromise on, be willing to walk away. Better to have no deal than a bad one that leaves you feeling unhappy and exploited. Really.
- Act like a grown-up. Be a pro.
- Oh, and go read "Breaking In Without Rules" by comic book writer Kurt Busiek and "Advice to Authors" by Neil Gaiman, especially if you haven't quite gotten your first book contract yet. They are experts.
This is all just my opinion based on my experience and lessons learned by friends of mine, some the hard way. Comments, corrections, additions or revisions from those who know more about it than I do will be gratefully accepted..
EDITED TO ADD: In the comments, Walter mentions "Writer Beware," a site maintained by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). I haven't gone through it all, but it looks like a tremendous resource for experience-based advice and warnings. Looks very good to me.