In Botswana, as it is in most of Africa, as writers we operate without agents.
What this means is that you have no one in your corner who is familiar with contracts. You are on your own unless you have money to hire a lawyer but even then it can be problematic because I doubt most lawyers in Botswana are that familiar with the publishing business and publishing contracts and their implications.
To compound that problem, by the time a writer gets a publishing contract they have spent years writing a book and have had piles of rejections and are so thankful that finally a publisher likes their book they will sign just about anything out of sheer gratitude. But take my advice, once you get the contract, turn on your business mind or you will be regretting it for a very long time.
I’m not saying publishers are out to get you, they’re not. Publishers want what you want- to sell many copies of your book. But in the end they are businesses, they want to maximise their profit margin. Your publisher has likely said many lovely things but if it is not written down in the contract it is not legally binding. There will be no, “…but you said…” after you’ve signed on the dotted line.
So let’s look at a few things regarding contracts that you should pay attention to.
1. A contract is a suggestion
When the publisher gives you that contract they are showing you what they want. It is the beginning of negotiations. Negotiations don’t mean that you are fighting. You often hear publishers saying they don’t like working with difficult writers. Negotiating the terms of your contract is not being difficult. You need to make sure what you sign is what you want to be signing. Ask for everything you want. The publisher will then say yes or no. If there are things that you must have and the publisher is unwilling to budge on them, you need to keep in mind that it is better to walk away from a bad contract than to sign one.
2. Know what area of the world will be covered
When signing a contract for a book, you are handing over the copyright for that book to the publisher. If that publisher only has the capacity to sell books in Southern Africa, then why would you give them the copyright to sell the book in the entire world? Publishers want world rights, they’re optimistic that something might happen to allow them to sell books everywhere. You don’t need to wait for that. As a writer you can insist that they take only the rights for the area where they are able to sell now. In this way, you can sell the copyright to another publisher for the same book who can sell the book in the other places the first publisher can’t. If the publisher is only able to sell books in Botswana, you cross out “world rights” on the contract and write “Botswana rights only”.
3. Watch Out for Ebooks
The world of publishing is in flux. Things are changing on a daily basis. In Africa, ebooks are not so big, but they are exploding overseas. Many of our contracts include electronic books under the same contract as print books. Check if this is the case with your contract. This is not the best scenario unless the ebooks are in their own clause that stipulates the royalty rate separately. The standard royalty rate right now for ebooks is 25%. I’ve found most contracts in Southern Africa at least, want to give authors the same rate as print books, normally 10-15%. The reason ebooks get a hire rate is because they are usually produced after the print book, so all cover design and editing costs should have been taken up by the print book and also they are usually sold at a lower rate.
4. Check the Definition of Out of Print
For print books after a certain time the publisher will no longer print nor distribute your book. When this happens, the copyright should revert back to the author. Now with print on demand (POD) a publisher trying to be funny, can say the book is still available for sale when in fact it really isn’t so that they can retain the copyright, just in case. Make sure this clause is crystal clear.