Things I Wish I Knew: Navigating Publishing Contracts

Woman's hand signing documents

Woman's hand signing documents

I’m obviously pro-agent. I believe we add huge value to a writer’s career in all areas, but most importantly protecting their intellectual property rights through their contracts. However, sometimes writers get into contract situations without an agent and don’t know what to do. Or, some writers like to learn about the business side of things. This post is for you.

Susan Spann is a publishing law attorney and hosts a Wednesday information session on Twitter called #PubLaw where you can follow along with the hashtag. (Do it!) I’ve been following, and retweeting, her #PubLaw advice for a couple years now and I think you’ll find this edition of “Things I Wish I Knew” extremely helpful on the contracts side of things. I’ve asked her a number of questions about contracts as well as what happens when a writer gets a contract and doesn’t have an agent: what should they do? Read on…

What is the one thing you wish debut authors knew about their publishing contract? 

That they have the ability to walk away if a publisher won’t agree to industry-standard terms, and that both the author and his or her work deserves the respect of a contract that doesn’t abuse or overreach the industry standards. 

Far too often, I hear from authors who signed non-standard contracts—either from ignorance or from a mistaken belief that as new authors they “didn’t deserve” the same protection as more seasoned authors. Not surprisingly, they come to regret that decision, but once the contract is signed it’s often too late to help them. 

Take the time to get professional review of every contract, and have the courage to walk away from any publisher or deal that tries to take unfair advantage—having no contract is infinitely better than finding yourself in the publishing version of an abusive relationship down the line. 


If writers don’t have an agent who should look at their contract? 

An agent! (Kidding…) Real answer: an agent or an attorney who specializes in publishing contracts. Publishing deals differ from standard contracts, and not all contract attorneys understand the details of publishing well enough to review a contract for an author. 

I know many authors who secured an agent after receiving a contract offer, and many more who reach out to me or to other publishing lawyers for contract review when the deal comes in. Find an experienced lawyer or agent, and get a professional opinion on the contract before you sign. 


What has been the best part of starting your #publaw hashtag on Twitter? What’s the reception been like?

I started the #PubLaw hashtag in the hope that it would be come a resource for authors seeking to learn about publishing industry standards and how to protect their legal rights. In many cases, authors can be their own first line of defense against scams and unscrupulous publishers, but you have to know your rights in order to defend them!

I’m thrilled to see how much #PubLaw has grown since I started the hashtag back in 2010. The response from authors and other industry professionals has been overwhelmingly positive, and it’s wonderful to hear how many authors have been able to protect themselves after seeing something posted on the #PubLaw feed. The work is definitely ongoing—but it’s great to see the hashtag and the people who interact on it with me helping to spread the word about publishing industry standards and authors’ rights.


What’s the best online resource for publishing contracts? 

That’s a rough question – there’s a lot of good information out there, but also a lot that isn’t reliable. 

I’m trying to build a solid resource on my blog (at, in the #PubLaw for Writers and Contracts categories), and SFWA’s Writer Beware ( and the Writer Beware Blog ( also have excellent posts about contract issues and regular warnings about scams and dangerous publishers. 

Generally speaking, I recommend that authors depend on online resources and industry watchdogs who have experience negotiating contracts (agents and publishing attorneys) and who offer information that isn’t filled with inflammatory or self-serving rhetoric. Read widely, and use good judgment when deciding who to trust.


What are you reading for fun right now?

I just finished Jennifer Kincheloe’s fantastic debut mystery, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc (Seventh Street Books), Kerry Schafer’s fast-paced paranormal mystery, Dead Before Dying (Diversion Books), and a delightful anthology of World War I short stories called Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War (HarperCollins).

 The book currently on my nightstand is James Rollins’s The Bone Labyrinth (HarperCollins), and Michael Koryta’s So Cold the River is queued on my Kindle. 

I’ve also got A Brief History of Seppuku and a history of medieval Japanese ninjas on my desk, as research for my fifth Hiro Hattori novel (working title Betrayal at Iga), which I’m currently editing. Research is fun too! 

Thank you so much for asking, and for letting me answer these questions for your blog!

Susan Spann is a California attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. She also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur, 2013), was Library Journal’s Mystery Debut of the Month and a Silver Falchion finalist for Best First Novel. Her fourth novel, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, releases August 2, 2016 from Seventh Street Books. Susan is the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and shares publishing legal and business information on the Twitter #PubLaw hashtag.

17 thoughts on “Things I Wish I Knew: Navigating Publishing Contracts

  1. Thank you for inviting me to the blog, and for the great compliments about #PubLaw. I’m glad you find it helpful, and I appreciate the chance to help spread the word. I’m very pro-agent, too…a lot of people are surprised to learn I have an agent for my novels, even though I’m a publishing lawyer. Agents do so much more than “just” negotiate contracts, and I’m quick to recommend that authors find an agent if they want to pursue a career in traditional publishing.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks so much for this, Carly and Susan! I’ve been following some of Susan’s posts on rights and contracts at Writers in the Storm and have learned a lot reading them.
    So great to see her here too!
    Keep up the great tips! They are much appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was a great informative article and I am now following Susan Spann’s blog and on Twitter as well as you, Carly. I have a question for you, as an agent. Is it possible for a self-published author to get an Agent? I have published three books, about to release the fourth, and have done it all through my own imprint. Of course, I would love to have the support of a publishing house behind me. My stories have all been true stories told through fictitious characters and I have won two awards so far with them. Can you point me in a direction toward possibly obtaining a literary agent?

    Liked by 1 person

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