The Hidden Dangers of Short-Form Contracts

Authors have plenty to watch for when evaluating a publishing deal, but one of the most common dangers is also one the author might not see: an abbreviated contract that omits important clauses and protections.

Many authors look at the standard-length (12-30 page) publishing contract with a combination of excitement, fear, and confusion. For those not versed in publishing legalese the contract terms can range from “difficult to read” to “penned in Sanskrit.”

When authors see a three-page form, they often think “hey, this is great!” and “finally, a contract that makes sense!” Tread carefully–that way be dragons.

Publishing contracts run long because they have to deal with many legal issues. “Copyright” in a manuscript is actually a bundle of rights, each of which should be addressed in the publishing contract. Failure to deal with each of the relevant issues results in ambiguities, many of which will cut in the publisher’s favor (or require a court to resolve—at great cost to the author, whether or not (s)he prevails).

Recently, I’ve seen a number of “short-form contracts” which claim to offer authors a “better deal” than those being offered by “traditional, complex forms.”

Again, I say: beware.

These shorter forms do often include a statement of royalties due on sales (usually on a percentage basis), a grant of rights to publish, and a statement of the timing (often quarterly) when the publisher will send the author’s royalty checks. However, these shorter contracts are often missing a number of critical provisions that many authors don’t realize they need to look for. When a problem arises, the author goes to the contract, only to find that the “friendly short form” doesn’t address that issue (or, when it does, the publisher prevails).

Here’s a sampling of the important provisions many short-form contracts don’t include:

1. Complete statements of rights/reservations of rights. The shorter the contract, the more likely it is to simply grant the publisher “all rights” in and to the work “in all forms, formats, and territories.” Subsidiary rights should be separately listed and addressed in the contract language. 

2. Author termination rights. Although most publishing contracts last “for the life of copyright,” that’s actually only the contract term if the contract isn’t breached or terminated earlier. Good contracts give the author several ways to escape if things go badly, including the right to terminate (and revert all rights to the author) if the publisher fails to publish, goes out of business, breaches the contract, and/or fails to sell at least a specified minimum number of copies in a stated period of time. Short form contracts often fall woefully short on author termination rights (if they mention them at all).

3. Sales Statements. It’s not enough for the publisher to send the author royalty checks. Each check should be accompanied by a detailed sales statement. Short-form contracts sometimes skip right over the issue of statements.

4. Audit rights. The author should have the right to audit the publisher’s books and records (as they relate to the author’s work) at least once in every calendar year. Many times, short-form contracts omit this critical right.

5. “Out of Print” status defined and tied to sales. Short-form contracts often either omit the author’s “out of print” termination rights altogether (whoops…) or tie “out of print” status to “availability” – meaning that as long as an ebook version of the work exists, the book is never out of print. Unless an author is watching for this, it’s easy to miss the omission of out of print language.

This list is not exhaustive, incidentally. Short-form contracts often omit (or fail to mention) numerous other issues as well. I’ve listed these as examples, to demonstrate just how dangerous short-form contracts can be for unwary authors.

Sometimes, publishers say that these clauses “aren’t needed,” or that authors and publishers should be able to trust one another to “do the right thing.”


It’s true that publishers and authors should be able to trust one another, and that good publishing relationships do function like a partnership between the author and the publishing house.

However, it’s also true that good fences make good neighbors, and good contracts make for good partnerships—in publishing and elsewhere.

Never rely on any promise or representation which isn’t contained in the body of the contract. And never, ever sign a publishing contract—especially not a “short-form” deal—without obtaining a professional’s opinion to ensure the contract protects your legal rights.