But there's one choice no author should make alone: the choice to sign a contract.
In the days when traditional publication was king--and by "king" I mean "the only way to do it"--authors always had a contract-savvy agent (or an attorney, or both) reviewing the contract before the author signed. The author's representatives negotiated with publishers to obtain the best possible deal, or at least tried to make sure the contract didn't take unfair advantage. (It did happen, but not as often as it does today.)
The huge expansion in publishing options (many legitimate, some less so) has resulted in more author freedom than ever before. Authors can choose to work with an agent or not. A big publisher, a small publisher ... or to become a publisher. Everything's an option.
But, to mutilate a familiar proverb, with great choice comes great responsibility - and not all authors exercise that power with proper regard.
Don't go it alone where your contracts are concerned.
I'll say that again, in case you spilled your scotch and missed it the first time:
DO NOT SIGN A CONTRACT - any contract - WITHOUT PROPER HELP AND REVIEW.
If you're a publishing attorney you might ... might ... be able to handle your contracts alone. Perhaps. That is, if you're capable of setting aside your emotions and treating yourself like a client who isn't a relative or a friend. In the interests of full disclosure: I didn't go it alone myself, and I AM such an attorney. I have a contract-savvy agent and I listened to her opinions as well as my own.
If you're not an attorney, you need someone to review your contracts for you. That person could be an agent or an attorney. Some authors have both. But at a minimum you need one or the other. It's not just a matter of reading the contract, either ... reviewing a contract requires an understanding of what's on the page and also what isn't there.
I can't tell you how many times I've seen an author in despair because the contract (s)he signed had no termination language and no out-of-print clause allowing him (or her) to cancel the contract if the book didn't sell. In almost every case, the author reviewed the contract alone and just didn't notice the problem.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg where contract issues are concerned. Many contract issues lurk between the lines where you might not notice. It takes a professional eye to spot the issues and to ensure you're getting the deal that you--and your work--deserve.
Starting this fall, I'll be taking a look at some common contract pitfalls here on Chiseled in Rock. Knowledge is power, and I'm here to help you grow some legal muscles. But at the end of the day, remember that it's worth a little money up front to protect both you and your work once the contract is signed. Most publishing contracts last for the length of copyright - life of the author plus 70 years - which means that unless the contract allows you early termination for some other reason, you and your work are bound until Kingdom Come (for you at least). Don't take a chance with "forever."
Get some help.
You'll be glad you did.
Posted by Susan Spann
Susan Spann is a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing and business law. She is also author of the Shinobi Mystery series, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. The first book, CLAWS OF THECAT, released in July 2013 from Minotaur Books. You can find more from Susan at her website, or on Twitter @SusanSpann, where she founded the #PubLaw hashtag to provide legal and business information to authors.