What’s the Worst Mistake an Author Can Make?

What is the worst mistake a self-publishing author could make?

A bad book cover? No.

A poorly edited manuscript? No.

A hokey website? No.

It’s losing his or her copyright.

Your copyrighted work is valuable property, just like your car or home. You wouldn’t hand over your keys to a stranger you met on the internet. You wouldn’t let someone with a slick website move into your guest room. Yet everyday, authors click ACCEPT to contracts with so-called self-publishing service companies which engage in THEFT BY CONTRACT.

Don’t let anyone with sticky fingers touch your manuscript.

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Word Cloud Generated on Jason Davies site

If you are like most people when you try to read a contract the page looks like 5000 words run through a blender? I don’t blame you. Most on-line publishing and POD contracts are dense, convoluted tomes packed with cross-references and jargon.

A few companies, such as Outskirts Press and Smashwords, have clean, understandable contracts. But CreateSpace’s Services Agreement and Kindle Direct Publishing Terms and Conditions are so tangled with therein’s and subject to’s that I have to draw arrows in the margins to connect the dots. And some companies have contracts which are virtually licenses to steal.

So before you click your work away, print out the contract, grab a red pen and circle what the contract says about ownership. Typically you’ll find it in paragraphs titled License, Content, Ownership, Grant of Rights, or some combination of these words.

In everyday language, the contract should say that you are granting the company the non-exclusive, world-wide right or license, during the term of the agreement, to do _____, the blank being the permitted uses and services. Even better, the contract should also say that you, the author, retain all ownership and copyright to your work.

For example, here is the relevant section from the Outskirts Press Agreement. This language is excellent.


1.       AUTHOR RETAINS 100% OF THE RIGHTS AND COPYRIGHT LICENSES to the submitted manuscript and all other material submitted to Outskirts Press, Inc. 

2.       Author RETAINS ALL RIGHTS to distribute and sell the manuscript in other print and digital formats.

3.       Author grants Outskirts Press a NON-EXCLUSIVE, worldwide license to distribute and sell the manuscript in print and/or digital form; author grants Outskirts Press the non-exclusive right to exhibit manuscript in part on websites or promotional materials owned by Outskirts Press; author grants Outskirts Press the non-exclusive right to store and transmit digital versions of manuscript to facilitate production, distribution, and sale of manuscript.  

4.       Outskirts Press will produce a book version of the manuscript, referred henceforth as “Title.” Author grants Outskirts Press the non-exclusive right to exhibit, print, and distribute any and all related materials submitted in conjunction with Title, which includes, but is not limited to, cover art, interior and exterior images and concepts, author’s photograph, summaries, quotes, testimonials, and author’s biography, and furthermore grants Outskirts Press the right to exhibit Outskirts Press logos or verbiage on any applicable submitted materials.

Smashwords’ Terms of Service is also clearly written.

  1.  The Grant and the Territory.  The Author hereby grants and assigns to Smashwords the nonexclusive worldwide right to digitally publish, distribute, market and sell (“Publish”), and to license others to do so, the work identified on the front page of your submission (the “Work”). Since the terms of agreement with Smashwords, herein, is non-exclusive, the Author or Publisher is free to Publish, license, market and sell their work elsewhere so long as the Author or Publisher is not violating someone else’s agreement or violating the law.”  …

4.  The copyright in the Work shall belong to the Author or the party that Author cites as the copyright holder.

These contracts should all say the same thing. Until you terminate the agreement, you are granting your POD or distributor the non-exclusive right or license to use your content to provide services and to market and distribute your book. Non-exclusive means that you may simultaneously market and sell your book directly or through other channels such as Ingrams.

Let’s look at what to avoid.  I found this contract from a Writers Beware post. http://accrispin.blogspot.com/search?q=blessed+hope.  I do not know whether this self-publishing company continues to use this contract, but it’s a great example of what to avoid.

1. The Author transfers to the Publisher without limitation of place the exclusive right of reproduction and dissemination (Publisher’s right) of the work for the duration of statutory copyright including all additional bibliographical texts and/or images supplied by the Author (e.g. cover text, biographical details) for all print and electronic editions (e-book) and for all print runs without limit of units and in all language versions. In the case of works which have already been published by other publishing houses, a non-exclusive right of use shall be transferred. The Author shall continue to be the copyright holder of his work.

Translation: If you sign on to this agreement, you are granting the Publisher exclusive control of the manuscript for the life of the copyright (your life plus 70 years). This is shocking. Don’t be fooled by the last sentence which states that the Author continues to be the copyright holder. If you have granted them exclusive right of reproduction and dissemination, then you cannot publish your book elsewhere.

Oh, they do provide an exception. The Author shall further be entitled to publish parts of his work in other forms such as in the form of a specialist paper in a journal, as an online publication or similar. The guideline for partial publications shall be that such partial publications shall not constitute more than a maximum of 20% of the scope of the overall work. So you may publish print up to 20% of the work for limited purposes.

But wait. There’s more. They may even sell your book.  Publisher may assign the rights granted within the scope of the present Agreement to third parties either in whole or in part without any requirement for renewed agreement on the part of the Author.

Bottom line — Read before your click. Don’t give your work away.


Photos used under Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en


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4 responses to “What’s the Worst Mistake an Author Can Make?”

  1. So glad I’m working with Outskirts Press!

  2. Alexis says:

    I am very grateful for the posts on your site. Thank you! You have helped me to realize that I’ve been offered a contract by a small press (NOT a self-publisher or vanity press) that requires me to give up my copyright rights forever and allows the publisher to sell my rights to another publisher without paying me any compensation or royalties. There also is no advance, and they require an option to publish my next book on the exact same terms. Bonus: The option doesn’t start until the current book is in print, which would require me to wait YEARS to begin shopping the new book.

    I’m confident in my skills as a writer and have published a book already, so I’m not going to just sign and hope for the best. I will try to negotiate. If that fails, I will walk away and find a publisher that’s more humane to its authors.

    But how do they think this is ethical? It’s a small press with good, nice people. Do they even know what they’re asking me to sign or is this just boilerplate language that they expect me to negotiate?

    • Alexis, They could be lovely people who do not realize how onerous their contract is. That would make me wonder how effective they will be in running their business.
      Or they could be good salespeople. Either way, be careful.

  3. Dr. T.N.Tilak says:

    Very informative.
    Thanks, Ms. Helen

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