The Necessity of Contracts

Posted on Tue, Jan 23 2018 2:17 pm by Dawn Frederick


Any published writer generally realizes their publishing goal has been reached the minute a publishing contract lands on their desk. It’s always a bit overwhelming—and something that results in a burst of adrenaline, along with a dash of anxiety. This is to be expected, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As someone who deals with contracts on a regular basis, there’s nothing worse than entering into a partnership (in publishing, or anything else) without a signed agreement. Just like you have to sign a contract for your mortgage, an apartment, a new car, etc., you’ll have to adjust to your writerly life’s interaction with contracts.

Sometimes an author may choose to independently publish their book. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but the same caution and care needs to be given, despite the absence of a traditional publishing house. If you are independently publishing any book, contracts are a necessary part of the process. This includes hiring a freelance editor, a book designer, a publicity person, a printer, a distributor, and any other relevant costs associated with publishing your book. If you are putting the money (and time) into the publication of any book, having a written agreement with any third party is absolutely mandatory.  

Tweet from Eric Ruben (@TheEricRuben): "Never. Never. Never. I'm a lawyer and never do agreements on just a handshake."


It’s a good idea to ensure whatever editorial, design, production, and/or distribution services you choose (when indie publishing), there’s an official contract that reflects the services that will be provided, a timeline and the anticipated costs.

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but I will hesitate the moment a third party offers to help with a publishing service, but doesn’t actually provide a list of the costs associated, let alone a contract. As my friend Eric Ruben, agent extraordinaire and lawyer, states – never use someone’s services for your book without a contract. A handshake, while a friendly gesture, will not hold up in a court of law. So if things do get sour, you be out the money, and have nothing to show for it.

If you don’t have a lawyer or a literary agent in your corner, there is always the Author’s Guild, which for the small cost of an annual membership provides lots of resources and a legal department. They are a great resource to consult should a contract be needed with any third party.  Their goal is to ensure that authors are offered fair contracts and not taken advantage of.

Contracts are also necessary for any  freelance editorial work you do when you’re not writing your book.  Most book advances will not pay an author’s living expenses, so building additional revenue streams via freelance work is always a proactive way to ensure the bills are paid (and that you can drink all the coffee desired while working on your own book).

If you are going to provide editorial services to anyone, have a contract readily available. Ensure that you are paid in installments, at minimum. It may be a good idea to also include a small upfront charge (in the installment plan), since you would be setting aside time to work on that project. As my friend Marjorie shared, she lost time and, eventually, money when she worked without a contract:

Tweet from Marjorie (@RealMarjo): "Different angle - I worked as a freelancer for 10+ yrs. Did 50+ projects, 3 w/o a contract - & wasn't paid for any of the  3. It cost me more to chase the $ than taking the loss. So ... yeah. Contracts protect all parties."


The reality of publishing is that all of us are here for the product: books. We love books so much that it goes well beyond the scope of a “job.” This love of books, and creating them is essentially a lifestyle. That kind of passion shouldn’t be hindered by the lack of a contract, or the potential for a loss of income. Whether you are in search of professionals to see your book to publication, or you are the professional, ask for a contract. Your success on the pages will be supported by ensuring your revenue stream is honored by any party that you work with.

Dawn Michelle Frederick is the owner & literary agent of Red Sofa Literary, established in 2008. Red Sofa Literary is a celebration of the quirky, eclectic ideas in our publishing community. Dawn’s previous experience reflects a broad knowledge of the book business, with over a decade of experience as a bookseller in the independent, chain, and specialty stores, an editor for a YA publisher, and an associate literary agent at Sebastian Literary Agency. Dawn earned a BS in Human Ecology and a MS in Library & Information Sciences from an ALA-accredited institution. She is also one of the founders of the MN Publishing Tweet Up, which brings writers and publishers together over a monthly happy hour. Red Sofa Literary was voted as one of the Best 101 Websites by Writer’s Digest in 2012 and 2013. Dawn will be in attendance at the Loft's upcoming Pitch Conference this April.