I’m not frequently asked what’s the reason for a publishing contract, but I’m sure many authors wonder. I’ll try to make this very short as there are entire books written on this subject. The short version is there must be agreement between the parties involved. Publishing contracts deal with copyright. When an author sits down to write, everything written by him or her is instantly copyrighted by law according to U.S. and international copyright conventions.
With that said, no one except the author has the right to copy his or her work. Stealing one’s work is called copyright infringement. So, the main purpose of a publishing contract is to allow someone besides the author—a publisher in this case—to copy, distribute, and. in most cases, to grant the ability to the publisher to license others to copy and distribute said copyrighted property.
All of this is usually contained in a paragraph or so at the beginning of the contract, so why 20 or more pages of paragraphs and sub-paragraphs in most contracts? The answer is there are more issues that need to be resolved and understood, issues covering other important items beyond rights.
How about money? Income from the sale of intellectual properties (books, novels, plays, TV scripts, music, etc.) also must have a place in a contract and be agreed upon by the parties involved. For instance, there must be, described and agreed upon, when royalties are paid, in what form, and how royalties are to be divided between author and publisher.
How about the length of time the publisher gets to keep those rights? Also, there are movies and TV shows made from books. Contracts must also cover who controls these rights and how these rights, called secondary rights, are to be handled.
Then there are many issues in contracts that protect the author and publisher against infringement, meaning someone else publishing the book and putting money from sales in his/her pocket. There are also parts on the contract that protect the publisher from unscrupulous authors stealing someone else’s book and claiming it is theirs.
I’ve promised to make this short, but that doesn’t mean the conversation has to stop here. If you have a question concerning contracts or just general questions about publishing, feel free to comment.