29 June 2021

Bad Contracts

During the forty-plus years I’ve been writing professionally, I’ve heard no end of complaints about the bad contracts writers have signed.

I’ve also signed bad contracts, but I’m not about to complain. The difference between most complainers and me: I signed bad contracts knowing full well they were bad. I knew what I was getting into, and, when I balanced short-term benefits against long-term benefits, short-term benefits won.

Mostly during the early years, but continuing up until the mid-2010s, I sold all rights to more than 400 short stories because the promise of immediate payment meant food on the table and a roof over my family’s head. The possibility of potential additional income from the licensing of reprints and other subsidiary rights at some indefinable point in the future was insufficient to counter-balance immediate income.

(“Immediate” is a relative term: even with “pay on acceptance” publications, there’s often a several-week gap between returning a signed contract and receiving payment, and one publisher I worked with slowly stretched weeks into months before finally ceasing all payments.)

The stories for which I sold all rights were often published under pseudonyms or without any byline at all, and they were written in genres for which there was no perceived life after initial publication. So, unless I told you the titles of those stories and where they were published, you might never know they were mine, nor were you likely to see the stories in any form other than original publication.

Until now.

Print-on-demand and electronic books have changed publishing, making it easier and less expensive to release collections of reprints. At least two publishers that own defunct magazines that published my work are doing just that, gathering stories from their archives and assembling them into POD anthologies and eBooks available from various online bookstores.

During the past few years, I’ve been keeping an eye on these publishers’ releases, using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature and my wife’s Prime account to search for reprints of my stories. Often the story titles remain unchanged, so my work is reasonably easy to identify. Even so, I occasionally find stories by other writers with titles identical to mine, which is why I use my wife’s Prime account to dig deeper than just examining story titles.

Recently, I discovered eight of my stories reprinted by two different publishers in three different anthologies: Falling in Love...Again (BroadLit) contains one story, Stroke of Midnight (True Renditions, LLC) contains one story, and Cupid’s Day (True Renditions, LLC) contains six stories. And this isn’t the first time I’ve found stories reprinted without my knowledge. So far, I’ve identified at least twenty.

I don’t expect to be notified when one of these stories is reprinted. The original publishers presented me with all-rights contracts that I willingly signed, and the current owners of those rights can do with the stories what they wish.

Even so, I likely will never sign another all-rights contract (which, for those who don’t know, is not the same as a work-for-hire contract), but, who knows, there may be another bad contract in my future. And if I sign it, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

In other reprint news: “Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile,” 
originally published in Shhh...Murder! (Darkhouse Books, 2018) was released in May 2021 as one of Wildside Press’s Barb Goffman Presents titles, and “Feel the Pain,” originally published in Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003) was reprinted in Modern Mayhem, June 7, 2021.


  1. Thanks for creating awareness of this issue, Michael. Contracts are often drafted in a formal, legal English that is difficult for non-native American speakers to understand. Possibly also for Americans, or am I a Dutchman? How do you recognize these contracts? How do you recognize a clause in which you transfer all rights?

    1. Anne, it's usually been obvious. The key clause (in fact, the first clause) in a contract I signed (with publisher, title, and payment redacted):

      [Publisher] hereby agrees to pay [dollar amount] for all rights, title, and interest (including copyright) of every kind whatsoever in the contribution entitled: [story title].

      I don't think it can get much clearer than that. Of course, not every publisher is as upfront as this one. Some bury a form of the all-rights clause in the middle of a lengthy contract. The key word to look for in any contract is "all."

  2. For the same reason some people rob banks, even though they know it's illegal, some authors sign bad contracts, even though they know they're bad: to put tacos on the table.

    Once you're in a position where you know there are and will continue to be tacos on the table, pierogies in the pantry, and falafel in the fridge, though, no self-respecting writer should ever sign an all-rights contract. That's sorta like dropping one of your kids off at day care and saying, "Just keep him, I don't want him back."

    As Michael knows, all-rights contracts are far from the only kind of bad contracts out there — and, as Anne wonders, yes, legalese can be challenging for lawyers to wade through, let alone us non-lawyer members of the writin' fraternity/sorority, which makes it not only possible but probable that even the most cautious of us will at times sign a contract we later realize we shouldn't've....

  3. I think most writers face this choice at some point, and we do what makes sense for us at the time. A rights grab is part of the world of publishing fiction or nonfiction. When I was ghostwriting I signed away rights that, had I been smarter, I could have negotiated for better terms. But I needed the work--and the income. And I learned from it. Posts like this one help us understand the business and learn more about our options (if there are any). There was no social media when I was starting out. Newbies today have so much more support and far more resources.


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