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Protecting Yourself, or How to Generally Avoid Ever Needing Griefcom

by John E. Johnston III, Chairman, Griefcom

All authors should do these three things for their own protection. Doing them rigorously will either allow you to avoid Griefcom completely or to at least make your case much easier for us if you can’t.

First, and visualize me jumping up and down and yelling it while you read this, NEVER SIGN A CONTRACT WHERE YOU HAVEN’T READ AND UNDERSTOOD EVERY WORD AND CLAUSE! Never, never, never, never! Even if your agent sent it over with a note saying it was okay and you should sign it (yes, some authors have found themselves in serious predicaments after taking their agents on faith on these matters). Even if the editor or publisher assures you that it’s “standard” or “just like the last contract” (ditto on predicaments). Even if your lawyer, accountant, best friend, priest/minister/rabbi/imam, or wife/husband/parent/in-law, tells you to do it, that everything’s good, and that you should trust them and sign right here. Don’t do it! No matter what, don’t sign it until you, personally, have read and understood it all. If you find a clause that’s a potential problem, never accept verbal assurance along the line of “Sure, the contract says X, but that’s just boilerplate and we would never, ever invoke that clause on you” (they will, and in a heartbeat, if it ever suits their interests to do so and you won’t ever be able to do a thing about it). Always make sure that you know exactly which publication rights you are signing away and which ones you are retaining. If you personally don’t understand any part of a contract, no matter how seemingly innocuous, request a rewrite in simple terms or an attached, signed, written rider with an explanation. Trusting other people, combined with the failure to read and/or understand what was in a contract before it was signed, has sent an army of people to Griefcom over the years. Don’t be one of them! Read and fully understand any contract before you sign it!

Second, to expand on a point already touched on, get every single thing in writing. Verbal agreements, contracts, commitments and promises are ephemeral: make the people you deal with write every single thing down and sign it. Verbal contracts are usually difficult or impossible to prove without the existence of at least one independent witness, and complex ones can be difficult or impossible to accurately remember. If someone tries to make a verbal agreement with you about your work, tell him firmly that he needs to make it in writing. This simple approach would have saved a large number of Griefcom clients over the years from, well, a lot of grief.

Third, keep complete records. Throw away nothing related to the business end of the work or the contract. The simplest filing system that I know of (and one that, all by itself, would have saved many Griefcom clients untold years of problems) is to get an expanding file folder from an office supply store, write the name of the work on it, and stuff every single piece of paper you ever get related to the work in it (and print out any emails or other electronic data related to it and file the printouts in there as well). If you outgrow the file folder, just buy an additional one, repeating as needed. Keeping all of the contract information, editor’s and publisher’s correspondence, royalty statements, etc. relating to a work can mean the difference between you getting paid what you are owed for the work and you never getting paid for it – it’s just that simple.

Use a more complicated filing system, by all means, if you have one. But whatever system you use, keep everything, because one day you may need it, and you may need it desperately.