The most important legal advice any creator needs to hear is this: read before you sign.

In the world of publishing, before a manuscript can start the magical journey from a writer’s computer to a reader’s book, the writer must sign a contract allowing the agent and editor to use the work as needed. Usually, this means making the necessary edits, choosing cover art, contacting bookstores/critics/etc to promote the book.

However, not everyone in publishing has a writer’s best interest in mind. We’ve talked very, very briefly about contracts before so this post will go more in depth of what creators can expected when they sign with someone – and what to avoid.


Contracts determine everything. They dictate who has legal ownership of the work (sometimes it’s the creator, sometimes it’s the agent, sometimes it’s the publishing company/gallery owner). This isn’t a bad thing automatically. Having a gallery own your work means you don’t have to do anything to promote it – the gallery will.

But it also means you no longer control the work. If a publisher sells your piece, you don’t get a say in the negotiations (unless that’s in your contract). It also means the profits from your work won’t go directly to you – the gallery, agent and publisher are all looking for a piece.

In this digital age, not everyone needs a publisher with a contract. Webcomic goddess Kate Beaton of “Hark A Vagrant” owns every single piece of art she’s created – including pieces published in “The New Yorker.” Utilizing the internet, Beaton is able to promote her work without needing a publisher. (To be fair, Beaton struggled for years before she was able to turn a profit off her comic – and she wrestlers to increase readership among the thousands of webcomics online.)


Some contracts will say that a creator has to be tied to an agent/publisher for a number of years. Again, this isn’t always something to fear – it means a guarantee that future work will have a chance of publishing.

But remember, publishing is a business and not everyone is your friend. The best example of this is pop singer Kesha’s current legal battles. To summarize an extremely complex contract battle, Kesha is legally unable to release any music without producer Dr. Luke’s (birth name Lukasz Gottwald) permission for the entity of her contract with his production company. This creates a problem for Kesha since she sued him in 2012 for allegedly abusing her.

Because the court case still isn’t resolved, Kesha has been forced to remain musically silence for years.


Every contract will discuss payment. Read this section carefully because this is where most creators sell themselves short.

First, remember the agent/publisher needs to get paid too. We all want 100 percent of the profits but a great agent will push your work, reaching a bigger audience and yielding more success. Don’t be greedy – their hard work should be rewarded too.

But don’t be naive too. Agents typically receive 10 percent of all profits and writers retain anywhere from 14 to 17 percent of royalties. Galleries will take up to 50 percent of profits. Additionally, galleries will sometimes charge creators to hang their work. That’s, if you’ll excuse my French, bullshit. Don’t get tricked into something like that.

At the end of the day, know that your art is how you’ll pay your bills. If someone (or an agency) isn’t offering you enough money for you to survive, then don’t sign with them.


  • Take your time. If an agency really wants you, they’re wait a week or a month before terminating offers. If you’re pressured to sign something – it’s not worth it.
  • Seek outside help. Hire a lawyer for an hour or two to review everything. Google every term you don’t recognize. Better cautious then taken advantage of.
  •  Talk about it. Talk to friends, family, other artists. Compare your contract with others to see the differences.

Always remember this gem: without you the art wouldn’t exist. You control where it goes. Be smart and be safe.

(Lead image copyright Disney/Pixar)

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