I was thrilled when my publisher asked me to write a coffee table book about hummingbirds. As an avid bird watcher who had traveled to South America to see and photograph hummingbirds, it was an opportunity to write about one of my passions. The caveat? A “work made for hire” contract. Of course, this type of contract is not unusual for coffee table books, which tend to sell fewer copies than the average title. I wanted very much to write the book, and they would pay me extra for some of my photos. So, I signed the contract. That was in 2002.
Fast forward to early 2007. A Google alert I had set up for my name led me to a new page on Amazon.com listing a book by … guess who? My publisher had obviously released a second printing of my hummingbird book with a new cover. The publisher never advised me that they were re-issuing the book, nor did they offer me any copies of this new printing. Assuming the inside of the book would be the same as its first incarnation, I simply ordered a copy from Amazon.
When the book arrived, I was shocked to discover that the text had been almost completely rewritten with only a few of my original paragraphs. Some of the birds were identified incorrectly in the photographs, and none of my own photographs were included. (Of course, they were smart to exclude my photographs because the contract I signed for my images granted only one-time usage.)
Here was a book on the market with my name on the cover, and I had had nothing whatsoever to do with what appeared within its pages. When I signed the WMFH contract, I gave away copyright of my original manuscript, and I received no royalties. The contract did not give the publisher permission to use my name in any way it saw fit, however. I potentially have a case for “misappropriation of name,” but the attorneys for the Authors Guild have advised me that after having kissed my copyright goodbye, I would probably lose such a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the representatives at the publisher sent a half-hearted apology when they received my angry email. They said that no one had ever complained about having their name on a book, to which I responded that some authors actually care more about their reputations than the supposed prestige of having their names on “just any old book covers.”
I never dreamed that signing away the copyright to my manuscript could have the potential of putting my reputation at risk. When I wish to interview ornithologists or pitch a publication such as Audubon Magazine, my credibility is now seriously impaired. This could even inhibit my ability to publish another book about birds.
Certainly I feel the publisher overstepped the bounds of the contract, but signing such a contract left me vulnerable to this kind of treatment. So, where does this leave you when you¥re in a position to sign a WMFH contract?
No writers prefer signing such contracts, but there are times when you have reason to do so. If you do, you need to add some provisions to safeguard against the problems I encountered. While I¥m no lawyer and suggest that you have an attorney review all of your contracts, I strongly advise you to add a paragraph about the use of your name. If the publisher reissues the book at any time, your name should not be listed as the author unless you have reviewed and approved the galleys. In fact, you should have the right to approve the original galleys. If your name is on it, you need to make sure it¥s worthy of bearing your name. Otherwise, it could negatively impact your career.
One thing that many writers fail to understand is that WMFH contracts can indeed be negotiated. You can negotiate for royalties even if you no longer own the copyright. You may also be able to maintain the right to use your research to create articles that are not in direct competition with the publisher¥s version of your work. If you do sign a contract that restricts you from writing about the same subject, add a time limit. Otherwise, you could be prevented from writing on the topic forever. You might even try to negotiate a return of your rights after a set period of time. Most publishers will refuse, but you never know unless you ask.
No matter how simple a WMFH contract may seem, there are hidden repercussions that go way beyond the relinquishing of your copyright. If at all possible, have an attorney review your contract and suggest changes that will make the contract more palatable and prevent abuses by the publisher. Don¥t get burned like me!
Melanie Votaw is the author of eight non-fiction books and has published articles in such magazines as Woman’s Day and Travel Savvy.