When is a contract not a contract?

When is a contract not a contract? And no, for once in my short, blogging life, this isn’t a joke and I didn’t get it out of a Christmas cracker. It’s a genuine and very worrying question, as anyone in the NHS or the education service who has been TUPED will tell you.

I’d always assumed that when two people – like an author and the publisher who is going to publish her book – sign a contract, that it’s a legally binding document, entered in to willingly and in good faith, as they say, with certain provisos on both parties but no real snags. It came as a profound shock to me when I discovered that the last contract I’d signed had suddenly become “an asset” and had been sold to another publisher I knew nothing about. I felt like a tatty coat or a down-at-heel pair of shoes, being offered for sale in a flea market. Very unpleasant.

So what was to be done about it? I put on my deerstalker hat and set about finding out as much as I could about both publishers, checking on the legal meaning of the words “contract” and “asset,” which as far as I can see were two completely separate things, and contacting as many other writers from the first company as I could. Along the way and with the help of the Society of Authors, I found a small innocuous sentence in my original contract “The expression ‘the Publishers’ as used throughout this agreement shall be deemed to include the person or persons or company for the time being carrying on the business of the said ### whether under its present or any future style… and the benefits of this agreement shall be transmissible accordingly.”  I have to confess, the first time I’d read it, I’d just skimmed through it and didn’t think it was important or even applicable. How wrong I was. Transmissible meant my contract could be sold.

In early December last year, the book seller reported that my publisher had “ceased trading” from the 1st of December. Not long afterwards and after nudging my editor, whom I’ve always been very fond of, I was sent the most peculiar letter entitled “Important Announcement” and containing the chilling information “We are delighted that our publishing assets including contracts and stock… have been acquired by the independent publisher ###” My forthcoming book which is due for publication on February 29th 2016, had become, according to the Oxford dictionary, “goods to enable a company to discharge debts or a property that may be made liable for debts.” In short, it had become a useful thing to sell, I still can’t get my head around the idea. When I see doctors rightly angry and holding up these huge and powerful posters, I know exactly how they feel.

I would love to hear from other authors to whom the same sort of thing has happened or is happening and to know what they think about it.




6 thoughts on “When is a contract not a contract?

  1. Talking about it on Twitter and on this blog has already had a dramatic effect. The CEO of the second publishers emailed me yesterday to tell me he would come to Bognor today and take me to tea and discuss ‘the best way to separate our interests.’ I told him I was unavailable and suggested we discuss it on the internet. Now I’m waiting to see what he will come back with next.


  2. I split form my publishers over Christmas as I felt they were not fulfilling their part of the agreement to publicize my books. It was an amicable split. I don’t think your ‘new’ guys will want any grief…especially if you mention you have a big following on Twitter. As yourself this: Do I want to go with these new people? (what are they offering re Royalties) or do I want my publishing rights back & self publish/try elsewhere. Only the new people can answer the first. Only your heart of hearts can answer the second. xx


    • There’s never been any doubt in my mind about this, Carol. The second publisher has never published fiction and knows nothing about it. I don’t want to be published by them, told them so at once and asked for my rights to be returned to me. I was wasting my breath.


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