An artist can spend years trying to land a deal with a publishing house or studio. They struggle to get exposure and often face waves of rejection before anyone is willing to even acknowledge their work. Unfortunately, this recognition can come at a price.
Many artists don’t read the contracts they sign. The ones who do, especially the ones who come to me for advice on contracts, find out they’ll be losing control of their art, giving up the potential to be paid for it or both (See How Artists Get Their Rights Stolen) Some of my clients sign those deals anyway for a lot of different reasons. Others decide to walk away and try to find a better deal.
Rejecting a bad contract makes good business sense, but there is a right way and a wrong way to turn down a deal. You can maintain your professional reputation and keep the lines of potential communication open if you follow these five steps:
- Articulate your intentions: It does you no good to get a contract from a publisher and then never respond to them when you decide you won’t sign it. You are better off notifying the other side that you appreciate their interest in your work, but you can’t move forward with the terms they propose.
- Blame your lawyer: In most instances, the person you’re dealing with will ask what the problem is with the contract. This is the perfect time to throw your lawyer under the bus. People hate lawyers more than zombies, Ebola and zombies with Ebola, so hiding behind us can’t make our reputation any worse. It can give both of you a convenient scapegoat so you can walk away from the deal without any negative feelings between you. This is just one more reason it makes sense to get a lawyer. (See Why Artists Need Lawyers)
- Offer alternatives: Maybe you can’t sign their deal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do business with them. They might be open to changing some of the contract language to make you more comfortable. They might even be willing to use a contract you provide instead. (This is rare, especially when one party has much more leverage than the other. See Negotiating Power in Creative Contracts). You might be able to do some freelance work for them that doesn’t put your own property at risk, or you might be able to work out another type of business deal with them. Most of these proposed alternatives won’t pan out, but you’ll never be able to explore the possibilities if you don’t ask the question.
- Leave with dignity: Entertainment is a fairly small business. The minor person you deal with today might be the head of Disney tomorrow. The hot new artist this year could find himself without a deal next year. Don’t have a fit, throw a tantrum or make threats just because you don’t want to sign a bad deal. Don’t do it in person. Don’t do it over the phone. Please don’t use email to do it and for the love of everything don’t do it on Twitter. Just don’t do it. Thank them for their time, express your hopes for working with them in the future and walk away.
- Go Back to Work: One bad contract isn’t the end of your career, especially if you didn’t sign it. You need to go back to your craft, keep pushing your work into the world and try and find the next deal. If one person was willing to take a chance on you, there could be others. But you can’t find them if you don’t look.
Signing the wrong deal can cost you thousands of dollars and control of your art. Rejecting the wrong deal the wrong way can cost you your reputation in the industry and the opportunity to work with someone else in the future. Stay friendly and professional and you can turn a bad contract into a learning experience. Just remember to blame your lawyer for everything.