I used to think contracts were boring. As soon as I got to a point in career where I had agents, lawyers, and accountants, I tossed it all in their laps and walked away.
Then, about nine months ago, two of my books went out of print. I thought I’d ask for the rights back and the publisher would give them. I had contracts! I thought contracts were magic, and I was right. But I was wrong about the kind of magic that contracts are. I thought contracts were a paper shield that would protect me from anyone who wanted to do me harm. When my publisher started arguing that the books were in print, because, see, you could buy them from this one website if you hit it at just the right time and asked nice, I thought all I had to do was wave my contract around. It would issue its white light of protection, the enemy would be vanquished, and I would ride away with my rights intact.
But that’s not the kind of magic contracts are. A contract is not an amulet of protection. A contract is a long, very detailed magic spell, cast by a coven of interested parties to create certain future events. A contract is created in exactly the same way as any other spell. First, you write down what you want. As Grant Morrison has famously said, that’s why it’s called spelling–the written word is believed by many to have magic powers of its own. In many mystical schools alphabets themselves –Sankskrit, runes, Hebrew–are believed to be extraordinarily powerful; for example in some understandings of Hebrew, the letters that compose the name of God are thought to be too powerful to say out loud or spell on paper; in Sanskrit, we use mantras, the repetitions of certain combinations of letters and words, to change reality (or, maybe more accurately, to ask the powers of the universe to change it for us). The next step in a spell is to use some kind of ritual to make your words real. This is how you communicate to the universe that you want these words to be real (and of course, we don’t do this with our novels, because we don’t want them to become real!) You can burn what you’ve written, bury it, dip it honey, burn a candle over it, hand it over to a saint, or, in the case of contracts, sign it. Then you reap your rewards.
I was, to put it mildly, not happy with my publisher’s approach–all I have in life that’s worth anything financially are the rights to my books, my laptop, and a fifteen year old car. I’ve made many sacrifices for these rights and I don’t take them lightly. (Bookstores sell books. Writers sell rights.) So I read my contract. Then I read it again. And again and again and again. It took about 15 reads before I really understood it–I’d never read a contract quite that closely before, and this was a particularly complicated one. I didn’t have the protection I thought I did, but the more I read the contract, I found other ways of protecting myself–see, that’s the amazing thing about a contract, and why its magic is so complex. It’s a ten-thousand word spell. The magic isn’t in the words as they stand alone in this particular type of spell–it’s in how the words can combine, both within and without of the contract. So although I didn’t have the protection I thought I did, by examining some different combinations of these magical and powerful letters, I found new ways to protect myself. They weren’t in violation of the clause I’d assumed–but there were enough other violations there that I had a pretty good leg to stand on. See, publishers don’t read contracts very closely either, and if you look close enough, they are almost always in violation of something–they don’t understand these magical, powerful spells any better than we do (or did, because you get it now, right?). The publishers were thinking like I was thinking: we have contracts! Yeah, you did–but like me, you didn’t really know what they said.
In the end, my brilliant deductions didn’t matter for this particular case–my agent got them to reprint the books by sheer force of will, another form of magic (generally speaking, whoever doesn’t give up wins. Wish I knew that one twenty years ago!). But now I eagerly read each and every contract cover to cover. And I’ve actually started to enjoy it. I’ve realized that every single possible combination of meaning to be found in a contract not only can, but likely will, come into reality to some day. After all, you’ve virtually asked it to do so. So these are not boring legal documents that cover a bunch of whiny bullshit possibilities that will never happen. They are magical blueprints of the future you are inviting into your life. Every word in a contract you sign is a possible future for you–a turn of reality you are likely to inhabit if you choose this road. You are ceremonially announcing to the universe: Yes, let’s make this my future. Choose every letter carefully.