Jacqui Lipton has been writing the “On the Books” column for Luna Station Quarterly for a while
and, with her new book coming out, we thought we’d turn the tables and ask her some
questions about her own work this month. Editor Jen Gheller took the opportunity to reach out
and ask Jacqui some questions about her interest in publishing law and the new book, Law & Authors: A Legal Handbook for Writers.
LSQ: You’ve been writing your “On the Books” column for a few years now. What made you want to write about law as it pertains to creative folks like writers?
Jacqui: I’ve been both a writer and a lawyer (and a law professor, and now even a literary agent) and the more I emerge myself in the publishing world, the more I’ve realized how few truly accessible resources there are for writers who either can’t afford lawyers or, importantly, don’t know if they need a lawyer for the issue they may be dealing with. After writing the “On the Books” column here at Luna Station Quarterly for a number of years, as well as other pieces for various writing organizations on law and the publishing industry, I had the idea to put it all together into a book and luckily my own agent, Jane Dystel, found a great home for it with Naomi Schneider’s imprint at University of California Press. There are a lot of common legal issues writers face, some of which are pretty easy to understand (like registering a copyright) and some of which can be more difficult (like figuring out what your publishing contract means). I believed a resource that gathered together common issues and presented them in a user-friendly way, using lots of pop culture examples, would be helpful.
LSQ: It seems that law can be a bit inaccessible and intimidating for those of us who aren’t law-savvy. Why do you think this is?
Jacqui: Some of the laws relating to publishing really are quite complex, even for lawyers. Copyright law in particular is filled with all sorts of confusing doctrines, including the fair use defense which is far from easy to understand and almost impossible to predict how it will apply in many cases. You could ask 12 different lawyers a question about whether a particular use is a fair use and get 12 different answers, most boiling down to some variation of “it depends”.
I think contracts can be intimidating too because the idea of putting your signature on a legal document is always scary, particularly if you don’t know all the ins and outs of what rights you may be giving away and what recourse you might have if something goes wrong.
Law does get a bad rap, though, because it can help authors as much as it scares us. That’s why it’s worth understanding the basics.
LSQ: What kind of research did you have to do for Law and Authors?
Jacqui: By the time I actually wrote the book, I’d given so many presentations and workshops and taught so many classes, and written so many blog posts that there wasn’t that much research left to do. The tricky thing with writing about legal issues, though, is making sure what you say is up to date because laws can move very fast, particularly laws relating to things like digital technology/digital publishing. The book also covers some comparative law issues (how American law differs on key points from laws in some other countries) and that took a bit of research.
LSQ: What are the biggest legal mistakes you’ve seen writers make when it comes to publishing?
Jacqui: Probably giving away rights without understanding the contracts. Publishing contracts can be complex and it’s important to understand that when you sign on the dotted line, you might be giving the publisher more than just the right to publish your book. You may be giving them rights in prequels, sequels, retellings, foreign rights, translation rights, and/or film and television
rights, among others. One problem is that people are so happy to get a publishing contract that they often sign without thinking too much about it or without fully understanding it. Nothing in the publishing world moves all that fast (at least if you’re talking about traditional book publishing) and you are completely within your rights to seek independent legal advice if you need it.
The other mistake that I sometimes hear about is authors paying an agent for work on a
manuscript the agent supposedly represents (often called “reading fees”). Agents generally work on commission; they shouldn’t get paid unless you get paid. Then, they get a percentage of your
royalties as commission. They shouldn’t be charging separate fees to read your work unless they’re doing it as a consulting package (say, at a writing conference) outside the author/agent
LSQ: Can you briefly describe your journey in merging your writing life with your passion for law?
Jacqui: Two words: Midlife Crisis!
I’d been a law professor for many years when the writing bug bit. I started writing bits and
pieces myself, and then taking online classes, finally culminating in biting the bullet and
applying for an MFA degree. It was during my MFA program that I became aware of the larger
publishing world and realized that I was just as fascinated by the business and legal aspects of
publishing as I was by the craft aspects. I found myself asking my instructors questions about the
business/legal side almost as often as I was asking them for editorial comments on my work.
Given that I love to write, and that I love learning and teaching about the business of publishing,
writing about publishing seemed very natural.
A bit more about the book:
Law and Authors: A Legal Handbook for Writers, is an approachable, reader-friendly resource to help authors navigate the legal landscape of the contemporary publishing industry. Through case studies and hypothetical examples, Law and Authors addresses issues of copyright law, including explanations of fair use and the public domain; trademark and branding concerns for those embarking on a publishing career; laws that impact the ways that authors might use social media and marketing promotions; and privacy and defamation questions that writers may face.
Note: If you order direct from the University of California Press website, using discount
code discount code 17M6662, you receive a 30% discount).