Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Welcome to the Official "Hole" of Contracts

Welcome to the Official "Hole" of Contracts



            An author should never click “Accept Terms and Conditions,” or sign any traditional contract without knowing exactly what those terms mean. Authors should also never assume all contracts are equal and fair. Signing a contract could have long-term consequences if the language is misinterpreted. This confusion is largely due to the language used in contracts. Unfortunately, this style of language has become the “norm” in the publishing business. It’s great that everyone can use language. So why can’t we always understand it?

            The Official style is the culprit behind endless paragraphs that create headaches and frustration. These small differences in sentence structure and word choice create a lengthy and confusing document. Thus, the characteristics utilized in the Official style include extra stuff added on that complicates the reading as well as obscure the message conveyed. The Official style uses the past tense and is extremely impersonal and wordy. The sentences—even the titles for goodness sake! —used in the Official style tend to be unnecessarily long and complex. The word choice is also above ordinary day-to-day language. This results in extremely lengthy prose that no one understands nor wants to read. If language is meant for communication, these strategies within the Official prose do the opposite, resulting in poor communication. Furthermore, if the majority of society today in the United States has an average reading level equivalent to that of a seventh-grader, why hasn’t the language of contracts changed to shorter, understandable passages? This is because the Official style is also used to invoke authority, prove the credentials of the document’s author, and sometimes to avoid blame by deceiving the reader.

            The following passages from “The Traps in Publishing Contracts” <> 

illustrate the complications in attempting to decipher the Official style. These exerts from real publishing contracts are riddled with Official language and presented to authors as if ready to be signed right there and then, no negotiations. Many writers sign without understanding the full extent of the contract. In many cases, the authors give up countless rights for their creative work. Shockingly, some of the passages shown in “The Traps in Publishing Contracts” deceive authors into giving publishers all the rights to the manuscript and binding them to the contract for life. In the following exert of a contract, the publisher can end the deal for any reason or for no reason at all, stating that the manuscript is not satisfactory.

            “If the manuscript for a book is not, in the publisher’s sole judgment, satisfactory in all respects, the publisher may terminate this agreement upon written notice.”

This is unfair! This is also extremely unclear as to the specific terms concerning what conditions are deemed “satisfactory” or not. As “The Traps in Publishing Contracts” points out in the interpretation of this part of the contract, the author has no equal power to end the contract if the final book is not satisfactory. The passage is not only unfair, but also muddied by Official language. It is entirely one sentence, making it complex to read. The language is in passive voice and the diction used is unnecessarily dense. The passage could have simply stated, “If the publisher is not pleased, the contract will end.” This proves that publishing contracts intentionally obscure the terms with Official language. Contracts can also be extremely vague. This is due to the publisher’s want to sell as many books as possible. It is all about the money! Many writers have fallen into this trap because of the excitement of publishing a book, seeing the excessive fine print, and just signing on anyway because of the situation and confusion.

            The language used in contracts makes the terms impossible to understand to the average reader, but are the contracts geared toward random readers? No, the people involved are not random, but even the authors, lawyers, and advisors should not have to be well versed in the language publishers throw at them. If all the jargon, syntax, and excessive wordiness could end, less time and effort would be spent on translation and more time on creating a fair document for the authors. This next exert further explains the publisher’s drive to invoke confusion upon the readers involved.

            Books one, two, and three will be held in a joint and open account, and the publisher shall not pay the author’s share of royalties and subsidiary rights income on any book of the work until the author’s share of royalties and subsidiary rights income for all books exceeds the total advance.”

Many people would have to read this passage more than once to understand the meaning. This is why plain English should be used. All people would be able to understand the terms and therefore be free to negotiate the conditions easier and faster instead of fussing over solving the puzzle of Official language in the first place. This ties into the fact that our society uses fast-paced communication and thus our writing should be so as well. This exert from a publishing contract has a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of 31.4 and an average grade level of 18.4—that’s equivalent to a student attending Graduate School for their second year after attending four years of college. The passage is not only difficult to read, but deceives the readers by using passive voice, a complex sentence structure, and advanced diction and jargon. Coordination is used due to the use of the ‘and,’ as well as a few participial phrases such as ‘held.’ This single sentence is dense and adds to the fact that Official language should be used less.

            Though publishing contracts do seem to deceive and confuse in order to make money and sell as many books as possible, there are also certain aspects of writing to consider within this context. First of all, contracts are official documents, and thus should use formal language. These contracts are just “talking the talk” in order to follow the format of an official contract. The use of Official language also has a connotation that the writer of the contract actually knows something. This contributes to the idea of ethos, or credibility. In order to sound credible, some Official language should be used in order to fulfill the need to sound like a knowledgeable authority figure. This is also a legal document, and therefore should sound “legal” and have everything spelled out so no one can interpret it differently in a court of law. Because of all these strategies and formalities, however, the document is barely understandable—especially to an outsider. This also does not follow the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Though publishing contracts are not a form of government communication or from federal agencies, documents such as contracts should be included so that the language is easy to understand for everyone and no one is cheated into falling into a hole they cannot escape from later.

            The publishing business is full of complicated language within their contracts. These contracts are riddled with official style and that made me wonder if authors and publishers are so creative and good with language, why have they not started to use regular terms of communication within the contracts, showcasing the great communicators they are? Though contracts are contracts: they are long, confusing, over-specific (or not specific at all), wordy, and often confusing, they are official documents nonetheless. True, these forms of communication are outlining important business. It is true contracts need to sound official and takes time to fully understand the terms before signing on the dotted line. But is it necessary that we must decipher all the jargon and wordiness? I think contracts should include language more within the middle ground between Official style and Plain style. Because I believe everyone has the right to understanding and effectively communicating language. And in the publishing world, it could make all the difference.
Alyssa B.