Interview: Mary Flower, Publishing Contracts Consultant

Mary Flower photoWhen I needed to find a professional to review a contract I had been offered, a number of people suggested Mary Flower, a veteran lawyer in the publishing field. I have used her services twice and would like to introduce her to you.

For the past twenty-eight years Mary Flower has been the Contracts Manager at Grove/Atlantic, Inc.,  a  New York-based  publisher of literary books by noted authors. Over the years she has worked in different capacities for Scholastic,  Atheneum, HarperCollins, and Random House. Simultaneously, she has been a freelance Publishing Contracts Consultant working directly with authors and illustrators, mainly of children’s, but also adult books, and has consulted for SCBWI. She helps her clients understand their publishing agreements and handles negotiations on their behalf. Mary also has experience copyediting and proofreading reference materials, cookbooks, and general fiction and non-fiction trade books.

Welcome Mary, and thank you for taking the time to share a bit of yourself with aspiring authors and illustrators here in the U.S. and in the many other countries where we have followers.

Joyce Audy Zarins: It was quite a leap from your undergraduate B.A. in Asian Studies to law. Of the range of possible degrees you could have pursued at New York Law School, what inspired you to focus specifically on Publishing Law for your Juris Doctor degree?

publishing contract artMary Flower: That was quite simple. One of my great-aunts graduated from Northwestern University Law School in 1914 (the only woman in her class) and worked for Follett Publishing in Chicago in their legal department for many many years. I adored her and couldn’t think of a better profession to be in than publishing, though the legal end of it came later after I had worked in contracts and permissions and I decided that being a lawyer would be helpful, which has proved to be the case. Asian Studies was exotic and light years away from my small-town Wisconsin upbringing. I loved it but unless I wanted to be an academic or have a career in the foreign service (which I contemplated) it wasn’t very useful on the job front. My first job after I moved to New York was at Atheneum Publishers. I was a terrible typist so a secretarial position was out of the question and publishing didn’t have secretaries, it had editorial assistants and a typing test wasn’t required for getting a job. Besides being a secretary or a nurse or a teacher or a librarian weren’t high on my list of career choices but they were mostly what was readily available to women in the 1960s. Publishing offered more scope even if there weren’t any women at the top in those days, at least there were plenty who reached the middle levels. Even though it didn’t matter if you couldn’t type, typing up three copies of a contract using carbon paper was a challenge for a non-typist–this was in the days before electric typewriters, let alone white-out and copy machines.

JAZ: Once an author at last receives a contract from a publisher, the next question that arises is whether that agreement is fair. That’s where you may come in. How many authors do you help in the span of a year?

MF: It’s hard to tell. I have a number of regular clients, both authors and illustrators, who don’t have agents and who always have ongoing work plus I get asked lots of questions that are just questions all the time, but probably about 40-50 people.

JAZ: Roughly what percentages of your time are devoted to publishing consulting and to copywriting/editing projects? Has this juggling of skills resulted in insights?

contract rose penMF: That depends as work flow from any one thing is never constant though it’s tough to juggle everything if all fronts are busy at once, which rarely happens. I’ve found it’s been very useful working on both sides of the publishing fence as my work at Grove lets me see what publishers are up against in terms of economics and a changing market and their role in it and authors and illustrators in terms of what they expect in terms of fair treatment. I find newcomers often have unrealistic expectations of what publishers can do for them. Because I’ve worked extensively in the industry I can explain the publishing process to them. Not surprisingly, I get a lot of people who are just starting out and don’t have agents yet and I’ve done first and second agreements with many now successful authors and illustrators who have eventually gotten (and needed) an agent. I picture the newcomers living in a town like the one I grew up in and knowing nothing about how it all works and it’s my job to explain it to them in clear terms. It seems exotic to them but to the people working for the publisher it’s a job like any other.

JAZ: You have done some consulting work with SCBWI, the noted professional organization for children’s book writers and illustrators. What was your involvement with them?

MF: The late Sue Alexander got me involved initially. A publishing colleague of mine at Scholastic was going to the first NYC conference (which had about 50 attendees) and introduced me to her. Sue was interested in having me give some workshops on contracts (this was before it became almost essential to have an agent) to explain them and it went from there. For a while I was doing a column on legal issues for the SCBWI bulletin and Sue and I are the authors of the annotated basic publishing agreement that is available to SCBWI members. These days I get many referrals from the SCBWI but am not otherwise actively involved as these days any panels or workshops that involve contracts are more aimed at finding an agent and what an agent can do for you than at contract issues per se.

JAZ: As publishing has changed dramatically from using boiler plate contracts to the current variety of licensing agreements and publishing contracts which cover a wide range of formats and markets, what trends to do see in what is offered to authors?

contract rosesMF: I think the trend is in the variety of ways and formats that have sprung up due to the growth of digital formats and access to them. Self-publishing offers potentially higher earnings but there are costs associated with them that authors don’t often realize–the books still need to be edited and formatted and publicized and these costs are passed on to the authors.

JAZ: You also handle contracts for illustrators. Are those different in substantive ways from the contracts authors are given?

MF: Not substantially and even less true today when artwork is often delivered in a digital format and doesn’t need to be returned. Often publishers agreements for both writers and illustrators are the same with a simple substitution of “Illustrator” for “Author” in the agreement. That said, the author generally is the decision maker when it comes time for a reversion or revision of the book; neither are something the illustrator can ask for and get without the author’s okay but the author can without the illustrator’s okay.

JAZ: With the rise of Print On Demand and other new publishing paradigms, there are surely non-standard publishing agreements out there. What in particular should authors be concerned about?

MF: I have had many many people contact me regarding problems with unscrupulous publishers taking advantage of them and making it difficult if not impossible to get rights in their material returned to them or copies of the books themselves. Often it’s difficult to know at the beginning that there will be problems but I’d say be aware of any agreement that gives the publisher too much control over the material (including signing over copyright or other ownership rights) or that seems to promise a lot. Many are reputable but to the extent possible check to see if anyone has had any experience in working with them or if there are any complaints before signing on the dotted line and providing material, and most especially before providing any money.

JAZ: Other than hiring a publishing consultant, are there other resources you recommend to creatives who would like to protect their rights in today’s book publishing environment?

MF: You can always register the copyright before publication if you want but it’s not really necessary. Definitely include a copyright notice on any material when you send out–copyright exists in the work from the moment it is created regardless of whether or not it has been registered.

JAZ: Have you ever averted a particularly dangerous publishing rights disaster for a client?

MF: Not really though I have rescued several agreements from not happening in the first place.

JAZ: How has your role at Scholastic, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., and other publishers over the years shaped your view of the current publishing environment?

MF: It has changed a lot–I started in the days before everything and people still wrote actual letters and sent telegrams and telexes. It was slower and less frenetic than today and I often miss that more leisurely pace. The digital age has really changed things, mostly for the better, but it has also created something of an overload of outlets. The publishing industry is facing the same fragmentation that the music industry and TV has been wrestling with for years. Fortunately however the printed book doesn’t seem to be going the way of CDs and DVDs.

JAZ: The contract that you advised me on had a few issues/omissions that you suggested fixes for, and the publisher agreed to those changes. Have there been situations where your client has requested changes based on your advice that the publisher resisted? What happens then?

MF: Many publishers are resistant to making certain kinds of changes–just what those are vary from publisher to publisher–but a compromise can often be found. Occasionally it makes sense to stick to something you want but in general trying to reach a compromise is better.

Thank you, Mary, for helping protect the rights of authors and illustrators forging ahead in a challenging, but vital industry and for sharing your thoughts with us.

You can reach Mary through:

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