Don’t you trust me?

If you ever hear a business partner—I’m talking about an agent or an editor here—saying this phrase, it means you’re in the hands of a scammer. Strong words, but that’s a fact.

Paradoxically, the reason is that business is all about trust. That’s why you shouldn’t have to trust anyone, because there are mechanisms built in all over the business world to see to it that you don’t have to.

First and foremost of these are The Contract.

That’s a piece of paper you both sign to have a copy of what you’ve agreed upon. And no serious businesspeople have anything against signing any number of such papers. When I finally sold that translation agency I’ve been going on about, I signed eleven copies of the contract. Initials on every page.

It was seven hundred pages.

Actually, in this case, neither me nor my partners had read it all; nor had the other party—at least, I strongly suspect so. We all paid people to read it for us and tell us that it was OK to sign.

When an agent or a publisher offers you a contract, you’re probably not going to be so lucky. (Chances are, you’re being paid less than you’d have to fork out for someone to read it for you.) You will have to read it, and be sure that you understand every single word.

Why is this so? Noone ever reads the contracts they sign when they rent a car, or a DVD, or a cottage. Why is this different?

Well, see lesson 1. You’re a businessperson now. In the examples above, you’re a consumer, and there are laws to protect you. If any clause is unreasonable, there are laws to render it invalid. As a business, you are required to have read and understood everything you sign, and there are no laws protecting you. An agreement between two companies can be as unreasonable as it likes.

But when it’s signed, it’s signed. The contents can’t be changed except by mutual agreement. If a clause is violated, court cases ensue.

You see how this sort of eliminates trust? You have the agreement. You don’t have to trust each other. If there’s ever a disagreement, you simply grab the paper and see what it says. This is why it’s vital to sign the paper while you’re still in agreement: when you’ve fallen out, it’s too late. This, in its turn, is why no legitimate business ever shies away from signing the contract. You are in agreement about everything it contains; there’s no reason not to sign it.

This is the first business principle my Dad taught me: always get it on paper. (Then he pulled out a pen and a wad of papers, including a repayment schedule, detailing the money he’d just lent me. Not that we’ve ever fallen out, but with the paper signed, there wouldn’t even be any risk.)

But hey, the world is full of scammers and con artists, surely?

Yes, and then again, no. Most people you meet in business aren’t out to rip you off. This is another important principle: A good business deal has two winners. Your agent wants you to be happy with the deal you’ve signed. (The alternative is that you go to another agent the moment you start making money. Not good business.) They want to gain something from the deal, absolutely. That’s perfectly legitimate. But they also recognise that it’s legitimate for you to want a good deal.

So how do you tell if it’s really legit or if it’s one of the scammers?

You learn to see the signs. (Refusing to sign contracts is an obvious one. Insisting you don’t read the small print is another.) Publishing is especially fraught with con artists, since it’s a business full of rather naïve beginners. But there are also people out to help you. Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors are two good web sites to get you started. Litopia and The Other Place are forums where you can ask around. And you should never sign important contracts without having done your homework. Google the other part. They’ve done the same for you. If they’re not above board, there’ll be a dozen Web pages telling you so. There are organisations (in the UK, there’s the Society of Authors) who will have a quick look at the contract you’re offered and tell you whether the terms re reasonable. Get a credit report—yes, they cost money, but a bad deal costs a lot more. See if they have clients who praise them. Always remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it invariably is. And when you’ve done your homework, you don’t have to trust them, because you’ve already found out whether they’re trustworthy.

There’s a balance, of course. When offered a contract, don’t sign it without reading, but don’t start to question every single word of it, either. It’s the ”easy to do business with” bit from Lesson 2. You should default to trust, just keep your eyes open in case there’s a reason not to. (And don’t worry if they notice. It’s legitimate to be alert, it’s only tiresome if you’re overdoing it.)

You should also, when you sit down to negotiate a deal, have a clear idea of what you want, of what you can accept, and exactly where the point is when you turn the deal down, gather your MS pages, and walk away after politely shaking their hands. Because you should always be willing to turn the contract down, if it contains something you absolutely can’t live with. (For me selling translations, it’s when they expect it to be done so quickly that there’s no possibility of doing a quality job, or to buy it at a price so low I can’t put bread on the table. Your mileage may vary. In a writing situation, it might be when they want to add pornographic scenes without consulting you.)

And now, you’re starting to behave like a pro. Turning a reasonable offer down is something amateurs never get around to.

More on good deals in the next lesson…