I know I can’t sleep when I have big decisions facing me, and lately I’ve gotten some late-night messages from authors who are contemplating something both exciting and terrifying at the same time: signing a publishing contract! While you’re listening to Taylor Swift's new album Midnights, maybe these thoughts about contracts from someone who used to negotiate them all the time will help.
I am not a lawyer, and I cannot offer you advice on a specific contract. My aim in this post is to educate you so that you have a better understanding of publishers’ perspectives, what to expect in a contract, and what you can (and should!) ask for. Please use this as a starting point, and talk to a lawyer before you sign anything as well.
I’m a firm believer that the publishing industry is best run on relationships. There are lots of services and systems available for sale—and if that’s what you want, that’s fine. Sometimes you might prefer a straightforward, transactional experience because you’re in a hurry and just need something done (even a book!), or if you’ve been burned in the past and want to remove the expectation of relationship from your publishing experience. If that’s you, I get it—and I’m sorry. It makes me sad that so many authors have had terrible experiences.
But in my experience, publishing a book feels most rewarding when it’s done as a collaboration between two invested parties. A book is in many ways like a baby. Think about the difference between trying to birth a child on your own, versus having a caring partner/spouse/midwife/family member/friend by your side to help you. The right partner can make all the difference in the world and drastically improve the experience.
You just have to make sure it’s the right partner. And that’s the trickiest part, isn’t it?
The power dynamics in a publishing relationship usually benefit the company, for a few reasons:
What would a publishing company be without its authors? You tell me.
No, I’m not going to tell you that the scales are even—they’re not. But I am going to tell you that you are worthy of fair treatment and you deserve to have a positive experience bringing your book into the world. Any publishing company that doesn’t make that a priority is not a good partner.
When you sign a publishing contract, you’re entering into a partnership. You should feel good about the relationship you have with that partner so that when (not if!) problems arise, you can have confidence in your ability to problem solve together. Keep in mind: Good publishing companies are not free from problems; good publishing companies just always treat their authors well and make a good faith effort to solve the problems together.
Here’s the other thing you should know:
You have to be the best advocate for yourself. Ideally, publishing companies would always offer contracts that are fair to both parties—and, thankfully, most of the contracts I’ve seen are pretty fair to authors. But you should always read a contract carefully, have it checked by a lawyer, and do whatever you need to do to feel good about entering into this relationship.
If you are looking for a collaborative partnership in this investment of a book, then here are my recommendations:
At the end of the day, publishing companies are made up of people—99% of the time, very good people. People with whom you share an important common interest: You love books! And you desire to make a great one together.
But still, you’re going to be working a lot with these people on something you care deeply about, so you should get to know them so that when (again, not if!) issues arise, you have built rapport with them and have a positive bank of goodwill on both sides to draw from. If you can, ask to meet the people who will be working on your book. You can’t pick and choose your personal team at a company, but overall you should feel good about the main players you’ll be working with.
At the very least, you should know who your primary point of contact will be (probably someone with the title of acquisitions editor, publisher, or editorial director), and feel comfortable working with that person. That person will be your internal advocate at the company, so you should have confidence that they can effectively champion you and your book throughout the entire process.
Some good questions to ask this person:
Other authors will give it to you straight. If they’ve been burned, they’ll let you know. If they had a great experience, they’ll say that, too. If authors you know have continued to publish with them, that’s usually a good indication that they’ve had a positive experience and feel that the publishing relationship is mutually beneficial.
If you don’t personally know any other authors who have worked with this company, ask your editor to introduce you to some of their other authors so you can talk to them about their experience. It’s just like getting references for a job.
Every publisher is unique. Every publisher has their own specialties, their own industry relationships, and their own processes. Don’t make any assumptions about what they will or will not do for you; instead, ask!
Here are some good questions that I don’t see enough prospective authors asking:
Make sure you know exactly what the publisher believes YOUR responsibilities are as an author. Don't make any assumptions about what they'll do for you.
Once you get to the contract itself, it helps to be familiar with some of the common terms that can be negotiated. Every publishing contract will be a little different, but generally, they hold a lot of commonalities. And remember—you should have a lawyer review a contract before you sign it to make sure it’s truly being fair to you!
If you have a literary agent, he or she will be a huge asset in helping you navigate these decisions and decide whether a publishing company is a good fit for you. He/she will be able to negotiate certain terms of the contract, and can often help secure a bigger advance or higher royalty rate for you! Agents do take a commission—the average is about 15%—but they often more than make up for it with their advice and advocacy!
Every publishing contract should have a clause that explains the terms of copyright governing your book. Usually, authors would like the copyright for the book to be registered in their name. That means in the Library of Congress, you will officially be the copyright holder for the book. If the contract doesn’t state that you will be the copyright holder, feel free to ask for that.
Keep in mind: A publisher is going to need certain rights from you regarding the book in order to publish it—like producing, manufacturing, shipping, and distributing the book. Don’t be scared if you see that the contract gives those rights to the publisher. That’s the whole point in having a publisher; you want them to have those rights.
What you likely don’t want is for them to have unlimited ownership of your intellectual property to do with what they will. Look out for restrictions on “derivative works,” meaning products that are off-shoots of the book. This can be particularly important for authors who are speakers, teachers, or otherwise writing a book related to how they make a living. Would it be ok if, years later, you decide to create a workbook related to the book? Or an online course? Make sure you ask what types of restrictions they have on derivative works, and know that those should be 100% negotiable!
Some companies may include a clause that discusses a “right of first refusal.” This means that you would be obligated to pitch your next book to that publisher as well, and they would have the first opportunity to offer you a contract for it. It’s not a huge deal if a publisher insists on keeping this in—because even if they offer you a contract for your next book, you don’t have to sign it or accept the terms of the new contract.
But I don’t think it’s necessary to have this clause in the contract, and if they’re willing to take it out, that’s probably for the best. Ideally, a publisher will give you such a great experience that you’ll want to publish with them again, and they won’t have to twist your arm to send them your next proposal. Taking this clause out gives them more incentive to make sure you have a good publishing experience.
The contract should spell out who is the final decision-maker on creative decisions like cover and interior design. Traditional publishing contracts will take a firmer stance on maintaining the ultimate decision-making power here because they are also making the biggest financial investment in the book and will be responsible for distributing it as well. In a traditional publishing arrangement, you most likely cannot get the decision-making power in creative decisions. However, you may be able to ask for input to a certain extent.
With hybrid publishing companies, though, this is likely a point of negotiation. Feel free to ask for decision-making power (if that’s important to you!) and have a discussion about it.
What happens if either party wishes to terminate the agreement? There should be a clause governing this possibility in the contract. (If there’s not—that’s a red flag!) I recommend authors make sure the contract states that in the event of termination, you get all of your original files and documents back, and that the company return the copyright and any other rights to the work to you.
Usually, authors get a number of complimentary copies when the book publishes. Often it’s 10 or 25. I almost always recommend asking for more—not something extravagant like 100, but maybe 30 or 40. Then use those extra copies to send to influencers and people who can help promote the book or write reviews. Publishers are often flexible with the number of copies they send if they know that you’re going to put them to good use.
You’ll also be able to buy additional copies of the book at a discounted rate—often 40% or 50%. Ask the publisher if they’re willing to give you an increased discounted rate so that you can buy more books yourself, again to use in promoting the book. Note that you do not receive royalties on books you buy at the discounted rate.
Advances are always negotiable, and it’s worth asking if the publisher would be willing to increase the size of your advance—again, for good cause. Plan to use your advance to hire a publicist or book launch coach. You may be able to get more money upfront if they know you’re using it to make the book more successful.
Keep in mind that advances are always deducted from your royalties later, so the more you get upfront, the longer you’ll have to wait to start receiving royalties. But that may be worth it for you!
Royalty rates in the traditional publishing world are often 10-20%. At hybrid companies, they may be as high as 40-50%. If you’ve been offered a flat royalty rate, you might ask for a sliding scale royalty rate—meaning the more books you sell, the higher a royalty you get. I like this strategy because it shows that you’re willing to be a good partner to them by incentivizing yourself.
And that brings me to my last point…
Because this is a partnership, you should always be a good partner to your company, too. Be reasonable and collaborative with what you ask for. Compromise where you can, and always justify your requests with a reason that will benefit the book. Show them that you’re not just trying to be selfish; you’re trying to make the book as successful as possible—which benefits them, too.
With both sides holding in mind the desire to be good partners to each other, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t feel good about the contract you’re signing and look forward to a wonderful collaboration together!