Monday 20 June 2011

How to speak publisher - C is for Contract

The contract is the aim of much of your writing - the publisher's promise to publish your book as long as you write it properly, the publisher is still solvent, and you can agree the terms. I'm not going to say anything about contractual terms here as I've covered pretty much everything in the series How to read a publishing contract. But I will repeat one important point - don't assume the contract is written in stone. Actually, two points - don't be cheated in your pitiful gratitude that someone wants your book.

The contract the publisher sends you is a starting point for negotiation. They may well say it is a standard contract (it is; that just means it's the template they start from) and that everyone else signs (possibly true, especially if they don't have any astute or professional authors in their stable). Of course, the terms in the contract will favour the publisher at every turn. There will be clauses that, if you query them, the publisher will claim 'will never be used'. Fine; if they will never be used they can be removed. Do not be bullied. They want your book or they would not have offered you the contract in the first place. Read it carefully, and maybe have it read by the Society of Authors (if you are in the UK). Make sure you understand it all. Yes, I know it's about ten pages long, written in legalese and boring. But that's exactly why you DO need to read and understand it.

Once you have signed the contract, you won't be able to change the terms unless some significant event changes things rather dramatically. So if you sign a contract saying you will deliver your book by 31 December, you have to do that. Running out of time is not a good reason for delivering late. Losing the book because you didn't back it up and your computer breaks is just professional negligence, so don't do that either. If your family is wiped out in a fire, that is a good reason but you need to tell the publisher long before the deadline. (If the tragedy happens a couple of days before the deadline, you will have written the book already, so it won't be a problem.)

A contract is not a gift, it is a professional agreement and you should enter into it as a professional, not as a grateful wannabe-writer. Just as no writer has an automatic right to have their book published (most books written or proposed are crap), so no publisher has the right to dictate unfair terms and have you agree to them. Don't sign away electronic rights for 2% (or nothing); don't agree to do endless publicity for nothing for a flat-fee book; don't agree to revise a flat-fee book as necessary for future editions without another fee. In short, don't agree to be exploited or cheated.


  1. "most books written or proposed are crap." So true!

  2. I received a publishing contract for my first graphic novel yesterday. Forearmed with the knowledge I'd picked up from this site, I was able to immediately identify potential problem clauses, and will be chasing them up, attempting to negotiate the best deal possible for myself.

    Most valuable to me was your advice to not just sign on the dotted line out of sheer gratitude. I almost certainly would have just rubber-stamped the document without that nugget! :)

    Not being a naturally confrontational people, I really needed the encouragement that I would be more respected if I actually made a bit of (tactful, of course!) noise.

    So thank you for all your work in putting this site together - the advice you offer is terrific!

  3. Shane, that is wonderful news! Well done getting a contract for your graphic novel in this very difficult climate. Please come back and tell us all when your book is out.

    I am so glad the site has been helpful to you and that you are reading your contract carefully and making sure you get a fair deal. Be brave - be professional! I hope book goes smoothly.

  4. There's a confidentiality clause in my agreement that I decided not to contest, so I can't say much, other than my proposed alterations were all accepted quickly and without issue.

    So, let this be a 'C is for case study' for everyone on the fence about negotiating a better deal!

    Thanks again!

  5. That's great - well done. Most publishers are reasonable and will bow to sensible requests, especially if supported by sound argument.

    Very pleased for you, Shane.