Negotiating Your Publishing Contract

You no spamma me...got it?

“Don’t even think of negotiating your own contract.”

The immediate response is DON’T. If you want to watch an editor mainline unleaded gas, tell her that you know nothing about the publishing industry BEFORE digging in to negotiate your own contract. Uh huh…been there, and my eyes bled.

I’m not talking to you multi-pubbed authors who have been knocking around the industry for years. I’m talking about the new authors who just completed their manuscripts and the ink on THE END is still wet. New authors don’t know what elements of a contract are negotiable and what’s inviolate, so your negotiating points may send the acquiring editor screaming for the hills. For example, publishers won’t agree to your keeping e-book rights, allowing you final approval on your cover art and manuscript edits, or allowing you to have thousands of free books that you’ll be allowed to sell.

These are deal killers because the publisher is buying the rights to your manuscript and assuming all the financial responsibilities and risk of production, marketing and promotion, and distribution, and they won’t agree to giving you all the artistic control. What it says is that you don’t trust the publisher. If that’s the case, then why sign with them? Ostensibly, you’re signing with a company who can do for your book that you can’t accomplish on your own. It’s counter-intuitive for a publisher to agree to anything that puts their investment at risk, or puts them in a position of competing against their own author.

If you’re offered a publishing contract, get thee to an agent asap, and let them do the heavy lifting. I know, you’re wondering if you can have your attorney look over the contract, and I say an emphatic NO. Literary contracts are a different beast than other contracts, and I’ve seen lawyers unfamiliar with the literary world agree to rotten contracts. Or they try to argue points that no publisher with a firing synapse would agree to.

Agents, on the other hand, do this for a living. No one understands publishing contracts better than a good literary agent. If you don’t have an agent at the time of a contract offer, you’ll probably find a willing agent if you tell them you have an offer on the table and need representation. I’ve experienced this many times, and I’m always grateful because I know my sobriety and sanity will be granted yet another reprieve.

The end run here is that you’ve taken time to write your story, and you don’t want to lose your book to a predatory contract, or  because you insisted on things that are highly irregular to the industry. The contract is the most important bridge between you, your story, and the marketplace, so don’t take this step lightly. Get an agent. Pronto.

5 Responses to Negotiating Your Publishing Contract

  1. briancleggauthor says:

    For authors in the UK that don’t have an agent, I would also say get yourself to the Society of Authors, which is well worth the membership fee, and offers a free contract checking service and is great at winkling out what you should query. I don’t know if there is a US equivalent.

  2. The Author’s Guild is the US equivalent. I didn’t put them down as a resource for authors because our experiences ended up being deal-killers that deal makers. I may have been unlucky in our dealings, but I noticed that since these lawyers had nothing to gain or lose by representing the contract for the author, they tended to bring in onerous conditions that no agent would ever even bring up. As a result, we’ve never signed an author who used them.

  3. ericjbaker says:

    The other stuff makes sense from a financial standpoint, but why no final approval on edits? If they like your work enough to invest in it, they must think you have sufficient expertise as a storyteller. Just curious. It’s easier for a committee to wreck a story than one writer.

  4. Hi Eric. Great question, and the answer is if a publisher buys the rights to an author’s manuscript, then it runs contrary to allow all that work to scud to a stop because the author doesn’t want to further develop a scene for better clarity.

    The assumption is that the author signed with the publisher because they trust them to do a great job on their books because they’ve been doing this for a long time and consistently produce an excellent product.

    I’ve had many instances where I needed authors to dig deeper in order for the reader to better understand the conflicts of their stories. If they had final approval and declined to make those edits, then I’d be stuck with half the story, all on my dime.

    That’s why it’s important for authors to discuss how much input they’ll be allowed with prospective acquiring editors. I’m big on author input. I want them to be happy with their books because a happy author is one who is proud to help with promotion. However, other publishers are on tighter production schedules and don’t have the time to cater to author input. They bought the rights, and that’s that.

    It’s good that the author knows up front what they’re getting into because it can cause a lot of problems downstream.

  5. Jim says:

    Never do this yourself, get a professional to get this done for you.

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