The Contract

There’s not a great deal I can say about contracts … save that I’m glad I have someone else to negotiate them on my behalf! If you’ve been offered a contract then I advise you strongly to use a lawyer or agent, or at least to get their advice, during negotiations. I also want to emphasise that contracts are negotiable. Don’t think that you have to accept the first document the publisher puts before you; on the other hand, if this is your first book, then you may not have much power to drive the bargain you want. Nevertheless, you can negotiate, so do it.

A publishing contract covers many areas:

  • Who the contract is between, typically yourself and a publishing house, but if you use an agent then the agent’s name will be inserted in there as the person who gets all the monies initially (the agent then extracts his or her commission, and sends the rest on to you).
  • The title(s) that the contract covers
  • When publication of the title(s) is expected (this often changes during the editorial process).
  • When delivery of the title(s) is expected.
  • How much, and in what form, the advance covers.
    – What is an advance? When a publisher accepts a title for publication they work out how many copies they are likely to sell. They then decide how much of your royalty (see below) they decide to pay you up front (anywhere from about 30% to 100%). For instance, if the publisher estimates they can sell 10,000 of the title for $10 a copy, and the author will receive a 10% royalty on each of those books ($1 per book), and, being generous, the publisher decides to give you $10,000 as an advance. This $10,000 is unlikely to be paid in one lump sum; rather, there will be a percentage of that $10,000 paid on signing the contract (perhaps one half: $5,000), another 25% on delivery of the manuscript ($2,500) and the final 25% on publication. Thus the payment of an advance is generally paid out over at least a year. If an author sells a series of books as one title (a trilogy, for example) they will receive an advance covering all the books of the series, but this advance will be paid out over the number of years it takes to publish the series. Thus you sometimes hear of authors who get a magnificent advance for a 10 book series … what most people don’t realise that the advance will be spread out over at least 10 years, and in fact only represents a fairly modest income p.a.
  • The royalty you receive. Royalty rates are, unfortunately, slipping. Once you could confidently assume that an author received an average royalty rate of 10%. Now that can be as low as 6%. On the other hand, the contract will also generally specify something called rising royalties (and if it doesn’t, then it should). Rising royalties basically give you a higher royalty once a certain number of books have been sold. For instance, you might start out on 10% royalty, but once 25,000 books have been sold, you might then go onto a royalty rate of 12.5%
  • The territories the contract covers. VERY few authors sell world rights to their titles. Generally, you sign country by country. Thus there will be separate contracts for US rights, UK rights, German translation rights, French translation rights etc. etc. etc. These other countries don’t automatically fall in line – you must sell your work to publishers in every country. Getting your book published in one country is no guarantee that it will be published anywhere else.
  • The rights the contract covers. If you are selling to a book publisher you should sell (or lease, because these contracts cover the lease of rights rather than the actual sale of them) the print rights only. Publishers sometimes try to take the electronic rights, film rights, radio rights, graphic novel rights (and whatever other rights they can think of) as well. Don’t. Sell off your various rights one by one, don’t give one organisation exclusive control.
  • Sundry incidentals … are you using quotes or photographs in your book that are copyrighted to someone else? If so, it will probably be up to you to gain permission to use the material, as also to pay whatever fees that permission includes. You must vow faithfully and cross your heart that all the material in your book is of your own authorship (unless otherwise stated and paid for). The cover art of the book is sometimes mentioned … generally along the lines that the author has no say in cover art at all (although, in practice, you generally do have a say). You will also have to agree to make yourself available (as your work commitments allow) for publicity purposes on the release of the book.

There are a number of other things that crop up in contracts – how many free copies of the book you are entitled to, for instance – but the above lists the main clauses.

Either the publisher or the author can extract themselves from a contract, but it takes a serious breach of contract to do that … although sometimes there is a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ and both parties mutually agree that they have no interest in doing business with each other and all rights are handed back to the author.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises