5 Things to Know Before You Sign Your Publishing Contract

The following is the first of five emails from a free e-course about understanding publishing contracts. You can sign up for the rest of the course here.

In any publishing deal, you’re in charge. That’s because a publishing contract is you giving the publisher permission to use your work. They need permission and you’re the only one they can get it from. 

By g_leon_h via Flickr.com. CC BY-SA 2.0

It can be incredibly hard to remember that you’re the one in the driver’s seat after the long process of query letters, pitches, rejections, and finally (finally!) an offer. You’ve been in the position of wanting and needing someone’s approval for such a long time, that you don’t even realize you’re now the someone with approval to give.

One way to change your perspective is to think of the publisher’s offer to publish your book as “an offer to request your permission.” If you say yes, they’ll send you their publishing contract. And everything in a publishing contract is a request for your permission.

Everything in a Publishing Contract is a Request for Your Permission

The publishing contract you get isn’t special. It’s the publisher’s template agreement. Every contract the publisher signs with an author is based on the the template and the template is designed to give the publisher the very best deal possible.

When a publisher makes you an offer, they’ll adjust the template agreement before sending it to you, but they’re not adjusting it to be nice. They’re adjusting it to make sure the contract represents a good deal for them. The terms they’ll likely adjust include: the advance, the royalty structure or split, and “ancillary rights” — rights to make things based on your book, like merchandise, television shows, and musicals.

Every term in the contract is a request:

  • ​May we have the right to make merchandise?
  • May we publish your book for a royalty that’s 10% of the cover price?
  • May we have the right to publish the next book you write?

Just because they ask doesn’t automatically mean you have to say yes.

By Dorine Ruter via Flickr.com. CC BY 2.0

​​You get to decide what terms make the best sense for you and your goals for your book.

Many authors worry that saying “no” to a term in the contract will make the publisher mad and risk losing the deal. Very few publishing terms are “make or break.” An agent or attorney can help you differentiate between requests that are essential to the deal, and requests that the publisher hopes you’ll agree to, but aren’t necessary. (Don’t have an agent? Agents love authors who already have an offer. Still can’t find an agent you like? Attorneys with publishing expertise can help!)

With every request for permission in the contract, ask yourself:

  • Do I want to give them this permission?

Only give the publisher permission you feel comfortable giving. That doesn’t mean you love every term in the contract, but it does mean that on the whole, you feel confident about the permissions you’ve given and what you get in return.

  • Do I trust the publisher to use these rights effectively?

Not all publishers are created equally. And not all publishers are capable of ​making good use of the rights they’re given. Do your homework, or flat out ask them, to find out: how successful have they been making merch/optioning television shows/using whatever right they’re asking for? do they plan on using all of the rights? When and under what circumstances?

  • If I give the publisher my permission, and I don’t like the results, what options does the contract give me?

Every good publishing contract has a provision so that if the book doesn’t sell or the publisher runs into tough times, you can get your rights back. Notice: every good publishing contract, not every publishing contract. Make sure your contract has that provision and that you understand exactly how it works. It’s not uncommon for these sections to be worded confusingly or poorly, or both. Make sure it’s right before you sign.  ​

By Pascal Maramis via Flickr.com. CC BY 2.0.

The next topic in the series is “Only give them the permission they need, and can use.” Want to read it? Sign up for the free e-course here.

Categories: Making Sense of Contracts

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5 Things to Know Before You Sign Your Publishing Contract

The following is the first of five emails from a free e-course about understanding publishing contracts. You can sign up for the rest of the course here. In any publishing deal, you're in charge. That's because a publishing contract is you giving the publisher permission to use your work. They need permission and

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