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Publishing Contract Advice

Resli Costabell

I’ve been asked to write 1-3 books for a reputable UK publisher (I live in the UK). I’ll get 10% royalties of what they charge for each book. The RRP is about $12.50, but they give bulk discounts. I’ll get no other remuneration. The publisher gets no commission for work that comes to me through my books.

I’d receive 10 free copies of my book. I could buy more (and any others they publish) at a 40% discount and sell them back table.

I’d retain copyright. They’d have publishing rights.

I’d welcome authors’ thoughts, caveats and suggestions of what else to ask!

(Note: An earlier discussion about book contracts appears here.)

— Rebecca Morgan

Ask for more free books to send out as review copies yourself, and to thought leaders. I always get a crate of books (72) from my publisher, and could probably get more if I asked.

Also, negotiate a better deal on books that you buy. Some authors negotiate for cost + 10%. You should get a better deal than the bookstore, which is 40% discount. I also get royalties on the ones I buy.

My impression is that the publisher is above-board, but very small. I wonder whether they are being tight with the finances because they’re so small! Still — what’s it cost them to print a book? Less than $1 no doubt. Sometimes you just have to ask!

— Larry Kutner

This sounds like a bad deal. You haven’t mentioned any advance against royalties. US trade (nonfiction) publishers usually pay an escalating scale of 10/12.5/15 percent of the RETAIL price of a book for the first 5,000/10,000/15,000+ hardcover copies sold, with lower percentages paid for trade softcover and for mass market.

The 40% discount is pretty standard, although you may be able to get a better price by opening an account with a book wholesaler such as Ingram. Which publishing rights are they retaining? When and how do they revert to you? Absolutely everything in a book contract is negotiable.

I suggest getting a literary agent, which shouldn’t be difficult since you’ve already been approached by a publisher. If the agent’s any good, the commission will be the best money you’ve ever spent.

— Jim Donovan

I’d look at the time frame of the contract. Typically 5-7 years.

Also, your royalty is kind of low and I don’t see an advance in there. Typically, you receive an advance. What is the initial print run? The advance is usually tied to the size of the first printing. [Having no advance may not be a big deal to you,] but it can show how committed the publisher is to the deal.

They have publishing rights where? UK, the World, Mars? :-)

You might want to find a sample contract and see how yours stacks up.

In a niche like it sounds like you’re in, [a 10% royalty rate] may be quite the norm. Royalties vary and can be based on wholesale, net profit, gross selling price, whatever. It’s all over the map.

Never underestimate the potential of a book to bring in revenue. :-)

I paid no attention to foreign rights until one day I received a wire transfer larger than what most people work all year for. Now, I pay attention! :-)

Promotion and marketing are your job. The publisher does what they can but that’s limited. It’s up to the author to create a buzz.

— Debbie Elicksen

That deal is quite the norm for the trade publishing market. The fact it is harder to get a publisher than an audience with the Pope. If they are a reputable firm, count your blessings and run with it. Very, very few people have publishers approach them and for every one of those, there are thousands applying for just one book spot on a publisher’s annual list. It’s why independent publishing has soared.

You do have copyright of the material but to sign a traditional publishing contract, you sign over the rights for a period of time, usually two years. After that, make sure the contract states the rights revert back to you. The rights means they have exclusivity in producing the book and you can’t go out and get it printed anywhere else until the rights are reverted back to you. No publisher will publish a book without buying the rights. But, there are Print on Demand firms pretending they are traditional publishers (trades don’t charge to publish) and self-publishing services, whose contracts are suspect and can change in their favor at any given time. It’s a cutthroat business.

I got into the publishing support business because it seemed a lot of people have no idea where to begin after their manuscript is done. Ironically, my book was published by a trade press. 10 free copies and 10 percent royalties, no advance, and purchase extras for 40%. But if you get an advance, it’s really a draw against the royalties. Read all fine print on the contract and if it overwhelms you, get a lawyer to do it. CYA. (cover your ...) The main thing is the rights issue. They HAVE to revert back to you after a period of time. Otherwise, even if the book is long off the shelf, you’ll never be able to republish it on your own or through another publisher.

The other downside to traditional publishing is booksellers wait a gazillion months (minimum 3 in Canada and 6 in the U.S.) to PAY the publisher, so don’t expect your royalty check too often. My publisher’s cutoff for their pay period is April 30 and October 30. Same if you were publishing and got your books through a distributor into the bookstores — wait, wait, wait. And then the big “R” — return factor that gets deducted.

— Bill Marvin

They are not giving you much of a deal. At a 40% discount, you will hardly be able to make any money on the books. A similar deal with Wiley was what drove me to self-publishing years ago. I have the copyright, but not the right to publish those books myself until the publisher declares them out of print. Even then, I have to buy the rights back.

If you need a book for credibility, it could be OK. If you want to make money, publish the book yourself. Understand that publishers don’t sell books, authors do.

If you decide to go ahead with them, I would at least insist on the right to buy books from them at their cost. I would also retain all electronic rights and the right to use the material in non-competing formats (audio books, articles, etc.).

— Mary Marcdante

Bottom line, this sounds unreasonable to me. No advance? 10% of wholesale not retail? 40% discount? I think you can do better if you ask for more. What is your book about? Have you shopped it elsewhere? What is your purpose in going with a publisher versus doing it yourself?

Here were my terms as a first-time author with Simon & Schuster here in the U.S for my book:

  • $xx,xxx advance
  • $xx,xxx bonus if I reached the NYTimes best seller list within one year (I didn’t, but not because I didn’t try :-)
  • 7.5% royalties (softcover book — traditional) paid after advance is met
  • 15% royalties on electronic sales
  • 60% discount for orders over 100-2500
  • 65% discount for orders 2500-5000
  • 70% discount for orders 5000+ (print run)

I discovered that even if I purchased copies of my book at the standard bookstore discount of 40%, thinking that these orders would count towards my royalty, I discovered that only books purchased by booksellers count for royalties, so watch the fine print.

My book was published in 2001. I had a good run. Sold 30,000 but did not sell out advance, so have not seen royalties, so there is a benefit to royalties — only IF you know you’re going to move a lot of books.

Be sure to ask about payment. My contract states that I only get royalties six months after the close of the previous six months (this is common), but you can see if you’re counting on that as income and they’re paying you royalties, it could be a long time coming.

My publisher wasn’t interested in the sequel which was actually the second half of the book they decided not to publish in the first one, which is now being shopped at another publisher. They’re offering a small advance ($5k) with full royalties. I am considering this IF I can keep electronic rights.

I also self-published another book paid for by a sponsor who hired me for a speaking tour for the first book and asked if I had a second book. My contract with S&S said they had first rights to my second book, which I offered them, but since I needed the book done within four months they passed with a “wait-and-see-how-it-does” attitude. I decided to keep the rights and work with it online and it’s led to many good things that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I hadn’t self-published.

Clearly I don’t know UK publishing and I’m a novice author, but is this publisher one that has a high level of visibility? Have they had great success with other books? Other books like yours? What kind of marketing support will they give you? Do you like your editor? The team? What do other authors who have published with them say? Contact at least three other authors from that publisher before you sign on the dotted line.

— Paul O. Radde

My publisher gave me a deal through which I could purchase my book at “cost plus 20%.” That meant that rather than paying the 40% off of $12.70 each, I was paying $2.80 per book. I had to buy 50 at a time.

When I gained the interest of 3M for my supervising book, they would call me and order 300. I, in turn would call the publisher and order the 300 sent to 3M with the address to them, invoice to me. I would add the shipping cost to the gradually reduced price of the book usually about $13 and clear $3,000 for the transaction.

See if you can get more BOR sales copies, or be able to access them cheaper than the bookstore price of 40% off. Remember this is your book and 10% royalties is not a great deal if you can’t sell your own book. You might be able to negotiate a 15% royalty if they sell, say 5,000 or 3,000.

— Barry Maher

Even if they can’t give you an advance (especially because they aren’t giving you an advance) you can negotiate on the rest. I’d particularly want to increase that 40% discount. McGraw-Hill recently gave me a deal with a 70% discount. You can also get more than the 10 copies. I signed one contract with a major publisher for 30 or 40 author’s copies with the editor’s promise that, though he couldn’t contract for more, he would ship me a total 200 copies on publication. Which he did. With the book retailing for $14.95 that’s an extra $3,000.

The point is that the first offer is just that, an offer.

— Dale Collie

I have a similar arrangement with McGraw-Hill and my book has been translated into other languages and put on audio tape.

If you want to do this for credibility, go for it. If you want to publish with them to make money, forget it.

My book has sold over 50,000 copies world wide, and I haven’t received the first royalty check. You do say that you get 10% of wholesale sales, and mine is 10% of net ... big difference in the math.

Ask for more books — 10 is nothing. Tell them you want 50 or 100. Hold on to the copyright. Pin them down as to when you can get control of the book. My MH contract says MH has control as long as it is in print ... that means as long as there is one copy on their shelves, it is in print, regardless of whether any are selling.

You might want to get an expert to look at the contract and see what hazards lurk in the small print and what else you should ask for.

I have to buy my books at the 60% of retail and pay shipping and I get no commission on books I buy.

I got $5k to write the book and spent 12-14 hrs a day for six months to turn it out + another six months in publicity, etc. I guess I spent about $10k marketing, etc.

Get the picture?

When I received the offer, I asked Mark Sanborn for advice. Here’s what he told me — and it was 100% accurate.

Three things will happen when you sign the agreement:

  1. The topic will become your new niche
  2. The book will consume your life for 12-18 months
  3. When you get done, you will have no speaking business — zero — because you will not have done any selling or marketing during the writing process.

He was right on target. I have great credibility, and I’m starting to build my business back. It’s slow work.

I have two other self-published books and I’m making good money on those ... about 10-12 bucks per book. When I sell one of McGraw-Hill’s books, back of room, I only make 5-6 bucks because I have to buy the books and pay shipping to get them. If someone buys one from me online, it’s another hassle for small money.

Other authors I know have gone with vanity publishers because they promise to put them on Amazon and in bookstores ... another profit killer. Unless you sell a ton of them on Amazon, you won’t make much. And even though the publisher says they’ll put them in book stores, it means that they will be available for book stores to order them, not much of a deal.

My conclusion is: if for credibility, go with publisher. If for profit, have a cover designed and print them yourself at instantpublisher.com — excellent printing, and you make the money on those sold in the back of the room, online, etc.

— C. Leslie Charles

If you can, retain electronic rights so you can freely offer a Web site for your book and maybe even e-book form down the road. There’s also audio rights to consider if you can do so.

— Bruce Stewart

The description that you offered takes a few things for granted, and that is ok. As long as you know what the business deal is and you’re comfortable with it and with the content of what they’re asking you to write about, fine.

However, that 10% can be an elusive number. I wonder if they could tell you something about what their marketing campaign and sales expectations are for your three books. It seems like a lot of writing without any guarantees.

On the other hand, I do not know you or your field(s) of expertise. I do not know what your fascinations or passions are, either, but you do. I would suggest focusing upon what switches you on, rather than the little bit that this publisher can do for you. Then spend your time working on a project that is near to your heart.

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