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Writing Hints Blog

The Contract -The Novel 7

Posted by rmarsden on October 3, 2010 at 3:07 PM

The end of our journey is at hand.


Today's topic is the contract! In the realm of short-stories, most contracts are easy, temporary affairs and pay is likely to be low enough that even a poorly signed contract won't be the end of the world. That is not the case in terms of a novel.


What the Contract States

A novel contract is an agreement between the publisher and the author. The publisher promises to publish, edit, market and pay the author and the author in return promises to give the publisher sole (usually) rights to their work for an agreed upon amount of time.


The devil truly is in the details. Large publishing houses have law-firms dedicated to getting the best contract possible and openly prey upon new and inexperienced writers. Horror stories include...


1. An author signed a contract that said works instead of work giving the publisher (potentially) rights to ALL the works by the author.


2. An author signed a contract that did not have a gurantee as to when a work would be published. Without a time-frame the publisher can hold the work as long as they please and extend the life of the contract since it usually starts upon publication. (Happened to me!) On an upnote, what they don't sell doesn't help them!


3. The publisher promised pay in the form of 'net profit' royalties then claimed every dollar made on the book was needed for company expenses, therefore no matter how many books are sold the author will make very little money. This often happens in the music industry. The Dixie Chicks had a record go platinum and between them all made something like $100,000 as the studio claimed expenses ate up the millions earned. Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell 2 record was done to get out of debt imposed upon him by the studio's contract for Bat Out of Hell.


4. The publisher claims additional rights to film, audio and products without offering the author anything in return. Watch out for this! The author should get sole rights to film, audio and products. The contract is for a book and just that!


5. The author signs a non-compete clause that is so vague it denies them the ability to write or sell anything else without permission from the publisher. While some clause is to be expected, the scope of such should be limited.


6. The authors signs a clause that any hint of plagarism means the costs of defense will be on the author. Sounds fair enough except that if an author is sued for copywrite infringment they might not have the resources to defend themselves and the publisher won't help.


The list goes on and on.


What Should the Author be Paid?

In professional terms an author can expect two forms of payment.

The Advance - The advance is a sum of cash given to the author before the book is published (or even written in some cases!). The advance is an investment from the publisher and if the book doesn't sell well (enough to cover the advance) they can ask for the money back. However, I am told this rarely happens. The size of the advance depends on the size of the publisher. A small-time house won't have much of an advance while larger firms can drop anywhere from $1,000 to $6000 and beyond for the well established.


Royalties - Royalties are a cut of the profit. A contract that promises royalties off of net-profit will not be very advantageous because the publisher won't give the author a dime until all their costs are covered. Even an honest publisher will have to pay the cost of printing and marketing before the royalties kick in.


An advantageous contract will demand royalties based off the cover-price of the book. 10-15% is what professional authors are able to eek out. The smaller the publishing house the more tricky the negotiation for royalties will be.


With smaller presses the pay reduces drastically.


Avoiding a Bad Contract

If an author is using a small-publisher then little is ventured and little is lost. Still, the contract should be looked over and questions asked. If a publisher shows signs of wishing to cut negotiations because of questions and their busy time, then they should be avoided. They do not have an interest in a fair-deal.


If an author is using a large-publisher then they should get a literary lawyer to review the contract. The author can also work with their agency (if the author has one) to achieve the best contract. Agents want what is best for authors because that is what is best for them.


The large firms have acquisition lawyers who shamelessy and ruthlessly attempt to win contracts that are favorable to the publisher. This wouldn't be a bad thing except that they hide their intent in legal jargon hoping an inexperienced author isn't aware of what they are signing.


It's not pretty, but it is what it is and the best remedy for an unethical lawyer is one of the author's own. Let them fight to the death for amusement as the author sips wine.



1. Bad Contracts exist. Be on guard!

2. Technically an advance can be recalimed if a book doesn't sell well.

3. Have a good defenition of pay in terms of royalties and do not accept 'net pay' from larger publishing houses.

4. Ask questions to the publisher of smaller houses and ditch them if they balk at answering.

5. Hire a lawyer or trust in an agent with the larger publishing houses.


The End of the Road

Thanks for reading my advice on short stories and novels. I'm a newcomer to the field myself and my experiences are only part of a larger picture. Research on your own, provide your own advice to other writers as you learn from experience and remember. Knowledge is Power - Share it.

Richard Marsden

Categories: Novel Advice

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