Negotiating an Offer from a Publisher

Part 3 of my newsletter series on how a book idea becomes a book

Before we get to the regular newsletter, let’s get to the mittens!

Like many knitters and Bernie fans, I couldn’t resist the challenge of trying to replicate his viral mittens from the presidential inauguration last week. I used this pattern and some yarn I had in my stash and whipped these up over the last few days. I will be giving them away by lottery this Sunday (Jan 31). To enter the lottery, just make a donation of any amount to Meals On Wheels or any mutual aid fund of your choice and send me your receipt/screenshot via email or Twitter DM to @lportwoodstacer (feel free to crop out personal details). I’ll pick someone at random on Sunday and mail out the mittens next week (US mailing addresses only).

The mittens will fit comfortably on small to medium sized adult hands. The yarn is sheep’s wool but it was rescued from my leftovers from another project so I’d technically call these freegan mittens, in case that’s a concern for you. Can’t wait to see these go to a loving new home!

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Hi Manuscript Workers,

If you’ve been following this newsletter for a while, you might have seen the first two posts in this series, How Does a Book Idea Become a Manuscript? and How Does a Proposal Lead to an Offer? (If you haven’t seen them and you’re curious about what it might look like to develop a book proposal and navigate submissions to multiple presses, go check those posts out.) In this post I’m going to cover what can happen when you receive an offer and some points that I think are important for scholarly authors to keep in mind. (Note that I’m going to be talking about dealing with a single offer here — if you’re trying to figure out how to navigate multiple offers at once, see the earlier post.)

An offer to publish your book might look like an email from your editor saying “here’s a contract for you to sign,” or the editor may lay out some of the major terms of the offer by email or phone before they send you the contract. Examples of terms the editor might tell you up front:

  • the amount of the advance the publisher is offering you (if any)

  • the royalty percentage you’ll receive on sold books (your royalties will go toward paying back your advance until you “earn out”)

  • the format(s) they will publish your book in (e.g. hard cover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)

  • what they expect the retail price of your book to be

This is all standard information that you have a right to know before you accept an offer. If an editor says they want to publish your book, but doesn’t offer this info up, you can and should ask about any of it. Then give yourself some time to consider the offer rather than accepting right away. Your editor has already invested time in your project and they obviously think it’s a good investment for their press, so they’re not going to pull the offer immediately if you say you need to think it over.

They’re also not going to pull it if you try to negotiate some of the terms. If anyone acts like you don’t have the right to take some time to consider the offer or try to improve it a little for yourself, I would take that as a red flag that someone is trying to manipulate you against your own best interests and proceed with caution. Maybe explore other options before you commit to working with these people.

If you decide to ask for better terms (e.g. a higher advance, higher royalties, etc.), it may help to keep in mind that your editor likely doesn’t have the power to say yes or no immediately. They’re going to have to go ask other people at the publisher. And, again, your editor is on your side and really wants to see your project published. So it’s ok to let them know frankly if you’re hoping for changes to the offer.

Once you’ve got the major terms pinned down with your editor to everyone’s satisfaction, you can tentatively accept the offer. At this point, the press will draw up a contract and send it to you. Even though you’ve nominally accepted the offer, you still have the right to examine the contract and ask for any clarification or changes that you think you need. Until the contract is signed by both parties, no one is bound to anything.

With my first book, a revision of my dissertation, I was so excited just to receive a contract that I signed it immediately and asked no questions. I’m sure I read it through once, but I had the impression (as do many academic authors) that I was extremely lucky to be offered anything at all and that there really wasn’t any room for negotiation. That might have been an accurate read in that case, I don’t know. But if you take anything away from this post, I hope it will be that you don’t have to just accept the contract as offered. You have some leverage in this situation in that you have a manuscript the publisher wants.

Publishing agreements written by your publisher are written for the benefit of your publisher. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily written to put authors at a disadvantage, but you do have the right to advocate for yourself. With my current book, it was important to me to understand every part of the contract and to make sure I asked for what I wanted as an author. I also saw the contract negotiation as a learning experience that would give me useful info to pass along to other authors.

The contract I received for my current book was fourteen pages long, so there was a lot more in there I wanted to make sure I understood beyond the major terms I’d already discussed with my editor. After I received the agreement, I availed myself of one of the perks of membership in the Authors Guild and immediately submitted my contract for review by one of their literary lawyers. I received detailed comments back less than a week later outlining what each clause of the contract meant and offering advice on what kinds of clarifications I should ask for and what kinds of terms I might be able to negotiate for.

I decided which items were important to me and wrote up an email to my editor with my questions and requests. Because I wanted to learn as much as possible, I had a lot of questions for my editor! I think I had about 20 things I wanted to push back on or get clarification on, which is probably way more than necessary for most authors, though you really are within your rights to ask anything you want at this point in the process. (If you had a literary agent to represent you, reviewing and negotiating the contract is exactly what they would be doing at this moment.) Again, your publisher is not going to pull the offer because you ask for changes to the contract, and if they do, they weren’t the right partner for you. The worst that can happen is they’ll say no to some or all of your requests and you’ll have to decide whether anything is enough of a dealbreaker for you to make you walk away.

Some examples of things you can ask for, if they aren’t already stipulated to your satisfaction in the contract:

  • Having the copyright for the book registered in your own name (versus the publisher’s)

  • Additional gratis author copies (they might say they’ll give you 6 or 10 free copies — ask for more!)

  • Removal of the option clause (the option clause requires that you give the publisher right of first refusal on your next book project)

  • Having the publisher bear the cost of professional indexing or other production costs you foresee

Not everyone will care about all of these items; they’re just some examples. There may be other items not mentioned here that are important to you and your unique situation.

When you ask for changes to the contract, be aware that this can slow the process down, because, as I noted above, there are other people within the press your editor will have to talk to and get approval from. But you can still be working on your book and doing other things during this time, so don’t stress too much about it taking awhile.

In my case, I didn’t get everything I asked for as far as changes to the contract, but I did get the couple of things that were most important to me, which made me feel that the negotiation process had been worthwhile. All in all, it took about four months to go from initial offer to signed contract. It feels like a long time when you’re in the middle of it (and itching to announce to everyone that you’ve signed a book contract!), but the payoff of waiting is worth it, because that contract will dictate everything that happens going forward. You will not get to make changes to it later; before you sign is the only time you have leverage as an author, so don’t throw that chance away.

Most authors (especially first-timers) will probably not have much perspective on whether the terms they’re being offered by a publisher are good or not. This is one reason why consulting with the Authors Guild is helpful (anyone can become a member and use their contract review service). You can also talk to peers to see what their contracts looked like. I have had authors write to me to ask if the royalty percentage they were being offered was decent; I’m always happy to give my perspective based on what I’ve seen, though of course I am not a literary agent or lawyer and can’t help you negotiate your contract! You may not much care about the specific terms of your contract, which is fine too. If you’re very happy with the publisher and feel they’ll do a good job with your book, that’s the important thing; small issues may not be worth quibbling over for you.

There’ll be more about all this in THE BOOK PROPOSAL BOOK: A GUIDE FOR SCHOLARLY AUTHORS, in Chapter 13, “Keep Your Cool: Navigating Reader Reports, Contracts, and Other Decision Points.” If you liked this post, you’ll love that chapter. You can preorder now if you want to make sure you get a copy as soon as it’s out.

Next week’s newsletter will be an author Q&A! If you have a question about scholarly books, book proposals, or publishing you’d like me to answer, send it on over. :)