By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach
firstwriter.com – Saturday December 12, 2020
I just sign blank contracts for books and whatever strikes me as a good idea is what I write about.
~ Roger Zelazny
Contracts seem daunting because the language they are written in is arcane and the contract terms are ones you’ll have to live with, probably a while beyond the life of the book. In this case, fear is a good thing. We should regard the contract with a certain amount of trepidation and not simply sign because we’re drooling with eagerness to be published.
Yes, you’re supposed to rely on your own agent's expertise, but you should know what’s important to you in a contract so you can tell your agent. That’s why you want to find out the basic types of contents that contracts have and what can/should be negotiated and what not.
So even those authors with agents ought to be prepared to read and understand the contract. I said the language is arcane, but it’s not actually that unreadable. Contracts can be dissected by anyone who can write a book. And if you’re going to sign it, you definitely should read it first.
The Boilerplate Contract
The contracts that most writers receive are "boilerplate" contracts. That means the contracts are the standard ones that the publisher issues to just about everyone. A secondary boilerplate form is a contract that the publisher has hashed out specifically with the agency that represents you. Those are the standard contracts with no changes or additions. But all the details of the contract are open to negotiation. You can be creative in requesting changes, but you have to look at the package as a whole.
You won’t be granted everything you’d like unless the publisher wants the book very, very badly, and if the editor wants the book that much, he will express the fact in an offer of a decent amount of money. Along with the money, the editor/publisher might budge on some of the smaller details, though they might hold firm on others. Try to remember the most important thing of all, however, when you finally sign. Whether you’ve received your way on every point or not, if you’re with a reputable imprint, you’re gaining publication and furthering your career.
Your agent may ask you what you want to see in the contract. Such a question might sound as if the agent is abdicating responsibility, but that’s not really what she means. She’ll try to negotiate the best deal possible, but in addition to that, what’s important to you? In signing one contract recently, I wanted to change the prohibition against my using portions of the book elsewhere. I didn’t intend to use pieces of my work in order to compete with this specific book, but rather I would use sections in another work to promote further sales of the first book. So I requested that the clause in the contract be rescinded.
I also didn’t want to be obliged to offer the publisher an option book, so I asked to have that clause removed. Be aware that if you do have an option clause in the contract, you want to turn that into a minimal nuisance. You can always say no to any deal involving an option book after you’ve submitted it—but you can also be very specific in the contract that the book offered is within a certain sector of your writing life. For instance, if the book is about cabinet making, but you also write material about dog training, your option book should be restricted to any book about cabinetry.
Further, you’ll want to make sure you have a time limit for the publisher’s review placed in the contract. For instance, you might give the publisher 60 days to make an offer, after which the book offered may be withdrawn. Waiting for a response on an option book is one of the nuisances involved in having an option clause—especially if you’re decided to move on to another publisher after the current book.
Lastly, in regard to the option clause, if you happen to negotiate your own contract, be sure the option says for the next “work” and not “works”; otherwise, you will be contractually obligated to show whatever books follow.
Again, with the whole package in mind, if you haven’t gotten some of the deal you wanted in the contract, you might try for a few sweeteners that the publisher may be willing to grant. Extra comp (complementary) books for the author are certainly one bonus that most of the bigger publishers will be willing to grant in the name of publicity and marketing support. Fifty author copies of the book aren’t unreasonable if you’re with a mainstream press, and you might ask for 100 to 200 advanced reading copies (ARCs). This is a lot and the editor might say no, but then you can explain that you want to send them to reviewers and bookstores, especially where you might be known, or to a group of key readers to generate a buzz.
Along these lines, the publisher might also mail the books for you, if you or your (outside) publicist supply the mailing list. Again, this is what a bigger publisher might do and wouldn’t be the norm with a smaller press (although even small press can be generous with authors’ copies for promotion).
Arranging for certain types of marketing support, even advertising or conference and travel costs to genre events is not unheard of in a contract, although most often, the publisher will simply tell you what you will get and then, not infrequently, renege. If you get the specifics in the contract, you’re more likely to receive the marketing help you’ve been promised.
Also, in the contract, you might ask for a bonus as an additional advance if you sell a certain number of copies within the first year or the book gets on a certain bestseller list. This is considered an additional advance because you don’t have to wait for a royalty check to see the money, which can take a long time.
On the other hand, you don’t want to nickel and dime the publisher at contract time and the house may give you extras anyway. They’ll pay for some ads without your asking, perhaps, make bookmarks or postcards for your book, or will give you overruns of book covers if you ask for them before the print run (these can be used promotionally in various ways). Use a bit of discretion when you negotiate and listen to your agent when she says what you can and should—and what you shouldn’t—request.
Be aware, too, that some publishers are inflexible in their contracts terms, except regarding some of the minor details. Though you can see if you are able to push the envelope, don’t become disagreeable if you can’t. Sometimes we have to accept exactly what’s given.
“I’m flattered by the offer” is about all you can say on the phone or on email when an offer is in the air. Otherwise you’re as good as making a contract without thinking it over or referring it to your agent or attorney. In one case, an author reports she didn’t even know the person saying the publisher wanted to reprint her book was an editor. She knew him as a librarian, but he was, indeed, acting as a contract-making agent of a publisher when he said the house wanted to reprint her earlier novel and what did she think. Wisely, she said she’d have to discuss the matter with her agent. Otherwise, she might have obligated herself to a deal without considering the alternatives. Suppose another imprint wanted the book and wanted to pay more for it at the same time?
A verbal contract works the other way as well. If an editor makes you an offer, that’s a verbal contract, too. That means that even if you don’t see the contract in print until further along in the process (some authors don’t sign the actual contract until the book is nearly ready to be released due to the length of the negotiations and so on), you still have a contract. I’m talking about a mainstream house here, however, as small press can and do behave in oddball ways. While such behavior will catch up with even a small press in short order, I’ve heard stories that would curl your hair and have seen multiple authors caught up in a web of lies and deceit with small press publishers. That’s not inevitable, of course, and many, many small press publishers are honest and above board and would never be anything but.
If an actual offer hasn’t been made, then, of course, the deal can fall apart before the contract stage. That’s why we mostly don’t discuss these things in public until we know the book is sold. Having to say that a sale didn’t work out can be a bit embarrassing.
G. Miki Hayden is the author of the award-winning guide for mystery writers, Writing the Mystery: A Start-to-Finish Guide for Both Novice and Professional, available now from JP&A Dyson.
"Whatever your habitual errors are, punctuation, writing style, or even not understanding what the agents/editors are looking for, if you'd like to correct your flaws, take a class with me at Writer's Digest: https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/. Or for some less-expensive guidance, you might want to download The Naked Writer for your Kindle at Amazon. Yes, I work with clients privately. Find me on Facebook."
G. Miki Hayden always has a new class starting at Writer's Digest. The feedback she gives is personal, thorough, and actionable.
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Some of this month's news for writers from around the web.
theguardian.com – Wednesday December 16, 2020
The journalist Julie Burchill has had a book contract cancelled after her publisher said she “crossed a line” with her Islamophobic comments on Twitter.
Burchill’s publisher, the Hachette imprint Little, Brown, said it had decided not to publish Welcome to the Woke Trials because she had used indefensible language when communicating with the journalist Ash Sarkar.
Writers' Handbook 2021 - Out Now!
theguardian.com – Wednesday December 16, 2020
Six months ago, independent publishers Jacaranda and Knights Of were warning publicly that their income had fallen to almost zero. They weren’t the only small publishers struggling. With bookshops and distributors closing, a survey from the Bookseller at the time found that almost 60% of small publishers feared closure by the autumn. No bookshops meant no knowledgeable, passionate booksellers pressing new books they loved on to customers; no events and no travel meant that crucial avenues for introducing new writers had disappeared.
The stars had been looking very happily aligned for Oneworld in March. The independent publisher had three of its biggest books scheduled for the month – a novel from Women’s prize winner Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow; a new thriller from the bestselling crime author Will Dean, Black River; and Damien Love’s novel for older children, Monstrous Devices. It had printed point-of-sale materials, invested in marketing, advertising, printing.
Then came the first national lockdown. “Silver Sparrow came out on the Thursday and then on the Monday the bookshops shut,” says Juliet Mabey, the publisher whose impeccable taste saw Oneworld win two Booker prizes in a row with novels from Marlon James and Paul Beatty. “It was incredibly frustrating and stressful.”
cleveland.com – Thursday December 10, 2020
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Thanksgiving is gone, the holidays are around the corner, and New Year’s – New Year’s! – is coming soon.
Face it: 2021 cannot get here fast enough.
The year was barely under way when ‘Wuhan’ was added to our geographic lexicon as coronavirus spread its tentacles across the globe. The virus brought illness, deaths, cancellations, shelter-at-home orders and squabbling politicians. It’s going to remain with us for a while, but we can get in one last shot before the year is out.
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A selection of the new listings added to firstwriter.com this month.
firstwriter.com – Friday November 27, 2020
Magazine aimed at children and young adults, publishing original work by children aged 7-13. Submit up to 5 poems or up to 3,000 words of prose.
firstwriter.com – Friday December 11, 2020
Focuses on nonfiction, from food writing to history, popular science, travel and adventure, politics and investigative journalism, the arts and memoir of all kinds.
firstwriter.com – Thursday December 10, 2020
Looking for authentic, unconventional literary voices in fiction, nonfiction and sometimes poetry. Query by email.
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Some of this month's articles for writers from around the web.
publishersweekly.com – Sunday December 13, 2020
It seemed impossible that the acquisition of Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House the day before Thanksgiving could be overshadowed by a bigger industry event, but that is what happened when book publishing’s long-running trade show and convention, most recently known as BookExpo, was canceled. As the buzz about the end of BookExpo has cooled down, industry members continue to digest the news of PRH’s pending purchase of S&S, the nation’s largest and third-largest trade book publishers, respectively.
When the acquisition was announced, the Authors Guild, the American Booksellers Association, and the Association of American Literary Agents (formerly the AAR) all issued statements that were critical of the deal. While each organization had a particular take, all shared one thing in common: they were concerned about the increasing consolidation within trade publishing.
businessinsider.com – Thursday December 10, 2020
At the beginning of 2020, I was half a year out of college and already burned out. I was rejected from dozens of writing jobs, barely published anywhere, and unclear as to what editors were looking for. As a first-generation immigrant, I wasn't sure I could navigate the hurdles of the American publishing world, and I wondered whether writing was a viable career choice at all.
10 months later, I've written for major news outlets including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and have even been signed on to write a book with two literary agencies: Folio in the US and Peony in the UK and Asia.
dailycal.org – Sunday December 6, 2020
I’ve always loved stories. As a child, I would ask everyone I knew, “If you were to write a book, what would it be about?” The people I asked were rarely self-proclaimed storytellers and never writers, but often they would spin stories for me anyways to satisfy this sudden and new curiosity. I would listen to their outlines filled with magic and home and family, and I came to understand that the only distinguishing feature of writers was that they wrote.
I’ve found that nearly everyone has a story sitting within them, waiting to be told. But writing something as long as a novel is a daunting task. Life moves on. It rushes past quickly. Stories die untold, forgotten in the daily motions we follow. The first draft is rarely written.
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