Publishing Contract: Guidelines You Need To Know

Doing well with nano today, but then 3K words later, *puff* my energy is gone. So I thought I’d share another learning from the recent writing con I went to.

I’m a tad lazy and since I’ve no experience here myself, I’m just going to type up the hand-outs they gave us. This was a workshop on publishing contracts, ran by Michael Capobianco (former president of SFWA) and A.C Crispin.

Below are some guidelines you may want to be familiar with before you sign your soul away. This was put together by Jane Jewell, the current president of SFWA. Those fortunate enough to get to that stage, I hope you find this useful; the rest of us, keep this with you for that time when you get to that stage :)

(I’ve a bunch of notes as well, mostly examples. You can ask me questions and I’ll try to find the answers for you. If you know more or have had experience dealing with publishing contracts, please feel free to share here so all of us can learn too. Thanks!)


1. Everything in a contract is negotiable

A publisher will offer you a “boiler plate” or “standard template” contract, which is highly favourable to the publisher. You can change some of the provisions, others can be changed only by an established author. But there’s a lot you can make better for yourself, even on a first book sale.


2. Both the author and the publisher have obligations under a contract

You agree to deliver a work of a certain length by a certain date, the publisher agrees to make payments within a specific time and inform you if a book goes out of print. You are as much within your rights to insist on timely payment as the publisher is to ask you to meet your deadlines.


3. The author is the owner of the work

You, not the publisher, own your book. A publishing contract licenses the publisher to print, publish and distribute your work for a specified term. The conditions under which that license terminates should be spelled out unambiguously, preferably with a definite end date. There should be a contract clause stating that copyright is registered in your name, not the publisher’s, not even jointly in both.


4. Under law, the author retains all rights not specifically licensed to the publisher

Your contract should have a clause explicitly stating this. Do not agree to a clause giving the publisher a broad set of unspecified rights, rights ‘for media yet to be invested’, or rights for length of the copyright.


5. The editor is working for the publisher, not you

S/he may also be your friend and really like your book, but when a contract is under negotiation, you must expect her/him to act for the benefit of the employer. S/he may be under orders to offer you a lowball advance. On your second book, s/he may claim that the first one sold poorly even if final sales figures aren’t in. If you trust the editor implicitly, you’re making the same mistake as assuming that a real estate agent is more interested in helping you than in getting a good commission.


6. Certain rates and terms are traditional in the publishing business. You need to know what those are.

Asking for a higher royalty rate, or a higher percentage of subrights, is perfectly OK, but you need to be aware of how far these can ordinarily be stretched. Accepting too little will brand you as an easy mark, asking for too much might kill the deal outright. Some may be easily changed clauses (such as the number of free copies you get) but some may be notorious deal-breakers (such as trying to hold onto book club rights).


7. Don’t expect extraordinary privileges unless you have a publishing sales record to justify them.

Stephen King can (if he wants it) get approval of the cover art for his books, you almost certainly cannot (unless you’re a well-known artist). Likewise, don’t expect to have any say as to the advertising campaign, the choice of type face, the size of the first printing, etc. unless you can demonstrate specific expertise and a proven track record in those areas. This is especially true for your first book.

PS. I asked some questions about illustrated novels here, since I’m thinking of selling mine as one. For those interested to know more, I have some notes on that, if I don’t know the answer, I will find out. We can learn about it together :)


8. Don’t get contract advice from someone unfamiliar with the publishing field.

Publishing is a specialised field with a long history, and publishing contracts reflect this. Don’t expect your real estate or divorce lawyer to know the ins and outs of publishing contracts, you’re just going to make the whole process much more painful for everybody concerned, and probably won’t get any better deal than if you’d done it without a lawyer. You don’t need a lawyer to go over your contract, but if you must, get one with publishing expertise or better yet, a good agent.


*These guidelines are for standard contracts from established major and small press paying publishers (such as Random House or Wildside) not for self-publishing, POD (Print on Demand) or vanity press. For self-publishing, try POD such as or –you can get 3 or 300 copies or more in two weeks for $2-$12 each within minimal setup costs (about $100) POD is evolving rapidly and prices vary widely, so check carefully before signing up.

There you go. Hope you find this useful. Happy writing, peeps.


  1. says

    For a lawyer who know something about contracts and publishing, you can check The Passive Voice – Passive Guy came out of retirement to help authors with their publishing contracts.
    About POD: the 3 main ones are Lulu, CreateSpace (Amazon) and Lightning Source. I use Lulu because it’s international and handles European formats. There are no minimun orders or start-up feest, if you don’t want a copy, just make it public and sell it on the marketplace. CreateSpace is very good for North Americans and Lightning Source is the most expensive.
    Hope this helps! :-)

    • fkurni says

      Thanks, Barb! Very useful information. And I still have to send you Part V. Been interrupted by nano, but will get back to fixing it soon :)

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