Behind the Curtain, Part 4: The Contract

In the Behind the Curtain series, we’ve discussed writing your manuscript, pitching it, and getting accepted.

What happens next?

This is the part where things start getting really mysterious. Even writers who’ve honed their craft for years often have absolutely no idea what happens on the business end of things, or what happens behind the scenes once that all-important acceptance letter has gone out. In fact, this is the whole reason we’re doing the Behind the Curtain series – because even the savviest authors often seem to blink owlishly and sometimes hide their heads in the sand and engage in various other avian metaphors when confronted with the back end of the whole “publishing” thing.

After you get your acceptance letter, what happens?

It depends on the publisher, but in almost all cases, your acceptance letter is going to be followed up with a contract and/or a packet of legal and financial paperwork for you to complete. You will probably have revisions to do, but we’ll get to that in a later installment. Right now, let’s deal with the big scary beast – the contract.

Before your publisher will start work with you on your book, you’ll need to sign the contract. This is an agreement that spells out what your obligations are, what the publisher’s obligations are, what each of you stands to gain financially, and how you can terminate the agreement. Publishing contracts are pretty standard, although certain clauses differ from house to house, and from format to format.

You must always read through the entire contract, word by word. Never ever skim a contract. You’re signing away the rights to your creation here, remember? You need to understand what you’re giving up, how you will be compensated for it, and what rights you’re retaining. If you don’t like anything in the contract, speak up (or have your agent do it, if you have one). Clauses can often be rewritten. Look out for yourself and your creation; no one else is going to do it for you.

So…what are you looking for when you’re looking through that contract? We’ll go through the major clauses of the Candlemark & Gleam contract as an example.

Section I. Publishing Rights

This section lists out what rights you’re assigning to the publisher. That is, it spells out what formats you have agreed to let the company publish your book in. This might be hardback, paperback, mass-market paperback, electronic, audio, or any combination of the above. Make sure you know what rights you’re selling; you can sell other rights later, to other publishers – translation rights, foreign sales, audio rights, and others are often lucrative “subsidiary rights” for a successful title.

Standard wording on this section often looks like this:

AUTHOR agrees to grant to PUBLISHER, its successors and assigns, the exclusive worldwide English language rights to publish and sell the WORK, its revisions and supplements, and any adaptation, excerpt, digest or translation or collective work thereof based on or including the WORK in any of the following indicated formats:

Section II. Length of Contract

Does what it says on the tin. At most large publishing houses, the contract is in effect in perpetuity, or for the duration of the author’s life plus 90 years or some such thing. Smaller publishing houses often have a set duration on the contract – for instance, three years.

Candlemark & Gleam does the latter. We offer three-year standard contracts, based on the theory that if we do a good job, you’ll want to re-up your contract with us at the end…but if you’re dissatisfied, we don’t want to force you to stick around.

Section III. Termination of Contract

Again, pretty straightforward. This spells out how a contract is ended – if you’re dissatisfied, if the publisher wants out, whatever. In most cases, a contract can be bought out before its termination time, if you offer a reasonable sum to cover the expenses of bringing your book out, plus a consideration for profit.

Why would that happen? Say you write a breakout hit and a huge New York publishing house wants to pick you up. They can buy out your contract with a smaller publisher and print a new edition of your book themselves.

With a fixed-duration contract like Candlemark & Gleam’s, the end of the contract is spelled out very clearly. At the end of three years, the contract renews automatically on a monthly basis; either author or publisher can end the auto-renew in writing with 30 days’ notice.

Section IV. Author Warrantees

This is a big ol’ scary-looking section that is actually very simple. All the bullet points and whatnot in the Warantees section simply boil down to this: You’re promising that you’re the author of the story, that you didn’t steal it from anyone, and that no one else owns the rights to publish it. If any of that isn’t true, you need to fess up now, before you get into a whole heapin’ helpin’ of legal trouble.

Section V. Copyright Ownership

This is sometimes lumped together with Copyright Registration, sometimes not. In some cases, the publisher will register and retain the copyright; in other cases, the publisher will leave it up to you, the author, to register your copyright.

You should always be the owner of your copyright; if you’re not, the publisher can do what they like with your work and your heirs won’t stand to profit from it after you’re gone.

Please keep in mind, though, that copyright registration is another beast. Your copyright automatically belongs to you the instant you put words down on paper. You do not have to file for a registration or pay a fee in order to have copyright on your work. However, paying the official registration fee ($45) and lodging an official copy with the Copyright Office ensures that you’ve got proper legal standing in case a court case ever arises. It’s a cheap insurance policy.

Section VII. ISBN

An ISBN is a number that identifies your unique book so that it can be tracked and sold more easily. It’s not strictly necessary for many publishing applications, but it’s so standard that  you should really have one. The publisher should pay for and assign that ISBN; you should not be paying for it yourself. This is one of the major differences between vanity publishing and small-press publishing – vanity publishers make you pay for things like ISBNs, editing, etc., while small presses do it for you, just like at a Big Six house.

Section VIII. Selling Price

Publisher gets to set it. Period.

Section IX. Royalty Commissions and Advances

Yeah, I know, this is the part you really wanted to know about. But we’re only going to skim over it for the moment; a longer post will tackle the subject in more depth later.

Royalties vary greatly between publishers, and advances even more so. At large publishing houses, advances are usually in the thousand-and-up range. At small presses, advances range from nonexistant to a few hundred bucks. The amount will be spelled out here.

Royalties will also be spelled out, and you should be careful to check what the royalties are based on. Are they net sales, net profit, cover price…what? How are they calculated?

Cover price means you’re getting a set percentage of the listed cover price of your book. It’s usually a lower percentage of a higher number.

Net sales means you’re getting a set percentage of the actual money received for the book, after discounts and fees are applied. So if Amazon discounts your book from a cover price of $10 to a sale price of $8, you’re getting royalties on that $8. If Apple takes a 30% cut of sales and remits 70% to the publisher, you’re getting royalties on that 70%. This is usually a higher percentage of a lower number than cover price; the two actually tend to work out about the same in most cases. It’s just a matter of how the publisher is calculating things.

Net profit means you’re getting a set percentage of…something. It might be of the actual money received for the book (after discounts and fees), same as net sales. It might mean that the publisher is taking some money for operating expenses before giving you your cut. You need to find out exactly how “net profit” agreements are calculated before agreeing to this sort of deal.

Section X. Royalty Payment Schedule and Statements

In addition to seeing how your royalties are calculated, you’ll also need to check and see when and how royalties are paid. Is it yearly, quarterly, or monthly? Any of these is acceptable – and normal in the industry. It just determines how often you’re going to see a check.

Section XI. Editing

The publisher should provide editing. Period. Any “publisher” that wants you to hire an outside editor after they’ve accepted your manuscript is a vanity publisher out for your money.

You will almost undoubtedly be required to work with an editor, doing revisions and polishing the manuscript. No matter how many rewrites you’ve done before, there will probably be 3-4 more. Get used to it. You can stand your ground on major rewrites (any of which should have been mentioned in your acceptance letter; if you really don’t like the suggestions, you can turn down the contract then), but things like consistency and clarity? Just let the editor do what they do, eh?

Section XII. Preparation of Manuscript

You work with the editor. You get your revisions back to the company within a specified timeframe. Simple.

Section XIII. Title

This will almost always be the title you decided on, unless it happens to be eerily close to another book, so close it would make it impossible to sell your book.

Section XIV. Cover Art

The publisher should provide this, but you should get input.

Section XV. Formatting

The publisher takes your manuscript and turns it into a book, complete with pretty layout and formatting.

Section XVI. Author’s Name or Pseudonym

You should retain the rights to your name and/or pseudonym. Period.

Section XVII. Author’s Creations and Future Works

You should own the rights to your characters, worlds, and creations, both on this book and any others you create in the future.

However, publishers will often include a clause giving them right of first refusal to any sequels you write. This means that, if you write a sequel, you have to offer this publisher the rights to it before you can go to anyone else. Only if they reject the sequel can you go courting other publishers.

Section XVIII. Publisher’s Name and Trademark

Your name and pseudonym belong to you; the publisher’s name and trademark belongs to it. Done.

Section XIX. Author’s Biographical Information and Book Cover Blurb

You will  need to provide a bio, sample book blurb, back jacket text/promo material, etc. to the publisher. It might be edited or even rewritten, but you’ll have to provide a starting place.

Section XX. Promotion and Promotional Materials

This spells out what you can expect to get in terms of free copies of your book – a certain number of free copies, and usually an author discount for copies beyond that.

It also states, in general terms, how the publisher will promote your book.

Section XXI. Author/Publisher Indemnification

The author and the publisher agree not to sue the pants off each other unless it’s really, really warranted.

Section XXIII. General Reversion of Rights

If the publisher doesn’t put your book out as agreed, rights go back to you.

Section XIV. Copyright Infringement

If someone claims you infringed their copyright, the publisher is not legally bound to sue on your behalf, or to defend you. You guaranteed up in the Author Warrantees that you owned the rights, after all…

Section XXV. Laws and Venue

This section sets out what state’s jurisdiction the contract is made under; it’s the state the publisher is based in.

Section XXVI. Understanding of All Parties

Translated, this section simply says that you understand everything that’s written above, and agree to it.

Section XXVII. Signatures

Sign this puppy and begin your publishing odyssey in earnest!

So…that’s a publishing contract, laid out and diagrammed. Any questions?

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  • Patti

    I really hope your contract says “heapin’ helpin’ of legal trouble” somewhere in it. : D

  • Patti

    I really hope your contract says “heapin’ helpin’ of legal trouble” somewhere in it. : D

  • Kate

    It was tempting, but professionalism won out.

  • Kate

    It was tempting, but professionalism won out.