Book Publishing Contracts

Book publishing contracts are crucial to an author's future livelihood, and yet are often signed after a cursory glance. Must be OK, since everyone else has signed the thing. That is not always the case, and a good agent or author's association may be able to get you better than usual terms. At the very least, understand what you're agreeing to, and be wary of terms binding on future productions.

book publishingBook Contract Terms

Publishing contracts are fairly standard and cover such matters as:

Details of the book: format, print run, etc.

Obtaining ISBN and listings in national catalogues

Period the contract holds (years or copies sold)

What happens after contract expires

Supply of galley proofs to author

Copyright issues: who is responsible for checking (often author)

Royalties to author depending on seller (author, publisher through bookstores, bookclubs, subsidiaries, etc.)

When and how royalties are paid

Terms applying to author for copies (no. of free copies, discounts thereafter)

Advances (commonly 1/3 at contract signing, 1/3 on submission of galley proofs and 1/3 on return of proofs)

How MS is submitted to publisher

Cost of unauthorized author changes to galleys ($/hour)

Responsibility for libel, copyright infringement (commonly author, who indemnifies publisher)

Any guarantees regarding copies printed or sold (generally none)

What the publisher will do towards marketing

What the author will do towards marketing

Book Publishing Contracts: Subsidiary Rights

The publisher may wish to use your manuscript in ways other than producing hardcover or paperback print book editions. Print-related subsidiary rights include:

Book club and paperback reprint editions

Publication of selections or abridgments in anthologies and textbooks

First and second serial rights (i.e., publication in newspapers or magazines either before or after publication of the hardcover book)

International publication

Non-print-related subsidiary rights include:

Motion pictures


Stage, audio


Electronic rights


Subsidiary rights may be licensed to a third party, where you will get a share of the licensing fees. The matter is complicated, and you may want to reserve subsidiary rights until you get an agent, or have some experience of working with the publisher.

Book Publishing Contracts: Current Trends

Being brought out by a large publishing house bestows prestige, but not necessarily financial independence or peace of mind. Though technology has made publishing less risky and less costly, the benefits are not being passed on to authors, who find themselves faced increasingly with one-sided agreements.

Many book contracts now:

Do not ensure publication: you consign your earning ability to another, but your book may not appear, even the modest advance being clawed back if the book is sold on to another publisher.

Stipulate that your next MS must be offered, completed, to the same publisher, who need not consider it immediately, can turn it down subsequently, and even change his mind if another publisher takes an interest.

Allow royalties (commonly only 8%) to be cut by half if the publisher sells through a big distributor.

Ditto if the publisher sells the rights to an affiliate.

Dispense with royalties if the publisher decides to make the book into a give-away ebook for publicity purposes.

Require the author bear the costs of any libel suits, whoever is at fault, which the publisher can settle without consulting the author.

Allow that option to be consigned to third parties, who need not defend the action.

Remove last vestiges of author control.

All this turns authors into hard-nosed businessmen. Books of mass appeal must be turned out regularly, and/or additional means of support found, usually reviewing and literary journalism. Many good authors cannot now make a living, and have turned to self publishing, teaching, textbooks, etc.

More information on book publisher's contracts, author's rights and current trends in author-publisher relationships can be found here.

National Writers Union. Provide a guide to book contracts.

Author's Guild. Advice on the book (and other) contracts.

American Society of Journalists and Authors. Many helpful articles.

Rights: What They Mean and Why They're Important. Writing World article.

Contract Issues: Books Published Online. NWU articles.

Writers Forum. Many points of interest discussed.

Never Release Your Rights To Anyone. One of many WritersNet articles.

Publishing without Borders: Strategies for Successful International Publishing. International rights issues.

How To Be Your Own Literary Agent : An Insider's Guide to Getting Your Book Published . Continually revised since 1983 printing.

Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published. Third edition of this popular series: covers the basics well.


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