Putting Out a Contract

At the core of every publishing project is the author contract. Here are some more tips from Tom Woll, author of Publishing for Profit, a book I’ve been reviewing serially over the past few months.

* Handling Multi-Author Contracts. Woll says, “I have been involved in too many contracts in which . . . the joint relationship between . . . authors has become strained or broken down entirely” (p. 132). No one takes responsibility, or each author tells you something different. If an agent is involved, that can help—or make it more complicated. The publisher “must know precisely who has the final contractual authority [and] . . . can provide definitive, legally binding solutions.”

* What About Undelivered Manuscripts? Woll offers several options.
1. Include a late clause in the contract that stipulates a declining amount of advance due on delivery or publication depending on how late the manuscript is delivered.
2. If it is never delivered, of course, exercise the clause in the contract that calls for the author to pay back the advance.
3. Often authors have already spent their advance. So another alternative is to include a clause in the contract that says if publisher and author agree to cancel the contract for nondelivery, the author will repay the advance upon sale of the work to a different publisher.

* The Problem of Returns. Many publishing contracts allow for a royalty reserve for potential returns. The reality is, however, that a book’s return rate declines as time passes. Instead of a flat percent, Woll recommends a sliding scale: a higher rate the first year, a lower rate the next year and a lower rate still thereafter. Authors and agents, in his experience, are fine with this system since it reflects the reality of the marketplace. “Some mass-market publishers withhold 60% for the first few royalty periods, which tells you the state of that market” (p. 140).

I recommend an annual review and (if needed) revision of your standard author contracts for new projects. That one you’ve been using since the 1930s (or 1990s) probably won’t do the trick. The publishing world changes constantly, and you learn things constantly. Contracts should reflect that.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.