How To Negotiate A Better Writing Contract - An author sits across from a publisher, asking a question.

How To Negotiate A Better Writing Contract

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There are many glamorous, romantic problems associated with being a writer. Less glamorous are the problems that assail those of us who write professionally: making enough money to put food on the table, negotiating writing contracts and, for the novelists among us, negotiating good book deals. These are dull, real-world problems with which writers often lack any useful experience.

But no more! I’ll be talking today about how to ensure you don’t get walked all over when it comes to negotiating writing contracts. Whether you’re a freelancer struggling to quote clients or a novelist about to sign a book deal, here’s what you need to know.

Negotiating a writing contract is an essential skill for the modern author.Click To Tweet

Communication

Negotiation is, at the end of the day, all about communication. You’re trying to get your point across and win someone over to your way of thinking, and the other person is doing the same. You need to find common ground and, despite what leagues of cunning businessmen will tell you, directness is often the best option.

Why? Because directness shows confidence, professionalism, and security. It proves you’re used to negotiating with clients and that you’re confident in both the legitimacy of your services and your own self-worth. This might seem obvious, but all too often, eager writers respond to potential clients like this:

Hi Sharon,

Thanks so much for your message, I’m glad you’re interested in my services. From your email, it sounds like you’re after a [service]. I feel like [proposed job] might be best suited for [particular service]. I normally charge between [rate] and [rate] for this kind of work, though we can talk more about this once I know more about your project. I hope this all sounds OK!

Best,
Johnny ‘the Doormat’ Writerman

As you’ve probably gathered, Johnny Doormat’s really blown it with this email – far from being direct and confident, he’s invited clients to tear down his suggested rate and dictate the terms of the job by coming across as sycophantically nice and overly eager.

Instead, be polite, professional, and direct. Cut the ‘minimizing language’ – the ‘it sounds like’, ‘I feel like’, ‘might be best suited’, ‘normally’, ‘hope this all sounds OK!’ It all makes you sound unsure. Instead, Johnny would have done better with the concise, confident:

Hi Sharon,

Thanks for your message. Based on your proposal and [variables], my rate would be between [rate] and [rate] and, assuming the preliminaries aren’t too extensive, I’d estimate the turnaround time to be around [period]. Please let me know how you’d like to proceed.

Best,
Johnny ‘the Professional’ Writerman

As you can see, all the wishy-washy minimizing language has been cut. The result is a message that, while polite, is firm, confident, and assertive – exactly the characteristics clients want and expect from their professionals.

Don’t undercut your book contract negotiation with minimizing language.Click To Tweet

The contract itself

Of course, communication is just the buildup; it’s the contract that’s important here. The contract is what cements the terms of your work – your rate, the turnaround time, the methods of payment and delivery, the details of what your client can expect when the work is finished, any return/refund process in case of an unhappy client, etc. It’s important that both parties are happy with the binding contract and that the terms are clear to both parties.

A big mistake writers and clients alike make when it comes to negotiating contracts is to let time pass. Time solidifies terms – if you’ve got a problem with a specific clause, you’d better say so quickly. You’re in the strongest negotiating position early on, before you’ve signed anything and when the deal is still in the air. Neither party knows whether the other party will walk away if they don’t get what they want, and this uncertainty is a powerful tool.

If you do come to an impasse, try to be creative when negotiating your way past it. If you’re unwilling to budge on, say, your flat rate, try throwing in an incentive or an extra to sweeten the deal (a redraft, for example, or free taglines). Or, if your client is unwilling to pay more than a certain amount, see whether they can offer you something else on top: the promise of more stable work, for example, or free advertising/endorsements on their website.

Time solidifies contracts – if you have a problem, speak up immediately.Click To Tweet

The takeaway here is that it’s important for both parties to feel like they’re slick negotiators. This is why savvy negotiators tend to start high when quoting rates/prices – they’re not really expecting to be accepted, but they’re allowing the client to haggle them down and thus feel like they’re getting their way.

Book deals

Of course, not all writers are dealing with clients. Some are novelists or authors who’ve snagged the holy grail: a book deal. The temptation, understandably, is to jump for joy and sign every piece of paper thrust under your nose. But slow down there, cowboy – it’s important to know what you’re signing away, especially as you have a say in it.

As I’ve already mentioned, you’re in your strongest position early on. This means that you should keep your poker face on – no ‘OMG OMG OMG THANKYOU!’ emails, for example. You want the publisher to think that you have better offers – that you could walk away with scarcely a goodbye.

There are eight key negotiable aspects of book deals to look out for when negotiating contracts. These are vital to understand, and can help you avoid a bad deal or, worse, a straight-up scam. They are:

Advance and payout

Or, specifically, how much and when. Some publishing houses, while honest about the total amount you’ll receive, will try to give it to you in drips and drabs over the course of several years. Maybe you’re OK with this; maybe not. Also, you can negotiate for a higher advance. If you’re slightly famous in that bizarre 2019 way (you’re an Instagram influencer, perhaps), if you have an active website or blog, if you’ve got a whole lotta names on your email list, or if you’re wiling to spend money on marketing independently, you can absolutely push for more cash.

Rights

This is a big one. J.K. Rowling famously kept a number of the rights to the Harry Potter franchise, which means she got grotesquely wealthy on the backs of the Harry Potter films. She had to actively negotiate to keep those rights – it’s often assumed in book contracts that you’re happy handing them all over. These rights include the right to reprint in different formats/places, the right to license the reprinting/reformatting rights to other subsidiary companies, international publication and translation rights, ebook rights, film rights, TV rights, audio rights, etc. If you are happy giving away these rights, make sure you understand your share of proceeds for any films/series/reprints etc. that pop up.

Your book royalties

This is typically a percentage – i.e. you’ll earn 10 percent of each paperback sold. Look out for ‘net earnings’, an increasingly common practice in publishing houses; this means the publisher will factor in actual sale price rather that recommended retail price when working out your cut. So, if your book’s on sale for $5 instead of $10, you’ll only get 10 percent of $5. Maybe this is a deal breaker for you, maybe not.

Format

How your book is going to be published. Will there be a hardback run? Mass-market paperbacks? Ebook only? Pin them down.

Approval/consultation

If you push for this early enough, you can have an approval clause added into the contract. This means that the publisher must make reasonable efforts to consult you on things like final title, cover design, etc.

Author obligations

The growth of ‘hybrid publishers’ in the US means you have to be wary of obligations. Hybrid publishers typically only cover part of the publication cost and require writers to contribute in some way; maybe they’ll deduct publication fees from your advance, maybe you’ll be obliged to purchase a given number of your own books, or maybe you’ll be responsible for marketing. Either way, it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

Publicity obligations

You might be contracted to go on a book tour post-publication or, if you’re really successful, to go on talk shows/radio shows in order to advertise your book. This happened (rather deliciously) to Jonathan Franzen, who’s famously anti-self-promotion, after the publication of The Corrections. Don’t get caught in the same trap!

Creative restrictions

Some publishing houses will try to throw some pretty heavy restrictions at writers regarding their creative output pre- and post-publication. This could be as simple as exclusivity rights – that is, you’d be barred from publishing with other publishing houses – or as bizarre as disallowing you to blog independently or contribute to websites/magazines (it has happened! There are some real horror stories out there). If you find these, root them out and put those negotiation chops to good use.

Never assume what’s in a book contract – you could be agreeing to limit your visibility or change your title.Click To Tweet

Let’s get down to business

So there it is. As we’ve seen, negotiating fair contracts and book deals needn’t be scary – you just need to keep your wits about you, be patient, and keep a clear head. Don’t sell yourself short and don’t get over-excited. Remember, your services/books are great, and your client/publisher would be lucky to have them. Silence the self-doubt, quash the impostor syndrome, and get down to business.

Do you find negotiation difficult? What great tips do you think I’ve missed out? Let me know in the comments, and check out Why You Need To Take Yourself Seriously As An Author and 5 Things You Need To Know Before Pitching Your Book for more great advice on this topic.

2 thoughts on “How To Negotiate A Better Writing Contract”

  1. Hi Fred thanks for the very insightful article. This is especially useful to me as I’m in the throes of signing a book publishing contract. You mention 10% royalties for paperback being standard; what are your thoughts on royalties for eBook versions converted/formatted by the publisher? Thanks so much!

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