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Diary of a First-Time Author #9 – The Anatomy of a Publishing Contract

Of course, the aim of all I’ve discussed so far, is to end up with a publishing contract.  And if and when you get one it’s a nice experience, albeit a very confusing one.  So what do contracts contain?

 

Before I start discussing the contract, I want to make something clear.  I am not an expert in understand publishing contracts.  If you aren’t either, then make sure you get someone who does able to advise and negotiate for you.  Hopefully this’ll be an agent but, if not, then it may be time to find a lawyer.  But, in any case, make sure you get good advice on what you’re signing up to.

 

Bear in mind too that, if you do have an agent, you might find that a lot of the contract negotiation process passes you by as the agent discusses terms with the publishers and you’re left out of the loop somewhat.  You’ll know early on what sort of advance you’re being offered but you might not hear much else until the contract’s agreed – potentially several weeks later.  You will need to take your own view and how much you want to chase things and find out what’s going on.  Personally I decided to trust that my agent knew what he was doing and let him get on with it and tell me when things were agreed but I’m sure several other people might want to be more hands-on – as might I in the future if I understand the process better!  But patience is useful here.

 

Every contract is going to be a little different but I’ll try to answer some of the basic questions from a writer’s perspective in Q and A form.

 

a)   What’s an advance?

 

An advance is an amount of money the publisher offers you to secure the book.  It’s called an advance as publishers treat it as part of your future royalties (i.e. the money you get paid for book sales).  So, if you get an advance of, say, £10, 000, the publisher won’t pay you any more money for sales until you’re owed more than £10l 000.

 

With a non-fiction book, the advance usually comes in three stages.  You get part of it on signing, a part of it when you submit the manuscript and part of it when the book gets published.

 

Bear in mind that, particularly in big publishing companies, the advance needs to be processed and signed off by a few different departments at each stage – so it can take a couple of weeks after each of these milestones for the money to land in your account – it’s best not to plan your finances on the basis that you’ll get the money the second the contract gets signed!

 

Also remember that your advance is treated as a form of income – i.e. you will need to register as self-employed and pay tax on it.  Forgetting that could land you with a big bill later!

 

b)   So will there be an advance?

 

I certainly hope so!  If there’s a bidding war then there’ll definitely be an advance and it could get rather high.  If not, there’ll be a slightly more modest amount of money.  For Bad Santas I received roughly the equivalent of a few months’ salary for the job I had at the time – and, as that job was not very secure, I did in fact quit and very much treat the advance like a salary that enabled me to go to work as a writer every day.

 

If you’re not being offered an advance, then it raises questions about the resources the publisher has available and how confident they feel about your book.  Whether you should proceed probably depends on whether you think you can get interest elsewhere and how desperate you are to be published.  If you’re going to write the book anyway then it won’t do any harm.  If you’re trying to write it to make a living you should maybe consider pitching other ideas.  Never ever pay money to be published.  If someone’s asking you to do that, they’re either running a scam or a pretty crummy business but, either way, it’s unlikely they’ll have the money or the will to promote your work.

 

 

  c)   How much do I get paid per book?

 

A % of the recommended retail price  This might be graded in stages – so 10% for the first x copies, 12.5% for the next x copies and so forth.

 

d)   What happens if I don’t finish the book, or the book doesn’t get published?

 

If you don’t complete the book then you’ll probably have to pay back the initial advance that the publisher paid you.  The second payment is subject to submitting the book along the lines of the proposal you made to the publisher.  As long as you submit something that follows the theme, argument and chapter structure then, once you’ve submitted that, your first part of the advance is safe and you get the second par of the advance too.  If the book doesn’t get published then you keep the first two parts of the advance but won’t get the third part.  Which is a good reason to ensure you make what you submit as good as possible!

 

e)   How long will the book need to be?

 

The publisher should discuss this with you and, if not, then the contract will state a number.  A non-fiction book’ll probably be 50, 000 to 100, 000 words depending on the subject.

 

 

I realise that this is very brief and there are many more questions but most of them will depend on the individual contract.  If you do have a general question, feel free to ask me and I’ll answer it as best I can but bear in mind I am no expert here!

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Diary of a First-Time Author #7 – “And now we play the waiting game…”

“Aaah, the waiting game sucks.  Let’s play Hungry, Hungry Hippos” – Homer J Simpson

So let’s say you’ve submitted your proposal – or manuscript but I’m sticking with the idea we’re dealing with non-fiction for now – to an agent and the agent likes it.  They’ll probably ask to meet you and, if it all goes well, they’ll hopefully offer you a contract.

 

I won’t go into that contract too much – though I will talk a bit more about the publishing contract later – but the important thing is your agent will get paid via a commission on your earnings.  This generally around 15% + VAT  (i.e. 18.5%) of your earnings in the UK and 20% of your earnings abroad.  There are two good things about this

 

a) You don’t need to pay an agent anything unless you earn money, which means that, aside from the possibility of the agent not managing to sell your work which means there’s no risk of actual financial loss.  (If you do come across an agent or publisher who wants money up-front or to ‘split production costs’, alarm bells should be ringing very, very loudly.

 

b) Your agent needs to sell your work in order to make any money.  If nothing else, this should be a big boost to your confidence – an agent would not be spending time working with you unless they expect to make you both money as a result!  It also means that you can be confident your agent is motivated to get you a very good deal because it’s in their interest to do so!

 

Your agent will so ask you to indemnify them against any potential lawsuits for copyright infringement (which is to say that, if you plagiarise someone’s work, it’s you rather than the agent who will carry the cost for that).  This is a standard clause though it can be very scary to read!

 

I would also expect the agent to suggest some re-writes.  Of course, I appreciate that you are an artist and your book is your baby and that it’s a violation of your principles to start butchering your masterpiece in order to sate commercial needs.  However I would advise you to be open and consider every suggestion very carefully, whether its from an agent, publisher, proofreader or whoever.

 

If you do, I suspect you’ll find that – in the vast majority of cases – they have identified a genuine problem or weakness, even if the solution they suggest is not the one you would have gone with.  In these circumstances, I’d always suggest changing it to your option and then emailing back explaining your reasoning.  If you genuinely believe that their suggestion is outright wrong and nothing needs to be changed, I’d again draft an email explaining that but – before sending – I’d then read that email again (perhaps a few hours later or the following day) and make sure your reason is genuinely a really good one.  But the important thing is never ever kid yourself that you’re a genius whose work can’t possibly improved.  Personally I suspect that a lot of times, when a writer or film director gains critical acclaim through brilliant early work but then peters out into mediocrity or worse, then it’s often because they’ve stopped listening to the voices telling them how to make things better…

 

But anyway, let’s suppose you do your re-writes and the agent is happy and starts to send the proposal to publishers.  At this point, what should you expect?

 

Probably, in reality, a period of extended silence punctuated by the odd emailed update from the agent.  Perhaps you’ll get an email saying a publisher has shown an initial interest and wants to see the proposal.  Perhaps you’ll then get another email a few weeks later saying the publisher has decided not to take it any further.  Don’t get too downhearted by this – bear in mind that, at this point, there’s money involved and reasons for people not taking a book can be as much to do with what the publishers think they can successfully sell as much as questions of quality.

 

Nonetheless it can be disheartening and the wait can seem endless.  But hopefully, before too long, you’ll get the message that a publisher is interested and wants to meet you.  This is where things start to get interesting…

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