Some small and independent publishers will refuse to negotiate an unagented publishing agreement, and first-time novelists often back down immediately, fearing the publishing offer will be withdrawn. Other publishers may respond to a modification request by stating: “That’s a standard clause.” The implication, of course, is that you’re too green to understand industry standards, and further you don’t yet have the stature to warrant special treatment.
But “standard” doesn’t have to mean “acceptable,” and if you have done your homework – there are dozens of good resources on the web — you DO know the difference. Concentrate on the key terms:
- Grant of rights (What rights are being reserved by the author? Foreign? Electronic? Audio? Film and Television?)
- Term and Termination (who can terminate; under what circumstances? What constitutes breach?)
- Manuscript Acceptance (Right of revision? Time frame?)
- Publication Date (how long?)
- Royalties (what percentage; how calculated — list price or net receipts? Escalations? Licensing income?)
- Accounting and Audit provisions (are they fair?)
- Representations and Warranties (are they fair?)
- Out of Print clause (how is it defined; when do rights revert?)
- Option clause (should it be deleted?)
Prioritize your revisions; you can use the less-important changes as bargaining chips. It’s okay to take it slow with negotiations and go back and forth several times until you’re completely satisfied with the contract. Don’t feel pressured into signing something you’re not comfortable with just because you’re worried the publisher will see you as disagreeable. Even if they don’t say so, publishers respect authors who know their own worth. Of course, it is possible to go too far – it should be a friendly negotiation, not a war. Both sides will need to compromise, and there should be a happy medium between being a pushover and being a pain.
Many authors look no further than the numbers on the advance and royalty rates. Of course those are important, but you have to think long-term and imagine what your interests will be not only next year, but five or ten years from now, too. Although very rare, some first novels do become bestsellers. If you were so delighted that a publisher accepted it you didn’t pay attention to who controlled the film rights, foreign rights, or merchandising rights, wouldn’t you be furious with yourself?
Keep in mind that once you’ve been offered a contract, you’re the one with power. The publisher wants your novel. It’s unlikely a publisher would take back an offer because you wish to fix the wording of an out-of-print clause, delete an option clause, retain film rights, or add an audit clause. But if you find the publisher will not agree on a point you think is critical, it may be better for you to walk away and find a different publisher. Just as you should never “settle” on a spouse, neither should you settle on a publishing agreement that doesn’t make you happy.