Nobody Gets What They’re Worth

January 14, 2021 § 10 Comments


Emrys Fleet, ratcatcher and master negotiator

Years ago, I sat backstage at a Renaissance Festival, hot and sweaty after eating fire in the Florida sun. (What really sucks? Fire is harder to see in bright light, so I’d endangered my life to look less impressive than usual.) My partner and I were talking contracts with a more experienced performer (this guy). We were going to ask for more money. I said doubtfully, “I know the management is pretty cheap, but I think we’re worth it?”

Our wiser friend replied, “Nobody gets what they’re worth. You get what you negotiate.”

That saying stuck with me. Bad deals come from bad negotiation—not one’s inherent worth. Good deals reflect the writer and their agent’s negotiating skills as much as the quality of the book. (Good writing gets you in the door; good deals come from negotiation).

For writers, negotiating with a publisher can feel like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But a publishing contract isn’t a gift, it’s a deal. Professional, courteous negotiation doesn’t upset legitimate businesspeople. Anyone getting shirty when you ask for explanations or push back on terms is waving a huge red flag. Trust is for your mother. (Or not, as per many memoirs.)

When you receive your publishing contract, what can you (or your agent) negotiate?

Royalties. Standard royalties are 10-15%. Especially if your advance is smaller, you may be able to do better, perhaps as much as 25% on print books. Even if they won’t shift on print, you could get a higher percentage on ebooks. The standard is 25%, but I’ve seen authors get as much as 50%.

Royalties can also include an “escalator” clause: sell more books, get more money. I arranged an escalator clause for one of the first plays I published: my royalties jumped 5% every 5000 copies sold, topping out at 25%. When I signed, it was an ambitious dream. Twenty years later, the play is still in print.

Subsidiary Rights. Publishers hope to buy worldwide rights, then sell your book to foreign publishers, for which you get royalties. But if your agent sells those rights (or you do, but that’s a longer shot), you’ll deal directly with the overseas publisher and keep a chunk of middleman money. If your publisher retains foreign rights, negotiate for an expiration date. If they have bigger-deal books to focus on and yours goes unsold, you’ll want those rights back for when the opportunity arises to sell them yourself.

You may not be able to keep your audio rights, but you could get the right to audition or even a guaranteed right to be the narrator. (Many authors are terrible narrators; choose wisely!) Audio books could also be at higher royalties than print.

Film rights should always be retained (you never know!). All rights “not named” should be reserved for you, and that’s worth fighting for. Maybe your book will never be a calendar…but it might.

Marketing. In these days of mostly author-driven publicity, it’s more important than ever to get free print and electronic copies. Find out if the publisher uses NetGalley for bloggers, reviewers and the media—can you give your PR list? If you speak at conferences or events, how many copies can you buy for resale, and at what price? First-time authors are unlikely to get cover approval, but you can ask for input.

Process. How long does the publisher have for editorial feedback? What are your deadlines? When will you do last-minute corrections, and will they bill you past a certain number of errors?

Options. Do they have first dibs on the next book you write? If there’s a non-compete clause, negotiate to cover only books “substantially similar and directly competitive,” or you might find yourself unable to sell your next book to another publisher or even self-publish.

Most contracts have flexibility, and it’s always worth negotiating for a better deal. All contracts have unchangeable language about definitions and jurisdiction, but boilerplate rights and financial terms are often sweeping. Like pricing your house 30% above market: maybe someone will pull up with a dump truck full of cash, or maybe you’ll negotiate. Most clauses about money, editing, the actual publishing process, marketing and timelines can be tweaked, or at the very least, fully explained.

If you’re working with a hybrid press, that’s not a publishing deal. You are purchasing a package of services. No matter what they tell you, the costs of publishing your book and their expected minimum profit come from your money. An offer of 50% “royalties” means “As you work to sell your book, we will claim an additional half of your profits.” Make sure your contract specifies what they provide in return. Keep all subsidiary rights. They aren’t going to sell them for you, and if a movie deal drops in your lap, well, you already paid the publisher.

If you’re un-agented, you can negotiate yourself, hire a literary-specific attorney, or take advantage of the Author’s Guild’s legal review services for members (a total bargain! Join here). But you’re allowed to negotiate. You’re not rude or pushy or showing ignorance by asking for an explanation, doing some research and/or talking to your agent, and proposing a better deal. Even after negotiation, you may not get what you’re worth.

Then again? You might get more.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her Friday January 22nd for This Is the Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal Setting for Your 2021 Writing Life in which she will not once say “write every day.”

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