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The Road Less Traveled: Money and Contracts

Your book has been accepted by a publisher. The hard work's over!

Well, no. You've pretty much just entered the Twilight Zone and that means dealing with contracts.

But what kind of contract you get depends on the publisher you're negotiating with, and you need to set your expectations accordingly.

I was actually going to talk a bit about marketing this month, but the recent discussions over Bookscan numbers in a number of comics blogs made me change my mind. You can read my take on how language can shape expectations here.

For this column, we're going to look at some key details of a typical contract written for a larger publisher and the kind of thing you can expect when dealing with a small publisher.

But before we go any further, let me say this: I'm not an attorney or an agent, nor have I ever acted in those capacities before. What follows are my personal observations and they should not be used instead of the advice of an actual attorney or agent. In other words, if you're offered a contract go find some professional help.

 

Who gets paid

You do, and in all cases. You do not pay for copy editing or any printing, storage or shipping. That's the point of finding a publisher, they're in business to take a risk with you.  If someone wants you to sign a contract that stipulates you pay for services or fees, they're not a real publisher. Run away!

 

Advances

An advance is a sum of money paid to the author against future sales. The publisher won't pay you another dime until you've sold the number of books whose total royalties to you would equal the amount of the advance.

So if you're paid a $1,000 advance, and earn %10 royalties on a book sold for $10, you have to sell 1,000 books to make up for your advance. You'll get paid the $1 per book starting with the 1,001st book sold.

Fact is, even as the size of print runs and advances are getting smaller, most books don't earn out their advance. Larger publishers can afford to take more chances, and thus pay out larger advances. Small presses, not so much.

If you don't have a publishing track record, chances are the advance will be small or even non-existant. And you know, I wouldn't be that worried about this aspect. If you want to get a contract for book 2, you have to work hard and sell enough of book 1 so that your publisher earns back the money they put into it.

If you do that, you'll get paid anyway.

 

Royalties

I haven't asked, but I suspect this typical contract is with a larger publisher and for a hardcover book. If you get this kind of contract with a minimum of 15,000 books being printed, you should be very happy.

Small publishers will print anywhere between 4,000 to 6,000 books. You've got to figure in cost to print, warehousing storage and other miscellaneous costs a publisher will incur. I'm guessing a good publisher strives to manage costs so they break even when they sell half the books they print.

Essentially, they're going to try and earn their money back as soon as possible.  For hardcover books, royalties should start at 10% -
at least. For trade paperbacks, I've heard different things, but between 8-10% would be the target.

 

Termination

You should not sign a contract that locks up your work forever. There should be language that says when the book will be published and how long they own the book publishing rights after publication. If something happens to the publisher, you should be able to get your property back.

 

Reserved rights

There are a lot of rights you can sign away - foreign language, audio, film and TV.  These rights can work for you so don't just give them away.

I know an author who got a huge advance. Normally, he'd have to sell a whole bunch of books before getting a royalty check - maybe years later. In his case, the publisher sold the foreign language rights for enough money that it covered his advance. Because it was in the contract that way, he's making money with every book he sells now.

Since we're talking about graphic novels, I think we can put aside audio books. And foreign language rights don't come up that often. But you should retain at least 50% of film and TV rights.

That's pretty fair. The way your book is going to get noticed by producers is when you announce the book deal. And you wouldn't have a deal if it wasn't for the publisher.

 

Good resources

I found these links helpful at different times:

On contracts, this article at The Authors Guild was helpful, as were these Absolutewrite.com columns here and here.

As for setting your expectations, I read this Salon.com article on Midlist authors when it first came out and it's still pertinent today.

It's worth mentioning again: there's a ton of useful advice out there but it can't replace an attorney or agent. If you find yourself in contract negotiations, consult with a professional.

OK, next month marketing for sure!