Wednesday, April 20, 2016

9 Questions to Ask Before You Sign a Publishing Contract

Writers wait, many times years, for that big breakthrough in their career—a publishing contract.
When the call or email finally comes, it’s a moment of disbelief, excitement, and dreams come true. While it may be tempting to sign whatever contract they send you—after all, who knows if it will ever happen again—there’s a few questions you need to ask first because no contract is better than a bad contract.

 Every writer has different standards in terms of what they’re willing to sign, however I’ve spoken with more than a few authors who have deeply regretted signing bad contracts. Nowadays, there are too many options out there to allow yourself to be taken advantage of. While the following list may sound like an interrogation, if it’s all done politely and in conversation, it will help you and the publisher to align your expectations and get to know each other better.

1.       Marketing

Here’s the thing about marketing—the author needs to market! The days of the reclusive author clacking away at a keyboard from their writing shed are over. You need to plan on getting out there and working your butt off to sell your novel. But, your publisher should be your partner in this work. Ask how they plan to market your book.

2.       Terms
View this contract as a mini-marriage. Once you sign, you’re going have a relationship with this publisher for however long their contract states. These terms rang from a couple years to a lifetime right to publish. Ask how long they retain the right to publish. Are you comfortable with relinquishing your rights for the period of time they’re asking for?

3.       Advance
Personally, I’m not hung up on advances because it’s an advance on royalties, not bonus money.
You’ll get your royalties one way or another before or after publication. However, it’s a question to ask if it’s something you want. Also, ask what happens if you don’t earn out your royalties. I know one author who didn’t earn out his royalties and ended up with a bill in the mail for $500.

4.       Royalties
What percentage of royalties will you be paid? Is the percentage based on gross sales or net sales? How often will you receive a royalty statement?

5.       Rights
Never, ever sign anything that requires you to give up your copyright! Never! The copyright should always be yours. When you sign a publishing contract, you are giving the publisher exclusive rights to publish your book, not relinquishing your copyright. But, what exactly are they asking for—print rights? Electronic book rights? Audio book rights? Movie rights? Merchandising rights? Serial rights? Translation rights? You need to ask.

6.       Editorial process
Are they going to require revisions? If so, what is their editorial process? How many editors will work on your book?

7.       Business background
How long has the publisher been in business? Do an online search and make sure to check to see what their clients have to say. Do they have a good reputation in the writing community? Don’t be afraid to ask to speak with one or two of their authors for references. Again, this is a long term relationship. Don’t go into it blindly.

8.       Termination clause
What if things go poorly with this publisher? Ask about their termination clause. Will you be able to get your rights back if something unexpected happens? What happens to your rights when the book is considered out of print?

9.       Obligation to publish
Ask if there is a publish-by date. Without an obligation to publish with a deadline, the publisher can sit on your book for years. You won’t be able to publish it yourself or be able to seek out another publisher.

Always read any contract carefully and seek legal advice. If you can’t afford a lawyer, many writers’ organizations have resources available to their members. Know what you’re signing, and if you don’t understand something, ask. Remember: most publishers aren’t out to take advantage of you. Most want what you want—a profitable partnership and a great book. It’s up to you to sort the good from the bad and to decide what’s best for your book and your career.

Do you have any contract advice? If so, leave a comment below.


  1. I would also recommend that you pay for an hour of a lawyer's time if you have any questions or are unsure of anything in the contract. This is a legally binding business agreement you're entering into and you need to treat it as such.

    I was contacted by an agent within a week of sending out my first queries. She sent along a contract that, once the excitement wore off, didn't read quite right to me. I'm lucky -- I work for a University Press and took the contract to our in-house Rights/Permissions person. She read it and said, "They're doing a lot for themselves but not a lot for you."

    Passing on that contract was hard, but definitely the right decision.

  2. This is great advice, Melinda! I think lots of us writers dream about a contract, but haven't stopped to think about the particulars.

  3. This is a good list to which I hope I will have to refer in the future! Thank you!


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