Inside Book Contract Preparation and Negotiation

At the 2007 NASW Science and Society meeting in Spokane, Wash., an audience of about 30 science writers benefited from the inside knowledge of two speakers about the process of negotiating a book contract with a traditional publishing house.

Christopher Kenneally, director of Author Relations with the Copyright Clearance Center and Jan Kardys, a literary agent and consultant with Black Hawk Enterprises, highlighted the contract clauses that typical book publishing contracts contain, and the ways in which individuals, or their agents, can suggest modifications that favor the writer.

There are at least a dozen forms of subsidiary rights that authors should negotiate, not automatically grant to a publisher. These include first and second serial, book club, paperback, large print, dramatic, commercial, and electronic rights. Commercial rights are important for those writers who can envision their science-related best seller emblazoned on a T-shirt or coffee mug.

"If the publisher thinks these rights are all important, then the author needs to think they are important," Mr. Kenneally stated. Publishers will offer a 50:50 split on the royalties for each subsidiary right, but a good negotiator can revise the split to 90:10 in favor of the author for first serial rights and to 80:20 for foreign rights. Other subsidiary rights splits are apparently non-negotiable.

Ms. Kardys emphasized several contract clauses that writers should always demand to add to a contract:

  • Publisher will provide the author with all proposed condensations, abridgements, or alterations of the book for author's approval. This clause would grant the author script approval for an audio book abridgement, for example.
  • Publisher will provide the author copies of any subsidiary rights contracts and royalty statements that arise from those contracts.
  • Author has the right to audit the publisher's books to confirm accuracy of royalty statements at least twice yearly.
  • If the book is remaindered at the end of its life cycle (which may be as quickly as 3 months after publication), the author has the right to buy the books back at the best remainder price.
  • If the publisher asks the writer to do an updated version for which at least 25 percent new text will be required, then the publisher must provide a second advance.

Contract clauses that are unlikely to be granted, but should at least be requested, include:

  • Approval of the book's cover.
  • Rights revert to the author when the book goes out of print.

The latter is now a tricky issue because, with print-on-demand and e-book technology, books theoretically never go out of print. "Electronic rights are the hottest thing today for publishers," according to Ms. Kardys. Multimedia rights, for example, govern whether the publisher can post portions of your book on Google BookSearch.

Authors need to be aware that is their responsibility to obtain, and if necessary, pay for, permission to reprint any previously published text or illustration that is not covered by the Fair Use provision of U.S. Copyright law. Publishers may not only cancel the publishing contract of any author who fails to do so, but may also demand that the author repay the advance.

Once the contract is negotiated and signed, writers should always keep the contract in a safe, accessible place, as many provisions kick in at various times during the life cycle of the book.

Jane Neff Rollins is a freelance writer from Montrose, Calif., who writes medical news stories for such outlets as Medscape and Caring for the Ages, and creates posters and slides for presentation at medical conferences.

Oct. 29, 2007

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