Writing a Book, Part 4: Your Contract, In Plain English

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Man Signing ContractImage Source: Forbes

So now that you decided you want to write a book, wrote your proposal, and found a publisher, you need to know how to understand the contract they’ll be sending your way. I wasn’t always a food blogger (although for me it definitely feels otherwise!); I graduated law school as a Juris Doctor. Now, normally I would say that along with $3.00 will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks, but this is one real-life situation where having a law degree under my belt actually helped me immensely.

Not only can I translate my own contract from legalese into plain English, but I can negotiate my own terms. In case anyone out there is working agent-free the way I was (the way I still am, actually), below I’ve listed a few important contractual terms to look for and whether or not (in my experience) you can usually negotiate each specific term.

Note that when I say a term is negotiable, I mean that you can ask the publisher for a more favorable term for yourself; for example, a higher advance payment. Even for terms that are typically negotiable, although you are free to try to negotiate, there is no guarantee that you’ll get what you’re asking for…but you might! Even as a first-time author I was able to negotiate better terms for myself on several different points.

Delivery of Materials: This tells you what your manuscript should include (for a cookbook this may include things like recipes, photos, introductory materials, etc.), how your work should be delivered (e.g., electronic format), and when everything is due. Negotiable? The due date might be negotiable, but be aware that if you ask to push it back, this will most likely also push back your book’s publication date.

Publication: The publisher may include a clause saying that they have full control over the book’s publication, including the details of design, editing, manufacture, publication, sale, promotion, price, etc. In my experience, the publisher views the author’s role as just that – authoring the book – and the publisher likes to have control over the other aspects of publication. Negotiable? Not likely, which is why it is important to try to find a publisher with a style and outlook that’s similar to what you’re envisioning for your book from the very beginning.

In this section there might be a clause talking about you making yourself available to promote the book; if so, look to see whether the publisher agrees to pay for your promotional-related travel expenses. Negotiable? Yes.

There might also be a clause talking about how many authors copies you’ll receive from the publisher (free of charge). Negotiable? Yes.

Royalties and Payments: This is the heart of the contract – it’s where you find out how much you’ll be paid! The advance payment is the money you get before the book is published, and it’s quite common for it to be divided into increments. For example, if you’re photographing and writing a cookbook, you might get the first part of your advance payment upon signing the contract, the second part of your advance payment upon delivering the recipes, and the third part of your advance payment upon delivering the photographs. Negotiable? Yes.

The royalty amount is the specific percentage of money you will get from the sale of your book, most likely based on the net invoice price. Note that the net invoice price isn’t the same as the book price; the net invoice price is calculated by subtracting things like production costs from the book price. The net invoice price might refer specifically to the net profit, but you’ll have to ask your publisher for the exact details. Negotiable? Yes.

Accounting: This tells you when you’ll receive your royalty checks – it will likely be once a year, or maybe twice. Negotiable? No.

Non-Competition: This will probably have a few different points: the book that the contract is about should be your next book; then once the book is published, you can’t publish another book with the same or similar content that would cause sales of this book to drop. Negotiable? No.

Option on Future Works: The publisher might include a “right of first refusal” clause; under this clause you must submit your next publishable work (or however many works are noted in the contract) to this publisher first, before you can submit it to other publishers. This publisher then has the right to either decline the project, or to accept it and make you an offer. Negotiable? Maybe. The good thing about this clause is that it basically guarantees you an audience for your next project (or however many projects are listed in the contract). The downside is that the clause will usually give the publisher a fairly long timeframe to look over the next proposal you submit, which could lead to frustration if you’re working on something particularly time-sensitive.

* * * * *

Just a quick tip on the negotiating process: use diplomacy. Don’t expect to have all your conditions met (realistically, you might not get any of them met), and go into the process with an open mind. But if you’re negotiating with reasonable expectations, realize that the worst thing they can say is no, and it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Please note that I am NOT a practicing attorney and nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice; I am merely recounting my personal experience in case it might benefit anyone else. If you need legal advice you should immediately seek an attorney’s counsel.

In case you missed the previous posts in my Writing a Book series, here they are:

Writing a Book, Part 1:  Finding Your Story

Writing a Book, Part 2:  Writing Your Book Proposal

Writing a Book, Part 3:  Finding a Publisher

Stay tuned for Writing a Book, Part 5:  Writing Your Book, where I share helpful tips on the actual process of writing your book.

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  1. Eha says

    Oh, thank you so much for telling it the way it is! You did law, I did medicine – let me assure you trying to learn and practice and write ‘natural therapies’ hits all the same obstacles!! You have done wonderfully well, in many ways I shall not even try! Have chapters in volumes compiled and edited by others coming out soon and soonest! Peace be!!!! But you have not only told us but accomplished a humongous deal for all of us to enjoy! God bless!

  2. Debbie says

    Thank you so much Faith for sharing this. I really appreciate all your effort and time in sharing about writing a book. Can I ask you, if I was interested in starting my own food blog how could I start? I am a very good cook but not very good at “creating” meals. Is it ok to quote someone else’s recipe? I would really appreciate your advice. Thank you so much.


    • says

      Debbie, Thank you so much for your comment! It’s been my pleasure to share my experience about writing a book, especially since I know it is an aspiration of so many others out there. As far as starting your own food blog, making other people’s recipes is a wonderful way to start – just be sure you’re giving them credit for the recipe (with a link, if possible), and try to re-write the directions in your own words (the ingredient list is fine to keep as it is without re-writing though). After a while you’ll probably notice yourself making more alterations to the recipes you’re making…and then eventually you’ll probably be creating your own recipes!

      I have been receiving a lot of questions lately on how to start a blog and I’m going to start writing a series on this topic. I’ll talk about everything from the logistics of how to start a blog, to how to eventually make money from it, and hopefully it will be a helpful resource. Until then, please feel free to email me at faith {at} anediblemosaic {dot} com if you have questions on anything specifically. Wishing you the best of luck!

  3. says

    Hi Faith, You have been very forthright and generous in explaining this process–from book concept to publication. As someone who recently got a cookbook deal with a publisher, also without an agent, I concur with your points.

  4. says

    I’ve really enjoyed catching up on your writing a book posts – I’m learning so much! It’s great to read all about the process in depth.

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