Mark Terry

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Book Contracts 101, Part 1 (Introductory Materials)

January 11, 2011
I thought I'd try this: Run a long series on book contracts, taking them more or less clause by clause. At the very least, you'll be able to read a book contract and see what one looks like.

First, a couple disclaimers. I am not an attorney, therefore I am not an expert on contracts. Don't base all your negotiations on what I say here. I am not an agent or attorney, so my experience with contracts is limited and this is primarily intended to give you a sense of what might be out there. It also gives me something to write about on my blog. Hopefully it will be useful.

Second, it's rare that two book contracts are the same, let alone for different books or from different publishing houses. Your mileage will most definitely vary.

Third, as I noted in the first disclaimer, I'm not an expert. I welcome people's comments who are both more experienced and/or knowledgeable. That way everyone--including me--can learn something.

Fourth, given what seems to be a shift toward e-self-publishing, I hope that the "traditional book contract" does not become a thing of the past.


Typically a book contract will start something like this:

405 Sequoia Drive
Gotham, NY 00002
Telephone: 555-123-4567 * Fax: 555-234-5678

AGREEMENT dated: _______________________________

Between BIGSHOT PUBLISHING, an independent Publisher and corporation duly organized under the laws of New York, having a place of business at 405 Sequoia Drive, Gotham, NY 00002 (the "Publisher") and Mark Terry, c/0 HOTSHOT LITERARY AGENCY, 1002 Hell Frozeover Avenue, Gotham, NY 00003 (the "Author"). The Author is the sole owner of rights of a book entitled "Booger Knights". And Author and Publisher wish to arrange for the publication of the Work.

* * *

Basically this just lays out the basic information about the publisher, the writer, the writer's representative, and very generally indicates what the contract is for and when it was enacted.

There is primarily one thing I want to draw your attention to, because it's what book contracts are all about. At the end it indicates "The Author is the sole owner of rights..."

Yes, that means you created it and you own ALL OF THE RIGHTS. From this point on you will be negotiating on what rights the Publisher will have access to, what they may or may not do with those rights, and how and when and for how much they will compensate you for that privilege, and for how long and under what conditions. That is what a book contract is all about. It's not about "yeah, I want you to publish my book." That's simply one right you're licensing to the publisher. There are many others and that's what's up for grabs here.

Another point to keep in mind as we discuss contracts is that every industry has what might be called "standard values" (I'm sure there's a legal phrase for it, but I don't know what it is). "Standard values" as I'm describing them here, means that in publishing, for instance, a "standard value" for a hardcover royalty figure might be 10% or 12% or 15%, or something else. A lawyer with zero experience in publishing may not know what "standard value" is for a publishing contract. A lawyer with a great deal of experience with patent law or union contracts might think a book contract should provide a 75% royalty (or whatever) to the writer. But in reality, that would almost never happen because "standard value" for hardcover royalties are 10%, 12% of 15%. It's a range the industry as a whole (more or less) has decided is standard.

Perhaps a simpler way to describe this is that 20 or 30 years ago, "standard value" for a literary agent's commission was 10%. Then somewhere in the 1980s or so the industry as a whole decided that agents should get 15% instead of 10%, and they gave themselves a 50% raise and for the most part everyone went along with it. Essentially, "standard value" changed.

I welcome any thoughts and comments.


Blogger Debra L Martin said...

Hi Mark,

I think this is a very timely subject especially since there are some indie authors now being approached by publishers. BTW, I love the names you've included.


7:54 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

I've only signed two contracts, one agency and one publisher. There were clauses in both (but especially the latter) that I didn't understand until I had read them several times. There were clauses in the latter I was never able to understand.

I suppose if a clause means whatever the reader interprets it to mean, it's pretty hard to enforce it, hence the value of being obscure. From now on I'm going to insist that any clause so convoluted or ambiguous as to render itself meaningless be rewritten so that even I can comprehend it.

8:01 AM  

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