No Agent? No Problem

Q: I would like to know what an author is to do if a publisher were to offer up a contract to him or her when there is no agent involved?— C. L. Freire

A: Negotiating a book contract is a lot like buying a car—there’s some give and take, not everyone will get the same deal and sometimes you have to pass on the sunroof to get the deal done. It’s helpful to have an agent, of course, but not everyone has that luxury. So how can you, a first-time author, make sure that you’re getting a fair deal?

When a publisher wants your book, she’ll make an offer. Most companies have a standard contract, or boilerplate that they use. Nearly all of these standard contracts have language that favors the publisher, so it’s up to you to haggle out a better deal. Assume that everything is negotiable, though keep in mind that what’s flexible in one publisher’s contract may not be so flexible somewhere else. Topics most often open for negotiation are:

–  royalty v. flat fee
–  anticipated royalty %
–  anticipated advance
–  expenses to be built in
–  second use rights (including electronic)
–  free copies of book
–  cost to author to buy copies

If there are certain areas that are nonnegotiable, the publisher will tell the author that. Accept it and move on. Also, if you have questions about anything, ask. Contracts are complicated and often need explaining.

Before navigating the minefield of book negotiation, it’s essential that you read up on publishing contracts. The Author’s Guild offers several tips on how to negotiate a fair contract (http://www.authorsguild.org/?p=101). If you’re a member of the National Writers Union, you can hop onto their site (http://www.nwu.org) and get extra advice. Plus, there are several good books on the topic—read as many as you can.

Should you involve a lawyer? I asked Writer’s Digest Books acquisitions editor Jane Friedman and she says it’s OK to ask a lawyer for advice, but often they can be a real headache if they’re not familiar with publishing law. “They may ask for terms or stipulations that are unreasonable,” Friedman says.

As long as you’ve done some homework, you’ll be in good shape when hammering out your book deal. The more times you go through the process, the better you’ll get. And one day, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get that sunroof.

Brian A. Klems is the associate editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwpubs.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Friday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.    

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0 thoughts on “No Agent? No Problem

  1. L Delaney

    How long can a magazine hold your "accepted" article for future publication? I have one that was accepted several years ago – but never published. Can I submit it elsewhere or am I bound by the letter of acceptance from the magazine. I’ve tried to reach them but receive no replies. Thanks.

  2. Mid Stutsman

    I say it’s ok to be a chicken, esp. if you can dance!! Thanks, Brian…I am so excited to find this information now, as I am having my first novel edited with the hope of finding a publisher willing to listen to me, myself and I, alone. Nothing more satisfying than to have ones work accepted on its own merit. (I truly dislike hearsay)

  3. Kaycee Looney(writer)

    Um, Brian I think you’re confusing lawyers with the Miranda rights read to you upon the unfortunate event of your arrest. 😉

    I just wanted to say thanks for the great advice. I had been wondering if an agent was really necessary in order to get a book contract. I wil have to check out the Author’s Guild site for more info.

  4. Gena

    OK, Mr. Chicken Dance Man . . . we’re watching and waiting. Actually, I have no comment about this topic, except the "but often they can be a real headache" part. Having spent my career working for and with lawyers, I can assure you that the pain often goes much lower than that.

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