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The Best Contract Negotiation Advice for Authors

(Originally posted 10/10/19)

One of the greatest joys for an author is seeing their creative work published. Yet the journey of putting a book onto the market isn’t always smooth or easy. You may choose traditional publishing or take the self-publishing route. Within self-publishing, you may project manage the book yourself or enlist the support of an assisted self-publishing company. You could also use a hybrid publishing service.

Whichever route you choose, prepare to negotiate for favorable deals with various service providers in the publishing process. Pay close attention to all the terms outlined in the agreement before signing.

True Self-Publishing vs Assisted and Hybrid Services

While true self-publishing means the publishing process is managed entirely by the author, hybrid and assisted publishing services enable a more structured approach to self-publishing. These companies assist—to varying degrees—in the editorial, design, and distribution processes.

Hybrid publishers offer authors a subsidized business model. In the hybrid model, the publisher pays a higher-than-standard royalty rate in exchange for the author’s personal financial investment. The company may own publishing rights and licenses while the author retains subsidiary rights such as audio and foreign language rights.


Your book is your property. If you’re scouting for a publisher, keep in mind that you own the copyrights to your work. Avoid assigning full copyrights to the publisher. Instead, grant the publisher either an exclusive or a non-exclusive license. An exclusive license allows the publisher to commercially exploit your work for a limited period. A non-exclusive license means you can grant the same license to multiple publishers.

The contract you sign should not allow your publisher unlimited ownership terms. If you get together with a friend or colleague to carry out a mock negotiation simulation of your copyright discussions, ensure any concessions you might make won’t leave you on the losing end.

Confirm there’s a clear contract clause stating when the publisher should hand over the rights back to you. The contract should also allow you to end the partnership on specific grounds. For example:

  • If the publisher does not release the book within a stipulated period.
  • If your book goes out of print.
  • If sales do not hit a specified target.

For self-publishing, you are at an advantage as the license-holder with full copyright control. As a true self-publishing author, you bear all the risks and fund all the processes. That means you have full control over design, marketing, and distribution. You automatically keep the copyrights to your book, including its design and marketing.

However, if a self-publishing company is handling your design and marketing, they may own the copyrights to these works.

Royalty Rates

There are industry standards for royalty rates. Some publishers may try to push you into accepting lower rates. Research industry standards and typical rates to gauge how much you need to claim. Know at what point the royalties are too low. Don’t be afraid to decline if the publishing company offers an unacceptable royalty rate that won’t benefit you.

Some self-publishing companies may request a royalty fee for services such as editing the final draft, design elements, and distribution functions. For instance, assisted self-publishing companies typically don’t command royalty fees, but hybrid publishers often do command royalty fees.

Of course, many self-published authors don’t use self-publishing companies. These authors hire individual professionals to produce and distribute their books. In such a case, all revenue from the sales belongs to you as the author. You don’t need to negotiate with anyone about royalty rates.


As you conduct your research on your options, don’t forget to pay attention to the advance. Traditional publishing contracts may leave room for your publisher to reclaim your advance. If your book doesn’t deliver to the company’s expectations, you may have to pay back the amount with interest.

Negotiate for an interest-free and risk-free advance against royalties. Unlike in movie productions, in book publications the publishers typically don’t recover advances that are not covered by royalties. If you can negotiate for interest-free terms on the advance, you can secure a better deal. Otherwise, you may be better off declining and opting for self-publishing.

Simulate Objections

Prepare to handle publisher objections by role playing in negotiation simulations, ideally with a publishing expert such as your literary agent. A simulated discussion works to prepare you for the real thing, so you aren’t caught out when it matters the most.

If you have an agent, they will be primed to advise you on your best course of action, what issues may arise, and may be able to engage in much of the bargaining for you. Ensure you’re on the same page with your literary agent by simulating negotiations together well in advance before you enter publisher talks.

Volume Requirements

After publishing through the traditional route, authors are often free to buy their book from the publisher at a discounted rate. Negotiate to include a buy clause in your contract. Writers often buy their own work to sell during seminars and other speaking events. However, the option to buy your work shouldn’t be forced upon you.

For assisted self-publishing authors, since the author foots the publishing and distribution costs, there are no buying clauses to deal with. For hybrid publishing, the publishing company may negotiate a buying clause with the author, similar to traditional publishers.

In some instances, the publishing house may put a purchase requirement as a non-negotiable term in the contract. Beware of publishers who may insist on your bulk-buying a specific number of books from them. Be wary of requests to line up corporate buyers for bulk sales.

For traditional publishing, the responsibility of selling your book lies with the publisher. The contract terms shouldn’t corner you into buying a massive number of your books to meet sales targets.


Marketing is one way to drive book sales. Traditional publishing houses usually channel their marketing into books more likely to bring in significant returns. If your book isn’t premium, you may suffer the consequences of poor or no marketing.

Inquire on setting up dedicated staff for marketing your book. Request for your book to get its own advertising plan and negotiate on where to market. Though these terms may not be easy to achieve from traditional publishing, negotiations could earn you a few concessions. Simulations with a friend can prepare and polish your strategies.

Self-publishing companies may provide better marketing structures. Most of these companies offer a catalog of packages to choose from. Each package details out the services included at a given price.

You are at liberty as the author to choose a package that provides the kind of marketing you want for your book. Even then, you can still negotiate for better terms or hire an independent publicist.

In Conclusion

As an author, read and understand a publishing contract before signing it. Get a lawyer to guide you in understanding the terms and clauses. It’s better to say no to a deal that is unlikely to progress your writing career than to let your hard work go to waste due to poor terms.


Sandra Lafferty is a top of the line content creator, specializing in attention-grabbing headlines and thought-provoking content. A prolific writer, Sandra’s articles feature on many major sites. Her pieces achieve high readership, which is why she loves focusing on creating content that helps busy professionals build up their business and negotiation skills.

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