Read This Before You Sign a Publishing Deal


Guest post by author J. Salem. Twitter: @Jackary_Salem.

So you finally got a contract. What does it mean? It was given to you by industry professionals. A thousand other writers have signed this same contract, so it must be safe, right?


Some publishers are counting on you being too star-struck to read the contract properly, especially if you don’t have an agent. While there are a lot of resources and industry professionals available to help, the decision to sign or not to sign (and all the consequences that come with it) are on you.

Below are four things to keep in mind before you sign.

1. Contracts Should Protect Both Parties

You read that right. Yes, the contract will generally err in favor of the party who drafted it, but it’s there to protect both of you. This is important because many authors are afraid of being labeled “hard to work with.” So, they keep their concerns to themselves.

You’ve been dreaming about a publishing contract for as long as you can remember, and you don’t want to ruin it by being picky. Well, stop. 

"Be picky. Go online and read about authors who wish they’d never signed a bad contract."

If one publisher is willing to sign you, I promise that another publisher is, too. You just have to find them. So if you look at your contract and realize it’s not protecting you or your interests, back out.

Or, if you know your stuff and love the company, try negotiating. All contracts are open to negotiation if you (or a friend) know what you’re doing.

2. Money Is An Object

I know from interacting with authors that most of you would be happy to make any money off your work at all. That’s why I want to focus on product worth.

By "product," I don’t mean your book. I mean the services the publisher is offering. If you signed with a Big 5 and they’re offering you the world, they’re within reason to take 90% of your revenue.

If you signed with an indie publisher, you should be getting a bigger cut than if you had signed with a Big 5, if only because they aren’t investing as much.

If you’re hybrid-publishing, you should be getting basically everything. You should also understand what all terms mean, even if they don’t seem to apply to you. For example, I once saw a contract that didn’t want any of the profits unless the author made $500,000. At that point, the author would pay 7% of the gross revenue.

To be clear, that means as soon as the author hits $500,000, even if it’s over a period of fifty years, they will suddenly owe the publisher $35,000. You can always go into it with the thought that you’ll never hit it that big, but then, what if you do?

It’s true that some terms in a contract may never affect you, but it’s best to approach the contract with the thought that all terms apply. That way, no matter what happens, you won’t get blindsided. 

3. Be Prepared For Failure 

This one applies to both publishers and agents. You’re excited to get signed, you’re practically hopping up and down in your seat, and—

What if your agent can’t sell your book? What if your agent shops it for two years with no takers? What do you do then? 

These are questions you should ask your literary agent before signing with them, and don’t take, “I’ll sell it” for an answer.

Any agent worth their salt should be able to answer these questions clearly because they know the industry. They know that these things happen, and they should be prepared for when they do.

For traditional publishers, it’s important to note that the order you signed your contract (relative to other authors) is not the order in which you’ll be published. If something that’s hotter for the market comes along, they could push your publication date back a year or two or indefinitely.

If you want to stay ahead of the game, get it in writing that if they don’t publish your book within two years, you get all your rights back so you can shop it to someone else.

I know that sounds crazy and unlikely, but hey. It happens.

For indie publishers, and this is a big one, you need to recognize that they fail all the time. And by "fail," I mean "go bankrupt." When they go bankrupt, the rights to your book are counted among their assets, and your book (i.e., the characters, the world, the premise) is suddenly owned by a company that doesn’t exist.

If you’re working on the third book in the trilogy and your publisher goes under, that’s it. The series is dead, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Unless you get it in writing that, should the company fail or cease to exist, you get all your rights back.

"A single clause can make a world of difference."

On the note of indie publishers failing, I would also like to point out how payment works. Stores that sell your book pay the publisher, who pays the agent (if you have one), who pays you.

If the publisher ceases to exist, the stores will continue to send money to that nonexistent publisher, who will not pay your agent, who will not pay you.

Getting your royalties after your publisher goes belly up tends to be a long, irritating process that costs more than it’s worth. So do yourself a favour and get it in writing that, should your publisher fail, the funds for your royalties will be routed directly to you. 

4. Agents Don’t Know Everything

By this point, I’m positive some of you will say, “My agent will be able to catch all of that, and they’ll work it out in my favour.” In my mind, that’s the same as buying a house because the realtor says it’s good to go.

Yes, the agent wants what’s best for you. And yes, some of them are really good with contracts. But they’re also working on commission. They only get paid if you get signed, so the faster they sign you, the better. 

Some agents will hold your hand and walk you through the contract’s pros and cons, but you can’t count on it. They may email it to you asking you to look it over, and if you say yes, it’s a done deal.

This isn’t to say that agents aren’t willing to walk you through the contract. Just that they’re incredibly busy, and many authors (especially new authors) are too afraid of seeming needy/ruining their shot to “bother” the agent with seemingly extraneous, time-consuming questions. 

I know multiple authors who’ve received contracts with the obligatory congratulations and a simple, “Let me know if you have any questions” in the body of the email. Which is fine, except the authors didn’t know what to ask or how to ask it.

They moved forward on the assumption that if there were any red flags, the agent would point them out without prompting.

For a variety of reasons (e.g., the contract was bad for the author, not bad in general; the contract was standard for the genre/debut/deal; etc.), this was not the case. While a few of those authors are deeply happy with their deals, there are also some who wish they could take it back. 

Keep in mind, this is not reflective of all (or even the majority of) agents. Many, many of them are wonderful, know contracts inside and out, and have your best interests at heart.

But not all of them.

(And if you do get an agent who perfectly handles all contract material, then you don’t really need to read this post, do you?)

Regardless of how amazing your agent turns out to be, it’s your work, your money, and your contract. Read it yourself, take as long as you need to understand every single clause, and decide on your own whether the pros outweigh the cons.

If you’re ever unsure about a contract or what it means, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Legalese is notoriously difficult to understand, and no one will scoff at you for needing a little guidance. You’re important, your work is important, and you’ve got this.

Now go read your contracts.


Agree or disagree with @Jackary_Salem's advice? What has been your experience with publishing contacts? Let us know in the comments.

1 Response

John Mathieson
John Mathieson

November 26, 2020

Great advise! I have many friends who Are published, and many friends that are attorneys. I always planned on using an attorney to read an agent contract and a publishing contract.

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