Many authors ask me what should and should not be in a contract when offered by a small press. It just so happens I know a guy who is both a lawyer and an author in Stuart Thaman. I asked Stuart to put together a list on what you should be watching for and he was happy to help out. Take it away, Stu.
You have a contract from a publisher, but what do you need to know?
Here’s the basic checklist:
- Royalty / Advance Structure. Obviously, this is probably the first thing you look for. How much are you going to get paid? And make sure you understand the meaning of your advance. Almost all advance payments are then credited against your future royalties, so you must “earn” back the advance with sales.
- Production Timeline. When is your book going to be produced? Some larger publishers may give themselves 3 or more years to complete the production phase of your book. That’s a long time, and it might not make sense to wait.
- Creative Control. How much input do you, the author, get to have? Some authors (like me) don’t really care too much about adding creative input to things like cover design and formatting, but a lot of authors do. This should be expressly delineated in the contract terms to meet your personal desires. Pay attention as well to creative input on the title of your work. Some publishing contracts do not lock in the title from the start or allow the author to have final say.
- Length. How long is your contract going to last? Are you locked in for a decade or is it more of a trial run? Generally speaking, the longer your contract terms, the more confident your publisher is about sales.
- Termination. Do you have a way out? What happens if your book just sits for a couple years without any sales and you want to do it yourself? Alternatively, what happens if your book blows up and bigger publishers come knocking? You want a clear way out for both you and the publisher just in case anything happens on either end that makes one party need to leave. Along these same lines, what happens if the publishing company is sold? You should have an option in your contract to renegotiate or simply get out in the event of ownership change.
- Right of First Refusal. This is a big one. Many publishers want series. Let’s face it, series sell better. Does your contract contain a right of first refusal where you’re required to pitch your future books to the same publisher? Personally, I’m fine with that for books in the same series. Where it tends to give me pause is when a publisher wants a refusal right on everything an author writes, not just future installments of the same series.
At the end of the day, the best thing you can do in the contract process is hire an experienced entertainment lawyer. The second best thing you can do is find some authors already published by the company and pick their brains. What are sales like? Anything they regret in their contract? Something they wish they had done differently? And another thing to keep in mind when choosing to sign a contract: look at the production value of other books already published. Are the covers professional? Is the editing top notch? How are the reviews and sales ranks? There are tons of things to consider when choosing a publisher and signing a contract. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should get you started on the right path.
This article was written by Stuart Thaman, the owner of Nef House Publishing, author of a bunch of fantasy and LitRPG novels, and a lawyer well versed in the world of contracts.