Author career · publishing

Debut Author Survival Guide #1: Contract Basics

The Debut Author Survival Guide is a series that explains everything that happens between selling your book to publication day in an attempt to demystify the process of publishing your first novel (through a traditional publishing lens). Go HERE to see the rest of the series!

When you sell your book one of the first things you’ll likely do (other than freak out, tell your friends, squeal/cry/scream in your room for an hour) is get your offer details. Depending on your publisher and your agent, you might get this verbally or in writing. It’s not the official contract yet, but it will have the basics of your offer including (but not always limited to):

  • Advance amount
  • Royalty percentages on hardcover, paperback, audio, etc
  • Territory – e.g. World English, North American, World Rights
  • Payout – e.g. when you’ll be getting the advance and in what portions (halves, thirds, fourths, etc)
  • Subrights
  • Option – e.g. if the publisher wants to have right of first refusal for your next book
  • Projected publication season and year
  • Delivery dates – e.g. when first draft is due, when final draft is due

There is some other language that might be included if you sold on proposal or are being signed to do an intellectual property (IP) or franchised project (e.g. Disney, Marvel, Star Wars). That might include: IP/copyright ownership and projected length of novel.

So, what does all of this mean? It can all sound very complicated. And that’s why we have agents, they are able to demystify the language in an offer and/or contract. They will also negotiate (at least in the beginning) to see if you can get better terms (if your agent isn’t automatically negotiating, then you should be able to ask that they go back to ask for better terms that are important to you). For example, for tax purposes, you might want your payout schedule to be different. Or you might want to get better royalties on paperback. Or you might want them to specify the option language from “next YA novel” to “next fantasy YA novel.” No matter what it is that you want, your agent should be willing to at least attempt to negotiate on your behalf (if they won’t and can’t give you a good reason, then that might mean you should have a more serious conversation about your business relationship)

So let’s break this down a bit more:

  • Advance amount
  • Royalty percentages on hardcover, paperback, audio, etc
  • Subrights

These are things that should be up to you and your agent to discuss and negotiate based on what you think you’re worth. Often times it’s hard to negotiate up an advance amount if you don’t have other offers on the table. But sometimes it can be done depending on the background of the author and the project itself.

Subrights includes audiobook rights, film/television rights, rights to create merchandise, rights to publish spin-offs utilizing the characters and worlds from the book. Even theme park rights (get ready for Gumiho World!). The only subright a publisher might automatically retain are audiobook rights. But if it’s IP/a franchise that the publisher already owned and hired you to write, then they’ll probably retain all subrights.

(We might do a separate in-depth post on advance and royalties so stay tuned for that)

  • Payout – e.g. when you’ll be getting the advance and in what portions (halves, thirds, fourths, etc)
  • Delivery dates – e.g. when first draft is due, when final draft is due
  • Projected publication season and year

These issues are a little easier to negotiate because it doesn’t involved money (lol). Payout is often in halves, thirds, or fourths, and each payout coincides with a big event in the book’s life. These events can include: signing the contract, delivery and acceptance (D&A, often this is when it goes to copy edits, but ask your editor for clarity on this), when the book is published, when the paperback is published.

Just note that delivery dates are required for the contract (they can’t leave that section blank) but they’re often flexible even after the contract is signed (actual due dates are up to your editor). Also, sometimes “first draft” refers to the completed manuscript that your agent initially submitted to the editor so that date is arbitrary because technically you already turned it in (but always ask your agent about this because every publisher and situation varies).

Projected publication season is…complicated. That’s because each publisher has very different definitions on what “season” means. So one publishers fall could overlap with another publishers summer or winter. Some publishers have two seasons, some have three. I’ve been told it’s based on each publisher’s/company’s fiscal break downs, but that’s also a mystery. Here’s a video I made to explain seasons in publishing.

  • Territory – e.g. World English, North American, World Rights
  • Option – e.g. if the publisher wants to have right of first refusal for your next book

These are terms that might seem like they’re not important but can make a bit of difference for the trajectory of your career and payout. Territory means which territory the publisher has a right to publish in. So if you sell your publisher World English rights, then they can publish it in english all over the world OR sell the publication rights to any english territory around the world. But you still own any foreign language rights, so you (and your agent) can still sell the foreign language rights for an additional advance separate from your advance from your US publisher.

North American rights means your publisher only has the right to publish in North America and you can sell english or foreign language rights anywhere else.

And World Rights means that your publisher owns the right to publish or sell foreign language rights themselves and any money they get goes towards paying back your advance with the publisher. For example, you got an advance of $10,000 from your publisher for World Rights. Your publisher sells Spanish language rights for $2,000. That $2,000 goes towards earning out your advance and now you only need to earn out $8,000 before you start receiving royalties.

It is worth negotiating territory because if you still own all the foreign language rights, then you get money directly into your pocket when you sell to foreign territories, instead of it going toward paying back your advance with your publisher.

Option language says what your publisher gets to see next from you as an exclusive (e.g. you cannot submit it to any other publisher until your publisher offers or rejects it). If they have an option for your next YA that means you cannot submit a young adult novel in any genre to any other publisher until you’ve submitted to them and heard back from them about your submission. And most publishers do not want to see your option book until the final book in your contract is done and ready to go. This might force an author to hold off on submitting any other work they have even if it’s written and ready to go. So some authors and agents might negotiate the language to be more specific. If you’re only required to submit your next YA fantasy to your current publisher, you can write a YA contemporary and submit it widely.

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