Chip MacGregor

March 12, 2012

How do you negotiate a book contract?


Kevin wrote to say, "I'm about to negotiate my own book contract! What is important for me to know?"

If you're at the stage of negotiating your own publishing contract, congratulations. It means you've created a strong proposal, shopped it to publishing houses, and found an editor interested in your work. Those are huge hurdles, so you've already done well. Now what's going to happen is that the publisher is going to approach you with some details and numbers. Let me offer a handful of thoughts for you…

1. Have a Plan. A contract negotiation isn't just a bunch of random conversations, helping two people move things forward. It's one piece of a larger discussion about your book — how both sides view its value, what it will pay, how it's going to be produced and marketed, etc. Therefore, do your homework before you go into the negotiation. You should have researched what the market is paying (so you get a fair deal, but you don't ask for the moon), you should know what rights you want to keep or give away, and you should have a familiarity with the issues that will be involved in a publishing contract. All of this takes time (and all of this is why authors get agents who, presumably, know this stuff).

2. Take a Positive Approach. Too many people seem to have learned all their negotiation strategies from watching television dramas — the two high-powered lawyers point fingers, pound the table, make demands, and generally act like jerks. That's not an approach that's going to work very often in publishing. From my point of view, you have to develop a relationship with the person you're going to negotiate with. That way there's a sense of trust on both sides. You really want to establish some rapport with the person you're negotiating with, so that you both keep in mind the big picture of making this a successful book. Think of it this way: would you rather buy insurance from a trusted friend who happens to sell insurance, or from some stranger who shows up at your door? All of us prefer doing business with people we know. So approach your contract negotiation in a spirit of cooperation, rather than a spirit of confrontation.

3. Think Win/Win. The publishing of books is a business, so put away all your thoughts about just being helpful or friendly, and approach this as strictly business. Believe me, the publisher will take this approach. The goal isn't just to "win," but to help both sides feel as if they're winning. The publisher needs to be able to sell the book at a profit. The author needs to be able to make a living. From the start of your discussions, let both sides be thinking of winning, of doing well, of making this project succeed. Again, television dramas have a tendency to make it seem as though one side must win and the other must lose. In the real world, that doesn't work. I want every publisher I deal with to be successful. I want them to make money, to sell lots of books, and to want to work with me on other projects. So as you're putting your plan together, don't just focus on "how can I get this deal to my advantage?", but think of "how I can help the publisher succeed?" If both of you come out of this negotiation feeling good, you've set yourself up for a healthy long-term relationship.

More on this topic tomorrow… but feel free to ask questions about negotiations. 


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