Okay, so you've got a book contract, and you're wondering what you don't know. Here are a few more questions to ask…
6. When will the book be published? In most book contracts there is a window that explains your book will be made available for sale within two years. I recently saw a contract that had a five-year window on it, and another contract that didn't limit the publishing time at all. The danger (and it's happened to others) is that you'll turn in a book the publisher keeps forever but never actually publishes. Generally you want wording where the publisher makes a legal promise to produce your print book in an 18-to-24 month window, your ebook faster.
7. When are advances paid? Make sure you know when you're getting paid. Traditionally an author received half the advance on signing and the other half on completion. Many of the New York houses now pay one-third on signing, one-third on delivery, and one-third on publication. Random House has this author-unfriendly clause that calls for one quarter of the advance to be paid a year after the book releases (so it's not really an "advance," it's more like a "delay"). And HarperCollins pays a portion of the advance after the author has filled out a marketing questionnaire — their way of making sure they get their information. I recently saw a contract that called for the advance to be broken into eighths (signing, completion of a questionnaire, after an interview with marketing, completion of the manuscript, completion of typesetting… um…the next full moon, etc.)
8. When are royalties paid? Many publishing houses pay twice per year. Some of the larger houses pay quarterly. I still see some contracts that call for royalty payments to authors once per year… and no, that publisher won't be offering to pay you interest on that money they've been holding for you. And your ebook publisher might pay you monthly. Find out when you're getting paid, and if it's less than twice per year, request they send you your money more frequently.
9. If you're doing a novel, who owns the subsidiary rights? Publishers are in the business of licensing and selling rights, so they'll ask for the dramatic rights to your story. But check something out — Has this publisher ever sold dramatic rights? Do they actively pursue movie and TV deals? If not, you might be wasting your time granting them to the house. Nothing frustrates an author more than having rights that could be generating income tied up with a house doing nothing.
10. If you're doing a nonfiction book, what's your buy-back discount? The publisher's boilerplate contract will call for you to receive about ten copies of your printed book, and allow you to purchase your own book at about a 40% discount. But if you speak to large groups, you'll want to negotiate for a better deal. You don't want to be in competition with your publisher, but if you regularly have a captive audience listening to you speak, selling books is a sure money-maker for you, and your publisher isn't losing money on the deal, so ask for more copies and a better buy-back rate.
What questions are you asking when negotiating a contract?