Textcetera: Signing your first book deal

For the debut author, receiving your first publishing deal is a cause for celebration. But before you can sign on the dotted line, there may be some negotiating to do. Elaine McCluskey, who has published with small presses across the country, has gone through this process several times without an agent. “Even though some may be embarrassed talking money,” she says, “authors can navigate this on their own.” Below is Elaine’s to-do list for considering your first book deal with a traditional publisher.

Take some time

It’s perfectly reasonable to ask for a week or two to review a publishing contract (sometimes also called a ‘publication agreement’) before signing. As Elaine points out, “if this is your first book, you may be too excited to scrutinize the fine print” right away.

If your manuscript is a simultaneous submission, this will also give you time to update any other publishers who are currently considering your manuscript. Who knows? You may even end up with a competing offer or two!

Seek out resources

“It is always good to talk to writers who may have worked with the same publisher,” says Elaine. “They can tell you what the experience was like and whether you need to adjust your expectations. You might also ask a relative or a friend to read your contract—in the same way you might ask them to check your income tax return.”

Outside of your personal circle, the Writers’ Union of Canada offers contract-related resources on their website. You can also hire a lawyer to review the contract and provide you with detailed recommendations (although they may ask for the name of your publisher, to do a conflict-of-interest check, before agreeing). For writers on a budget, the Nova Scotia Artists’ Legal Information Society is another option. Though they can’t advise you on contract negotiations or changes, their volunteers can help explain any legal terminology that might be confusing or unclear. NSALIS also offers a free legal guide for writers.

The details do matter

As with all contracts, the fine print can make a big difference in your publishing deal. For example, “saying the book ‘may’ be released in 2023 is not the same as the book ‘shall’ be released in 2023. Some publishers also have a first-right-of-refusal clause, which means they get first dibs on your next book. Look for that. Do you want this?”

Those authors who have incorporated elements such as epigraphs, song lyrics, or photos in their work should consider that it is almost always the responsibility of the author to obtain official permission from the copyright holder and to pay any associated licensing fees. “Some photos can be acquired inexpensively—the Nova Scotia Archives has very reasonable rates—while others can be costly,” Elaine notes.

Elaine also suggests that authors “read the clause on royalties and the advance-on-royalties closely. When do you get the advance? Is it as soon as the manuscript is delivered or after the final edit? Is it split up?” As for the amount, “if your book is topical and has sales potential, you might ask for more than originally offered,” but be prepared to do some research and comparisons to back up any requests of this nature. Margins for most small presses across the country are extremely tight.

Finally, “make sure you know what type of publisher you are talking to. A traditional publisher gives you an advance and does not ask you to pay for anything, including distribution.” Self-publishing through a hybrid publisher “is great for some authors and can jump-start their careers, but requires authors to cover some costs.”

Talk to your publisher

Elaine’s last piece of advice? “I would recommend that the author not be afraid to ask questions during negotiations and production. Publishers are not offended when you give polite feedback or ask reasonable questions, such as what are your plans for this book? Where do you see it fitting into your publishing plans? What do you need from me?”

Whether meeting in person, virtually, or over the phone, these negotiations can be helpful to both sides. Treat this process as an opportunity for earnest dialogue about your work and a chance to establish a rapport with your publishing team. If you feel uncomfortable about anything, it never hurts to ask. The more you learn during your first book deal, the more confident you’ll feel the next time around.

Please note that this blog post is for informational purposes only. Writers seeking legal advice on their contracts should speak with a lawyer.

Not yet at the stage of signing a contract? Check out our new public resource—You’ve Written a Book—Now What?, prepared by author and publishing professional Sarah Sawler—for a crash course in how publishing in Canada works.

textcetera is a blog series exploring the writer’s life beyond craft. “Signing your first book deal” was written by Keanan Byggdin.

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