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Author Tip: The Non-Compete Clause

Most publishing contracts include language to prevent the author from writing a similar book for a competing publisher. The language undoubtedly differs from publisher to publisher, but the intent is the same.

The language used is often very broad and general. Authors sometimes interpret this as the publisher trying to prevent the author from writing magazine articles or speaking at conferences on the subject. Nothing could be further from the truth. Both of those activities are likely to result in promotional opportunities for the book – publishers love that, of course.

If you, the author, feel the language is too broad, talk to your editor. Your editor probably has the ability to fine-tune the language so that the non-compete is very specific and more limited. For example, if you’re writing an entry-level tutorial on Visual Basic, the language could be tailored to allow you to write books on other aspects of Visual Basic. Your editor will probably want you to bring those future proposals to him/her, but if they build a good relationship with you that’s likely to happen anyway.

One other point about non-compete language: Authors sometimes ask why it doesn’t “cut both ways”… Shouldn’t publishers be obligated to not publish books that compete with ones they’ve already published? Sure. It only makes good business sense, especially in this challenging market. I’ve certainly been guilty of publishing too many books on the same topic for the same audience – I’m always trying to improve here, but I admit that it still happens from time to time.

Here is perhaps the most important part of this post: Before you ever sign that publishing agreement with your editor, ask them what other books they’re planning on this topic, how are they different from your book, etc. As a partner in this venture, you have a right to know what the full publishing list looks like. If the answer is vague or you feel there’s at least one other book that’s pretty close to yours, you might want to consider signing with another publisher.


Blaine Moore

What are some of the problems that could come up if they have a competing book that they are publishing? I can think of a few reasons, but what specifically is the issue that can be solved by having a different publisher to bring your book to?

Brad Hill

The one-way competition clause is an intractable problem. It doesn't matter in the slightest what the publisher plans to do at any given moment, what the AE divulges, or what the AE is aware of. The simple fact is that the publisher is permitted to launch products that would, if the tables were turned, put the author in breach of contract. And a couple of keyword searches at Amazon make it clear that IDG/Hungry Minds/Wiley has done this consistently, rampantly. I don't blame any publisher for trying to milk a subject, especially when the publisher issues several semi-competitive series brands and directly-competitive brands within brands. But saying "it happens," as if publishing outcomes were acts of God, is perhaps misleading. The no-compete clause is inequitable and there is nothing most authors can do about it. "Trying to improve" is meaningless, if you'll pardon me for saying so. Eliminating the clause or writing publisher limitations into the boilerplate would be meaningful.

I'm not particularly hostile about this point, but it has tied me up, and it has prevented my Dummies editors from tapping me for certain topics in which I am owned by other publishers. So the one-way language can be inconvenient for publishers, too.

Joe Wikert

Hi Dan. I still think it's worth asking your editor about this. Better stated, I don't think that an author should just accept the fact that it exists and do nothing about it. Yes, HMI/Wiley has certainly published numerous books on the same topic, including many cases where they sat next to each other and competed on the same shelf. I noted that in my original post. I can't think of a single publishing house that has avoided this, btw.

What's the harm in asking your editor what their other plans are in this topic area? Their answer only helps give you, the author, a better feel for how open the editor will be with you, how much they're willing to bring you into their overall plans, etc. I think all of this benefits the author.

Brad Hill

I hope I can add another post to this conversation without sounding argumentative. Joe, please realize what it sounds like to an author when you say, "I can't think of a single publishing house that has avoided this." You continue to convey the idea that publishers are victims of circumstance; that choice and determination are not involved. From a writer's perspective, this is a more forthright way of saying it: All publishers undermine their authors' projects. At the same time, they prohibit authors from similarly leveraging topics.

In your original post you wrote: "Shouldn’t publishers be obligated to not publish books that compete with ones they’ve already published? Sure." As it happens, I don't agree with this. I like free markets. I don't think publishers should be tied down; I just don't think authors should be, either. But as long as you wrote it, will you follow through? The suggestion that authors have wholesome conversations with their editors is facile, and would hardly result in an "obligation" on the publisher's part. If mutual obligation is what you truly advocate, will you introduce two-way contract language?

Joe Wikert

Hi Brad. OK, let me see if I can restate my point for you. Rather than saying "I can't think of a single publish house that has avoided this", are you happier with me saying "every publisher I can think of is guilty of this."? Both statements are factual. I strongly disagree with your statement that "all publishers undermine their authors' projects." I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one.

The short answer to your last question is "no", I won't be introducing two-way language into the contract. I never said I would, btw -- that was your suggestion. I will, however, continue to work on avoiding the type of overlap across books that we're talking about with this post. Is that the perfect solution? No, of course not, but it's the best I can offer at this point.

Frank Hanlan

The key for me is learning style. Introductory books can be done as a tutorial such as a Sams Teach Yourself, or graphical such as Teach Yourself Visually or by presenting information such as
a For Dummies. These tend to suit different learning styles and that is really important in terms of how people learn.

Unfortunately, most people have no clue about learning styles much less how they learn best.

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