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The Myths of Contract Negotiations

Books2_2I enjoy reading JA Konrath's blog and I think I've even contributed a comment or two on it over the past year or so.  When I read today's post about negotiating contracts I felt a simple comment wouldn't suffice.  He does a nice job giving newbie authors a frame of reference, but a number of his items require further clarification.  I've italicized a few excerpts from his post below and added my own thoughts below each point:

We're afraid that if we don't take the offer, we won't get published. Publishers know this. And they use this to their advantage.

Not really.  In fact, if you (as an author) start to feel you're getting treated this way by a publisher/editor I recommend you run for the nearest exit!  There are far too many other publishers (and self-publishing options) out there to let yourself get bullied around like this.

It is in their best interest to offer low advances and try to acquire as many sub rights as possible.

Also not true, at least the advances part...  Publishers realize that author advances are just like any other part of a transaction: You get what you pay for.  No publisher wants an author to walk away from the negotiating table feeling like they're not getting what they deserve on an advance.  Why?  The publisher wants, no, needs the author to be properly motivated throughout the project.  Anything short of that will compromise the results.

A healthy advance also shows that your publisher is confident in your books, and will spend a sizable amount on marketing them.

This is one of the biggest myths in author contract negotiations.  Honestly, there's zero correlation between the level of the author advance and the amount of money spent on marketing.  In fact, some publishing houses will tell you that the bigger the author advance, the less they have left to spend on marketing.  So many other factors come into play on this as well, not the least of which is author platform; we publishers are looking for authors with great platforms, mostly because we find those are a much better promotional vehicle for the book than advertising or premium placement in a store.

Comments

steve baker

What exactly do you mean by the "author's platform?" Is this their brand name or power to promote themselves?

Joe Wikert

Hi Steve. Great question. I should have included this link in my original post, but here it is now. It's a post where I talked earlier about author platform and how others have helped define the phrase.

JA Konrath

Hi Joe--

You bring up some excellent points. As with all of my blog posts, my opinions are based on my experience, and mileage may vary.

In fact, if you (as an author) start to feel you're getting treated this way by a publisher/editor I recommend you run for the nearest exit! There are far too many other publishers (and self-publishing options) out there to let yourself get bullied around like this.

For fiction, there are actually only five major publishers. They each have many imprints, but in some cases a rejection by one imprint means it can't be sent to another within the same house.

I've seen over a dozen cases where publishers use fear and blunt force tactics to get their way. It happens a lot, and authors usually crumble. With bestselling authors, they use the carrot. For midlisters, the stick is liberally used.

No publisher wants an author to walk away from the negotiating table feeling like they're not getting what they deserve on an advance.

Sure. But pretty much all publishers would like the author to feel like they are indeed worth less (i.e. what a publisher is willing to pay.) That's why much of a negotiation is a publisher trying to convince an author that they are worth what they're being offered. "We're being fair." "Your sales haven't met expectations." "We lost money on your last book."

Honestly, there's zero correlation between the level of the author advance and the amount of money spent on marketing.

I've seen differently. An author with a $10,000 advance won't get nearly the marketing bucks that an author with a $150,000 advance will get. When doing P&L statements prior to making an offer, the advance is calculated alongside the print run. Bigger advance = more books printed. More books printed = bigger makering budget.

By asking for a larger advance, an author is forcing a higher print run, which in turn means a bigger marketing budget. Which is making the publisher show confidence in the author's career.

Joe Wikert

JA, I'm glad that you pointed out some of the unique challenges in the fiction marketplace. It's unfortunate that the small number of publishers seem to be ganging up like that, so here's to hoping more "little guys" and print-on-demand options force them to change their thinking.

I disagree with your point that "pretty much all publishers would like the author to feel like they are indeed worth less." I'm sure there have been cases where I've signed a book that fit this description, but it wasn't intentional. Further, I know a lot of other publishers who view authors the same way I do and not the way you've described it above. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I believe they are the minority.

I can assure you there is no relationship whatsoever between the author's advance and the size of the initial print run, at least not in the technology book world! The initial print run really comes down to two things: First, how excited are the channel partners for this book (e.g., B&N, Borders, Amazon, etc.)? If they're committing to weak placement and aren't interested in promoting the book the publisher is wise to go conservatively on the first print quantity. Second, and this can trump the first point, how much of a risk does the publisher want to take? Even if the channel partner support is weak, the publisher may figure he/she knows better than the channel partners and therefore decide to print more. As you can imagine, that often backfires!

Notice I didn't say anything about the size of the author advance in that description of how a first print quantity is set. In fact, if I feel we've paid a large author advance on a particular project, the last thing I want to do is throw good money after bad with an excessively large print run if channel demand is weak.

Michael A. Banks

Boy, could say a lot about this, but I don't have enough time or space (I could write a book, as the saying goes). It may be worth noting that the mass-market paperback world operates a bit differently. With some publishers advances are not negotiable, except when agents or an author's previous sales are involved.

Interestingly, genre fiction writers are usually so focused on getting into print that they would do anything--even accept a five-hundred dollar advance--to get the deal. Most will accept whatever terms are offered. These are the writers who either inflate their advances or talk about the money meaning nothing in public, yet at writers' gatherings they're over in the corner gossiping about who got how much for an advance.
--Mike

Stephanie

Very helpful article - but what is a one dollar advancement?

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