This is mainly for authors going the traditional route. Your book contract might be negotiable, and it might not. You still want to read the whole thing, and not just the part that talks about your royalties. Some things to focus on:
Term of the contract
How long will you be under contract? Does it renew automatically? The terms I have seen start at no less than one year, but can be longer. They also usually get renewed automatically at the end of each term, unless one of the parties severs the relationship, in which case that party will need to notify the other and give advance notice to make sure there’s enough time to pull the book from all storefronts, revert rights, etc.
Breach of contract or termination
If one or the other party does not perform to the terms of the contract, they are in breach of it and any agreement that existed can be terminated. This can result in massive penalties, all of which will be spelled out in the contract, so make sure you are aware of them.
Some things that might constitute a breach of contract on your part:
- Publishing your contracted book somewhere else on the side
- Publishing more than the approved sample, or making the entire book available for free download
- Releasing confidential information about your contract or your soon-to-be-published book
Some things that might constitute a breach of contract on your publisher’s part:
- Not paying you your full royalties
- Not paying you on the agreed-upon schedule
- Not distributing your book to the agreed-upon locations
You can also terminate the contract voluntarily, if you decide another house will be a better fit or a better deal, or you decide to re-publish independently. In that case, different rules apply, and you will want to read them. Because there might be penalties you’ll have to pay if the original contract term has not been fulfilled that might no longer apply if you just wait for that term to end before you request your rights back.
What are you actually signing away? Does the publisher get all rights to your book, domestic and international, derivative, too? Or do they only take the digital and print? Or is it digital only? Will they let you utilize the rights you have left to publish on your own? If so, do you have to pay them for the privilege? This gets tricky, because technically, the publisher owns the final, edited version of your book, so to self-publish in print, for example, you may need to pay them back the full or partial editing fees for your own personal use. You may also have to pay the cover artist for the use/adaptation of the cover, if you want to use it on the other format as well.
Going back to the termination process, if you decide to get your rights back, the same fees might apply on top of any penalties for terminating prematurely. This will all be spelled out in your contract and you’ll want to study it carefully, because you might think you won’t care, but once you get in there and experience the process, you might think otherwise.
Definitely don’t skip this section. It spells out what the publisher actually does for you and what your responsibilities are in return. For example, your publisher might provide basic production services, plus domestic and international distribution, and send your book to a group of reviewers upon publication. However, they might not do any marketing for you beyond that, and they will tell you it’s your responsibility to market your book to the best of your ability, and that if you have a website, you have to include the buy link to the publisher’s storefront. They might also tell you you are only allowed to give out a set number of digital or print copies for marketing purposes or giveaways.
This is what most authors are concerned about, and it usually turns out to be more complicated than they expected, because it might not be one flat rate. You might get one royalty rate for books purchased directly from the publisher’s storefront, another rate for books purchased through outside storefronts, a third rate for print book purchases… it’s enough to give you a headache, and the more rates you see, the more difficult it is to suss out if it’s actually a good deal for you. You might be unpleasantly surprised, for example, that your royalties for purchases from Amazon are much smaller than from the publisher’s storefront. That’s because you only get a cut of the net royalties, which means it might be calculated from the sale price, but the publisher only gives you a cut of what they get after Amazon takes out their portion. And because Amazon slashes royalty rates by half if an eBook is priced under $2.99, your final income on that sale might be pennies on the dollar.
That’s not saying it isn’t worth it to sign with a publisher. Just a caution to make sure the services you are getting are worth the cut the publisher is taking out of the sale price. As always, do your homework before jumping in with both feet.
If someone decides to sue you because of something you published, does the publisher get involved, or are you on our own? Your contract will tell you exactly when and how, or if the publisher will step in on your behalf. Sometimes, they will go to bat for you, because they trust their own production team to spot any possible lawsuits in the making and prevent them. Other times, you’ll be told that the publisher will only get involved if the lawsuit is the result of their actions or oversight. If it’s a copyright infringement that’s part of the content of your book, that’s on you. Copyright infringement lawsuits can be massively expensive, so this is something you will most definitely want to pay attention to.
Oh, and by the way, each contract will have a certification clause, where you basically say, under penalty of law, that you are the sole creator and copyright holder of the book you are signing over. And that better be true, because you will be in a whole world of legal trouble if it isn’t. So if you based your story on something your next door neighbor told you in confidence, you better make damn sure your neighbor gives you written permission to use that material in your book. If you co-wrote the book with someone else, you better make damn sure they are okay with you publishing it, and make some kind of arrangement for compensation–which better be in writing. In short, just make sure you’re not breaking any laws, okay?