Question This Chapter: An Introduction to the Boilerplate Book Contract

If you’re so fortunate as to attract a publisher for your book, you will soon find yourself looking at the notorious boilerplate book contract. The boilerplate is the version of the contract that the traditional publisher sends you and hopes that you’ll sign without question.

Unless you are an established author, a rising novelist, a criminal, a celebrity, or a politician, your boilerplate contract will stink, especially if it is with an academic press. The publisher’s lawyers have seen to that.

But it’s a lot worse if you go into negotiations in ignorance. You don’t have to ever again, if you know in advance what to expect from your book contract, what the clauses mean, and how to negotiate.

Understand Your Boilerplate Book Contract

In upcoming entries, I introduce you to a few of the most important clauses I have encountered in my over thirty years as a book contract adviser with the National Writers Union’s Grievance and Contract Committee — the brain trust of NWU. Then I show you how to register your copyright and teach you the ten steps to negotiating your own contract.

In my book, You’ve Got the Time: How to Write and Publish That Book in You, I deep dive into those and all of the other clauses that you are likely to encounter in just about any boilerplate book publishing contract you negotiate.

Although not all of us are lawyers (I’m not) and we never claim to be giving legal advice, our combined knowledge of both book and journalism contracts is so vast lawyers come to us for advice. Writers often join when they find themselves looking at their first contract so that they can immediately ask for the free services of a contract adviser.

You Have the Right to Negotiate

As the founder of NWU’s Academic Writers Caucus, I have been the foremost contract adviser specializing in academic press contracts, which cover anyone who is writing scholarly, nonfiction, technical, text, and other non-trade books.

What I have learned is that publishers assume their authors will blindly sign whatever publishers give them and, in fact, expect them to. Too often they’re right, either because the authors are academics who are chasing the tenure truck and don’t care about contractual nuances, or because they just don’t know they can say no to a bad contract.

Remember: You have the right to negotiate the contract that your publisher sends you. Consider the boilerplate a suggestion. In fact, do not ever sign a boilerplate contract without asking for changes.


And if the publisher refuses to negotiate, run as fast as you can and don’t look back.


Go Slow. Shoot High.

Looking at your first book contract is not easy. Contracts are a mumbo-jumbo of deceptive, vague, and intimidating legalese. Don’t let yourself feel rushed. Don’t make any conclusive statements over the phone without first taking a day or so to think about the ramifications.

Practice saying, “Let me get back to you. I need to speak with my contract adviser.” You can be sure your publisher will check with their lawyer. Why should you do any less?

Shoot high. Publishers won’t accept every change you want but ask for it anyway. That’s what negotiating is.

If you ask for everything you want, you don’t get all of it but you get some of it. If you ask for nothing, you get all of it.

Your Boilerplate Book Contract: Negotiating or Bluffing

It’s true that many writers will sign poor contracts in exchange for bylines. But it isn’t true that the moment you speak up your publisher will dump you. Publishers are under tremendous pressure to produce many books fast. This is a testament to the megabucks publishers stand to make from your knowledge and your labor.

But publishers still want to produce quality books because their reputations rise and fall based on the books they produce. While they won’t give in to your every demand, it is a lot cheaper for them to let you win on a few clauses than it is to reject you altogether and find another writer, with a good book, who won’t make any demands, in time to get the finished product into the next catalog.

Finally, always think of your bottom line. If you’re willing to cross it, then you aren’t negotiating; you’re bluffing.

Every clause you negotiate for the better is a victory for writers everywhere.


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This piece was adapted from Ken Wachsberger’s You’ve Got the Time: How to Write and Publish That Book in You. Ken’s other books may be found here and here. For book coaching and editing help, or to invite Ken to speak at your meeting, email Ken at [email protected].

Do your members need to understand book contracts? Contact Ken at [email protected].

Schedule your complimentary 30-minute coaching and editing session now..

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