Every book contract is negotiable. But what does contract negotiation look like? Is it done on one phone call or a series of emails?
Should I Email or Call to Negotiate?
In my more than thirty years of contract advising for author members of the National Writers Union, I encouraged a combination of the two methods, beginning with email.
With email contract negotiation, if your publisher sends their contract as a Word file, you type your questions into the contract at the points where they arise. You delete unfavorable wording and replace it with clauses that read exactly as you want them to appear in the final draft.
Use Track Changes so your changes stand out. Then return it attached to a well-reasoned, carefully written cover letter that gives your overall assessment.
If they send you a pdf that you can’t edit, handwrite your changes and initial all changes. Then scan the file and return it as an attachment.
- Email helps you to document and frame your conversation.
- You don’t have to worry about forgetting a main point or being sidetracked before you get out your strongest argument.
- You start a paper trail.
But contract negotiation can take place over the phone as well. When it does, send an email afterward with your summary of the meeting that just took place.
Ten Steps to Successful Contract Negotiation
No matter how you negotiate, consider the following steps:
Step 1: Self-hypnotize
Are you worth more than the boilerplate contract? Proclaim yourself so into your bathroom mirror until you believe you are.
Memorize this line: “That seems a little low to me.”
Step 2: Know Your Contract
Join the National Writers Union so you can obtain a copy of the National Writers Union’s Guide to Book Contracts, which tells you everything you need to know about writers’ rights, standard industry practices, and unacceptable contract terms from the only labor union for freelance writers.
Step 3: Get Contract Advice from the NWU
Request the free members-only services of an NWU contract adviser by sending an email to [email protected]. Your contract adviser will teach you what the clauses mean and give you suggestions on how to negotiate your contract.
Step 4: Know Your Bottom Line
When negotiating, you seldom get everything you want. Don’t be so rigid that you lose a potentially workable contract.
On the other hand, not every contract is workable.
- What do you do if the publisher insists on taking your copyright (see “Copyright: Keep It in Your Name”)?
- Do you insist on the right to purchase books at a discount to resell (see “The Drunk Lawyer Clause”)?
- What is the minimum royalty you will accept for electronic rights (see “Electronic Rights: Publishers Hijack Digital Windfall”)?
What are your other bottom-line issues, in whose defense you would rather walk than compromise?
Step 5: Start High
Make your opening offer higher than your bottom line. You can negotiate down but you can never negotiate up.
Step 6: Prepare an Opening Script and Good Notes
A well-rehearsed script is to your phone negotiation what your cover letter is to your email negotiation. It sets the tone of the conversation and helps you to state your opening case without getting sidetracked.
Write down the points you want to make about every clause, including the ﬁrst bids, the fallback bids, and the bottom-line positions.
Here’s a sample phone dialogue to get the discussion moving in your direction:
“Hey, Les, I’m calling about my contract. I have a few concerns before I can sign it.” [“Concerns” is better than “Questions.”]
Your surprised publisher replies, “What’s wrong with it?”
You respond, “Would you like to go clause by clause?” Then wait for a response.
Step 7: Take Notes during Your Negotiations
Note taking empowers you and prepares you for the inevitable follow-up communications. Record dates of all phone correspondence, keep digital files of all letters you send through the mail, create a running Word file of all email correspondence, and write down the names of everyone you talk to, including receptionists.
Step 8: Don’t Make Commitments during Your First Conversation
Don’t feel compelled or pressured to make a snap decision over the phone. Tell your publisher you need to call back after you talk to your contract adviser. Let emails sit for a day before responding to them. When you demand time to think, you are taking control.
Step 9: Ask Questions and Get Answers in Writing
Ask questions about sections of the contract you don’t understand. Get any “side agreement” made with the publisher in writing and make it part of the contract.
Step 10: Be Prepared to Walk
Those writers who have no human dignity and are comfortable being stepped on can ignore this step. But because you’ve read this far, you demand respect.
You’ve already determined your bottom-line issues. If the publisher makes enough concessions to satisfy you, congratulations.
If the publisher won’t respect those minimum standards, you can exercise the right and the courage to go elsewhere.
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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].