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Negotiating the Author–Publisher Agreement

Jason Muzinic

Contract negotiation. For many people, that activity ranks right up there with going to the dentist or being summoned for jury duty. The feeling of unease might be associated with an unpleasant experience from the past, or it might come from anxiety about possible confrontation with a perceived adversary. But like each of the analogous activities noted here, the anticipation is usually worse than the experience itself. In fact, early discussions with your acquisitions editor and attention to a few key concepts will lead to a worry-free and mutually rewarding experience.

Visions and Expectations

I’ve negotiated hundreds of publishing agreements with authors, editors, literary agents, and others. Not every experience was smooth sailing, but the majority of them have been, and the key element in the successful ones is that the author and I have common expectations for the process, the project, and the outcome.

The relationship between author and publisher can begin any number of ways, but at some point, one party develops and shares a publishing proposal with the other. It’s at this point that each person can get a sense of the other’s expectations for the first time. At this stage, it’s a good idea to compile a list of questions you’ll want to have answered before negotiating a contract. These will vary based on what is most important to you, but here are a few that are common:

  • Do you and your acquisitions editor share the same approach to the content, format, and intended audience?
  • Do the expectations that you and your acquisitions editor have about various publishing tasks, responsibilities, and schedules match up?
  • What are you and your acquisitions editor expecting in terms of promotion, sales, and ultimately royalties earned?

Bottom line: Take the opportunity to put your expectations on the table and to talk about them with your acquisitions editor so that both of you feel confident that you have a shared vision of the product before you sign a contract and begin to write.

Understanding the Partnership

The core of any successful relationship—personal or professional—is the partnership. That is, each party needs to rely on the strengths of the other to accomplish a common goal. For author and publisher, this is especially true. Human Kinetics relies on your subject-area expertise, reputation, and standing with a specific audience. You rely on us for our experience in identifying the market need, shaping content, and packaging and selling that work to the target audience.

Creating a product of unquestionable value to the consumer—one that exudes expertise and professionalism and performs well in the marketplace—requires both the author and the publisher to work in tandem. That fundamental notion is easy enough to acknowledge from an objective distance, but applying it in the middle of a negotiation is sometimes hard to do. It’s then that it’s important to understand the impact a request may have on the overall picture.

For example, an author’s request for additional compensation could mean we need to price the book higher or to cut costs in packaging or promoting the book. Any of those factors could limit sales potential. In the same way, if HK asks an author for an earlier manuscript submission date, the author might be able to do that only by leaving out a key contributor or important research. Doing that could decrease the book’s appeal in an important market.

On the surface, either of those requests is reasonable. With scrutiny, though, consequences appear. Open discussion between acquisitions editor and author will allow an honest analysis of the impact of those kinds of decisions on achieving the shared goals. The most important ingredient for a successful negotiation is transparent communication. Without that, the concepts of vision, expectations, partnerships, or mutual understanding are just empty words. Communication is the foundation on which long-term author–publisher relationships are built.



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