Securing a Book Contract - From Consumer to Producer of the Literature - Writing as Professional Development

Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016

Securing a Book Contract
From Consumer to Producer of the Literature
Writing as Professional Development

One vastly experienced editor for a commercial textbook publisher explained the situation of signing authors this way: “Of the professors I talk to about a book project, about one-third will follow through and write and submit a book proposal. Of that one-third, about a third of the projects are worth pursuing in our estimation and the estimation of the reviewers; these authors will be offered a contract. However, nearly half of them will bail out when they see all of the recommendations for revision. Only about half of those still standing will finish the book and produce a first edition. Out of those produced, about 20 % will go to a subsequent edition and out of that 20 %, about 2—5 % will make a significant profit. We actually use a letter grading system that is based on the amount invested in advertising, ranging from an AAAA down to C.”

It is very difficult to know what to expect financially from writing a book; our best advice is to set you expectations very low. As one college textbook author put it, “I treat any royalty checks I happen to get as ’mad money’ to use on whatever makes me happy. If I’m lucky, I have enough to take the kids to Disneyworld.” Some basic facts help authors to formulate ideas about what would be fair. Table 10.9 contains information relevant to book contracts.

Table 10.9

Background on book contracts

Net versus gross. To understand the difference between the net and gross, just think of your paycheck—the gross is quite a bit larger. Suppose that a publisher charges $80.00 for a book—that is the gross income. But from that amount, the publisher has to pay for personnel, office space, design, paper, printing, production, and technology; they also have to produce advertising, marketing, mailing, and send out free copies. The bookseller needs to make a profit as well. As a result, the net is about 30 % of the gross for books

Basic royalty rates. These are payments made to the author, based on sales. A typical royalty rate is about 7—10 % of the net income generated by the book—not the cover price at the bookstore (that is the gross). This means that if the net price of the book is $40.00, you would earn about $2.00 per book and, if you have a co-author, your share is $1.00 per book. Knowing this helps to answer a common question: “Should I hire an agent or a lawyer?” With compensation this low, it probably is not worth it to pay a percentage to someone to advise you

More on royalties. Be sure to read the contract carefully—royalty rates are often lower on international sales, direct sales, or electronic versions. Some publishers—such as professional associations that are nonprofit—may not pay any royalties at all since their book publishing programs often are designed to get high-quality, inexpensive resources into professionals’ hands. Where college-level textbooks are concerned, it might be advisable to include an escalation clause (for example, an increase from 8 % to 10 % after the first 7,000 copies are sold) or to renegotiate when a subsequent edition is planned. Realize too that there are no royalties on used books, only on new ones

Hidden costs. Be sure to read your contract! Too often, professors are so thrilled to have a book contract that they promptly sign it and return it without reading the document. Some publishing companies will charge you for indexing the book; this is deducted from your royalties. Given that this is something that most authors are not keen to do, you may want to insist that the publisher absorb this cost as part of your contract negotiations. Commercial textbook publishers may charge you for photographs; this too is deducted from royalties. If you decide to use any copyrighted materials, you will have to pay permission fees and these can be quite expensive so find out what the fees will be before you include any of this material in a manuscript. Given all these charges against royalties, your first statement well may be a negative number, with you “owing” the publisher money—at least until you sell more copies of the book

Breaking the contract. Sometimes, a commercial publisher (e.g., college-level textbook publishers) will give a small advance—for example, $1,000—to an author when the project is launched. Realize that these are advances against royalties, so if the book is never produced, there will be no royalties and you will have to pay it back. Scholarly publishers typically do not do this. Your contract will specify the deadline for receipt of the entire manuscript, the approximate number of words, and so forth. If you fail to comply with those terms, the publisher has the option of abandoning the project and there is nothing you can do about it

Special clauses. Some publishers include a “noncompeting works” clause. This means that you are prohibited from writing another book on the same topic for a specified period of time (e.g., 1—2 years). What if you are terribly dissatisfied with a publisher and want to take your work elsewhere? Again, it is essential to read your contract. You will need to be released from your contract, assuming that it is still in force

Harsh realities. Only about 2—3 % of the books that are proposed ultimately become published books (Moxley & Taylor, 1997)

As this information reveals, academic writing is very different from popular press ventures. Whereas novelists’ livelihood is entirely dependent on books, professors already have full-time jobs, health care, and so forth. To put it bluntly, publishers are working on small profit margins themselves and they expect universities to support scholars. We read of popular press books selling millions of copies while selling fewer than 5,000 copies would be more typical for scholarly books or even college-level textbooks. Many times, students think about how expensive textbooks are and assume that authors surely are the beneficiaries of those high prices. Yet, as this chapter has explained, the money flow gets diverted to covering other expenses, leaving a tiny trickle for the author. As one professor explained. “I have six books in print right now and, collectively, they keep my ordinary family car up to date. Most of my tangible rewards for writing have come from my employer, such as moving through the promotional sequence (and up the salary schedule) quickly or earning sabbatical leaves.”