Once you’ve found a publisher, you’ll need to negotiate your contract. The contract itself can be intimidating (trust me, I know). It will be in legalese, and longer than you expect.
Yes, if you have an agent, s/he’ll do the actual negotiating, but you’re putting your name to this agreement and you’ll have to live by it.
If you’re publishing with a hybrid publisher, as I am, you may not have an agent (I don’t) which makes the steps below doubly important.
Step One: Read the Thing
Get comfortable. Have a glass of something, even water, by your side to sip from when your eyes start to glaze over. But read the contract thoroughly. Use your common sense as you read, and trust your instincts. Where you have questions, it’s either because you don’t understand or there’s something there that might be a good subject for negotiation. Either way, seek clarification.
Write your questions down, making sure to note where each question arose in the contract (i.e., page number, subject heading and paragraph or even the line or two in question.) Be anal; it saves time later on.
Generally speaking, publishers’ will ask for everything, whether they expect to win each point or not. They expect to negotiate. You won’t know what’s negotiable or not until you ask.
Step Two: Read It Again
Maybe wait a day or two if you can, then pick up the contract and read it word-for-word again. Some things from the first read will become clearer and some of your questions may disappear. The ones that remain need answering. Knowing your contract well will help set your expectations, too, and make you clear about your responsibilities.
Step Three: Research
The more knowledgeable you are, the better protected you will be. If you have an agent who’s responsive, you can certainly start with her/him. If you have friends who’ve been published, ask them for help. If they have literary lawyers to recommend, take their contact info.
Don’t forget the Internet. You’ll find good articles about negotiating publishing contracts. One example is Matt Night’s advice on Sidebar Saturdays. He’s an intellectual property lawyer who offers tips such as, “8 Top Deal Points in a Book Publishing Contract”.
Step Four: Use Experts
If you have an agent, you may decide the agent is your expert. Or, you may feel the need to find a literary lawyer, usually an intellectual property expert.
If you’re hybrid publishing, you might want a lawyer to review your contract. Be prepared to spend hundreds of dollars (the one I contacted in Boston charged roughly $400/hr). You can lessen the cost by asking if the attorney’s willing to have you bring your contract (it will be shorter than that of traditional publishers) to their office, along with your key questions to get their advice in person. You might be able to get this done in an hour if you’re familiar with your contract and have eliminated some questions through research. This approach saves the attorney spending time reading the contract first, then meeting with/calling you, explaining basic stuff, and preparing written suggestions or a new contract.
Or you can turn to The Authors Guild, as I did, whose slogan is “Supporting working writers and protecting authors’ rights since 1912.” Once you become a full member, they grant you a free review of your contract. If you’re working with a hybrid publisher, they’ll send instead, a list of key things to beware, with suggested language to ask for when negotiating.
Step 5: Negotiate
One’s leverage with a publisher varies, of course. Unless you’re famous already, your negotiating leverage with a traditional publisher will be limited, but it’s worth having your agent try, if something’s really important to you, to know that you did your utmost. I found my hybrid publisher very reasonable. I won some important points and she won some. In the end, I found myself knowing her better and trusting her more as a result.
Step 6: Celebrate
The road to getting a book on the shelves is long and may be emotionally bumpy. Celebrate your hard work and attentiveness along the way. You deserve to.