If you have an agent, he or she will normally handle the contract arrangements in consultation with you and make recommendations on how to present your material and the best publishers to contact. Agents are typically familiar with the usual contract provisions and what they can ask for and negotiate to get you the best deal.

If you don’t have an agent and have a good offer from a big publisher – say a $10,000 advance or more, it can be worth working with a lawyer who has handled book contracts with publishers, though don’t work with a lawyer not familiar with the publishing industry, since they can make demands that are more excessive than usual and kill a deal. You can either hire the lawyer to negotiate for you if the offer is high enough, or obtain the lawyer’s advice on whether this is a good contract and what you can ask for if you negotiate the deal yourself.

But what if, like many authors, you don’t have an agent and have an offer from a publisher — usually a small or medium sized publisher – who is offering a small advance – commonly from about $1000-3000, or even no advance. What should you do, since bringing in a lawyer will commonly cost about $500-1500, and this will be a substantial portion of the advance, or even more than it? Following are some things to consider, though this is not legal advice. If in doubt, consult with a law book or get second opinions from books on book contracts or other writers who have signed books.

– The contract should include a statement that the copyright will be in the author’s name. Usually, the publisher will agree to register the copyright in your name, but if not, you can easily do this with the copyright office — $35 for an individual copyright; $55 if there are more than two parties on the copyrighted work. In some cases, a contract may state that the publisher will obtain the copyright in the publisher’s name. If so, seek to have this changed to registering the copyright in the author’s name, since the registration in your name will make it easier, if the work goes out of print or you get back the rights, to find another publisher for the work or publish it yourself, because you still own the copyright – you just licensed its use to the publisher.

– Specify the approximate length of the manuscript and the delivery date. These arrangements will commonly be discussed before the publisher draws up a contract. Be sure the manuscript length is a reasonable goal for your manuscript. While there is some flexibility from the length specified in the contract, give or take about 10,000 words, publishers will ask you to edit down a manuscript that is too long – and usually you need to do it rather than the publisher’s copy editor, unless it is over the expected word count by a small amount and the cuts are obvious, such as cutting down long quotes. If your manuscript is too short, the publisher is likely to ask you to add more information, or could possibly reject the manuscript entirely, whereupon you may have to pay back any advance.
You also need a realistic delivery date based on the length of the manuscript, how much research you need to do, and how long it will take you to write any chapters not completed in addition to those in the proposal to sell the book. While the delivery date can sometimes be extended, check in advance to determine how flexible this date is, because if you don’t deliver the manuscript by the agreed upon date, your publisher may be delayed in meeting the planned publication date, which could reduce PR efforts. The publisher could also cancel the contract for the lack of a timely delivery, obligating you to return any advance. Commonly, these clauses also specify the time the publisher has to publish the accepted work – usually 12 to 18 months, and if not, you can request back the rights.

– Submitting the manuscript. Normally, a contract will specify how you should submit the manuscript and any additional components, such as illustrations, photos, or table of contents, and an index, by the specified delivery date. At one time, publishers expected hard copies, but now, many publishers are fine with an electronic copy, though some may ask for a hard copy, too.
Commonly, the author is responsible for preparing the index, though some publishers will do this and deduct the cost from the last half of the advance or future royalties. Indexes aren’t always necessary, but if they are, figure on them costing about $500, with index costs from professional indexers of about $2.50-$3.50 a page (based on the page count in the published book). One way to cut down the cost is if you go through the manuscript and pick out the key words and provide a list of them to the indexer, figuring on about 300-500 words on your list, which can bring down your costs to about $150.

– Accepting and Publishing the Manuscript. This clause provides the publisher a way out of the agreement if the publisher finds the manuscript unacceptable. Commonly, the publisher will advise the author what to do to fix it, but if the author can’t or doesn’t want to do so, the publisher can reject the manuscript. Generally, the author can keep any advance already paid, since the assumption is that the author has been working in good faith on writing the manuscript, though some publishers will ask for the advance back. Alternatively, some publishers will only ask that the author repay them if he or she finds another publisher. If the publisher doesn’t publish the manuscript within a certain time, rights in the manuscript revert to the author, along with any discs or copies of the manuscript given to the publisher. In this case, the author does not have to return any advance.

While these clauses are fairly standard in laying out the length of the manuscript the author is expected to deliver, when, and what happens if the author doesn’t deliver or the publisher doesn’t publish within the time specified, there is some room for negotiation. In particular, you might ask to only deliver the manuscript by email attachment or on a disc, which will cut down your time and costs for the delivery. You might also ask the publisher to cover the costs of any index if required or at least not charge you until future payments are due rather than taking the cost out of any remaining payments on the advance.

Another strategy is to state that the index is unnecessary, so there are no costs for either the author or publisher. Still another point you might negotiate is the length of time for the publisher to publish the work, such as requiring publication within 12 months rather than 18, or even 6 months, if the publisher has a short turn-around time.


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GINI GRAHAM SCOTT, Ph.D., is a nationally known writer, consultant, speaker, and seminar/workshop leader, who has published over 50 books on diverse subjects, including business and work relationships, professional and personal development, and social trends. She also writes books, proposals, scripts, articles, blogs, website copy, press releases, and marketing materials for clients as the founder and director of Changemakers Publishing and Writing and as a writer and consultant for The Publishing Connection ( She has been a featured expert guest on hundreds of TV and radio programs, including Good Morning America, Oprah, and CNN, talking about the topics in her books.