Book publication contracts deserve careful attention because their terms control the rights and obligations of authors and publishers for the life of the relationship between the parties, which can potentially last for decades. Our guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts helps authors to understand common clauses in publication contracts, recognize how the terms might affect their goals for their books, and negotiate for author-friendly variations of those terms.
In this two-part series, we apply the lessons from our guide to real-life contract terms and illustrate how authors can consider the implications of contract terms and formulate author-friendly variations that advance their interests. This second post covers options, non-competes, the look and feel of a work, and assignment of the agreement. To read the first post addressing grant of rights clauses, subsidiary rights, and rights reversion, click here.
Future Works: Options
Sample Term: “Author agrees that it will offer Publisher the first right to publish Author’s next work […] on the same terms and conditions as those contained herein […].”
Why it could be problematic: The term above could be problematic because it doesn’t give the author the opportunity to decline the publisher’s offer, purporting to lock the author into working with the publisher on his next book. It also could be problematic because it says that the second book’s contract will have the same terms as the first book’s contract. This could be bad for an author whose first book is wildly successful and who may attract an offer of higher royalties for the second book, but must accept the royalty rates agreed upon in the contract for the first book. (Of course, the opposite could be true: the performance of an author’s first book could mean that the terms offered for a second deal may be lower than those offered for the original deal: But this clause doesn’t help with that situation, either, as it gives the publisher the right but not the obligation to publish the author’s next work.)
How to make it better: Options clauses can be softened in a number of ways. For example, authors can limit the definition of the “next work” for which the publisher’s option applies to something closely related to the original work (such as the next book in a series), and authors can even include a right to refuse the publisher’s offer. For more information on options clauses, see pages 131-134 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.
Future Works: Non-Competes
Sample Term: “The Author agrees that during the term of this Agreement the Author will not, without the Publisher’s prior written consent, participate in the preparation or publication of, or otherwise be interested in or connected with matter that may, in the Publisher’s judgment, conflict or compete with the sale of the Work.”
Why it could be problematic: “Non-compete” clauses can be problematic because they can prevent the author from publishing any books that are of a similar character, ignoring that some authors may write exclusively on a niche topic, for example, because it’s their area of study as a scholar. This term is especially concerning because it explicitly leaves the decision of whether another book by an author will compete with the contracted book at the complete discretion of the publisher.
How to make it better: Ideally, an author will avoid agreeing to a non-compete clause in their contract at all. But publishers may feel strongly about protecting their investment in publishing the author’s book, and don’t want sales to be undermined by competing books. This term could be made better by instead using the phrase, “may reasonably be expected to interfere with the sale of the work” instead of being at the publisher’s sole discretion. And as the term of the agreement can be for a very long time, another improvement is to put a time limit for how long the author must refrain from publishing competing works, such as for one year after the contracted book’s publication. For more information on non-compete clauses, see pages 137-141 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.
Look and Feel
Sample Term: “The [Publisher] shall have entire control of such production and publication in all forms and media. The paper, printing, binding, title, design, jacket and/or cover […] shall be in the [Publisher’s] sole discretion.”
Why it could be problematic: Typically, authors hand over the manuscript to the publisher and the publisher takes care of the “business” end of actually producing, distributing, and helping with the marketing of the book. However, some authors may want to have at least some input over the “look and feel” of their book. The term above gives total control to the publisher, regardless of how the author may feel about the publisher’s decisions.
How to make it better: If an author is concerned about having no say whatsoever in the look and feel of her book, she can negotiate for the publisher to agree to at least consult with her to get her opinions, or even get a right of approval about things like the design, jacket, and cover of her book. For example, if the publisher presents a book cover that the author loathes, the author can express that opinion and maybe veto the cover. That said, it is important for authors to remember that a publishers’ business is to sell books, and that publishers rely on their extensive experience in how to best accomplish that goal. To learn more about negotiation options for the look and feel of a book, review pages 153-57 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.
Assignment of Agreement
Sample Term: “The Publisher shall have the right, without approval of the Author, to assign this Agreement.”
Why it could be problematic: Assignment is when a party to the contract (here, the publisher) gives all of their rights and obligations in the contract to someone else. Typically, publication contracts restrict an author’s ability to assign a contract without the publisher’s permission. This is unsurprising—after all, authors are individual people with particular skills, styles, and ideas, and the publisher contracted to work with that specific author. The potential problem with the term above is that the publisher can assign the contract without the author’s approval, meaning that the author has no influence whatsoever on who a future publisher may be. If the author chose the publisher because it’s prestigious, for example, but the publisher wants to assign the contract to a less prestigious publishing house, then the author will probably want to veto the transfer. But the contract says the publisher can assign the agreement no matter how the author feels.
How to make the term better: Ideally, the term will say that the publisher cannot assign the agreement without the consent of the author, though it is likely that the publisher will insist that consent cannot be unreasonably withheld. But this still gives the author the opportunity to consider the deal and the ability to reject the assignment for valid reasons, and balances control because the author must have a reasonable justification for vetoing an assignment. To learn more, check out pages 244-49 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.
* * *
The examples of covered in this series are just that—examples. Every contract looks a little different, depending on the kind of publisher and the kind of book. While this two-part series on book publication contracts has covered some of the most common terms used in contracts, there are many more that may appear, such as outlining royalty rates or marketing terms. For a deeper dive into contract terms and options for negotiation, be sure to check out Authors Alliance’s guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.
Authors Alliance is grateful to Diana Buck, Copyright Intern, for researching and drafting this post.