This is a guest post by Dr Teika Bellamy.
When an author first receives the news that a publisher wants their book, they quite properly get excited (and may even dance the Macarena).
Once this euphoria wears off, however, the business of selling books kicks in, and there could be some (possibly unwelcome) surprises that it’s good to know about in advance. Here are some of the key stages that new authors should prepare for.
When the author first receives a contract, the initial excitement about being published can turn to wariness.
Generally speaking, authors are not used to the baroque language of a typical contract, and so the pages of detailed rights and responsibilities can seem a bit intimidating.
That’s when a good agent can come to the rescue by checking over the contract and getting the publisher to tweak it in favour of the author.
However, for the author without an agent it’s important that the author becomes familiar with the language of contracts.
Every publishing house, be they one of the ‘Big Five’ or an indie press run by just the one person, will offer a prospective author a contract that is unique to that publisher.
This makes it difficult to write about contracts in specific terms, but every contract will be similar in fundamentals and should set out the following:
- What rights the author is going to grant to the publisher (in terms of territory and electronic rights and other rights such as audiobook and film rights etc.)
- The author’s responsibilities to the publisher (such as when and how they will deliver the finished—and appropriately competent and original—work etc.)
- The publisher’s responsibilities to the author (this includes a publication timeframe as well as their production and promotion obligations)
- Details of the royalties payable to the author, and when they’ll be paid those royalties, as well how many complimentary copies of the book they’ll get
- Information about what happens after the book is published and in the event of either of the parties wanting to terminate the contract
- In an appendix to the contract, additional details may be given re: the book’s genre and expected word count
If, after having a good read of the contract, it still seems particularly baffling (or if it appears to not address any of the above crucial points) then do seek help.
It can be tempting to sign away your rights without properly understanding what you’re signing so that you can get on with the serious business of cracking open some champagne.
But, in the long-term this may not serve you well, which is why the Society of Authors provides, in effect, a ‘contract scrutinising’ service to paid-up members.
However, for some, the fee to join the society may be too steep, in which case I’d recommend checking out the information about contracts in the latest Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook as well as having a read of From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake.
Also, you could ask your publisher to explain some of the clauses.
Some publishers may be happy to set aside some time to go through the contract with you, but remember, publishers are desperately strapped for time, and, ultimately, it’s your responsibility to check through it.
At some point, though, you’ll (hopefully) have a better understanding of what the contract entails so that you can happily add your signature to the dotted line. What happens now?
Depending on the type of book you’ve been commissioned to write (or have already written) there will be various stages to the post-contract process.
Remember the bit above where it outlines in the contract that it’s the author’s responsibility to deliver an ‘appropriately competent and original’ work?
Well, an editor from the publishing house should be there to work alongside the author to make sure that they do deliver the high-quality and original manuscript that the publisher’s expecting.
Sometimes, though, the editor’s input may be minimal, which could especially be a problem for the less experienced writer.
Particularly if months pass by with the author busy editing their book and the publisher doing their thing, both thinking that everything’s fine until WHAM! the publisher (or editor) reads the final manuscript and realises that the author has not delivered the manuscript the publisher wanted. Not a great scenario.
The best way to avoid this happening is for the author to ask questions about the editing process before they sign a contract. And then for both parties to regularly keep in touch with each other. That way everyone will know what’s expected of them.
But even if this important pre-contract conversation hasn’t happened, all is not lost.
As long as both parties are open to clearly communicating with each other and finding a positive way to move forwards, solutions can be found.
Cover design and book production
Once the final manuscript—that everyone is happy with—has been delivered, then the author has to very much take a back seat in the next stage of the post-contract process.
Some publishers (mostly small indie presses) are happy to have some input from the author about what the cover looks like, but many big publishers hardly consult with the author at all.
That’s because, in general, the bigger publishers do know the market really well and have a genuinely good understanding of the kind of cover that helps a book to sell.
Of course, if the author has got real concerns about the cover, or hates it for whatever reason, they can say something.
Again, check the contract.
You may, ultimately, have no say in the matter and get stuck with a cover you don’t like.
But if you do decide to go ahead and raise your concerns, do so in a professional and courteous manner, via email. Social media is not the place to share your hatred of your book cover!
A good number of months before the launch date, the publisher’s marketing/publicity team will spring into action and begin on the process of raising awareness about the book.
They will be looking to generate a buzz around the book even before it’s published, in order to secure the most number of sales in that crucial first week after publication.
Again, depending on the size of your publisher—as well as your book and your profile—your promotional team may just be the one person with only a few hours to spare each week, or a number of people working full-time to contact newspapers, magazines, book bloggers, reviewers etc.
But whatever the size of the team, you, as the author, will be expected to fully participate in events, blog tours, interviews etc.
If you’re with a tiny press, the onus may be on you to do it all.
The more you can help out with any, or all of this, the better. Because it will all help to get your book known, and, hopefully, sold. (Which makes both publisher and author happy.)
Getting your book accepted by a traditional publisher, then signing a contract and going ahead with the deal, to eventually see your book in print (or pixels) should be a positive experience.
Most of the time it is, but occasionally, it can be fraught. Which is why it can be of great benefit to learn as much as you can about the publishing world, your prospective publisher, and the ins and outs of contracts, in advance of getting a deal.
Enjoy the ride!
Dr Teika Bellamy is the award-winning founder and director of Nottingham-based independent press Mother’s Milk Books. She is also one half of The Book Stewards—a husband and wife team who empower writers to achieve their publishing goals.