If your attempt to convince a publisher that your manuscript would be a valuable addition to their lineup succeeds, congratulations! You've passed the first hurdle. The publisher will then present you with a lengthy contract that itemizes every aspect of the publishing agreement, more than you ever imagined possible. Naturally, publishers write these contracts in their own best interest, but you'll find that you can negotiate on many terms that might be uncomfortable for you.
For example, royalties are often expressed in terms of two or more tiers. Each tier states the royalty as a certain percentage of gross receipts (which is far less per copy than the book’s retail price) on a certain number of copies sold (less copies returned). So you might be offered a three-tier structure, perhaps 12% on the first 10,000 copies, 15% on copies 10,001 through 20,000, and 17% on additional copies sold. (These numbers are just examples; your mileage may vary.)You can negotiate on both the royalty percentages and the tier breakpoints, if you wish. Just remember that you won’t win every negotiation.
I’ve read—and signed—a number of them, but I am no expert on publishing contracts. I refer you to Scott Meyers’s web page for some insights on the contract. If you haven't seen these sorts of things before, I highly recommend that you have an intellectual-property attorney, a literary agent, or someone else in the business take a look at your book contract and see if there's anything weird in there that you might want to adjust. For example, I like to get the copyright in my own name, not the publisher's name. Maybe this isn’t important, but it makes me feel good. Also, some of the contracts I’ve seen had a clause that gave the publisher the right of first refusal on my next book. I always ask to remove that clause, as I don’t want to have any restrictions on where I submit future books.
Be careful not to commit to a contract until you have a really clear idea of where you're going with the book and are confident you can deliver without killing yourself. I know one consultant who began writing his seminal work some years ago. It wasn't long, though, before he realized that he simply didn't have the bandwidth to devote to the book along with his other responsibilities and family life. He was exhausting himself with the effort. Wisely, he decided that the book was a lower priority for him and abandoned it. Later on, he did author and co-author several other books.
Another established author once told me that he was way behind deadline for delivering not one, but two book manuscripts. It wasn't clear that he expected to complete either one, although he had happily cashed the advance checks from the publisher. If you conclude that you aren’t going to be able to deliver the manuscript on schedule, let the publisher know as soon as possible so he can take appropriate corrective action. This might involve adjusting the schedule, having someone else finish the book, or abandoning the project entirely. And you really ought to return the advance if you're not going to finish the book.
The contract will make it clear who is responsible for doing what parts of the work on the project. For instance, the publisher will generally hire someone to create the index, although I know one author who always generates his own indexes. I've always provided my indexer with a list of suggested index terms, but my list is usually ignored. You have to look at the index carefully to make sure that it contains the terms that will help the interested reader find all the goodies contained in the book. If the index (or any other aspect of the book) isn’t useful, the reader is going to blame you, because your name is on the cover.
Staying on Track
I have a personal life philosophy to undercommit and overdeliver, which helps me avoid making iffy schedule commitments. This attitude serves me well when I’m working on a book project. It will probably take longer than you expect to write the book. And simply writing it isn't enough. I always line up about fifteen friends and colleagues to review the manuscript, chapter by chapter, before the publisher ever sees it (see “Four Eyes Are Better Than Two: Reviewing What You Write”). This adds more time to the process. Also, I'm usually aiming for a book of a particular length, so I need to monitor the size of the book as well as the status of each chapter as I'm writing.
To help my stay on top of all this, I set up a status tracking spreadsheet at the beginning of each book project. You can see an example of one of my status tracking spreadsheets at the page of supplemental materials for this blog. I admit it, I'm a high-resolution process weenie and I like data, so this level of tracking is comfortable and interesting for me. It might not make any sense for you at all.
My tracking spreadsheet contains three sections in separate worksheets:
Chapter Status: I list all the book elements that I need to create, including chapters, foreword (if any), preface, any introductions to individual parts of the book, references, author biography, and so forth. For each such element, I track the following dates: drafted; sent out for peer review; baselined; submitted to publisher; received after copy editing; returned to publisher with changes; page proofs received; my page proof comments returned to publisher; comments on final pages returned to publisher. I establish target dates for major milestones, such as sending out chapters for review and submitting them to the publisher, so I can see quickly whether I'm on schedule.
Review Status: I note the date that I sent each chapter out for review and the target date by which I wish to receive feedback. For each of my reviewers, I record the date that I received their comments on each chapter. I also make a notation as to how helpful their feedback was, on a scale from 0 (not useful at all) to +++ (saved my bacon). The pattern that results lets me know who the most valuable (and timely) reviewers are; I’ll probably invite them back next time.
Even though I don't have any trouble getting reviewers to volunteer to participate in my projects, I'm astonished at how many of them fail to return any feedback at all. They don't even explain why they aren’t reviewing what I send them. It's as though they dropped off the face of the earth. Weird. If you sign up to be a manuscript reviewer and then can’t contribute, for whatever reason, please have the courtesy to let the author know as early as possible.
Size Tracking: I generally target my books for a particular approximate length, based on what I think will best fit the market. If you're not doing this, then skip this paragraph. I estimate the length of each chapter in words, based on my outline, and I record the actual number of words in the draft version that goes out for review and the final version of each chapter. My spreadsheet calculates the cumulative number of words to date and charts the actual versus expected word count so I can see what the deviation is. Some books have wound up as much as twenty percent longer than I estimated, although I'm getting better at projecting lengths and writing to those targets. I agree, this is kind of high-resolution, but it helps me get the book done in the way that I'm really trying to. Being a research chemist by background, I'm a data kind of guy, so this is actually sort of fun for me. Peculiar, I know.
The final installment in this four-part series will take a look at another viable option for today’s book author: self-publishing.
(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)