Question The Publisher Before You Sign

A member who is a published author recently sent us a book contract for review.

She wasn’t comfortable with the often-seen clause about granting all subsidiary rights to the publisher in all media now existing or heretofore to be discovered or invented. She didn’t want to assign the publisher the right of first refusal on her next book. She wanted a say in the cover design, and more details on the editing process. And lastly, she’d researched the press and questioned its distribution policies.

We agreed with her on all counts. We also noticed that the royalties being offered were extremely high. When we read the fine print—as she had—we discovered that the royalties were percentages, not of the list price (which we prefer), or net sales (revenue after distribution expenses) but net profits. In other words, all production, as well as distribution costs, could be deducted before the author saw any money. That raised a huge red flag: She might never be paid.

The member felt, rightly, that she had to have a good relationship with the publisher. She sent the publisher her questions: How was “net profit” calculated? Could the assignment of rights be less sweeping? How extensive might revisions be? Would there be any marketing? And a great question: How could she obtain a copy of a book the press had published that was similar to hers?

The answer was swift. We’re “not the right press for you,” the publisher replied, and then he withdrew his offer.

This member did everything right. Instead of accepting the contract as many authors do in their haste to be published, she read it carefully, questioned it, and checked out her conclusions with the GCD. The process helped her avoid a bad deal.

If you have questions about your contract, ask for answers. If you’re unsure about what to ask, our contract advice process ( can help. Our Guide to Book Contracts (available to members at is a great place to start.

Barbara Mende is the coordinator of the Grievance and Contract Division.