Literary Contracts: A Guide for New Authors
When I sold A Kill in the Morning, to Transworld Books, I knew almost nothing about publishers, agents or all the specialised terms used in my literary contract, so I had to learn fast.
I’m not allowed to talk about specifics like how much my advance was or exactly what the various percentages are. But apart from that, this is what I’ve learnt so far.
Obviously this isn’t legal advice, it’s just an explanation of what the process is and some terms you might come across in a literary contract.
Literary Contracts: the Process
- A commissioning editor at the publishers was interested in my book.
- He took a proposal to buy the book to the acquisitions committee.
- The acquisitions committee agreed to buy the rights to the book.
- The editor offered me an advance in return for rights to the book.
- I agreed in principle to sell the rights.
- The editor then negotiated the details of the literary contract with my agent.
- Most of the literary contract terms were standard boilerplate. The negotiation concerned the schedule.
- When my agent and the editor agreed the literary contract, the publishers and I signed it.
- I got my signing advance. When the book comes out, I’ll get a further advance called a publication advance.
- As the book sells, the publishers will notionally assign a percentage of the price to me. If that money adds up to more than the advance, then the book will ‘earn out’ and I will start getting royalties.
Literary Contract Terms Explained
That’s a lot of jargon! Here’s what all the terms mean:
A person at the publishers who finds books to buy, edit and publish.
A person who acts on your behalf to sell your book to the publishers. Many publishers will not consider submissions except via agents. The agent also negotiates with the publisher over the contract. They receive a percentage of the money you get for the book (typically around 15%).
The people at the publishers who have the authority to approve the buying and publishing of a book. The committee includes people like the heads of marketing and sales. The commissioning editor presents the book and the committee makes the final decision about whether to proceed.
When you write a book, the copyright is automatically yours – you own it and no one can legally copy or publish it without your permission. What the publisher buys off you as when you sign the literary contract is the right to publish the book, usually in specific countries, called territories.
This is the money the publisher pays up front for the right to publish the book. They often split it into a signing advance, paid when you sign the contract, and a publishing advance, paid when the book goes on sale. If the book sells enough copies, it earns out. If it doesn’t, then that’s called an unrecouped advance. The author does not have to pay the unrecouped advance back.
Much of the literary contract is boilerplate. These are the parts of a contract that are standard and don’t change for different books.
Schedules are the bits of the literary contract that change per book: things like what your advance is, which rights you are selling, what the split is on the various subsidiary rights, etc.
These are the rights that are bought by the publisher and then sold on. For example, the right to produce:
- A serialisation of your novel in a newspaper or magazine.
- Book Club editions.
- Audio books based on your novel.
- Translations of your novel into a foreign language.
- Editions of your novel specific to a territory, like a US Edition.
When the publisher sells the subsidiary rights, it generates more money for everyone, not just the publishers. The percentages used to split the money are in the schedule. They’re negotiated between the agent and editor, and the split percentages vary, but are often in the 50:50 or 60:40 range.
Every copy of the book sold earns the author a small percentage of the price (typically around 10% of the price, although it can vary). If the publishers sell the book at a discount, then the percentage can drop. The contract defines this as price received, rather than the official published price.
There are three types of cover and the royalty percentage can vary depending on that too. The three types are:
- Hardback – the most expensive and prestigious edition.
- Trade Paperback – a bigger format paperback, usually a bit more expensive than the mass-market paperback.
- Mass-Market Paperback – the smallest and cheapest edition, usually sells the most copies.
Initially, the publisher notionally sets the money the author earns in royalties against the money they’ve already received as an advance. If at some point the amount earned in royalties is more than the amount they paid as an advance then they pay the author more. They call this ‘earning out’. Most books don’t earn out.
The schedule defines the different countries of the world in which you have sold the rights to publish your book. They call these territories.
Literary Contracts: Curious Clauses
Additional Copies Clause
This clause states how many copies of any edition of the novel the author gets. Usually it’s a handful.
If the literary contract contains an option, then you have to give the publisher a chance to see the next book you write and an opportunity to offer to buy it. You aren’t obligated to accept the offer, though—you can still negotiate.
A reversion clause defines under what circumstances you get the rights to the book back. A common condition is if the publisher takes the book out of print then you get the rights back and could then seek to resell them.
Remainders and Pulp Clauses
A remainder and pulp clause will give you the chance to buy any copies of your book that haven’t sold at a commercial price. Normally you can buy them at a large discount or even get them for free. What you will then do with them is another question.
My Literary Contract for A Kill in the Morning
Here’s what the front page of the literary contract for A Kill in the Morning looks like:
As you can see, the contract for A Kill in the Morning is between me and Transworld Publishers. My agent, Euan Thorneycroft at AM Heath, negotiated it.
What is A Kill in the Morning about?
The year is 1955 and something is very wrong with the world. It’s fourteen years since Churchill died and the Second World War ended. In occupied Europe, Britain fights a cold war against a nuclear-armed Nazi Germany.
In Berlin the Gestapo is on the trail of a beautiful young resistance fighter, and the head of the SS is plotting to dispose of an ailing Adolf Hitler and restart the war against Britain and her empire. Meanwhile, in a secret bunker hidden deep beneath the German countryside, scientists are experimenting with a force far beyond their understanding.
Into this arena steps a nameless British assassin, on the run from a sinister cabal within his own government, and planning a private war against the Nazis.
Now the fate of the world rests on a single kill in the morning…
You can read the opening here: The first two chapters of A Kill in the Morning.
Literary Contracts: Any Questions?
If you have any questions about literary contracts or anything to do with publishing, then please email me and I’ll try to answer. If you found the article useful, please feel free to share it using the buttons below.