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Information key to win-win textbook contract: Play 20 questions with your editor

When negotiating a contract with an acquisitions editor, gather as much information as you can about that person during the negotiation, said Steve Gillen, an attorney with Wood Herron & Evans.

“The more information you can gather about their interests, objectives, constraints, etc., the better armed you will be for the negotiation,” he said. “Ask the editor questions about herself to find out how close she is to reaching her new contract signings goal (and possibly earning a bonus). The higher the advance, the more attention the acquisition editor will pay to your book.”

The traditional approach to negotiation, said Gillen, is to view it as a zero sum game where any advantage to you comes at the expense of the other side. “Accordingly, most negotiators employing this approach play their cards close to the vest and only reluctantly disclose any information about their own interests and objectives,” he said. “However, in negotiations over intellectual property rights the pie is potentially limitless — the object should be not to keep your opponent’s piece small, but instead should be to make sure that the rights end up in the hands of the party best positioned to exploit them. You can effectively accomplish this objective without sharing some information with your opponent.”

The less you know about each other during the contract negotiations, Gillen said, the more likely it is that you will leave money on the table: “It’s more advantageous for both parties to learn something about each other when negotiating a publishing contract. You want to leave the negotiation with both parties feeling good about the deal; feeling like it was a win-win situation. The negotiation is just the first step in the process of producing a book. You will need to work with this editor throughout the process, and a good relationship will go a long way in making it a smooth one.”

Gillen shares 21 questions to ask your editor during the contract negotiations (to get him/her talking about him/herself):

  1. How long have you been with publisher X? “Editors move from house to house and it will be helpful to know how long your editor has been in his/her current position.”
  2. Where were you before? “The experience he/she gained at other houses will tell you something about his/her knowledge of the market and the business.”
  3. Did you come through the sales side or through editorial? “The editor with a sales background will have a significantly different negotiating focus from the editor with an editorial background.”
  4. Tell me about your current list: How many titles are there? What disciplines? What curricular level? What is (are) your lead title(s)? What sort of market share do they have? Are any of them market leaders? “The answers to these questions will tell you something about your editor’s place in the pecking order and about how much attention your project is likely to get.” (To find out how important your project is to the editor’s bonus — no editor will knowingly answer such a questions, said Gillen, but the answers to these questions may provide a few clues)
  5. How many new books do you sign in a typical year? “The answer to this question will tell you something about the editor’s annual signing goals.”
  6. How many have you signed so far this year? “The answer to this question will give you some idea of where the editor is in relation to his/her goals. If the editor is close to his/her annual average, it could well be that signing you will make the difference between earning and not earning a bonus. You will probably never know for certain how important your project is, but you may at least get a clue.” (To find out how your book fits in)
  7. How would you envision positioning my book vis a vis the competition? “This will tell you what your editor sees as your work’s competitive advantages — information that will prove useful should you decide to approach other publishers with your project.”
  8. Who are your principal competitors in this market? “If you have not already submitted to these competitors, you should seriously consider doing so immediately. The best leverage you can have in negotiating a book contract is to know that there is another interested publisher in the wings.”
  9. Do you have any titles (published or signed) similar to mine? “For obvious reasons, you want to know if the editor will have divided loyalties. Moreover, when it comes time to talk about the scope of your non-compete clause, it is very helpful to be able to point out specifically that the publisher is not similarly constrained.”
  10. If the proposal or partial manuscript has been reviewed, check the reviews to see who is identified as a competitor. “Again, you want to know about the other publishers who might be interested in your work.” (To help you back into a reasonable advance against royalties)
  11. How big a market are we talking about? “This will give you a sense of how the publisher views your book and whether you both see it the same way.”
  12. What sort of market penetration does Publisher X generally expect with a new book? “In combination with the answer to question #11, this will give you a way of corroborating the editor’s sales projections.”
  13. How many units would an average book do in the market for which my book is targeted? First year? Lifetime? How many do you think the market leader does? “The answers to these questions, once you know the cover price, will let you estimate revenues and royalties so that you can make a credible, objectively supportable request for advances.”
  14. How many units does a book like mine have to do to break even? “The answer to this question will tell you at what volume the publisher covers its costs.”
  15. How many would it have to do before you would consider it a roaring success? “The answer to this question will tell you at what point the publisher has made its customary margin. The break-even volume and the volume necessary to a target margin are natural break points for a sliding royalty scale. Consider accepting the rate first offered up to break even, but ask for a higher rate up to the target margin, and ask for the moon beyond that.”
  16. How would you see it priced? “As noted, this information helps you project revenues and royalties, but it also will tell you something about the titles your editor views as competitive — because they will necessarily fall in the same price range.”
  17. Do you think it would travel well? “If the editor says no, then it will be very hard for him/her to push for exclusive, perpetual foreign and translation rights.”
  18. Tell me about Publisher X’s foreign sales ability. Sub rights licensing (translations and adaptations)? New media capability? “Again, rights that the editor is not positioned to aggressively exploit should not be part of the package.” (Get the promotion plan)
  19. What would you envision doing to promote a book like mine? Promotional brochure (how many pages? Full color? How big a mailing?) How many review copies/comps? Presentation at sales conference? Author appearances? Newpaper/Journal ads? Anything else? “Most publishing contracts say very little indeed about what the publisher will do to market and promote your work. If you get a sales pitch from the editor, make an effort to reduce it to writing and reference it in the publishing contract.”  (Check the back door)
  20. Roughly what percent of the titles you sign actually make it into print? “The answer to this question will tell you how important it is to introduce an objective acceptability standard into the manuscript delivery clause.”
  21. Is there anything else I should know about you or about how you see my book fitting in your list? “If your editor is still talking, you should still be taking notes.” “You will not get answers to all of these questions,” said Gillen. “And you will not get answers to any of them without a fair amount of prodding. But the time and effort you spend will tell you volumes about the editor and will pay many dividends when the time comes to negotiate that contract.”