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Tips & tricks for negotiating your first textbook contract

The most important things to negotiate in a first contract are the amount of the advance, the royalty rate and who will control which rights, said Jeff Herman, owner of the Herman Literary Agency in New York.

Keep in mind when negotiating the advance how the publisher calculates it, Herman said: “It will tell you how far they’re willing to go.” To calculate how much of an advance it will offer, the publisher looks at the number of books it will sell during the first year and the dollar amount the author will receive per copy. For example, if the author will receive $2 per copy, and the publisher will sell 10,000 copies the first year, the author will earn $20,000 in royalties. That $20,000, he said, is the highest the publisher will be willing to go in negotiating the advance.

“The publisher will generally low-ball you, especially if you have an agent, because it will assume that the agent will negotiate what is offered,” Herman said. “If the author is negotiating the advance, the initial offer will be closer to their limit.”<

Stephen Gillen, a partner at Wood Herron & Evans, said authors need to decide what goals they want to achieve when going into a contract negotiation. “If your goal is to make money, your focus in the contract negotiation will be on royalties, grants, etc.,” said Gillen. “If your goal is on the writing, your focus will be on getting the manuscript published.”

Authors should make a list of what is important to them, said Gillen, and take that to the publisher when they negotiate the contract. “The first stage in negotiations is a lot about getting information,” he said. “Ask a lot of questions.”

Those questions, he said, need to be asked by the author, not the lawyer or the agent. The reason for this is that editors are less cautious around the author, he said, and can sometimes get answers that the editor wouldn’t give otherwise. Some questions to ask:

  • “I said in my proposal that the market is this big — do you think I was on target?” This will help you get some sense of what the publisher thinks of your market size.
  • “What kind of market penetration do you get with new books? This will tell you something about what he thinks the book will sell in the marketplace.
  • “How many units does a book like mine have to sell to break even?” If it doesn’t match with the target margin, said Gillen, “they’re not being straight with you.”
  • “How would you price my book?” This will give you the total sales number based on the price of the book.”
  • “Which books do you view as competitors of mine?” Find out how much those books cost and this will determine what the cost of your book will be.

A great way to get more of what authors want in a contract is to shop the manuscript to more than one publisher at a time, said Gillen. Get two or more to compete with each other for the manuscript, he said: “Leverage is a powerful tool in getting what you want in a contract negotiation.”