Ready to publish your first book? Here's what you need to know about signing a book deal

What's involved in a book deal? Susanne Alexander of Goose Lane Editions explains.
CBC Books' Publishing 101 series will help writers navigate each step of the book publishing process. (Ben Shannon, CBC)

CBC Books's new Publishing 101 series will help emerging writers navigate the publishing industry. We will take you through the whole process — from approaching an agent to getting your work on bookshelves to promoting your book — with answers from Canadian pros.

For the third installment we look at the art of a book deal: what is involved and what you, as an author, should be on the look out for before you sign on the dotted line.

CBC Books spoke to Susanne Alexander, the publisher of Goose Lane Editions and icehouse poetry, about book deals.

What is a book deal?

Susanne Alexander is the publisher of Goose Lane Editions and icehouse poetry. (Keith Minchin)

A book deal or contract is a legal document that outlines what a publisher is prepared to offer a writer in order to act as publisher for their work.

"There will be issues addressed such as dates for submission of the manuscript, dates for completion of certain things to bring the book towards publication," Alexander said.

The contract will also indicate how much and when the author will be paid.

Some contracts may go so far as to also include film, broadcast television, merchandising and digital rights.

Whatever the author and/or agent and the publisher have agreed upon will be covered in the document.

What should you look for in a contract?

1. Advances and royalties

A book advance is an "advance" against royalties. Publishers will offer the author an amount of money based on what they think the book will earn.

Royalties are a percentage of the sales of your book. While they can be negotiable, most publishers have a standard rate depending on the edition of the work. 

The amount and timing of all payments should be specified in the contract.

2. Performance expectations

Alexander says details about performance are as important as compensation.

"There should be certain performance guarantees, in terms of what the publisher will do when the book will be published, if there are any delays, what kind of recourse will there be, what kind of communication takes place between the author and the publisher and what kind of limitations are there regarding any kind of delays," Alexander said. "Those limitations should be spelled out very specifically."

3. The editorial process

The contract should outline the editorial process and indicate the publisher's obligations to consult with the author regarding changes to the manuscript.

"For all writers, it is essential that they see the manuscript at all stages of development and have the ability to sign off on any kind of changes that the publisher is recommending," Alexander said. "It is the author's work, the author's name will go on the book and it's important that the author have the ability to participate in and approve any changes."

4. Promotion expectations

There must be a clear sense of what the publisher will do to promote your book. Many contracts include a clause to that effect.

There should also be a stipulation as to what happens if the publisher doesn't perform.

"There can be a variety of reasons, such as changes in the company, the market didn't work out as they thought and sales weren't very good or it could be that the publisher lost interest," Alexander said. "Writers will want to see an ability to address issues of non-performance with the publisher and that should be addressed directly in the contract."

5. A break-up plan

You should have a plan for what to do if you and the publisher decide to go your separate ways.

"There should always be a clause in the agreement that covers what happens if a dissolution should occur. You want to establish that at the outset when things are good rather than when you're five years into the deal and things are bad," Alexander said.

"What a contract does is to provide mutually agreed upon expectations and also provide for a mechanism of addressing any issues that may arise when things are at their worst in a way that is clear to everyone."

What happens when you sign the contract?

Signing is an activation of your contract. In many instances, signing activates payment and publishers will often pay the first portion of the advance.

Signing also activates the editorial process. At that point, the publisher will assign an editor. The writer and publisher may have already agreed upon the editor as part of the negotiation process.

It can also activate the marketing plan for the book. In many instances, publishers will have authors complete a questionnaire so that they can learn about the author and  think about positioning the book and the author in the marketplace.

Upon signing, particularly for writers represented by an agent, most communication that was filtered by the agent becomes more direct. 

"There may be a point person who actually becomes the author's direct contact with the publishing house. With larger companies, the author may have communication with a variety of people within the publishing house and that can be the publisher, managing editor, the production editor, the creative director and/or the publicity director," Alexander said.

Parting advice

Alexander says that writers should not be afraid to ask questions, especially when they don't understand why certain clauses are in the agreement. Contracts will be filled with legal language that may be unclear.

"It's better to ask the questions in advance than it is to sign the agreement and then feel uncomfortable about it in some way," Alexander said. "This is a partnership and one that both parties enter into voluntarily. You need to be sure that you're comfortable entering into this agreement."

CBC Books's Publishing 101 series features interviews with Canadian publishing professionals to help writers become published authors. Next up: Working with an editor. If you missed previous installments, check them out below:


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