Saturday 1 November 2014

Signing Your First Book Contract

© Dianne Bates

Getting one’s first contract is probably the highlight of a new author’s writing life (next to first hearing that a publisher wants to publish her book). However, it can be easy to receive the contract and in a moment of blissful ignorance, sign and date it with a flourish – only to later discover you have signed your life away. I’ve signed hundreds of publishers’ contracts over the past 30 years, so I, too, have blundered along the way. Here are a few "nevers" I would suggest when signing a contract:

* Never let a publisher bully you. Never! If you are inexperienced or nervous and you have a contract, then is a good time to contact a literary agent and get them to negotiate on your behalf. (Agents are more interested in writers who already have contracts.) Alternatively you can contact the ASA (Australian Society of Authors), a private arts lawyer or the Arts Law Centre, all of whom will advise you on what rights you should accept.

* Do not sign the option clause in your contract. The option clause basically says that you agree to submit your next manuscript to the company. It is unnecessary and for many reason it’s to your advantage not to. You can always submit your next work to the same publisher who gave you the first contract. Or to anyone else!

* Never sign with book publishers for "devices which might be invented in the future" Negotiate these separately, when the publisher is ready to publish via non-book means.

* Never assign CAL (Copyright Agency Licence, or photocopying) payments to your publisher, but DO register your book with CAL as soon as it is published

* Never let your publisher take your full share of ELR and PLR payments. (If in doubt, ring the Lending Rights' people and ask them what to do). Lending Rights is a Federal Government payment to compensate authors for their books held in public and educational libraries.

* Never refuse to take an advance against royalties. Even if it's only $300, take it. If a publisher says he can't afford it, better to go with a publisher who can afford it. Advances should always be non-returnable. If the contract is signed and your publisher reneges, you are entitled to what is known as a "kill fee" which compensates you for the work you have done, or have missed out on doing.

* Never take a flat fee payment: if you do, then you will never get ELR and PLR payments which are worth a lot of money to you over a period of time. Lending Rights payments are only made where there is a continuing interest in the book (ie royalties coming in).

Always check every single clause in your contract: be especially careful with percentages on subsidiary rights and book club deals. Also, watch the translation and film rights clauses and make sure you negotiate for as much as you can.

Re negotiation tactics, put everything in writing. Talking to publishers in person or on the phone about contracts can be emotionally charged, so it is best to put it in print (either email or snail mail) and keep paper copies of all email exchanges. Create a paper folder marked with the publisher’s name and keep papers in consecutive date order, including royalty statements, letters (or emails) to and fro etc. Date everything. This will prove very helpful in the long run if you need to check on anything, or if there is a legal problem.

If it is difficult for you to negotiate your contract, get an agent, a lawyer or the Arts Law Centre to negotiate on your behalf.


If you negotiate for rising royalties make sure you keep an eye on the number you sell and let the publisher know if they conveniently forget that the clause is there. A rising royalty means you are to receive a greater percentage of royalties depending on book sales. You might, for example, have a royalty of 10% on the first 3,000 copies sold, rising to 12% thereafter.

Don't let all your great talent and many hours of work be under-valued by yourself and/or your publisher!

Whenever you receive a royalty statement, always check how many copies there are remaining; if it approaches 50 (which indicate the book is close to going out of print) immediately write to the publisher and give notice to reissue or reprint the book. If they don’t want to do so, ask to buy remainders at discount (offer 50 cents, and negotiate from there.) According to contracts, when the book goes out of print, the rights will revert to you so you can get your book published elsewhere, if you wish. I have done this quite a few times.

Sometimes publishers decide to get rid of stock in their warehouse. There can be numerous reasons for this, including old stock making way for new, or stock not selling and taking up valuable space. In any case, most contracts indicate – or should, as it is to your advantage – that the author gets first right of refusal. Having remainders means that you can dispose of them as you wish (donate them to schools, give them as gifts to family and friends, or sell them.) Often the publisher will offer the remainders to you at a certain price. But it is better if you make the first offer. I generally ask to buy remainder stock (which might be up to 1,000 copies) at 50 cents a copy. The publisher will agree or (mostly likely) make a counter offer. Always make sure that the agreement you reach results in the publisher paying the freight charges (they get them a lot cheaper that you will.)

 You can sell your remainders at RRP, if you wish, or at discount at

·      Markets

·      Your local schools

·      To book shops

·      Conferences

·      Schools where you present

·      Via the internet

·      Via your website

·      By mail order

If you donate your books to organisations, such as schools or charities, you can claim a tax deduction (as a donation or for promotional purposes) at full RRP, even if you only pay 50 cents a copy.

If giving the books away is part of your marketing yourself as an author, you can also claim a tax deduction. Make sure you keep accurate transaction records, including date, price, quantity and customer. I was once stuck with 500 CD books which I was unable to sell, so I donated them to a teachers’ organisation which had a stall at a national conference, and that year made an extra tax deduction as a result.

 Dianne (Di) Bates is the author of 120+, many of which are now out of print. Her most recent books are The Girl in the Basement (Morris Publishing Australia), Nobody’s Boy (Celapene Press) and A Game of Keeps (Celapene Press). Di’s website is Di also offers an online course for those wishing to write for children.




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