What is a Publishing Contract?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2019
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A publishing contract is a legal agreement which stipulates the terms by which a publishing company will issue a writer’s work. While the specific provisions of a publishing contract vary from case to case, most cover a few basic points. First of all, they generally specify how much an author will be paid for the work in question and dictate ownership of the various types of rights for that work. Additionally, they may outline an author’s responsibilities in regards to manuscript delivery and promotional engagements, as well as the publisher’s obligations in relation to issues like editing. Often, the terms of a publishing contract are negotiated by the publisher and the writer’s agent.

Usually, author payment is one of the central points of a publishing contract. In many cases, a contract will state whether the author will be given an advance, or a sum of money paid out prior to the publication of the contracted work. Should a publisher offer an advance, the contract will establish the amount of that advance, and will also include a schedule for the payment of the stated sum. Additionally, it will state what percentage of the proceeds from the contracted work will be paid to the writer following its publication.


Also common to most publishing contracts is a breakdown of ownership of the various types of rights for the contracted work. This may include, for instance, the right to publish electronic versions of the work, to publish foreign-language translations of it, or to adapt it into a film. A contract will specify whether each of these rights belongs to the author or the publisher.

Often, a publishing contract will outline a writer’s responsibilities to his publisher. The writer may, for instance, be obliged to deliver his manuscript by a particular date or to undertake a promotional tour. Similarly, a contract may summarize a publisher’s duties to its writer. For example, the publisher may be required to provide a certain level of editorial input or to provide the writer with a fixed number of free copies of the contracted work upon its publication.

Generally, a publishing contract is an extremely detailed document heavy in legal language. Authors’ advocacy groups usually suggest that a writer allow a lawyer to review and explain each new contract before agreeing to sign it. In addition, it is recommended that writers work with an experienced agent, who should have the expertise necessary to negotiate the best possible contract terms.


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Post 3

@Mor - The worst deals tend to be from brand new publishers who don't really know what they're doing. They think they can offer the world to authors, but might also put all kinds of difficult clauses into the contract that could end up spelling trouble.

That's why you really have to make sure you get a lawyer who specializes in the kind of book you write and who has experience in the industry.

Otherwise they might think that some things are acceptable that really aren't in the book industry.

Post 2

@pastanaga - Actually, I would never sign a contract that I didn't have an expert look over and explain, whether it was from a big publisher or not. This is one reason why it's an advantage to have an agent, because they will hopefully be trying to get you the best terms for your contract.

Even if you don't have an agent, you should still get a lawyer who specializes in this kind of thing (specifically publishing) to look at what terms you're getting.

If all else fails, then try to get one of the writer's unions to look at your contract. They will often have a lot of information on different pitfalls you can watch out for as well.

Post 1

Most of the time big publishers will all offer roughly the same contract, so if you happen to get your book placed with one of them, you don't have to worry too much.

It is the smaller publishers that tend to be a bit more shady sometimes. You have to make sure you protect yourself and particularly your rights if the company folds. There are plenty of authors who ended up in limbo because they couldn't get the rights to their books back after a company went bankrupt.

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