Publishing Your Book: The Book Contract

Kyle McCordAuthor: Kyle McCord

To return to present: you’ve gotten the email, call, telegraph, carrier pigeon that your book has been the last manuscript standing and has been selected for publication. Hurrah! You’ve given your emphatic “yes.” But now you’re starting to think about the implications. Should you have asked more questions in your acceptance? Did they say anything about what comes next? The first step is to consider your contract.

If you got a contract, that’s great. If you didn’t, that’s fine too. Many small presses operate using an understood consent system wherein agreement via your email response is good enough. If you did get a contract, here’s what to watch for:

1. If you won money as part of a prize, how and when does the money get to you? Most poets end up sinking their prize money into books. You’ll want to have a stock of books aside from whatever the press gives you as part of the publication package. The contract should stipulate how and when you receive the money. You’ll want to examine exactly what it says about those funds. The contract will insist that you report this money on your taxes, which is a great idea if you wouldn’t like to end up like Richard Hatch from “Survivor.”

2. Does the contract ask for anything beyond First North American Serial Rights? Most publishers won’t seek publication rights beyond First North American Serial Rights (just like journals), but they usually retain rights regarding how long a book stays in print. If your publisher is seeking rights beyond First North American, there’s not much you can do, but ask why. If the contract stipulates anything about how many copies of a book must be sold in order for a book to remain in print, that is worth checking also. That number is usually fairly low since your publisher has a tacit interest in keeping your book in print. Your publisher has at least as much at stake as you in the success of the book. The number of copies is usually the number of copies necessary to recoup the initial cost of publishing the work.

3. What does the contract say about individual poems that are still pending at journals? This is a particularly relevant question since often individual poems may be pending consideration at journals when a book is accepted. Publishers have an interest in poems from the book being released in individual journals, but this is worth checking on. Bear in mind that once a book is published, most journals will not accept poems from it for consideration.
What gets to be a grey area is this: what if you have work pending at a journal long enough that the book actually comes out while the work is still under consideration? Say that then a journal, which appears to select work at the speed of a sloth (perhaps it is American Sloth Quarterly in fact), contacts you to accept poems from the book which has already been published.
There isn’t a clear answer on the right thing to do in this situation, but I am of the opinion that one can accept the publication. Generally a month or two before a book comes out, I stop submitting individual poems from it to avoid this problem. I recommend you do the same. However, there’s no clear right answer in this case unless your contract stipulates it.

4. Do you get some free copies, and if so, how many? It is a pretty shoddy press that doesn’t start an author with copies of his or her own book, so you should have some free copies headed your way once the book is released. It’s good to know how many. I would love to give an average number here, but I think it really varies depending on your press. Some people get twenty or fifty or a hundred.
Your contract should also indicate how many review copies of your book you get. Small presses will often give you a choice about whether you would like to send out your own review copies or if you would like the press to send the books out for you. It is usually preferable to have the press submit review copies.

5. How much are author copies of your book? If the contract does not specifically say, ask this question to your publisher. Cheap author copies make life so much better. Consider this: you will have people you will not want to charge for a copy of your book: your immediate family, former professors, your best friends. But what about third cousin Randall who drives a truck to feed his two kids in Indiana but still wants to buy a book to support you? Do you want to give him a free book? Sell it to him at cost? Charge him full price (you jerk)? If you’re me and can’t afford to give away a free book, you will likely sell him a copy close to or at cost. It always helps if that amount is something much more reasonable. It means books you give away will be less of a deficit. Cheap author copies also allow you greater flexibility in dealing with bookstores that require you to sell at a split—typically 60/40.
I’ve heard of author copies running anywhere from three dollars to nine dollars. Some small presses which are more out to make names for themselves—think Black Ocean or Fence for example— will actually just give an author as many books as he or she can sell. If that is your situation, count yourself incredibly lucky. But, more than likely, you’ll be paying for copies. You want to make sure that cost is an amount that you can more manageably recoup.

6. What is the division of marketing responsibilities? Is the press setting up some readings for you? Will the press solicit any reviews or interviews on your behalf? Will your book be sent to Verse Daily or Poetry Daily? Does the press want a list of addresses where they can mail announcements? Some presses, Greywolf for example, even give their authors questionnaires that help the press market a book more effectively. The key is to know what your responsibilities are and if they seem reasonably divided between you and the press.

7. What kind of creative control does the contract offer? Does it offer a release date? This might not make it into the contract, but most presses can give you an estimated release date. On the issue of creative control, some presses usually have unlisted customs, rather than codified rules, but it’s good to know if you’ll get some say on things like: the font, the cover, the feel of the book. I’ve known poets who’ve been allowed to solicit the image for their covers. I’ve also known poets who’ve had their covers overruled by publishers. The contract might offer some details about how much creative control you’ll have.

In the end, it never hurts to have your contract looked over by a legal professional. A quick caveat: one question that I have not included here is that of royalties. I’ve declined to answer that question until now because, for most small presses, book sales are first used to recoup printing expenses. Plus, the amount made from royalties on poetry books tends to be so meager that pursuing that money is hardly worth it. Most of the money that will be made on any given book is likely going to be from you selling the book yourself, which is why the question of the cost of author copies is that much more relevant by comparison.