Reading Between The Lines- Book Publishing Contracts: Copyrights and Writers Part 9

Getting a publishing contract is an important milestone for a writer. For some writers, that is a remarkable achievement. This is despite the fact that the value added by publishers in publishing a book has been diminishing over the years. In reality, a publisher is merely a middle man between the author and the reader, and though many publishers claim to contribute to the quality of the book, their role is mostly limited to copy editing, printing, and distributing it. The success of a published book is largely dependent on the author and his efforts, and when seen from this perspective, it is important for authors to retain ownership and control over their works and the publishing process. Eager to close a publishing deal, many writers execute contracts without carefully reviewing them, and realize later that they have given away much more than desired.


At a general level, most publishing contracts outline the publication process in clauses that are spread across the contract. Despite what was promised by the publisher orally, it is important for writers to identify these clauses and understand what is truly being promised in writing. From delivery of the manuscript by the author and editing of the work to cover image designing and printing the book, the publication contract will cover the process and lay down roles and responsibilities. It is important for writers to read these clauses carefully and understand who has what role/responsibility, and if her right to control the content, cover design, and/or publication of the book is being unduly restricted. It is not uncommon for publishers to take over the process, and give the writer a secondary role where she has no power or authority to make decisions about the book.


Though most publishers make distribution and sales promises, such provisions do not form part of publishing contracts. Publishers rarely make written promises with respect to making the book available through online or offline platforms and sales numbers. After publication of the book, writers eagerly visit stores to find their books, but are often disappointed to not find them. Nowadays, most publishers make a book available on online stores and take it to stores only after   its sales reach a given number. If a writer is entering into a publishing contract based on distribution and sales promises, it is important to expressly include them in the publishing contract.


Almost all publishing contracts include a clause that transfers the copyright of the author in her book to the publisher. This means that once the contract is signed, the ownership of the copyright in the book passes to the publisher. Thereafter, the publisher gets the right to exercise all exclusive rights without the permission of the author. Simply put, the writer loses all control over his work except moral rights, which include right to be named as the author. Sometimes, publishing contracts also include waiver of moral rights or clauses substantially restricting moral rights, which effectively leave no rights over the book with the writer.
Writers must review copyright clauses carefully and restrict their scope as much as possible. From limiting the transfer of copyright for purposes of only publication to granting a publication license instead of copyright assignment, writers have several options. Publishers will naturally resist any attempt to modify copyright clauses, but with some effort and persistence, writers can get their way.

Royalty and Accounting

Royalty is an important aspect of a publishing relationship. For writers, royalty clauses are probably the most important clauses. Most publishing contracts provide for royalty in the range of eight to twelve percent of the Net Sales Price. It may be noted that Net Sales Price is not the given price of the book, it is the price after deducting discounts and expenses of the publisher. To avoid royalty evasion and/or undue royalty slimming, writers must endeavour to change Net Sales Price to Sales Price of the book. It is worthwhile to even sacrifice one or two percent of the royalty to effect this change.
The royalty rate in publishing contracts is normally the same for both printed and eBooks. In some contracts, eBook royalty is less than print book rate. This is despite the fact that publishing eBooks is relatively less costly and distribution/sale includes very less or no transaction cost. Writers must consider bargaining for eBook royalty in the range of twenty to twenty five percent of sales price, which is fair and reasonable.
Most publishing contracts do not include accounting clauses, or have clauses with minimal accounting responsibilities. Under these contracts, writers neither have the right nor access to details of number of books sold, split by market, form, etc., distribution details, and other information required to audit and verify the authenticity of publisher royalty reports. In the absence of clauses that give writers the right to audit and review accounts, it is easy for publishers to present what they wish and evade royalty payments. This can be easily remedied with incorporation of detailed accounting and audit clauses.

Buying Books

After publication, authors get a few copies of books for free. Contracts normally provide for six to eight copies. If a writer wants more copies for any purpose, she must buy them from the publisher. Publishing contracts normally include clauses that require authors to buy their books at only slightly discounted prices. If a writer has plans with respect to a given number of books to give to friends, for the launch ceremony, etc., she must negotiate for more free copies and/or a specified number of books at a pre-agreed price, which is not more than the cost price of the book.

Out of Circulation

More often than not, publishers do not print a published book after the first run and the book goes out of circulation/print within a short period of time. Under such circumstances, the law provides for reversion of rights, but it is however advisable to include unambiguous clauses in publishing contracts that revert copyrights and other rights to the writer.

Editing and Updating

Academic works may require editing and updating based on developments in the field. Writers must ensure that publishing contracts clearly define editing timelines, and that editing rights are with the writer. Publishers must be restricted from getting a work edited by a third party.

Closing Comments

Publishers cannot survive without writers and their books, and writers must bear that in mind while negotiating publishing contracts. Publishers play an important role in the publishing process, but at the end of the day they are merely middle men. Writers must give publishers the respect they rightfully deserve; Not More, Not Less.
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