Contract Negotiation

Author: Megan Zimmerman, 2nd Year English MA Student

You’ve made it – a literary agent has accepted your manuscript and is willing to represent it. Well, you’ve almost made it. Being signed on by an agent doesn’t guarantee that your manuscript will be published. First, an agent has to query publishers in much the same manner that you queried different agents. For the most part, your agent will send out queries in waves to publishers, working from the top of their lists to the bottom. A good agent will keep you updated on who they’re querying and shouldn’t give you any issues if you request their query list.


Once an agent has sent out queries, publishers will respond with their interest, if they’re interested. From there, your agent will begin negotiations for a deal offer. The part of the offer that most people hear about is the advance which is based on how much the publisher wants the book and how much they think other people want the book. It is exactly what it sounds like – it is an advance on how much publishers estimate a book will sell for, it is not in addition to what the book sells for on the market. Big-time authors, such as Stephen King, get large advances as publishers know that the advance will be covered quickly and that the book will continue to sell. For newer authors, advances will tend to be more conservative as publishers are taking a calculated risk when they bring on new materials and authors. Advances tend to be split into two payments: half upon signing and half upon delivery and acceptance.


After the advance is worked out, there are other parts of a book deal that are just as important, but maybe not heard of as much. For example, territory rights, royalty percentages, and subsidiary rights, to name a few. Territory determines where publishers can sell the book – such as worldwide, North America, etc. Publishers tend to want worldwide territory, but agents work to keep those rights for the author, this way the author and agent have the opportunity to engage a co-agent to sell rights to other countries. Royalty percentages are another part of the book deal, one that most people have heard of. In general, the industry standards are as follows: hardcover is 10% to 12.5%; paperback is 6% to 7.5%; mass market paperback is 6%. These are often paid out to the author and agent twice a year with the agent taking their percentage cut from the author’s payout. Subsidiary rights cover pretty much everything else, including film, audio, serial rights, and commercial/merchandising. A general rule of thumb has those rights split 50/50 between publishers and authors, although a notable exception is the first serial rights in which should 10/90 in favor of the author.


A good agent is going to work to get their clients the best deal possible because it will also benefit themselves. While your agent will undoubtedly keep you up-to-date on the happenings of the contract, it’s important for you to trust your agent during this process. If anything, the contract phase is the biggest reason to get an agent – they have the experience to get the best deals that the average author wouldn’t. From the negotiation stage to the contract signing stage, the agent is going to keep a critical eye out to make sure their clients come out on top.


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