Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Basics of Publishing Contracts

First off, a message to the fraternity who sent Curtis Brown an invitation to his college reuinion: you may wish to update your records. Mr. Brown passed away in the 1940s. Although I'm sure he would have been utterly thrilled to receive your invitation had he still been alive, as he would now be 141 YEARS OLD.

With that out of the way, I thought I'd be wild and crazy and post something (hopefully) useful today: the basic sections of a publishing contract.

Without further ado (adieu? Which is it?), here are some of the parts of a publishing contract. Try not to fall asleep.


The territory, as referenced in my post yesterday, is a list of countries where a publisher can distribute.

There are three basic types of deals for US publishers:

1. US or North America -- which gives the publisher exclusive English language control over either just the US or the United States and Canada. (Note that North America does not include Mexico. Sorry, Mexico!! Love you though. Kisses to Belize as well.)

2. World English -- Just like it sounds. World rights in the English language. This is probably the simplest thing I will explain today.

3. World All Languages -- Just like World English, only with all of the world's lovely and colorful languages thrown in. The publisher can sing with the voices of the mountain. And paint with all the colors of the wind.

(Yes. Yes, I did just reference Pocahontas. You saw clearly.)

Let's go back to the North America type of deal. What's complicated here is that there is "exclusive" territory and "nonexclusive" territory. I know, I can see your eyes glazing over already. Stick with me.

Exclusive means only the US publisher can distribute in the exclusive territory. That's home turf. Nonexclusive (also known as the "open market") means both the US and any other publisher (UK or foreign) can also distribute. Think of the open market as unclaimed turf where anyone can roam freely. So typically in North American contracts the deal is for exclusive North American rights and nonexclusive Open Market rights. Hope that makes sense.

Let's move on.

Grant of Rights

These are the specific rights that are granted in the agreement. Sometimes this can mean everything under the sun (book rights, film rights, audio rights, tv rights, electronic rights, etc.), or it could just be for one specific thing (trade paperback reprint rights only). Who could say, really?


This is the fun part. The advance is the money that a publisher pays you up front to publish the book. Take it to the bank, it's yours to keep, even if your book only sells two copies. Huzzah!

A lot of people who are new to publishing find advances kind of confusing. Do you have to give it back if your book doesn't sell? Nope. BUT. You don't get paid royatlies until your advance "earns out."

Think of an advance as a loan you don't have to pay back. Each copy you sell earns royalties (discussed below) that goes first toward paying off your advance. Then, if your book eventually earns more money than your initial advance you start getting royalties. So if you were paid $10,000, your book has to earn $10,000 in royalties before you start to see extra money.

Advances can range from a hundred dollars to BILLIONS (ok, not billions. Unless you're Dan Brown. ok, not even Dan Brown.)


Each copy you sell earns a royalty, specified as either a percentage of the cover price or something like a percentage of the amount a publisher receives for the sale. There are lots of different types of royalties depending on what type of copy is sold (hardcover, paperback, mass market, special sales, discount sales, omnibus, anthology... it goes on and on).


In addition to printing and selling your book, publishers typically get assorted other rights that they may or may not sell to another publisher somewhere down the line. It's sort of like subcontracting -- if a publisher doesn't want to do something themselves they can sell the rights to someone else.

So, let's say a publisher publishes your book in hardcover. They can either bring out a paperback edition OR they can sell paperback rights to another publisher, in which case publisher #2 does all the work to bring out the paperback edition, and you and publisher #1 split the proceeds.

I have nothing funny to say about subrights. They are that boring.

Warranty and Indemnity

This sounds like a spy novel, but actually this is the part where you promise the publisher that your book isn't plagiarized, that you control all the rights, that any recipes are not injurious to the user, etc. etc. Basically you promise on your life that everything in your book is kosher and you accept responsibility for it.

There are many many many other sections, but I think you get the picture. These are the biggies.

And with that, I'm off to send an RSVP to Curtis Brown's old frat. Won't they be surprised to see him!!


me said...

... Pocahontas ...!

That made my day.

Simon Haynes said...

You know that wonderful joke about movies never making any actual money, which means nobody on a percentage of net ever gets paid?

Just don't sign up for royalties on net, that's what I say. (And no, I didn't.)

Bryan D. Catherman said...

Thanks for taking time to share this info with those of us that don't see many of these contracts. And you want "ado" not "adieu."

Ado is a noun that means trouble or difficulty; or fuss especially over something unimportant.

Adieu is term for goodbye, or it can be used as the noun form of a goodbye.

David Greene said...

You know, Nathan, your writing is really pretty terrific. Your posts are always witty and, sometimes, laugh out loud funny. Humor's not easy to do. Plus, you have a distinctive voice, one which puts the reader at ease.

So my hat is off to you, and I love reading your blog. Keep up the fine work!

Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks so much! Don't worry, I'll soon become drunk off of these comments and start demanding that my office be appointed with coffee that is precisely 102 degrees and M&Ms with the brown ones removed. Just you watch. It's going to get ugly.

Julie K. Rose said...

Who'da thunk a post about the parts of a publishing contract would make me laugh out loud? Again, thanks for the info, and the laugh.

Christopher M. Park said...

I'm with the others. Nathan, you're crafting very "easy to read" humor that flows well, and which has such a distinctive voice. A lot of people just can't manage that (even Scott Adams, who writes the hilarious Dilbert cartoons, can't quite manage this sort of levity in his book-length writing). Anyway, kudos.


Christopher M. Park said...

I have a question about plagiarism, which you mentioned briefly in this post. My concern is basically with "fair use" of small phrases from non-major works.

I mean, everybody says "we're not in Kansas anymore," but that's in the public domain. But there are many lesser quotes from lesser (and more recent) works that I still have quite an affinity for, and I like to sneak those into my work as little tips of the hat to the original work.

These are just sentences, or even sentence fragments, like the above one from Oz. My understanding is that this isn't a problem, and is in fact super common in literature, but with all the legal issues these days I thought it would be better to just check.

Can you provide any clarification? (Or, most likely just tell me I'm concerned over nothing).

Thanks, as always.


My blog on writing

Nathan Bransford said...

Except in the case of poetry, which has a lot of ambiguities of what can be considered fair use and is constantly being fought over, yes, it is ok to quote very short excerpts from works under copyright under fair use provisions. If you're ever in doubt, though, you can check whether a work is under copyright on the Library of Congress database, track down the rights holder, and apply for permission. Permissions need to be cleared before a work is published.

If you ever have a very complicated question about copyright, though, you might contact a publishing attorney.

Anonymous said...

Another question about royalties. I remember a few years ago when the part of the book contract that really mattered was not the royalties clause, but the deep-discount royalties clause. The major book store chains caused deep-discount royalties to be an issue because they had the clout to get a deep discount on all their puchases. And most of the money B&N saved came out of the pockets of us poor writers.

I promised I'd have a question, so here it is? Does deep-discount continue to be a major issue? If not, what happened?


A Paperback Writer said...

So, if Mr. Brown would be 141 years old, just how many of his old frat brothers are around to throw this party, anyway? It boggles the mind, doesn't it?
Thanks for the post on contractual stuff. Now I truly understand why I need an agent; I'm certainly not capable of concentrating on legalspeak long enough to understand it.
This is a fun blog.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Very amusing read, even the boring contract stuff. And here I thought you agent types were stuffy.

Kim Stagliano said...

Clearly Mr. Brown was a member of Skull and Bones.....

Dayna_Hart said...

You get bourbon, coffee, AND M&M's? Maybe being an agent would be more fun than being a least your benefits are good.

Though I do love my slippers.

And whew! about them plagiarised books. Good thing your gang war is populated with only honest hos and drugdealers...and Pocahontas, who sings with every colour of the rainbow, which probably gets confusing as to her actual gang-turf.

On a serious note...does that Indemnity clause actually protect publishers from a plagiarist author? Since the author said the book wasn't plagiarised, the publisher's off the hook?

Jen said...

Is this a secret that the agents are keeping from us po' lil writers? You actually carry automatic shotguns to every meeting with the editors and drive by shootings are actually over "territory"?
That sort of explains Miss Snarks' Stilettos.

zylaa said...

The Pocahontas reference is a thing of beauty. Publishing gangs should dress in all the colors of the wind.
Thank you for the contract explanation. I believe when I finally get a contract I'll burst out into "Colors of the Wind" without any conscious control.

Nathan Bransford said...

Dayna, in theory a plagiarist author indemnifies the publisher and holds them harmless if they breach their warranty. In practice it's a whole 'nother story and as you can see from the recent publicized cases the publishers don't emerge unscathed.

Anonymous said...

Great blog! It's getting better every time I read a post.

Demon Hunter said...

That was hilarious. I cannot they sent an invitation to Curtis Brown. LOL!
Thanks for you post! I have never seen anyone break down a contract like. It was very informative. I will refer to it once I get mine!

CarrieMonster said...

Hm... educational and informational.

As an aside, I got your link from Miss Snark and I'm loving it so far!

Knowledge is power.

Only you can prevent forest fires- so recycle that first draft!

Jack's Shack said...

The hell with the publishing contract terms, where is the party. I want to show up as Curtis Brown. Dressing like a zombie is ever so much fun.

Chumplet said...

The only person to get billions in advance money would be Carl Sagan.

Rock Wren said...

I have a contract with one of the big publishers and sort of rushed into the deal without knowing too much background about things. I was just so thrilled to have a deal! I suppose I expected my agent to spell things out for me if there was a problem.

One thing that I noticed but probably didn't pay much attention to was the clause that gave the publisher right of first refusal on any future work. This in itself is great in that you know someone at least is going to give your manuscript the time of day, even if they choose to pass. On the other hand, it doesn't allow for competitions between publishers that might drive up an advance.

And the biggest thing I missed, that I wished I had noticed before signing, is that I am not allowed to submit any new proposals or manuscripts until the contracted book is published. It is a nonfiction book scheduled to be printed in spring 2012 (manuscript deadline summer 2010). I was frustrated to discover my hands were bound for three years. My agent told me this is a standard clause for first-time authors.

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