Reflections on negotiating a contract 4: Royalties

Reposted from the TAAOnline Blog

My previous posts have been concerned with the large number of different issues in my contract as well as the general question of what ability I had to negotiate/renegotiate with my publisher who has a ton of leverage compared to me, a relative unknown. This post follows that basic theme, but looks specifically at the question of royalties.

One of the first things I’ll mention is the variety of different royalty clauses. To start, there were the basic book formats: hardback, paperback, and e-book. Following these were another dozen or so clauses, split into “rights and royalties” and “subsidiary rights and royalties,” which included things like international rights, audio and video rights, book club uses, use of excerpts and more. The list of different clauses was so long that I felt overwhelmed and did not research industry standards compared to the rates they were offering for the rest of these (perhaps a naive move—it was definitely not doing due diligence). I mostly focused on the three familiar formats—hardback, paperback, and e-book—even though it’s certainly possible that some other rights would have been worth the effort of negotiation—partial use of the work in course materials might be an area that matters to a book like mine. (Here’s hoping my book is successful enough for these other rights to amount to anything, even if I didn’t negotiate these clauses well!).

The first, obvious point of comparison for this contract was my previous Routledge contract from 2009, which, for the most part offered the same numbers. There were reductions to the hardback and paperback royalties and the rest was all the same. I interpret the reductions as a product of both my negotiating power (or lack thereof, as compared with the leverage held by the first author of my previous Routledge book, who was well known and a full professor), and as a reflection of the general health of the publishing industry. The reductions motived me to try to gather more information on the current state of publishing contracts (including watching the recent TAA on demand presentation “Anatomy of a Textbook Contract,”).

My next step was to ask a few people—two authors with recent publication experience and a publisher—about their knowledge with respect to royalties, at least with respect to the three basic ones (hardback, paperback, e-book; I didn’t ask for the complete detail of all the different types of rights and royalties).
First, I heard back from the publisher, who runs a small imprint that is subsidiary to a larger university press. The publisher suggested that I was getting lower rates on the e-book than industry standard (I was getting the same royalty rate for e-books I had received on my earlier contract). Because of that suggestion, I asked my editor about the e-book rates, and she responded that what I had was the standard Routledge contract, and they wouldn’t change that clause.

Next I heard back from the author of a scholarly book whom I had helped with his book proposal. Like me, this author has little prestige or leverage. He has the advantage of a university teaching position, and the disadvantage of writing a scholarly book with a very specific audience that would likely sell fewer copies than my more general textbook even if it did well for a book in its class. This author had submitted his book proposal at the same time as I had submitted mine, and he was offered a contract about one week before I was. His response to my query stunned me: he had been offered a flat fee for his book, no royalty percentages at all! And given the size of the flat fee, I felt a touch of anger for him. He told me that he was happy just to have received a contract and what was most important for him was getting published and the book helping his chance of moving into a tenure-track position, so I tried not to let it bother me. It certainly provided context that gave me greater appreciation for the offer I had received! If my book doesn’t sell, he’ll end up doing better than I, but if my book can sell more than about 500 copies, I’ll do better. (I haven’t explicitly asked my editor how many sales Routledge would consider a success, but one indication of Routledge’s expectations might be found in my contract’s paperback clause, which offered one rate for the first 2,000 copies and a higher rate for copies after that. If they’re willing to offer more after selling 2k copies, that’s a sign of their relative satisfaction with its performance.)

After exchanging e-mails with me, this author queried his editor/publisher, and he was told that his book would not be published individually, but rather would be published only as part of a larger electronic portfolio that his publisher sold as a package and that for this reason, they did not offer individual royalties. To what extent this is now an industry standard for specialized scholarly books, I don’t know, but it is somewhat disheartening, I think. I would certainly rather gamble that my book will sell a reasonable number of copies than settle for the flat fee that my acquaintance received.

Last, I heard from the third author, who will be publishing with Harvard University Press (American Sutraby Duncan Ryūken Williams, for which I provided some editing and the index), and who suggested that I ask for a higher rate on the hardback after reaching a certain number of sales. My paperback royalty clause already had such a limit: X% for the first 2,000 copies, and X+2% for all additional copies.  I asked my editor for a similar clause in my hardback royalties, and she responded that it was basically pointless, as they expected hardback sales to be, “very minimal – probably less than 100 copies.”
Although she did reject my request for a change in the hardback royalty, my editor and the publisher offered an improvement in the paperback royalty clause: they reduced the number of paperback copies I have to sell to get the improved rate from 2,000 to 1,000, meaning I’ll get an extra 2% on 1,000 copies (provided those copies sell). How much that change was motivated solely by my asking, and how much by my offering to make an accommodation by accepting the clause giving Routledge right of first refusal (which I mentioned in a previous post), I’m not sure, but I feel more empowered to ask, next time, even if I think I have little leverage.

To conclude this series of posts of my novice reflections, the process of reading, understanding, and negotiating my contract was moderately difficult, included lots and lots of details, and as far as I can tell, I got a basic industry standard contract. Even though I didn’t feel like I was in a very strong negotiating position, I went through the contract carefully, asked lots of questions (which my editor seemed happy to answer), and I think got some adjustments to the contract in my favor as a result. But, as I have said, I’m something of a novice at this, so my reflections may seem naive to those with more publication experience.