For the majority of contracts signed and books acquired by independent
publishers, the author-publisher negotiation is between the two parties
without any intermediaries involved. Most authors generally don’t retain
either an agent or lawyer to represent them when dealing with professional,
educational, technical, or scientific publishers.
Generally, agents do not represent the authors of small market books as the
income potential for the agent is limited. Agents and lawyers do represent
authors primarily in trade publishing, particularly those authors writing
popular mass-market fiction books or celebrity (“as told to”) bibliographies.
However, if you are presented with an opportunity to acquire an agented book
or must deal with an attorney as an intermediary, here are 10 suggestions to
- Listen carefully to the lawyer or agent. Don’t prejudge. Fully understand
the situation before you make any judgment.
- Understand the economics of the particular book. Ask these questions:
Financially what is this author/book worth to me? What is the cost/benefit
ratio for me? (Prepare a financial model of the book.)
- Understand the nonquantifiable factors in this situation. For example,
ask yourself: Is the author prominent in the field? Do I need a book on this
subject? Is this a new topic for my company? Will this author write more
- Ask: What is financially reasonable in light of the economics and
- Assess the competitive nature of this situation. Find out how many other
publishers are involved. How large is the author’s “shopping list” of
potential publishers? Will this situation lead to expensive (and
unreasonable) bidding for this manuscript?
- Inquire where you are in the author’s “shopping-cycle”? If you are coming
in late, you may not want to get involved. Is the lawyer or agent just
accumulating comparison offers to bid up the ante? Is there any real interest
in you or are you being used to up the ante?
- If this project and author makes sense for your company and you, then
negotiate and counteroffer.
- Understand the cost of your time. Negotiation and signing contracts is
labor-intensive work. There is a cost to you. In addition to your time,
negotiating takes vital energy and is emotionally exhausting work. Ask
yourself: does this author and manuscript have the potential to justify the
investment of my time and energy?
- Remember that you are playing a zero-sum game, only one publisher is the
winner. It’s all or nothing! There are no consolation prizes. The downside is
a substantial investment of your time and energy with the potential of no
- Remember old poker player Bret Maverick’s adage: “Know when to hold ’em,
know when to fold ’em.” If you sense the cost of competing will be
prohibitive, be prepared to walk away from the situation. Many times the most
sensible thing is to walk away early before wasting your valuable time in a
Whether or not you decide to get involved with a potentially time-consuming
agent/lawyer book-negotiating situation is a matter of solid publishing
judgment. Your time and energy is a finite resource. In book acquisitions,
you must decide where to judiciously invest that scarce resource.
The preceding was adapted from Book Publishing Contracts: An Introduction,
1996, by John B. McHugh, Publishing Management Consultant, 5747 North Ames,
Glendale, WI 53209. Phone 414/351-3056 or fax 414/351-0666.