Monday, June 15, 2020

How to Publish a Book in Philosophy: A Guide for the Perplexed (Part II)

It's hard to get good advice about book contracts. Here's why.

(1.) Publishers don't want to be too open with advice. They'd understandably prefer not to publicize details about their contracts. Authors might compare notes, and then the author with the worse deal might feel offended. Other publishers might gain some competitive advantage through asymmetric knowledge of the details of their competitors' contracts. And a certain amount of ignorance among authors presumably gives at least the less scrupulous publishers an edge in negotiations.

(2.) Agents don't want to be too open with advice. That would be to reveal their secrets. Besides, agents aren't interested in the small-run academic books most of us publish, which have different (less advantageous) contracts than more popular agented books.

(3.) Your mentors would love to give you advice. But they've probably only published a couple of books themselves and so have limited personal experience -- or if your mentor is a big shot with ten books from major publishers, their experience might be too unlike your own.

(4.) General books of publishing advice might be helpful, but they won't be well tailored to the current situation in philosophy. Based on my publishing in science fiction as well as philosophy, and based on my experience with how book contracts have evolved since 2007, I can say that standards can vary considerably between fields and over time.

I too won't give you good advice! The best I hope for is to give you slightly flawed, medium grade advice, based on my own limited experience.

My experience runs the range from my first book (co-authored with Russ Hurlburt), which did not get an advance contract and received its one and only contract offer after an extensive review process, through my most recent arrangement (The Weirdness of the World, forthcoming with Princeton), which involved three leading academic publishers competing to give me a good but not superstar-level advance contract. I've also edited a couple of anthologies, which has provided more experience with academic book contracts, though anthologies won't be my focus today.

So apply a big dollop of doubt to everything I say here. It would be terrific if some others could share their experiences in the comments section, so that readers of this post can get a sense of what I might be overlooking.

General Thoughts about Negotiating a Book Contract

Based either on a book proposal or on a full manuscript, an academic press has now sent you a contract. That is so amazingly awesome! Savor it. Not many people in the world have the chance to publish a book with a serious academic press. I remember gliding high all day when I received my first book contract. However, despite your delight and desire for closure, you must resist signing the contract immediately. As I mentioned in Part I, you should...

First, wait a bit.

There are two reasons to wait. One is that you might have your proposal or manuscript also under consideration with another publisher or two. If so, give those other publishers time to let their process play out. Tell them that you received a contract offer from Press X (ideally a competitor they respect) and say that you're hoping to decide by such-and-such a date. Also inform Press X that you are still waiting to hear back from another publisher or two and by when you expect to be able to decide.

Even if no other publishers are still evaluating your proposal or manuscript, there's reason to wait: You should take some time to evaluate and discuss the details of the contract. Book contracts are not all boilerplate that you must sign as is. Perhaps surprisingly, they have many negotiable features, which I'll discuss shortly. The initial contract is an opening offer.

In my view, it's reasonable to ask publishers to wait a few weeks for you to decide on an offer based on a book proposal, and it's reasonable to ask them for up to a couple of months if your full manuscript is currently being reviewed elsewhere. If they want you to decide in a snap, they're either playing ugly hardball or there's some unusual situation which you should ask them to explain.

Second, be honest, friendly, and collaborative.

Acquisition editors for academic presses are generally lovely people who are deeply committed to their subjects. If they've offered you a contract, they like your book project and they want you to succeed, and you are now considering a collaborative multi-year partnership with them. Be nice. This isn't some zero-sum car deal where their loss is your gain and you win if you pressure them into loathsome capitulation.

Let the editor walk you through the contract, and ask questions about the details, including what it might or might not be possible to change. If you have good reason to want to change some aspect, discuss it openly. If you're fortunate enough to have a competing offer that is better in some respects than their offer, tell them about it -- though probably it's best to be vague about exact wording and dollar values, due to the confidentiality of contract details.

Your acquisition editor works with a larger editorial board and an editor in chief. In that context, they are the advocate for your book. Give your editor the tools to help them help you get a better deal. Maybe they can say to their editor in chief, "our author would really like X, so if we can give them that, I think it will close the deal" or "Press Y is offering our author such-and-such -- do you think we could match that?"

At least one video call is probably a good idea. It is more relaxed and personable than an email exchange, allowing discussion to open up in unexpected directions, and it gives you a chance to notice paralinguistic cues.

Don't lie or exaggerate. Ugh. If you get caught, you'll have ruined the trust on which a good partnership depends.

Third, ask for a few things.

This advice consists of two parts. Ask. Requests are generally better than demands in a collaborative relationship of this sort. And you can make requests. Even if you have close to zero leverage -- no status in the field, no competing offers -- you can still gently wonder aloud if it's possible to change such-and-such. Some asks are pretty small and straightforwardly given if asked for. In fact, the editors are sometimes themselves ambivalent about one or two of the clauses in their contracts and are happy enough to strike or modify those clauses if the author asks. Other times, delighting you, bringing discussion to a close, and securing your final commitment are motivation enough to make some adjustments.

For a few things. I'm about to list 15 things that I know you can ask for. Don't ask for all of them! Figure out the two or three or four that are most important to you and ask for those, expecting to get one or two or maybe three of them. If you've got a potential bestseller, then hopefully you have an agent who can demand all sorts of changes to the contract. But if you're an ordinary philosophy professor, the press isn't expecting to make forkfuls on your book and most of their authors will need to stay pretty close to the standard contract. Being too pushy can backfire -- in the extreme, even leading to a withdrawal of the contract offer. Unless you really are the prima donna, don't be a prima donna.

Negotiable Contract Details

Instead of going through any sample contracts clause by clause, what I'll do is list 15 things that I have either successfully asked for in a book contract or that an editor mentioned to me as a possible contract change during the course of negotiations.

(1.) An advance. An advance is pre-payment of royalties. The advance might be paid either when you sign the contract, when you deliver the final manuscript, or when the book is published, or some combination. People tend to be cagey about numbers here, but my guess is that for a book they think will have a big popular audience maybe you can get $50,000 plus, and for a book that will sell mainly to specialists (i.e., most academic books), you probably shouldn't expect an advance at all. For a "crossover" book that the press thinks will have some popular sales, you might think in the ballpark of $5,000-$15,000. (These are just my impressions from my own experience and talking with a few colleagues.)

You won't get paid any further royalties until you "earn out" your advance, that is, until the amount you would have received in royalties had you not been given an advance exceeds the amount of the advance you were given. If your book doesn't sell well enough to earn out, you won't see any more royalties, but the publisher won't ask for a refund.

You might not think an advance matters much. Compared to the amount of time you spend writing a book and compared to an academic salary, what difference does it make whether you receive a few thousand now or that same few thousand later, hopefully, in royalty checks? But it does matter. If a press offers you an advance, that constitutes a commitment by them to market your book in a particular way. The more they offer you up front, the more they will have to make in sales to make the up-front offer look like a good decision. A book with a good advance will be priced reasonably and marketed well, rather than being priced at $85 and put in the back of the catalog, targeted mostly for sales to university libraries.

All of this said, you probably shouldn't expect an advance unless you can make a plausible case that your book will have substantial popular or classroom sales in addition to academic sales.

(2.) A maximum price. I don't know how common it is to ask for a maximum price, but I successfully asked for a $30 maximum price with my first book (about $38 in today's dollars). It can be disappointing to have your book priced at $85, out of the price range of many students and causal readers and an uncomfortable price even for dedicated colleagues. Some editors have expressed surprise that Russ and I were able to include a maximum price in our contract, partly due to uncertainty about inflation. It would of course be reasonable to have a sunset clause on a maximum price.

(3.) Royalty rates. I've seen everything from 2% to 20%. Often royalty rates are higher on paperback editions and electronic editions. Often royalty rates scale up if sales break some target number of copies, such as 1000. There might be some language about royalties being based on "net receipts" excluding returned books and such, which is normal. I can imagine a publisher trying to weasel in some complicated language to reduce your royalty payments in some non-standard way, but I haven't noticed such problems with any of my publishers.

(4.) Commitment to market the book in a particular way. "Trade" books are aimed at popular markets. "Crossover" books are scholarly books that are expected to have substantial popular sales. If your editor thinks your book might have popular sales, you can ask them to commit to marketing it as a crossover book. In discussion, you can ask about other marketing details, which vary by press. Usually such agreements are oral instead of written.

(5.) International rights and translations. A publisher might commit to commissioning a translation. You might ask to reserve some of the international rights if you have connections in a foreign country and aim to pitch your book to a publisher there (perhaps already with a translator in mind).

(6.) Paperback guarantee. A publisher can commit to releasing the book in paperback as well as hardback, or even possibly just go straight to paperback (though I'm not sure that's preferable if the hardback is well priced), possibly after specifying a sales threshold. I've generally found that editors are more comfortable with oral assurances about a paperback release or with saying what their usual conditions are for paperback release (e.g., XXXX copies sold in the first two years) than with putting this language explicitly in the contract, though it can be done. A paperback release after a couple of years is terrific, since it gives your book a new marketing push at a lower price, and some of your colleagues will see it as an indicator of prestige and impact.

(7.) Option on the next book. Some publishers include clauses stating that you must give them the option to consider your next book, negotiating with them first about the book contract and only seeking another publisher if that negotiation fails. I find this somewhat obnoxious, and if you want you can ask for this clause to be struck. However, I haven't heard of publishers really holding authors to this in any strict way.

(8.) Index. Usually it's up to the publisher whether your book will have an index, and then if they want an index it's up to you to prepare it. It is possible to insist on an index, and it is possible to have the publisher commit to preparing it or to paying you to have an assistant prepare it.

(9.) Audiobook. Audiobooks are increasingly popular, and you can ask for a commitment to produce an audiobook version -- though I suspect that this would usually be only for trade books or books that the publisher expects would have a substantial audio audience.

(10.) Cover and title. Usually presses want to have control over the cover and title, since those are crucial to marketing the book. But if you want to insist on a particular cover or title, this is negotiable. If you don't insist on a title now, you should consider your current title to be your working title only, up for discussion later.

(11.) Figures and rights. Often, it is expensive to have figures in a book, especially color figures, and it can cost some money to buy rights to figures produced by professional artists, or to have figures custom made. The default seems to be no figures or few figures, black and white only, and the rights purchased at your expense; but this can also be negotiated.

(12.) Authors' free copies. Often it's ten, but if there's a good reason to want more, you can ask.

(13.) Submission and publication dates. The contract will probably specify delivery of the manuscript by a certain date. This is of course negotiable. I've rarely seen a deadline of this sort enforced -- manuscripts are often months late or even years late. Likewise, the publisher will commit to publishing within a time frame after acceptance of the manuscript.

(14.) Reversion of rights. In a worst-case scenario, the press doesn't publish your book, or the press publishes your book but goes out of business. Also, of course, after years pass, the book will probably go out of print. You can ask for the rights to the book to revert to you if the book isn't published in a timely way or after three or five consecutive years of being out of print. (Being available electronically normally counts as being "in print" for these purposes.)

(15.) Teaching buy out. My university, U.C. Riverside, allows faculty to occasionally "buy out" of teaching a class (with the dean's and department chair's permission) if they have an outside research grant that supplies money for a replacement lecturer. I was able to have a teaching buy-out clause added to my most recent contract. I asked for this money not on top of an advance but rather instead of (most of) the advance I would otherwise have received. However, I sense that this request was highly unusual.

Usually the press will reserve the right to reject the book or insist on changes, even if you've signed a contract in advance. I can understand why they would want to reserve this right. What if you have a mental collapse and produce a deranged screed? I have never tried to push on this clause, instead having confidence in the good faith of the press upon signing the contract and in my ability to produce a book of good quality.

Choosing Among Offers

Suppose you have more than one contract offer. Yay! I've been in that position exactly once in my career -- a month ago. I don't have a lot to say here, but I will point out that it's not all about which press gave you the better formal contract. You should also consider your rapport with the editor and whether you share a vision of the book. For example, did the editor give you feedback on the book that you found valuable? If so, not only is that a good sign, but also the editor has already contributed some of their intellectual labor to your project.

You should also consider whether the press will be out there marketing the book for you in a way that you like. Will they put it on their table at APA meetings? Will it appear near the front of their catalog? How have they treated previous authors you know? You probably can't get formal commitments about such details at this point, but in some cases a smaller press can be better than a large press where your book might be lost amid the crowd -- if the press has the resources to make your book visible in the right places.

Part III?

I'm considering whether to write a third part about manuscript revisions, page proofs, title and cover, and marketing. However, I'm not sure I have enough of interest to say about these things to be worth a post, so no promises.


Mark D. White said...

Thanks, Eric, this is great — the only thing I can think to add is about the right-of-first-refusal clause, which I've normally had struck fairly easily, but a couple times the publisher insisted on it, particularly when they were envisioning a series stemming from a book and wanted to make sure possible future installments were offered to them first.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right. I might add that I've seen relatively more and relatively less obnoxious versions of right-of-first-refusal. In one case, when I pushed gently back against it the editor didn't exactly insist on keeping it but I did get the feeling that if I pushed too hard on that clause it would interfere with some other issues that were more important to me. Since it was a relatively mild version of such a clause, I dropped the matter.