Turning an Offer Into a Deal

Negotiating a publication contract is partly an art and partly a science, but mostly a dance. Sometimes when you request more money or better terms, you get exactly what you ask for; sometimes the other side won’t budge an inch; most of the time, though, the two sides are able to compromise.

Forging such a compromise often involves each party asking the other in a non-confrontational way, “What’s your main concern here?” or “Why is this so important to you?” When both sides understand the reasons behind each other‘s position, it becomes much easier to create a solution that addresses everyone’s concerns.

For example, suppose a magazine offers you $1000 for one of your essays. The fee seems reasonable enough, but your editor insists on buying first world English-language rights, even though the magazine is published only in North America. You ask your editor, “Do you have plans to begin publishing in other countries?” “We’re not sure,” he says, “but we’re talking about doing a British edition. That’s why we want to secure those rights—in case we go down that road.” You might then say, “Fine, but let’s add two stipulations: first, if and when you do decide to publish my piece in a British edition, you’ll pay me an additional $500; and, second, if you haven’t published my piece in the U.K. within a year, all foreign rights revert to me.”

Or maybe a small book publisher wants to publish your short story collection. It offers you a small advance and reasonable royalties, but wants to buy world rights—i.e., all the rights to the book in all media, languages, and territories. It will split all subsidiary rights income with you 50/50, which is standard for most small and midsize book publishers, but you don’t know how well it will market those rights. So you ask your editor, “Why do you want world rights?” She answers, “We do a pretty brisk business in foreign rights. We think we can sell the rights to your book in at least three or four countries, in both print and ebook form.” You might then say, “All right, then. Why don’t I give you worldwide print and ebook rights? I’ll keep all non-print rights, such as audio, film, TV, and so on. And I’d like to be able to reclaim any unexercised and unlicensed rights three years after the book’s first publication.”

In short, publishers often ask for more rights than they want or need. However, they will usually let you keep any rights they don’t care much about—if you ask.

It’s wise to go into any negotiation knowing what you can and cannot live with. This gives you the clarity and confidence to push for what you want; to settle for what you need, if you have to; and to walk away from the deal if the publisher can’t or won’t meet your basic terms.

As the rights director of a large book publisher once told me, “You know you’ve struck a fair deal when both sides sign a contract but feel mildly pissed off. If the other side is happy, you probably gave away too much. If you’re happy, the other side wimped out. I know I’ve done my job when I close a deal that neither side is wild about, but both sides can live with.”

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