How to negotiate with a publisher

Publishers know all about publishing. Authors know less. This asymmetry means that authors are often at a disadvantage when negotiating with publishers — everything from advances to rights to manuscript edits to marketing.

I’d like to fix that. If you’re negotiating with a traditional publisher, here are some tips on what you can reasonably negotiate and what you can’t. I’ve organized it by the steps in your relationship with the publisher: schmoozing, pitching, writing, and promoting.

Before you’ve generated a proposal

If you talk to a publisher (or more specifically, an acquisitions editor at a publisher) about a book you’re considering, they’re going to tell you they’re interested. Unfortunately, this warm discussion is worth precisely nothing.

The publisher is just angling to be sure that they get a chance to review your proposal once it’s ready. Ideally, they’d like you to be so buddy-buddy with them that you don’t show it to any other publishers. This obviously improves their negotiating position.

It costs nothing for a publisher to show interest; they’re still free not to make an offer once you’re further along. So don’t mistake compliments for anything of value.

When you’re pitching a proposal

One piece of advice is more important than any other at this stage: get an agent. If the agent is any good, they know everything that’s worth negotiating and what every publisher’s hot spots and bugaboos are. You don’t.

Once your proposal is out for bids, publishers will invite you to visit or talk to them. You might think these visits are like interviews for a job, but that’s backwards: they’re attempting to woo you. In cases where the advance amounts are similar, they want you to like them better than their competitors.

There are many things that you can negotiate with publishers at this stage (hopefully with the help of an agent). All of them are improved if you have multiple publishers competing.

  • Publication date. (This is among the most important things to negotiate.)
  • Size of the advance.
  • When the installments in the advance are paid.
  • Rights and payments for foreign translations.
  • Rights and payments for audiobook sales.
  • Share of revenues for ebook sales.
  • Availability and number of pre-release “advance reader copies” (also known as galley proofs) that you can distribute for publicity purposes.
  • Number of free print copies (author copies) you can get.
  • How much you pay for additional author copies.
  • Format (paperback or hardback).
  • Dimensions of the finished book (“trim size”).
  • Printing format: black-and-white interior, black with an additional color, or full color.

Publishers will offer all sorts of marketing help (reps that call on bookstores and publicity outreach, for example). Don’t put too much weight on this. Unless yours is a very big book for them (as indicated by an advance of more than $300,000), they’ll generally do their standard marketing, regardless of what their promises sound like.

Your contract should specify that you own the copyright. Publishers these days rarely try to keep that for themselves, but review the contract to make sure.

Traditional books (as opposed to series, like Dummies books) tend to have a standard royalty rate, often 5% of the sale price for the first few thousand, 10% for the next few thousand, and 15% after the book is selling well. Attempting to improve the top royalty number is futile: it’s baked into the way the publisher works. Rates are lower for paperbacks. Also baked in are allowances for returns. You’ll get nowhere trying to negotiate those terms.

Be cognizant of whether your royalty percentage is calculated on the list price or on the publisher’s net (what they get paid by distributors or bookstores).

One thing worth negotiating for is final approval on the cover — don’t give that up. If they have audio rights, you’ll also want veto on the actor they use, or you can negotiate to record the audiobook yourself. You also want final approval on the title.

I’ve also heard of cases where the publisher changed the text without the author’s permission before the book was published. This is rare but your contract should protect against it.

During the writing and book production process

Your publishing contract says that the publisher has the right to accept or reject your manuscript, and you don’t get paid if they reject it. This makes it appear that the publisher is in charge. But in practical terms, you have most of the power here.

After your contract is signed and the publication date is set, the publisher will advertise content and publication date of your book to bookstores and the rest of the industry. They really, really don’t want to go back on that. As a result, although the contract says they can accept or reject your manuscript, they really don’t want to reject it. The very rare reasons for actual rejections tend to be either 1) the text is so bad it’s unpublishable, or 2) you’ve included lies or outrageous slurs in the text that will cause the publisher to get sued, or 3) you’ve made yourself unpublishable by, for example, being revealed as a pedophile. Since I’m sure none of those apply to you, they’re going to publish your book. It’s just a question of what’s in it when they do.

In the meantime, learn what really happens when you negotiate with the publisher — what they’ll relent on, and what they won’t.

  • Text changes. Your editor will suggest text changes. You should listen to them; the editor often has insights that you lack into what works in books. But if you’re sure you’re right, stand your ground. Your editor may be unhappy, but as I described above, they’re unlikely to reject the manuscript just because they want Chapter 3 to be a little different.
  • Length. If the book is too long, that’s a problem. Longer books are more expensive to copy edit, lay out, and print; paper costs money. This will cause the publisher to have to price the book higher. So you should attempt to hit the page count promised in the contract. If the contract says you’ll deliver a 60,000 word manuscript and you deliver a 90,000 word behemoth, they’re going to ask you to cut, and it’s in everyone’s best interest if you do. If you instead deliver a 30,000 word manuscript, that’s also going to cause problems, since such a skinny book won’t seem to be worth the price.
  • Title. You can change your book title at any point in the publishing process. It just gets harder and harder. Titles often shift even after the contract is signed; if you have a brainstorm or your publisher does, you may get to a better title. But they won’t design the cover until the title is settled. Once the book goes into the production process, title changes are rare and publishers will mightily resist. (In any case, it’s best to settle the title early to avoid title hell.)
  • Cover design. To maximize the chances you’ll get a cover you like, work ahead of time with your publisher on a “cover brief” to be shared with designers, indicating what you like and don’t like. If your contract gives you final cover approval, don’t back down. Don’t accept an inappropriate or ugly cover. You can reject the cover for any reason, including “I don’t like orange,” or “The type looks bad.” If the publisher’s designers aren’t getting anywhere, you can propose to use your own designer. This will cost you an extra $2,000 or so, but the publisher will eventually give in if you can’t stand the covers they’re designing. (If your contract doesn’t give you final cover approval, you might get stuck with a cover you hate and there’s not much you can do about it.)
  • Marketing copy. Your publisher wants to write the flap copy or back-cover copy. They have people who do that. You generally get final approval. But since you know the book well and you’re an excellent writer, it’s often best if you write your own copy. I’ve written books where the publisher submitted copy and my “edit” was just to replace it with copy I wrote. Keep the length the same, though — the publisher can’t fit 500 words on a book flap.
  • Graphics. Graphics are a pain. There are all sorts of things that go wrong with them. The publisher wants you not to go nuts with lots of graphics (unless that was the understanding in the original contract), because that makes page layout slower and more subject to error. But if you insist, they’ll relent.
  • Interior printing. Don’t imagine you can suddenly ask for color printing if your contract specifies black and white. They won’t budge. Switching from black and white to color late in the process disrupts everything about the print production process.
  • Manuscript delivery date. Every author delivers manuscripts late (except me, I’m a weirdo). Publishers know this and as a result whatever due date they tell you is a lie. The real deadline is always a mystery, although you can have a conversation about it and learn a little more about the true deadline. The publisher has always built in time to review the manuscript and request changes and for you to respond to those requests. Just know that the date is far more flexible than it appears. You won’t learn the actual inflexible deadline unless you’re very late delivering the text, at which point you’ll get a series of increasingly panicked emails and calls from your editor.
  • Publication date. For you, it may not matter that much if the book is supposed to published in March 2024 and it actually comes out in May. But changes like that totally screw up the publisher’s distribution and marketing plans. Pub dates only move in dire emergencies (the pandemic was an anomaly here). Similarly, your requests to move the publication date earlier will be met with pained stares and “Umm, I’m sorry but that’s impossible.”
  • Prerelease copies. There’s often a period of a month or more between when the book is printed and when it’s officially published and available to buy on retail sites or in retail stores. You can likely get copies shipped to you in advance from the printer. This is negotiable — as soon as copies are printed, it’s possible to get them sent somewhere (for example, to a speech you’re giving). But they will probably charge you for shipping. (To a publisher, extra books are cheap, but shipping has a real and unavoidable cost.)

After publication

Once your book is published, you have the attention of the publisher’s publicity team for about a month. Unless something extremely timely and newsworthy happens in the market to which your book is targeted, this is hard to change.

Your attempts to get “more” marketing aren’t likely to succeed. They’ve dedicated a fixed amount of resources and although they’ll listen and respond politely, their overworked publicity staff can only do so much. They don’t want to dedicate resources to your book by taking away from other books. And frankly, they know how to do what they do (reviews, excerpts, and placing bylined articles, mostly), and don’t have the skills to do more.

About a month after the publication date, they’ll become unresponsive. They’re working on the next author’s book. Unless you can make them aware of a massive opportunity, it’s hard to keep their attention.

If you find an error in the text after you’ve published, your editor will agree to have it fixed. Learn what this means. They’ll fix the ebook. They won’t likely fix the audiobook. And they won’t fix the print book unless it has sold well enough to justify a second printing. They won’t recall books from stores unless the error is outrageous.

If the book is selling well, you may be in a position to create a paperback version or a revised edition. This is all subject to negotiation with your publisher (again, with the help of your agent). If the book is selling, you have a lot of negotiating power. If it isn’t, you don’t. Publishers rarely agree to revised editions of poorly selling books.

Your contract specifies when you get royalty statements (often, twice a year, three or five months “in arrears” of actual sales). No amount of negotiation will change this: it’s generated by the publisher’s accounting department based on a system that was likely installed in the late Cretaceous Period. However, if you’re not getting royalty statements as promised, or worse, not getting payments that are due to you, contact your editor (or better yet, have your agent contact your editor). The agent and editor can often get the accounting glitches unstuck.

Negotiate what you can when you can

Now you know what you can ask your publisher to do and what you can’t. Yelling at editors about things they can’t change is futile and counterproductive. But giving in to editors on manuscripts and covers just because they seem like authority figures is also a mistake. Learn what to negotiate and what to leave alone. It will make your book better, and equally important, will make it as close as possible to the book you hoped it would be.

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