Who makes the first move when negotiating with a publisher?

I recently wrote about how to negotiate with your publisher. But the publisher-author dance is remarkably subtle, and if you don’t know the steps, you might inadvertently make the relationship awkward. The key for authors is to know when to go first . . . and when to expect the publisher to go first.

The key in all these situations is to balance the expertise. You are the expert in your book content; the publisher is the expert in the publishing marketplace. For content-focused elements of the book development, you should make the first move, but for market-focused elements, the publisher should. In all these cases, you need to end up agreeing or there will be no book; if you’re completely inflexible, they may walk away, while if you just give up, you’ll end up disappointed with the final form of the book

Setting an advance: publishers should go first

When you’re pitching the book, whether with an agent or directly with a publisher, you don’t shouldn’t try to set the deal terms. If you suggest a number for the advance that’s too high, they’ll just ignore you as unrealisitc, and if it’s too low, you’ve left money on the table. The publishers know the market and feel they are the experts on how much the book is worth (which is why you always want to have multiple publishers bidding to get the highest offer). Once you’re ready to accept the basic numbers, you can negotiate the details such as ebook, audiobook, or foreign rights payments.

Deciding the title: you should go first

The title is a significant part of the value of your book. That means you should have a preferred title in mind as you begin to work. Share both the title and the rationale for it with the publisher, and stand behind it firmly. If the publisher objects, examine their reasons and come up with some alternatives. You’re in a much better position than the publisher is to know which titles are appropriate for your book.

Remember, in addition to being memorable, your title has to be unique so it stands out in searches on Amazon or Google. If the publisher objects because another popular book had the same title, that’s a legitimate objection. (Frankly, you should have checked that before selecting the title anyway.)

If the publisher makes suggestions, think hard about whether they’re better or worse than what you have, and why. This allows you to have a reasoned discussion about it.

Unlike titles, subtitles are iterative — often you and the publisher can go back and forth on ideas and get to the best solution.

Designing the cover: the publisher should go first

As I describe in my book, your initial suggestions regarding the cover should include a cover brief, explaining what types of emotions you want to create and any graphical elements that you like or hate (for example, white backgrounds or stock photos).

However, you should let the publisher’s designer come up with the first graphic treatment. Publishers are happy to hear your design ideas, but unlikely to embrace your actual cover designs. They feel that cover design is a part of the value they bring.

If you hate all the publisher’s design ideas, explain why. Suggest changes that will help (e.g. bolder type, don’t center everything).

The same logic applies to the interior design — suggest ideas, then let the publisher show you what they’ve come up with.

Creating the manuscript: you should (obviously) go first

You’re the writer. Write, and then see what the publisher thinks. You can figure out if you’re on the right track early by sharing a table of contents and a chapter or two.

Setting the marketing plan: you should go first

Publishers don’t take the lead on publicity and marketing. They’re a part of your marketing plan, not vice versa.

So explain the strategy and tactics of your overall plan to the publisher’s publicity team and see what they come back with. They can often enhance parts of the plan where they have better contacts, such as with book reviewers and media sites.

Sure, you could go in whatever order you want, but it will be awkward

These are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. But if you don’t follow these guidelines, your publisher is going to think you’re a little odd — and that will make the negotiations harder in the future. In the end, you’ll both have to agree on all of these elements. Understanding who goes first just makes it easier to effectively get to that agreement.

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