Negotiating Academic Publishing Contracts

My post on academic publishing has been getting lots of reads recently. Serendipitously, I find I have more to add on this subject — since I wrote it, I’ve been putting my own advice into practice. Given that it is still quite rare for academics to share contract negotiating experiences, that (English) people hate talking about money, and that I now have some examples of how it can go, I thought it might be useful to share my experiences here, and then summarise what I think I’ve learnt that might be helpful to other people.

Please know, I am winging this in my own way, and have no legal expertise or mentor to guide me on this at all. I’ve just tried to read around the subject and start pushing for changes when things seem unfair.

Here are five times I negotiated over the past couple of years, what happened, and the lessons I think I learnt. Details are vague, and in some cases slightly disguised, because I don’t want to break contractual confidentialities or piss off the nice people who publish my work.

I realise that in trade press terms, the contracts I’ve managed to secure for my academic work are still pretty appalling, but I’m trying to find ways to make the experience of academic publishing better for myself in the ways I can. If anyone has advice on how I can do this more effectively, please post in the comments section.

  1. Invited chapter in an edited book for a university press

I was contacted by the editors of a collection of essays, and agreed to write a submission for their book, which was already under contract with an academic publisher based in the US. Some months later the publisher contacted me with a contract for my contribution. Unluckily for them, I hadn’t started the work yet, was dreading it, and had that very day had a terrible research experience that left me wondering if I should publish any academic work ever again given that writing about other people’s practice is an ethical minefield.

In other words, when I opened the contract I was already pissed off. When I saw the contract, rage grew. It was the most exploitative kind of contract you can be offered: assignment of copyright in perpetuity, no ability to reuse my own work without permission, no payment, no percentage of royalties and on and on.

I decided I didn’t want to publish the chapter that badly, and actually not writing it would be a relief. I sent a quite blunt email to the publisher directly, saying I was appalled at the terms, the lack of payment, the basic and gross exploitation of my labour and they could either present me with something better, or I would not submit the work. I totally meant this. I was not in ‘threat’ mode.

The publisher wrote back apologising, offered me an ‘exclusive licence to publish’ contract that allowed me to retain my copyright, use my work with attribution and collect secondary use royalties. They also offered me a (albeit paltry) fee of £150 for the chapter.

I accepted the terms, wrote and submitted the chapter, and was paid.

Lessons: In academic publishing, as in dating, you are more likely to be successful in negotiations when you hold all the power – that is, when you don’t care. If I had written a less confrontational email, or had I cared about my relationship with the publisher/been in a better mood I may have lost the opportunity or ended up signing an exploitative contract.

2. Invited contribution to a publication for an education press

I was invited by a commissioning editor at an education imprint of a popular press to contribute a longish (9,000 word) chapter to a forthcoming publication. The contract I was presented was a licence to publish — that means I retain copyright — and offered a small flat fee (£300) for completing the work, no royalties.

This was a project I was really excited to be asked to do, and that presented a great career opportunity, given it was likely to be much more widely read than anything else I’d ever published.

I asked whether there was the possibility of negotiating for some percentage of royalties should the book sell a certain number of copies (that is for the contract to allow me to share in any future success of the work). I was told no, as this was a standard contract that the publisher does not negotiate on.

I decided to accept the contract as initially presented, submitted and was paid for the work.

Lessons: You don’t always get what you ask for. If you want to do something, you have to decide whether accepting less than ideal terms is worth it in relation to the other benefits of an opportunity to your career and reputation.

3. Monograph with an academic publisher

I submitted a proposal for a monograph to a UK-based academic publisher, having had some positive conversations around my initial idea with a commissioning editor there. It was accepted and I was offered a standard contract for that publishing house, which is a small percentage of royalties (2.5%), no advance, I keep copyright but give them exclusive right to publish in all territories, they have first right to refusal on my next book.

I wrote to the commissioning editor I had the initial contact with and asked for a small (hundreds of pounds) advance, 5% of royalties with the percentage growing to 10% once 500 copies were sold, and the ability to offer specific future books I have planned to other publishers. Those terms were agreed, and I signed the contract and am working on the book.

Lessons: I think I had more leverage than I otherwise might as I already had a monograph out, and at the time it was shortlisted for a prize. Also, I was really asking for the bare minimum in terms of what unions like The Society of Authors suggest is fair in contractual terms. I’d say it’s always worth at least doing that.

4. Book with a commercial-academic publisher

I had an idea for a book, and discussed it with a commissioning editor at a commercial publishing house that also publishes academic and education texts, based in the UK. I had already worked with this editor on another project. I was clear from the first conversation that I wanted a decent contract if this book were to go ahead — specifically, because the book involves contributions from others, I wanted a budget to pay contributors and to do some of the other creative work the book will need.

I worked with the commissioning editor and some collaborators on the proposal. The eventual contract had everything I asked for, including a fairly generous advance (four figures, but in academic terms that’s acceptable), budget for the contributors and creative work and a decent percentage of royalties (10%), increasing on successful sales of the publication.

Lessons: If you can find a good commissioning editor, build a relationship and really work with them to explain your ideas, get them onside and articulate why certain budgets might be necessary to the success of the publication, you are more likely to get a decent contract. I think it helped that I had a really clear vision for the project and could make a good case for a large market for the book.

5. Short journal article

I submitted a short article to an academic journal based in the US, which was accepted. The contract asked me to forfeit all rights to the work, including copyright. I wrote a polite email to the journal editor explaining that I do not relinquish copyright and could anything be done, and I was immediately sent a different contract which merely asked for licence to publish (not even exclusive licence), and enabled me to keep all my rights to my work.

Lesson: I would suggest all writers refuse to relinquish copyright to their work as the absolute minimum condition of publication. If you feel you are offered an exceptional reason or circumstance around the necessity of copyright assignment, check with a union such as the Society of Authors before you agree to sign copyright over to someone else.

I hope if you’ve read this far some of my experience is useful. If you have specific questions, advice for me, or would like to chat over your experiences with publishing contracts do send me an email or comment below. Again, I am not a lawyer and cannot offer legal advice on contracts, but I am always interested to hear about others’ experiences and share knowledge where possible.

PS: I have left Twitter due to it being ruinous to my psychological wellbeing, but if any of my friends or readers wants to publish it there, I’d really be grateful. Academic Twitter is probably the audience for this.

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