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.

Why is your book so expensive?

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My book, Social Housing in Performance, is available for pre-order. It is, as you will have noticed if you clicked on the hyperlink in the last sentence, prohibitively expensive at £67.50 (and that’s with a discount). Almost immediately that I tweeted news of my forthcoming publication, I received replies going, ‘Gah! But the price!’ The high price is especially an issue because of the subject matter of the book — the fact it deals with class injustice and its cultural dimensions — and because many people who will (hopefully) want to read it won’t have loads of money, or access to a university library. So I’ve written this to a) explain why it’s so expensive, because I feel that needs justifying. And b) to tell you how you can read it at a much cheaper price, or for free.

Why is it so expensive?

Academic books are expensive. The reason for this is because they are very niche, and publishers don’t expect to sell more than a few hundred copies, if that. Because they have to make their money back, and because these books will mostly be purchased by university libraries, who are much better off than the average human household, they are priced very high. That way, the publisher makes their money back on their investment in the book.

The academic who wrote the book typically makes very minimal returns on any sales — totalling in the tens, or if we’re lucky, hundreds of pounds. Considering academic books take years if not decades to complete, we do not win financially in this model (see here for a rant about that).

So why publish with an academic publisher?

There are two reasons. The first is that I genuinely didn’t believe there was anything like a market for the trade publication of an arts criticism book about estates, class, arts and culture. My experience of unsuccessfully trying to sell a non-fiction book to trade publishers in the past had taught me that I would need to convince commissioning editors that the book is likely to sell (tens of) thousands of copies. In order to publish a trade book, you either have to be writing about an extremely hot topic, or else you have to be famous. The public interest in class and the arts is extremely current, and five years ago when I was working on the proposal for this publication I didn’t know how to articulate the market for it, indeed I didn’t think there was a market for it. No one was really talking about this stuff. I know there are some academic books, particularly sociology ones and arts criticism by well-known writers, that sell very well. But as I am a) unknown to the wider public, and b) writing about a very specific subject, it seemed unlikely that a trade publisher would bite.

The second is a career progression reason, and therefore selfish — but I don’t apologise for that. Every six years or so, UK academics have to submit our work to the Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly RAE), where its ‘quality, significance and rigour’ is graded anywhere between 1 and 4 stars. In my current job, I have to evidence that I am capable of producing 4* outputs (yes, even though I am an ‘early career’ scholar), in order to pass probation and be promoted. Although the REF panel are not supposed to take where an output is published into a consideration when assessing, there are still good reasons to choose an academic publisher if you are hoping to submit a book to REF. Most obviously because with an academic publisher your book will be subject to a rigorous peer review by someone in your discipline, which means there is quality control and you can have some confidence the academic world thinks your work is worthwhile. Additionally, despite the rules around not using publishers as proxies for quality, I don’t doubt that many of the REF assessors do factor some element of publication prestige into their assessment (they have to read thousands of submissions in a few months, they must make shortcuts somehow).

But I still want to read your book!

Thank you! I have been working on this material for nearly ten years, and I really want it to reach as wide an audience as possible. My contract says that it will be available in paperback at some point, which will reduce the price to somewhere in the region of £20, which is still a lot, but will be affordable for some. I’m not sure when that will be. In the meantime, you might like to request that your institutional or local library orders a copy, you can ask the librarian how to do this. The more hardback copies that sell, the more likely it is that the book will receive a timely paperback release.

There are a couple of ways to get a free copy: For those of you who teach and hope to use the book on a course, you can request an inspection copy from the publisher once it’s out (click here for details of how to do that). You might also like to write a review of the book for an academic journal, or for a newspaper or blog — in which case you can email or after publication and ask for a review copy.

Once the book’s out I’m going to arrange a launch where I’ll hopefully have discounted copies. I’m also happy to share any discount codes I’m given, and to send out digital versions of chapters once I have them, especially to those who need to read the book for research or study purposes. You can find my email in the contacts section of this website.



Rights, copyright and exploitation: Five things academics can do to improve the experience of publishing

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This is written from a UK arts and humanities perspective, and may not be entirely applicable outside of that context


This week, I was presented with yet another shitty contract by an academic publisher, and it was the final straw. The breaking point as I snapped under the weight of resentments that I’ve been harbouring towards academic publishing culture for the past eight years. I am 34. I have been writing and publishing academic papers since I was 26. I have, to date, published well over a dozen articles, chapters and book reviews, have edited journal special issues and have just submitted my first book. Some of my stuff is very good. I say all this not to brag, but to point to the fact that even with this relatively wide experience and despite my dedication to my work and eagerness to please (maybe that’s part of the problem), my publishing experiences are still unsatisfactory. Indeed, once it comes down to the contract, publishing has almost always left me feeling exploited, cynical and played.

Having been handed yet another contract where I’m expected to sign my worldwide copyright and all other rights, save the ability to actually share my work, over to a very profitable company, for no remuneration whatsoever, at massive personal cost in terms of effort and energy, I’m feeling extremely cross. Not only, and not even primarily, at the publishing houses — who after all are only following the ‘profit no matter what’ business model that has now become the prevailing morality in our culture — but at myself (for not challenging the culture sooner) and at my colleagues and mentors. Literally none of whom have ever discussed copyright, subsidiary rights, contract terminology and negotiation, meaning I have willingly signed rights to my work over to publishers on almost every academic paper I’ve ever written.

Perhaps my feeling annoyed at colleagues is unfair. So far as I can tell the conspiracy of silence (try asking someone about the terms of their publishing contract) is not so much because people don’t want early career researchers to know their rights, but because even many senior academics are unclear about those rights, how to protect them, how to enforce them, or what a standard academic publishing contract actually means in practical terms. After all, very few of us will ever directly make money from our academic writing. (For those of us signed up to ALCS, we should be aware that signing over copyright (and other subsidary rights) means we are not entitled to collect to royalties from secondary uses). Added to which the fact that we feel so relieved after years and years of painstaking research, more months or years of working through drafts, responses to reviews, edits and so on, to have finally completed the article, chapter or book, that we just want our work out there as soon as possible. We don’t want to delay the process, risk our relationship with editors, have someone else publish similar work, have our work pulled at the last minute, or (and I think this is especially the case for women) be perceived as difficult. So we shut up. (Perhaps we are also embarrassed that, as people whose job is ‘being clever’, we have absolutely no idea what we’re doing in this regard). (Perhaps there are also those of us who cling jealously to our ability to negotiate fairer contracts, figuring that it’s a skill that’s basically a finite resource we’d like to keep for ourselves).

However, I’m not willing to continue participating in a system where virtually nobody openly discusses our writing and its monetary value, or talks about how to protect it. So I am writing this blog for two reasons. The first is to raise the issue in a public forum in the hope it generates conversation and sharing of stories. I am especially interested to hear about how academics have protected their work, and about any initiatives colleagues are involved in around training postgraduates and ECRs to better understand their rights and how to negotiate with academic publishers. The second is to relay a series of simple strategies that I suggest we take up to start pushing back against unfair publishing conditions.

For anyone confused about what publishing rights are please click here for more details (this is a North American perspective, and much of it deals with trade/fiction publishing but it’s a good overview). On UK copyright law specifically, see here and here.

We have to ask for better terms when we are handed a contract that is blatantly exploitative.

The terms we are willing to settle for will obviously differ from person to person, but I’d say at the bare minimum giving up copyright and all subsidiary rights is an immediate no. Instead, ask whether the publisher is willing to publish with a licence to publish agreement. Also check book contracts for unhelpful clauses such as those where the publisher has first right to first refusal on your next monograph. Because ECRs and those with precarious contracts arguably need publications more than established and senior researchers, the onus is on permanent staff to push for better contracts every time we publish. We have to do this so that we start to make it against a publisher’s interests to offer the most exploitative contract as standard. (Advice on how to negotiate here, and here).

It is worth remembering that many of the big publishers, such as Taylor & Francis, will present you with a copyright assignment request as standard, but have a policy of allowing writers to switch to licence to publish when asked. So ask.

If the publisher can’t give you satisfactory terms, go elsewhere.

We have to be willing to do this. Maybe it means you don’t get to place your monograph with a prestigious University Press. Perhaps it means that publication will be delayed while you look for another journal, or submit that book chapter as an article. Remember the quality of your work is in the work and not the publisher (this should also be how REF panels approach it). Going elsewhere simply means you get to publish without feeling compromised and perhaps even see some money if your work is a surprising commercial success.

Lobby from positions of power.

Editorial boards, series editors and others in positions of influence with academic publishing houses should lobby in the strongest possible terms to have contracts presented to their writers meet a minimum standard of fairness. No copyright assignment and access to percentage of subsidiary rights, for example. Where appropriate, editorial boards should take advice on this from e.g. Society of Authors, UCU or similar.

We have to educate ourselves and our communities.

This means we have to start getting a grip on understanding rights, permissions, etc. and we have to share and disseminate strategies we have used to negotiate better contract terms with our colleagues. We should also create opportunities for training in contract negotiation for ECRs and postgraduate researchers (and others who might need it).

Use and share available resources. 

Those of us with agents, membership to the Society of Authors, or with other means of having contracts vetted and scrutinised by experts should routinely do so and should, as above, share insights from the process with colleagues, students and postgraduate students.

UPDATE: You can read about my experiences with contract negotiation post writing this blog-post here.