"Light Makes Right"
January 24, 1996
Volume 9, Number 2
All contents are copyright (c) 1996, all rights reserved by the individual authors
Archive locations: anonymous FTP from
You may also want to check out the Ray Tracing News issue guide and the ray tracing FAQ.
A friend asked the going rate for author's royalties on a technical or trade paperback, so I asked some people what they received. A few wrote back with extremely enlightening and fascinating comments. I passed these notes on to other authors, and received yet more interesting reading back. I have now edited all these comments down a bit, mostly taking out the names of authors and publishers and removing publisher-specific comments. I have also avoided commenting on any text, even that which disagrees with commonly held views. I hope this compendium is as educational and eye opening to you as it was to me. Thanks again to all who contributed.
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NEVER EVER sign the first contract you get. This goes for magazine articles, CD-ROMs, books, and anything else you care to mention. The first contract you see will be tilted totally in favor of the organization which wrote it. Don't be afraid to ask questions, cross things out, and tell people that you won't do...whatever. Royalties are tricky; get somebody from NWU or ASJA to explain them to you. Remember that whoever gets something down on paper first controls the agenda; since this is ALWAYS the publisher, don't be afraid to bring up things that aren't in the contract if you want them. It never hurts to ask and you can always say no to something you don't want. Don't be afraid to add things to the contract. Don't worry when the editor says, "But nobody has ever asked for that before!" So what, big deal, and who cares. The secret is: EVERY author who asks for that is the first, even if 10,000 authors asked for it before you.
I didn't understand all that was involved in writing a book with lots of graphics in it. I didn't get any expense money for long-distance calls, nor did I think ahead to realize that maybe the artists might want money too (I was fortunate in that artists contributed freely to my book. But I felt bad about not being able to pay them even a token amount). I didn't even think about indexing until I realized that the book was going to need an index and I better create one. Indexing, to put it bluntly, is a bitch. Unless you are the kind of person who really enjoys minutiae, figure out a way to hire somebody to do it for you. Another thing to keep in mind is that all your relatives and friends and everybody you interview and everybody who contributes images will ask for a free copy of the book. Figure out a way to deal with this before it happens or you could have some awkward - and potentially expensive - moments. In my opinion, artists who contribute images to a book do deserve a free copy, especially if you can't pay them in filthy lucre. So plan for that up front. Something else to consider is that, unless you are the world's expert on a topic, you are going to want content expert reviewers to look over your work and point out errors. You'd better figure out how you're going to say thanks to them, too...just an acknowledgment, a lifetime membership at President and First Lady, a free book? Whatever it is, figure it out early...before you've spent the advance. Even better, do it before the contract is signed - a good time to ask for those extra free books you'll need.
For first-time book writers: writing a book is hard work. Start as soon as your contract is signed and work like hell until it is finished. Otherwise you will wind up begging your editor for extra time. This is embarrassing at best. At worst, you could lost part of your advance.
Finally, once your contract is signed, no matter what squabbling went on beforehand, the editor and publisher are now your best buddies. You are all in the same boat, all rowing to the same destination: a successful book. So once your signature is dry, treat the editor as your friend. If you have a problem of any kind relating to the book, tell the editor immediately. Don't wait until the last minute; if advised early, the editor may be able to help and can possibly do some re-scheduling. If the editor has a request, answer it or explain immediately why you can't. And if you need help, ask for it. The editor may not be able to help, but he sure can't if you don't ask.
Authors should consider that a book is more than just the words. It includes the front cover, back cover, images, diagrams, page layout, chapter pages, table of contents, index, and so forth. All of these require creative thought and take money and time to put together. If you have specific creative ideas for any of these, then you should make sure your contract gives you the necessary control.
As an example, in our book we failed to include creative control clauses in the contract. The cover was designed and printed in a catalog before we had ever seen it. In fact, it was only after the book had gone to press that we finally saw the cover. By luck, it wasn't bad, but we wish we'd had control.
In the same book, the color pages turned into a nightmare. We wanted a particular set of images. The publisher didn't like the esthetics of the images. Since the book was a textbook, and the images explanatory in nature, not necessarily artistic, we felt the publisher was inappropriately editing our visual content. One set of images the publisher disliked illustrated issues in the use of color in shading. Obviously such images must be printed in color. We lost. The images were dropped from the book or only printed in black and white. We are still furious, but without explicit control clauses in the contract, we had no power.
Regarding text, we recommend that the text you deliver be as edited by you as possible. Don't count on the publisher doing a super editing pass to pick up all your little mistakes. They'll catch grammar problems, but generally not catch tone problems, pacing problems, incorrect figure references, wrong numeric values in equations or sample code, and so forth. Don't assume it'll get fixed by them. Do it yourself. Despite our best efforts, our book includes embarrassing mistakes for which we only have ourselves to blame.
Also regarding text, make sure you know the practical page limits imposed by the publisher. Such page limits arise from binding types, printing costs, and appropriate retail price. During writing of our book, our editor kept telling us to take as much space as we needed. So we did, and wrote 1000+ manuscript pages, which sift down to about 800+ formatted book pages. After turning in the manuscript, we were informed that 670 printed pages was the top they'd allow and we had to cut 150 pages from the book. It was very painful. If we'd understood the limits up front, we could have designed for them and saved a lot of wasted writing and editing time.
Another word of advice is to deliver your manuscript on time. While schedules always include slack, if you miss a deadline your publisher gains the upper hand. They can cancel your contract (which they won't), but more importantly they now have a built-in excuse for not doing additional work you request. They'll say "We'd like to do that edit pass, but since you were late in delivering the manuscript, we're behind the schedule and in danger of missing the release date." If you deliver on time, you are in a better position to ask for additional work.
When choosing a publisher, we went to the experts: the book retailers. We traveled to a number of stores and asked their managers and book buyers what publishers they liked and why. We discovered that some publishers do a bad job of marketing, others are unsupportive of their retailers, and still others have a reputation of producing poor books. It doesn't matter how good your book is, if nobody knows about it or retailers are biased against your publisher, you're in a bad spot. We chose our publisher by picking one with a good reputation among retailers.
It's also important to note which publishers sell in to the stores where you want your book to be. Low end consumer publishers won't have many books at university book stores. High end publishers of professional texts won't have many books in neighborhood mall book stores. We chose a publisher whose books consistently showed up in the appropriate stores.
In our travels we also learned a bit about what makes a book sell. Here are the basics: (1) it must be thick, (2) it must have a colorful spine, (3) it must have lots of diagrams and examples (if it's a how-to book). To catch the customer's eye, your book must be easy to spot. To help this, you want the retailer to "face out" your book: to turn it so that the cover faces the aisle instead of the spine. This is only possible if your book is thick enough to stand on its own. Thickness is also a psychological cue to the customer that convinces them that the book is complete and, therefore, the only book they need to buy. A quick thumb through the pages of your book should show lots of examples and images so that the customer is further convinced your book is the definitive, helpful work on the topic.
Things that make a book not sell: spiral bindings and shrink-wrapped extras. Spiral bindings don't show the name of your book when the book is not faced out. Without a visible and colorful spine label, customers don't see your product. When books have shrink-wrapped extras, such as cheat cards, the shrink-wrapping prevents customers from thumbing through your book. The wrapping also often breaks, which causes the retailer to take the incomplete book off the shelves, and again the customer doesn't see your product. In our case, even though we wanted a textbook with a binding that would let it lay flat, and we wanted a cheat card, we chose to use a standard binding and omit the cheat card so that the book we sell better.
To sum up our experiences, we advise authors to learn as much about the publishing business as possible before writing a book or signing a contract. The more you know, the better you are able to insure the right things are in your contract and the wrong things are not. You are in a better position to optimize your writing time, argue for important book features, and produce a better, sellable product.
Do not sign the contract that the publisher puts in front of you. They write the contract for themselves (this is a general rule of contract-writing, BTW). They make you sign away your firstborn child, pay you royalties that scale with book sales, etc. DON'T DO IT. Just act confident and knowledgeable and they will cross out obnoxious parts of the contract, like the option on your next book. If they forget to cross it out, cross it out and initial it yourself when you send it back. That is a counteroffer; if they sign, they have agreed to your terms. If they are not willing to, well, there are numerous publishers in the field :-).
They will also negotiate on percentages. A lot of screw-you contracts give you 8.5% on the first 5,000 copies, 10% on the next 5,000, then 15% on the rest. I got a straight 15% on two of my books, with various other provisions for things like translations into foreign languages. Scaling royalties make a sick intuitive sense to the hapless author, since it appears that the publisher is minimizing the risk they are undertaking by publishing your book, i.e. the publisher can "afford" to pay you the higher royalties once you have sold enough books. This is horsepucky. The publisher is undertaking a significant risk by publishing your book at all, it probably costs more than $100k for them to bring it to market, and screwing you on the percentages is just some profit for them. They should be willing to forego the scaling royalties; if not, try taking the idea to another publisher.
The percentages paid are on the money paid to the publisher for the book (about half the cover price). If your book has a cover price of $40 and you are paid a 15% royalty, you make about $3 per book sold. For my books I was paid $10k in advance, so the break-even was a couple thousand books.
BTW, you have to pay estimated taxes on this income on a quarterly basis. The IRS gets really pissed off if you just pay them a big chunk of change in April. Just something budding authors should keep in mind :-).
Another BTW: agents are a waste of money for this small stuff. Don't bother. In contrast to fiction, agents are unneeded in technical publishing because there are so few viable authors (relatively speaking). Not as many "talented amateurs" :-).
I found a lawyer who claimed to have experience with publisher contracts. His responses to my questions were a bit surprising to me, but also seemed reasonable once he explained the ideas behind the contract.
The basic premise behind these contracts is that they are a partnership between the author an the publisher. It is to their advantage to have a good relationship with the author (it means real dollars to them).
He also mentioned that publishers often consider their contracts as proprietary information and they should be treated as confidential information.
He also mentioned that the biggest area of risk for an author of a technical book was not from copyright violations or unscrupulous publishers but from your current employer. He said that you should be very, very careful to make sure that you employer would have no case against you by making sure not to use any work equipment, time, or information in the development of a technical book. It might also be a good idea to get explicit permission (a memo or letter) if you feel that there might be a problem otherwise.
I signed (unfortunately) the standard first time author contract with the publisher. Which means they have both the rights to the next edition of this book and right-of-first-refusal on my next book (that is assuming I feel like going through this kind of slavery again, which being the troll that I am means probably - as long as I can find a topic I think I have something to say about). I kinda find these rights more onerous than royalties, since I have been less than happy with the publisher.
A contract is a contract. Both parties look out only for their own best interest. If you want to make sure that you're getting a fair/good deal, get a lawyer; if you really want to be sure, get a GOOD lawyer. If you're an inexperienced (meaning unpublished) author, you don't have much negotiating pull, so negotiate gently and/or carefully. Ask lots of questions. It never hurts when negotiating to ask for a better deal, and ask why the deal isn't better.
The single most important thing to remember when negotiating a book contract is that you are not dealing with a company. Nobody deals with companies - they are a legal abstraction. You always, and only, deal with individuals. This may sound obvious, but consider the ramifications. No contract can cover every aspect of book production and distribution - it would be thicker than the phone book if it tried. So you must rely on the integrity, honesty, and taste of the publisher and the people who work there to respect your work and treat it the way you want it to be treated. You must trust your baby to their hands. If you disagree, they hold the cards, and they'll do what they think best. This will usually be what is best for them, and their catalog, and not what's best for you or your book. Protect yourself by picking people carefully.
This leads to the natural tension between a large publisher and a small one. A large publisher can offer you more of everything: a bigger advance, more production money, more advertising, better distribution. Remember that they can offer you this, but they don't have to deliver - they will only put resources into a project if they feel confident those resources will repay them. Your book might get lots of attention in January, and be an orphan in March. You are a small wheel in a big machine. A small publisher can offer you personal assistance and dedicated service. They can actually help you think about your book before and during writing. They can work with you to direct it, tune it, and steer it to where it represents your very best work. They will offer you the opportunity to be closely involved in all aspects of production and marketing.
Which way you go depends both on your style and the type of book you're writing. If it's a mass-market book, then you probably will be fine with a big, impersonal house that will take your manuscript, chug it through the machine, and then sell it as far and wide as possible. If you're writing something that is less general, and you care deeply about it, then a small house is your best bet for preserving what's special in your book. If your work is between these extremes, you should sound out both big and small publishers.
One more point is to consider is that although you work with people, you sign with a house. If you sign a contract and the people at the company change, and your friendly supporters are replaced by idiots, you're stuck with the idiots, who can transform your work significantly on its way to the press, in ways that could never be spelled out in a contract. Again you're back to trust. Large publishers are like any large company: they lay off people, promote them, move them around, and hire new people. Small publishers are personal and intimate: the boss picks a few people who share his or her sensibilities, and the people involved tend to be very stable.
As an example of some of the many issues involved, let's work outside-in, beginning with the cover.
Consider who controls the cover, finish, binding, jacket, images, and copy. Is your book softcover or hardback? Perfect-bound? Stitched in signatures or glued to a cardboard backing? Is there a dust jacket? If so, is the title (and author) embossed into the cover for when the jacket is inevitably ripped or lost? If not, what kind of cover will it be? What kind of finish? Who selects the images for the front cover, approves the text, and the layout? Who writes the back-cover copy? Will the back cover be used to promote your book or books, or other books in that publisher's catalog? Will it have a biography of you? Will the book have to "look" like other books in the publisher's catalog? If you care about how your book looks, you'll want to have some kind of control.
Who writes the index? If it's you, what kind of format does it have to be in? (Have you considered just how bloody hard it is to write a good index? It is very tough - boring, tedious, detail-oriented work). If someone else prepares the index, who pays them? Who chooses the indexer? Who does the illustrations and figures? Can you get them redrawn if the versions they prepare are no good? Who makes the judgement call?
Who does the layout? What font? What's the leading and spacing, how large are the margins, what runs on the headers and footers? Is math handled in a special way? How about code fragments? Are index items in bold? Or maybe glossary entries instead? What kind of paper is used? How thick is it? What color? Is it shiny or dull? How opaque is the ink? Does it bleed through the page? Is the paper acid-free?
And the list goes on, endlessly. Every book has numerous nuances and special details that are unique with respect to all other books. How they are handled will in large part determine how happy you are with the result. Your job is to write the manuscript and create (or sketch) the figures. Their job is everything else. By the time you finish writing your book, you'll think of it as your baby. You wouldn't just hand your baby to anyone to raise for you - you'd pick your child's guardians very, very carefully. Do the same with your publisher. Find someone you trust. The key words here are trust, ethics, and experience. All publishers know how to contract with a printer and how to market books. The differences are in how they treat you, treat your manuscript during production, and care for it after it's finished and in the market. You can't put that in a contract.
I'm only part way through the process, so I don't know all the ways I might yet be screwed. I'm only a couple of weeks from delivering my finished manuscript (before publisher review), and I haven't gotten any sinking feeling yet.
When I started, I took my book proposal around to a number of publishers. I didn't like trusting the publisher's volume estimates to decide for myself whether writing the book would be profitable or not. Since I have no way to judge volume on my own, I used the advance amount to judge the publisher's sincerity. Signing the contract was delayed over six months from first contacting publishers because it took that long to get an agreement that seemed to make business sense. Of the two publishers that were willing to give a reasonable advance, I picked the one that obviously had the larger marketing clout, since my book is for a wider audience, and a good marketing campaign should be real important to sales.
The total pre-paid royalty amount (the amount I get even if they never sell a single copy) is $22,000, which is based on about 10,000 books (paid to my company, not me. That gets around the tax problems). That's enough money that I won't lose my shirt if that's all they sell. So far I've spent about two man-months on the book, spread out over the last year. I can easily see where my total effort could reach three man-months. That means I would need to see a little over 13K books sold to declare it a gainful way to have spent my time. I do mostly consulting, and writing a book supposedly helps business. However, I have no way to quantify that, so I just look at the book on its own.
The royalty amount is 15% of what the publisher gets. I checked, and that's pretty standard, unless you're Steven King or someone like that. Being a first time author, I didn't think there was any leverage to get more, besides, it seemed they were being reasonably straight with me. The publisher once mentioned that they could give me 18% on anything beyond about 18K books (I don't remember the exact figure) in an effort to entice me. They tried to forget about that later, but I wouldn't let them. Of course, who knows if we'll ever get to 18K books. I'm certainly not counting on it.
There has been one hitch so far. The publisher originally was willing to give me the advance up front. Obviously that would be best for me economically, but I just felt uncomfortable getting a large sum of money before having actually done anything. I would be liable to give it back if something went wrong. Instead, I suggested that they pay me for reaching certain milestones. We finally agreed on what I'd get paid for delivering chunks of chapters. Unfortunately after the contract was signed and just as I was ready so send them my first milestone, the editor I was working with and had negotiated the contract with left. I hadn't noticed or understood the significance of the word "accepted" relating to my the milestone releases so that I would get paid. The assistant (the editor had left) sent the milestone stuff out for formal review. This stuff was real rough. I knew I wasn't finished with it. I was just making one rough pass through the book. Of course, the reviewers complained about lots of stuff. (I also wasn't real happy that people outside the publisher got to see the rough form. Worse, I'll never even know who they were). The assistant then took that to the lawyers who said they weren't accepting the milestone chapters, and refused to pay. What a hassle. They finally hired a new editor who has been trying to get me paid, but it looks like I'll get the first two milestone payments only a month before the rest of the money.
So, as far as advice to budding authors? Since I haven't completed the process, I'm hesitant to say much of anything. However, I did find huge variations in the reactions to the book proposal from publisher to publisher. Some turned it down flat, while their direct competitors really wanted it (and were willing to say it in dollars). So I guess the moral is shop around. Since my book is related to computer graphics, I contacted every publisher that showed up at SIGGRAPH, plus a few others that looked like plausible candidates. I think that came out to 8-10 publishers. Of those, one never even replied, and three more outright refused to pay any advance. Eventually two were really interested.
I have written two books with two different publishers, the first only published in hardback, the second printed in hardback and simultaneously in paperback. On the first book I received 10%; on the second I received 15% on the hard-cover version and 10% on the paper version. On neither book did I negotiate the contract with the publisher: I simply signed what they placed in front of me. I only insisted that the paperback be cheap, and they complied. On neither book did I receive any advance or expense money. For both books I prepared my own index, and I strongly recommend that authors do this themselves, as only the author can do a really good job.
Both of my books were typeset by the publisher. Although typesetting your own book is a tremendous effort, I would recommend it, as the effort of ferreting out the errors the typesetters introduce eventually exceeds that of doing it yourself.
My first book had a uninterested editor; my second has a superb editor. This makes more difference than you might initially think, even well after the book is published. I recommend asking a potential editor to give you the names of authors of books she or he has edited, and contacting those authors. In my experience, the editor is more important than the publisher.
Probably the biggest decision to make is whether to write a book at all. It is a BIG time sink, bigger than you think. If you are planning on making a LOT of money on a technical book, forget it. You will make some, but not a LOT (unless you write a textbook that becomes a standard). That said, making a good arrangement with a publisher is important, if only for your own sanity, and to make sure you get your share.
The way I figure it, the relationship is quite clear. I want to create the best book possible, they want to make a lot of money. In general, they only care about quality in so much as it helps sell books. Understanding this helps. This should help you realize that whatever contract they first put under your nose is heavily tilted in their favor. Unless you love everything it says, change it.
In my case, I got 15% of the first 3000 copies, 17% (3000-5000), and 20% after that. This is higher than first offered but not by much. I delivered camera ready postscript (including index) and got $3000 extra for the pain (and I mean pain) of doing this.
If you are concerned about quality and, for example, want a right of rejection on how the cover looks, say so in writing up front.
I also got shocked when they decided to release the book on CD ROM, and found out I had signed all my rights away to this. They apparently did not owe me one cent of royalties for the CD sales. They did me a "favor" and finally agreed to 5%.
The bottom line is that I am not pissed about the arrangements. I had full control of content, and it was my fault I did not read the contract well about the CD royalties. Read the contract carefully, edit it at will, and then write a good book and feel lucky for every penny you get for having the opportunity to tell the world what you know.
My experience with my publisher has been reasonably good. My royalty rates are 12% for the first 2500 book, 15% for the next 5000, and 18% thereafter. I thought that was reasonable and competitive with rates I heard from other publishers and authors.
I think it is a good idea to establish price and distribution policy in advance. Not having done so, I had an initial problem with the price of my book. At first, the publisher set a price that was, in my opinion, outrageous. Their price was so high that only libraries would have been able to afford it. You don't have to have an MBA to figure out that overall sales (and profits) might increase if the book could be made affordable to the masses. Anyway, with much haggling in the first month or two, the price dropped dramatically.
I handed the publisher a camera-ready manuscript. Although they could have assisted me on that, I found the do-it-yourself approach to be less error-prone. Furthermore, there is some time saved in not having to review anyone else's typesetting/editing work but your own. In any case, it can be used to increase your own royalty rate because you can make the case that their costs are lowered by your own typesetting work. Most people now write publications with latex anyway, so it's not much added effort.
The publisher reimbursed me promptly for my reproduction/copying expenses. They were also fast in printing the book. It took less than four months from the time I gave them the camera-ready copy to the time the book was available for sale. Having them meet a Siggraph deadline is good...
I have had one small monograph-style book published. Typesetting & figures were done by me in Tex/Latex, and I gave the publisher camera-ready pages printed on a hi res (~1K dpi?) phototypesetter. (Or did I just preview it on that, and give the publisher postscript? I forget now.) I wrote my own index, which was in some way the most painful part of the writing. The publisher provided some proofreading. I had no color plates.
My relationship with the publisher was fine. The only big snag from my view was the cover: I didn't pursue my ideas actively and in the meantime they made up some cover art which was in my opinion very inappropriate (analogous to a picture of a steak on the cover of a vegetarian cookbook). They claimed it was highly visible so would attract buyers and that they knew more about this sort of thing so I shouldn't argue. I got a vague feeling that since they had already spent money on the artwork and didn't want to toss it. I convinced them to take out the part that I found objectionable (the "steak"). The result is a cover that I find unattractive but harmless. Morals: (a) if you care about the cover, make sure to insist on control up front; (b) if you think you don't care about the cover, think again, because there's no telling what monstrosities the publisher might come up with.
Contractwise, their initial offer me was 5%. I balked and they came back with 5% for the first X copies sliding up to 10% for Y or more copies. I took this to mean that they expected to sell X+epsilon copies, and accepted. The book is a small enough thing that frankly, it didn't make much difference; the book wasn't written in order to make money. Even if they gave me 50%, it wouldn't make my fortune, nor even be a reasonable hourly wage for the time put in.
I negotiated a sliding scale royalty at roughly 10%/20%. If you've already worked with a publisher, you get a bit more room in the negotiation and you can get them to really talk about costs and risks (I did not do so well on my first book). Also, if you are confident about the sales of your work you can often give up just a little on the first bit and get quite a bit on the back-end of the run.
As far as production - face it, much of the stuff we publish has a very limited life because of how fast all the tools around us are changing. The key for us was to get from the copy we gave to the publisher to an on-the-shelf book as quickly as possible (ours was about 6 weeks). To get this to happen, you (the author) need to provide camera-ready copy to the publisher including index. We did all of this on Word, and had a local typesetting house run the final copy on a high-res laser printing device (used to always be a lineotronic but there are a bunch of better high-res printers now). We also supplied cover art (in electronic form). The key here is to have an ongoing relationship with the publisher - have the publisher's production people review your templates EARLY in the process, get complex art or color art to them early, and run EARLY production tests through your typesetter - particularly to test fonts, figure line weights, and shading (things that come out of the hi-res typesetter are way different than what you see on the screen, and your publishers production people can tell you a lot about the differences there will be between the hi-res output and the final printed work). If you do go the camera-ready route, negotiate a rate for your production (we did a per-page) from your publisher - you are saving them lots of time and money by doing the production. Lastly, don't underestimate the headache of producing your own camera ready - it's long, hard, and you have to get it right - but in the end, you get your book looking the way you want and the publisher's production time is vastly reduced.
I signed the standard contract straight away. I'm not sorry about that, despite the other guy's comments; I still feel like they've been relatively fair on money issues. I got a little less than 10 grand to write it, and the sliding scale royalty thing that works out to about two bucks a book. New authors should remember that the percentage quoted is based on the wholesale price of the book. The only money thing that I thought was bit of a drag was the "reserve" clause: they keep 25% of ALL of the royalties just in case they get returns. Of course 25% is always much higher than the actual return rate, so perhaps 1/4 of all the money you would have got sits in an account until the book is discontinued and closed out. Sounds like that'll be about 2 or 3 years.
The publisher will want the book IMMEDIATELY after you have signed the contract. They feel like they paid for it, and "where is it?" Therefore, if you feel strongly about a project, complete it, and then approach the publisher. If you are good at desk top publishing, you can negotiate a far higher royalty for delivering a book that needs only to be printed and sold. In my case, the publisher wanted a book for which they had little more than a concept. I was late from the beginning, and it added to the stress and made it hard to keep the quality up.
As many authors say, it's more fun to 'have written' than it is to write. I still would do it again, except for one thing - it takes all your time to do it right. It'd kill my business to take the 3-5 month hiatus required to do a full book. That brings all my sales momentum and networking results to a complete halt, and for months after the book is done you have to get all that going again. If you do the math, there isn't enough money in it as it stands (even taking into account a better contract per your previous author's tips). And you really can't just write a book as you find time: When you write books about software, time is critical - if you take too much time to finish, the next release of that software will make your manuscript obsolete before it hits the stores. Besides, I don't know if I (or many other authors) would really make a lot of progress without some sort of real deadline...
A certain small publisher seemed quite interested in seeking me out to write a book, an opportunity I never thought would just drop in my lap. Since I had never published anything before, their royalty percentage (under 8%) and advance (< $3,000) was a little low, but I was getting a chance to publish a book, so I didn't mind. I changed a couple things on the initial contract, but nothing major.
Their word processing templates were not completely thought out and after they found a few problems in them, they asked me to redo a couple of chapters with the new styles. This was not too difficult, but it did give me a queasy feeling about their ad hoc in-house editing environment. I was also surprised to find that, even though we used e-mail extensively to ship chapters, illustrations, and programs, they also insisted that all revisions be done only on paper printouts, instead of using change bars or colored text in the document files. This meant that I not only e-mailed the chapters, but we were also FedExing bulky packages of paper, just like 100 years ago.
The editor at one point undercounted the pages in the book, and advised me to go into more detail to fill out the book, even though my calculations said I was right on. I did as I was told, and later the editor sheepishly admitted he forgot to add illustration space. Now that we were way over, he asked if I could cut some chapters way back. I stood my ground on this, saying it was impractical at this late date while still meeting the deadline... the publisher graciously ate it, publishing a book that was 50% bigger than designed, for the same price.
The project also included a CD-ROM full of programs, data and information, which the publisher and I jointly designed. They also contracted several other people to add large chunks of content, and although it was a lot of additional work for me, it went quite smoothly.
They had a technical editor go over the book, and he came back with one change... now that I've tech-edited another computer book, I am very unimpressed with his (lack of) work. They also contracted an outside Content Editor who was incredible, very thorough and she practically read my mind when suggesting changes that fit my style.
As is the hallmark of this publisher, the final design and layout of the book was quite beautiful and I was very proud of the way it turned out. Now, I will never again attempt writing a book on the side while juggling a full-time job, pregnant wife, and major house remodeling all at once... and I will certainly ask for more money next time. However, I am convinced that this writing/publishing experience turned out to be positive for two main reasons: (1) The small publisher was very interested in keeping me happy for future work, and (2) I was interested in publishing a book, not making money.
My first book experience was very enlightening and MUCH MUCH more work than I ever imagined. My experience with the publisher was not as bad as some of the other responses to this inquiry. The royalty rate I negotiated was 12% for the first 3000 books, 15% thereafter. The major mistake I made was in agreeing to format the text into almost camera-ready copy using LaTeX macros supplied by the publisher. I received a fee of $2000 for this. It was not worth the money. The macros were not complete, and I would never agree to this again. There are 3 other pieces of advice that I have:
1) Make sure you know where and how often the book will be advertised. In the end, this is the main function of the publishing company. They contract out the printing. I was somewhat disappointed in the few ads that I saw for the book.
2) If you work with co-authors, make sure you know how reliable they are and be ready for major work if you are acting as the editor for the project.
3) Double or triple your initial estimate of the effort for the project. Writing is only a small portion of the job. Editing, organizing, indexing, formatting, etc. takes up a large amount of time.
For about a year now publishers of every kind have been making attempts to grab all rights from authors. The New York Times is one of the sorrier examples - for years and years, the Times' practice was to buy one-time rights to freelance articles. Suddenly last year they announced a new policy of demanding all rights. It's ignited protests across the writing community and many writers are refusing to write for the Times. The reason this is a problem is that you just don't get paid enough for one newspaper article to be able to make a living writing them. The writer's solution has always been to re-sell in non-competing markets. Due to the electronic world's sudden imposition of deathless databases, repeat downloads, etc., publishers are now seeing opportunities to sell the same article over and over, whereas before they could only sell it once when the paper was published. For some reason, many publishers seem to feel that the writers don't deserve any part of the profits. This war has been going on for a year; it will continue. The NWU and ASJA have brought suits against some publishers; but the real war (as in all wars) is being fought by the infantry on the ground: the individual writer negotiating with the publisher. It's hard telling the editor of a big-time publication that you aren't going to accept their contract. The better-paying ones, where you're making thousands of dollars per article, are also the ones that have the worst contracts in terms of rights.
As far as rights go: rights can be split down to the quark level. You name it; there is a right for it. For example, I retained movie rights to my book. It is unlikely that anything will come of that, but I retained them. It is possible a documentary could be made, you see, and then I would own those rights. My publisher is now into CD-ROM publication, so they adamantly refused to allow me to keep those rights. Then there are plain electronic rights: databases, posting articles on Usenet. Facts aren't copyrightable, of course: arrangement of words IS copyrightable, in fact, is the main thing you copyright. A posting on Usenet is copyrighted. E-mail is copyrighted. If there was a means to present information using aluminum foil and earphones, that would be copyrightable.
My point is that writers better pay attention to all the media in existence when reviewing contracts. If the future is in electronic media, then it's important not to sign away all your rights to that future.
Some advice for authors? I thought about this for a while, and decided that I have neither damnation nor praise for my publisher. They sent me a reasonable contract, I signed it and sent them a manuscript, and they published it. End of story.
My advice is more personal. Writing a 500-page technical book is an activity that should come with a Surgeon-General's warning: "May cause serious health problems." Take good care of yourself as you burn the midnight oil.
Be forewarned that writing a good technical book is an all-consuming task. It will take over your life from the day you write those first few introductory words to the day you sign off on the final copyedited manuscript. It may be fairly described as inhumane (albeit self-inflicted) torture.
There will be days of absolute despair and frustration. You will want to cleave your computer with a large and heavy fire axe. (Be sure to make a backup first, and remember to disconnect the power.) Your family and friends may post "Warning: Vicious Dog" signs in your immediate vicinity.
But there will come -- eventually -- two days that you will savor for years afterwards. On the first occasion, your editor will send you a copy of your book, hot off the press. This is a wonderful experience.
On the second occasion, you will see your book proudly sitting on the shelf in a bookstore. This is ... well, check with your doctor first. The heart can only take so much adrenalin. (And rest assured that your eyes do not deceive you; your book will indeed glow with its inner radiance.)
Writing a good technical book is hard work, and you will be fortunate indeed if it sells more than a few thousand copies. (Unless, of course, it has the words "sex" or "dummies" in the title. Unfortunately, Dr. Ruth and IDG Books have already laid claim to "Sex for Dummies.")
It used to be said that the ability to make tools separated us humans from the "lower" animals. Today, I think that it is our innate desire to write books. But then, what other primate would be stupid enough to want to?
Problem: Publishing companies get bought-out and merged regularly. People in them shift around as well. With publisher X my book was translated into German without my knowledge. I learned about it on the net when someone emailed me a question about it. I actually ordered copies of my book from a German bookstore I found on the net. The bookstore gave me the email of the German publisher, I contacted him, and he told me that one of my other books had been translated too. Publisher X was bought out by Publisher Y, then by Publisher Z - when I contacted Publisher Z, there was confusion as to what had been done before the chain of buyouts. Publisher Z (in that they bought out Publisher X) assumed responsibility for Publisher X's actions, so they came clean, and I got my royalties. I would have never known about the translation if someone had not emailed a question starting "I like you German translation of ..." - I said "what German translation???"
A similar event occurred when I learned about a CD ROM that my book was to be included on. I found this information in a netnews newsgroup. This did appear on my next royalty statement, but I found it awkward to read about it before being informed of it from my publisher.
I can get up to 20% royalties from my publishers, 12-15% for the first 2500 copies, 20% after 5k-10k copies...usually with around $8k advance 50% front-loaded with a $2k grant for work-for-hires (helpers) and a $2k grant for formatting...7500 books is what they expect to sell if technical w/program source code...I usually sell in the 15k-60k copies range...they will let you promote your business in a book...
First book...try for 12% royalties up to $5k copies, 15-18% thereafter...try to get 50% advance up-front, no less than 33%...
Beware subsidiary rights clauses that allow them to take major portions of your book and place them in other books for a nominal fee...I have not been caught here, but I know someone who wrote an extremely successful internet book who did lose by this clause...
Most publishers are relaxed if you are just a little late, they all get up tight (and rightly so) if you are much late...some publishers are extremely serious about deadlines and cost overruns...they are in publishing to turn books and money - so take their contracts very seriously, they WILL enforce what's in them...
Be aware of the discounting schedules of the day...breaks around 55%/56% are important, as these are likely to be where a publisher says you get 1/2 your royalty rate...know the industry standard at the time...
Publisher X has good distribution, but you are not likely to see a lot of the money made...Publisher Y's distribution is lame, because they don't have people hitting the streets reselling to stores that have sold out, so a book store or chain might place only one order (got to have those sales guys out there pushing more product through the distribution channels!); Publisher Z takes an aggressive approach with marketing and distribution, taking advantage of modern electronic means (internet, cds, etc.), but I don't have conclusive data on them yet...looks good so far, as far as getting them to make many press releases (very important for book/software sales)...
In parts of contracts where they say "these sales will not increase the book count used to determine royalty rate" - you can usually talk them into counting 1/2 the rate (i.e. the sale of 2 books counts as 1 against the total needed to increase your royalty rate from 12% to 15% at 4000 copies, for example)...
The battle between publisher and author is eternal, and unlikely to be resolved. But book publishers particularly (over software publishers) seem bent on exploitation. It is really just a supply and demand issue, I think, so hating the publishers is probably not healthy: just fight back. Remember: it is just business.
(Short followup note in RTNv15n1, John Peterson's entry.)
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