What is a fair contract for a first-time author?

Posted on February 15, 2008

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I need your help. A small publisher wants to publish my children’s picture book. The contract says I will be paid an advance of $500 and 5% royalties. This is a first for me so I don’t know whether this is a good offer or not. And if not, should I try to negotiate for more? What is a fair contract for a first-time author?

Congratulations on your first sale!

I wish I could say there’s a fair and reasonable, across-the-board standard in children’s publishing, but there’s no such a thing. Publishers differ. And I can’t really point to any trends in children’s publishing contracts, except to say the income for children’s writers hasn’t improved much over the past 20 years.

Before you get bogged down in dollars and percents, be sure you understand all aspects of the contract. What rights do they assume? Do they offer free copies or discounts? Are the royalties based on wholesale or retail sales? Children’s book author Darcy Pattison dives into the nitty gritty of contract negotiations in her article, Contract Savvy. She also provides an excellent glossary of contract language – a must read for every writer.

In her article, Negotiating Your Book Contract: 20 “Must” Topics to Talk About, Brenda Warneka offers a step-by-step guide to reading and understanding your book contract. She explains each section in detail.

Now back to the dollars and percents. If you’re a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) you can access “Answers to Some Questions About Contracts on the Publications” page.

Publishers generally offer three types of contracts:

Standard advance royalty: For new writers advances can be anywhere from $100 to $3000, but seldom more than that. A common advance figure is $1000. Royalties are usually 7% of net sales, but sometimes lower than that.

Royalty only: No advance, the publisher pays royalties on net sales, anywhere from 2% to 40%.

Flat fee: Anywhere from $1000 to $5000. With flat fee contracts the writer is often asked for all rights.

Be sure to read Harold Underdown’s Purple Crayon Blog for a discussion about book advances (scroll down the page).

All things considered, your contract falls within general publishing standards. Since it never hurts to ask, you are within your rights to negotiate for a higher advance or royalty. I would advise negotiating for one or the other – not both.

Keep in mind since this is your first book and you are beginning a new relationship with this publisher, you could accept the terms this time around, make a name for yourself by promoting and marketing your book, then ask for more with your next book.

For even more information, these books contain chapters on book contracts:

Writing Children’s Books for Dummies

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books

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