Author contracts: some helpful guidance

Posted by Will Mackie

There are many kinds of author contracts and the details differ between types of publisher. A poetry contract, therefore, will be different to a contract for a novel or memoir, while contracts for educational texts will vary even further. However, many publishers will use their own standard contract template and there are certain points that you should usually expect to see. What follows is some general guidance for authors who have just received or are about to receive a contract, although it’s recommended that you look for more detailed support where possible.


1. Firstly, make sure that you are actually given a contract and that you receive this early on in your relationship with the publisher. The purpose of the contract is to protect both the author and publisher from any possible future disputes and to lay out carefully responsibilities and rights. If your publisher doesn’t seem in a hurry to produce one, you should insist until it is delivered. A verbal agreement, email or letter is never enough.

2. If you have a literary agent, he or she will oversee contractual matters with the publisher, usually negotiating with a commissioning editor. Your agent will be in a strong position to negotiate terms of the contract. In some circumstances, the agent may draw up the contract itself and present this to the publisher.

3. You should always check the details of the contract carefully and not feel pressured to sign what’s put in front of you without asking for clarity over certain points and requesting changes where necessary. The legal language of contracts can be confusing and difficult to interpret. The contract reading service offered by The Society of Authors to its members gives authors invaluable access to people with the necessary expertise.

4. When you sign a contract, you effectively grant the publisher a licence to your copyright. They then bring your work into their imprint and publish the eventual book in a format and style that they determine. It’s a good idea then to make sure that you’ve seen some of the publisher’s other books before signing anything, to make sure you feel your work fits well with their publishing values and sense of design.

5. The contract usually sets out to establish key details of the book, such as the title, approximate length and name you wish to use as the author. This information tends to appear early on in the contract and should be carefully checked.

6. All contracts should include details of payments to the author. Royalties are determined as a percentage of either the book’s price or the net receipts (i.e. what’s left after payments to retailers, distributors and others are made). The royalty rate can vary greatly between different parts of the sector, and is also likely to be different for the digital version of your book. If your contract also includes an advance, this will be against royalties; therefore you will not receive a royalty payment until the advance is paid. The contract should also detail when you should expect to receive a statement of account detailing sales (a standard period would be every six months).

7. Territorial rights are central to author contracts, determining who can sell the rights to publish the book in other countries and how any profits will be divided between the author and publisher. Many publishers will look to secure world rights, including print and electronic, with the intention that they then actively try to find oversees publishers for your work.

8. Most contracts include wording at the beginning to establish the warranty. This is where the author agrees that the work is not plagiarised and does not include anything libellous or otherwise legally problematic.The contract establishes that it will be the author’s responsibility to cover any costs, such as legal or production expenses, caused if the warranty is violated.

9. Subsidiary rights will include arrangements for paying the author (usually as a percentage) should the manuscript be sold for dramatisation on radio, stage or screen, audiobook, large print and other formats. There may be also a clause for merchandising rights: although you may have no immediate thoughts about turning your characters into mini-figures, if there’s any chance of that happening in the future this is the time to establish how to divide the costs and ensure your copyright is respected.

10. Some other key elements of the contract may include: the delivery date agreed for the final manuscript (and what happens if you are unable to deliver it on time); arrangements for typesetting the book and incorporating author corrections; an option of first refusal on the author’s next book; reversion of rights should the book go out of print or the publisher close down. Remember, if there’s anything that you think should be in there then mention this to your publisher.

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