First Contract Advice

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Last weekend, I was in Chandler, Oklahoma, a sleepy little town on the old Route 66. I didn’t get much sleep, though, because I was there to teach a Picture Book Retreat. Here are reports from Sara,
Susan Meyers, and Leeth. Also, check out the Okie Book Woman, who added lots of photos of the retreat.

For Your First Book Contract, Practice These Words

One of the last sessions focused on issues relating to a career in writing for children. We don’t just want to be a flash-in-the-pan, one-book-wonder. We want a long-lasting career. One thing this means is that we must put on the business hat at certain key moments: especially when we get a contract.

So, one of the discussions was about that wonderful moment when the editor calls to offer a contract on your first book.

WOW! What a moment! First contract! After all the work, after all the hope, after all the pain, after all the revisions! A contract!

For that magical, unforgettable moment, practice saying these words: Yes! I want to work with you! But I’m too excited to make a business decision right now. May I call you back tomorrow?

When that call comes in the editor will want you to consider several key issues: the amount of the advance and the royalty rate. Please, don’t agree to anything in the excitement of the moment!

A verbal agreement at this point is considered solid. Give yourself time. Time? To do what? I’ve written about what typical contract offers look like. You’ll want to study contract clauses, best case scenario for each clause, and reasonable fall-back positions for each clause. But for the verbal agreement, you’ll probably concentrate on the advance — you should ask for more. It’s a negotiation thing, you should always ask for more. How much more?

You need to take a look at Barbara Kanninen’s Children’s Book Author Advances Survey. This survey has run for over five years and has information from a variety of authors working with a variety of houses. It’s only available to published authors — but if you have an offer from a trade house, you qualify.

The other issue is the royalty rate. While most royalty rates are consistent across the industry (10% royalty, split 50-50 with the illustrator), you might be able to get an escalation clause. This clause says that if the book sells a certain amount, the royalty rate will increase. Some companies will absolutely not do this; others are OK with it. Ask. Usually, they’ll have numbers in mind: At 25,000 sales, the royalty will go to 11 %, for example. For many companies, this must be negotiated when you accept the original offer.

Of course, later, when you get the complete contract, there are many issues to discuss and ask for changes. But when you get that first phone call, practice these words: Yes! I want to work with you! But I’m too excited to make a business decision right now. May I call you back tomorrow?

Tie your hand behind your back, disable the phone, do NOT call back an hour later. (You have too many friends to call, anyway, and tell them the good news.) Take the time to check out typical advances and then the next day, take a deep breath, call the editor back and ASK for what you think is reasonable. Will you get it? Maybe not. But at least you’ve started your career with a business-like attitude. Yes, your career.

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4 Comments
  • Lisa
    February 12, 2009

    Great info – I’ll bookmark it so I can refer people here!

  • Amy
    February 12, 2009

    Great advice! I am going to memorize this mantra. Funny how it reminds me of the occasional “heated discussion” I have with my husband, and I say, “Yes I want to talk about this! But I’m too worked up to make a decision right now. Can we talk about it tomorrow?”

  • Sara
    February 13, 2009

    Darcy- Thanks for coming to Chandler. I learned so much and am revising my focusing statement so my picture book will become much stronger. I had a great time. Excellent workshop. Thanks again.

    Sara McAlister

  • Sue Ward
    March 13, 2009

    My friend Diane sent me to your site today. Wow! A few words and I get it. I’ll be researching much more today. I’ve found many things useful already. I remember Kathy mentioning you before. Great website! I’ll be watching for some of your workshops…who knows.
    Sue