Negotiating A Book Contract by Mark L. Levine

Disclaimer: The author sent me a free copy, so the FCC says you can ignore my opinions.

I just finished reading "Negotiating A Book Contract: A Guide for Authors, Agents and Lawyers" by Mark L. Levine. It's certainly the best text about book contracts I've read, and very up-to-date with electronics rights and Internet issues. Unlike the other legal books for authors and publishers I've read, Levine sticks 98% to book contracts, with a minor excursion into author/agent contracts. There's no speculation about the true meaning of intellectual property, the vagarities of copyright law or the stages of the creative process - it's all about contracts. I highly recommend this book to any authors who are negotiating a trade contract or who are submitting manuscripts to trade publishers. You can purchase the book from Amazon for $17.96.

The best thing about Levine's approach is that he is evenhanded in his treatment of authors, agents and publishers. You'll frequently come across phrases like, "a prudent publisher" or "a prudent author" as he clues in both parties to clauses they should seek to protect themselves and establish a fair relationship, rather than treating contract negotiation as a confrontational "winner takes all" process. In fact, it could be that publishers need this book even more than authors:-) Publishers and agents who are deeply familiar with contracts might benefit from reading the book straight through, but I think for most authors, it will serve best as a reference. There is simply too much detail about various book contract clauses and unfortunate situations that may arise through minor differences in wording for the typical author to absorb in several readings. The ideal situation would be to sit down with a contract offer and this book, and to spend a day going through the contract, clause by clause, reading each corresponding book section as you go.

The funny thing I can say about publishing contracts in general is that I wouldn't be a successful self publisher today, earning more than I ever did as a bestselling trade author of how-to books, if I hadn't signed several contracts in complete ignorance of what I was getting into. When I finally learned what was in those contracts I had signed, and worse, how likely it was that the publisher would have simply dropped the objectionable clauses if I had asked before signing, it soured me on trade publishing. I came out of the experience believing that I had been greatly put upon, and if I was to work with a trade publisher again, I would only do so under a contract that was strongly in my favor. Since agreeing to contracts that strongly favor the author makes little sense for trade publishers, I haven't signed a trade contract since. But that's what happens when a publisher takes advantage of an author's ignorance to create a contract that serves the needs of the publisher to the exclusion of the needs of the author. Yes, it's a caveat emptor world, but at least in my case, the publisher lost an author who delivered every book ahead of schedule and contributed greatly to the promotion of the books.

My own experiences led me to write some basic book contact negotiation advice myself, which has led to many an interesting correspondence over the years. Unfortunately, some of that correspondence comes from authors who have signed up with various self publishing companies or vanity presses, paid a fee to get published AND signed bad contracts. There is no common ground between trade publishing contracts and self publishing company contracts. Trade publishers make their money through selling books, self publishing companies make their money through selling publishing services to authors. If you plan to use a self publishing company to publish a book rather than seeking a contact from a trade publisher or establishing your own publishing company as I did, a different Mark Levine has a different book for you. It's "The Fine Print of Self Publishing: The Contracts & Services of 45 Self-Publishing Companies Analyzed Ranked & Exposed." You can order that book through Amazon for $12.92, I think the title pretty much describes the content.

Here's a fun video on contract clauses from the WSJ, if it's still active, excuse their commercial lead, it's just 15 seconds:

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