Bait for a bookworm
August 20, 2005 12:30 AM   Subscribe

So I've been approached to write a book...

Thanks to a friend of mine, a major publishing company is expressing interest in me writing a mass-market book (a "...For Dummies" type of book) about an internet-related activity I'm fairly well-known with. My friend's book agent wants to work with me on this, and I'm being told to expect an $8,000 advance plus royalties, with the agent taking 15%.

My question is, not only is that fair (or at least typical), but what kinds of questions *should* I ask, of both the company and the agent? I'd love to do the book - it's a subject I'm passionate about, it'd be a great boost to me professionally, and $8k+ would come in VERY handy these days. But I also want to make sure I get a good deal here - I know they want me for the name recognition value I'd bring to the subject, and I don't want to agree to or neglect anything that I'd have cause to regret later.

Any guidance would be most appreciated (especially from any other published authors in the field). Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If it's a tech book, I'd say $10k is more typical and I've never heard of tech writers using an agent. Pay close attention to the contract because some publishing houses like to levy fees onto you, less your advance (stuff like you paying for the indexing service, etc). Also pay close attention to the terms of further royalties. Does the book need to sell out a printing of the first 10k copies before you start seeing additional profit? If so, know that tech books rarely sell more than 5k copies and it's just a few breakout hits that sell 30k or 100k or more (you've probably read and heard of any tech book that sold that much -- we're talking the brittney spears' of tech writing).

And not to put a damper on your enthusiasm -- I was very happy to write my first book too -- but by the end it's a total grind. I don't know what it is about book writing projects, but they're so much work, and so extensive about a single subject, that by the last quarter of writing left to do I'm completely and utterly sick of the subject and I always have to force myself to finish the projects. Also, I calculated on my first big book project that I seriously made about ten bucks an hour after all was said and done, by totalling up all the late night hours spent writing for months on end.

Also, deadlines are a bitch. If you're writing by yourself, good luck and do whatever you can to stay ahead of your deadlines or they'll come back and absolutely kick you on your ass.
posted by mathowie at 12:36 AM on August 20, 2005

Oh, and whatever they say about copyright, insist on keeping it in your name, for yourself. Otherwise the publishing house will hold the copyrights and 10 years from now if the work is totally useless to them, you won't have to buy the rights off them if it's in your name.

Also, if you're worried about contracts, email everyone you know that has written a book -- many people keep their contracts on file and will gladly hand them over if you ask nicely. Before I signed my first book contract I read 4 or 5 similar contracts from different friends and I went over the terms of all of them, comparing notes on what to look out for.
posted by mathowie at 12:41 AM on August 20, 2005

What mathowie says, and second the "wtf?" in terms of an agent trying to muscle in. If I read you right, you've been offered the deal, you're in direct contact with the publishers and you're currently handling negotations with them - there's no place for an agent in that situation, other than to take a bit of your money for doing basically nothing...
posted by benzo8 at 4:26 AM on August 20, 2005

I agree with benzo: the agent didn't do anything, why would he be entitled to any money? I think you'd be better of with a copyright lawyer (who gets a fee instead of a percentage) who's used to dealing with book contracts.
posted by NekulturnY at 6:15 AM on August 20, 2005

Well, an agent can be very useful in terms of negotiating a better deal -- and a good agent's job isn't over once the contract is signed. He or she is your advocate throughout the publishing process, from being the heavy with publicists and publishers to negotiating foreign and serial rights, to getting your name in front of other publishers looking for writers for similar projects... And if you ever plan to write another book, having an agent who can get your proposal to the right people is pretty key. I love my agent, and she's been incredible for me. (But I'm not a tech writer, and things may be totally different for those who are.)

I have friends who have written in the "[Blank] for Dummies" series -- though not on a techie subject -- and what you're describing sounds like a pretty standard deal. For trade paper nonfiction I'd say $8K with an escalating royalty rate of 8.5 to 10% is about what to expect. Though of course if you have an agent you would expect him/her to try her best to bump that up as much as possible.
posted by mothershock at 6:17 AM on August 20, 2005

There is a Computer Book Authors Yahoo! Group where a lot of these topics have been discussed. You might want to check out their archives. They have discussed starting out contracts, deadlines, editors, royalities, copywrites, agents and a myriad of other little details. They are generally pretty welcoming and helpful to first time authors.
posted by mmascolino at 10:33 AM on August 20, 2005

Yeah, I got $8,000 plus royalties for my first book ten years ago, so you should be getting a bit more by now. Which ended up being $4,000 because the last $2,000 was payable only on publication (other installments were payable on signing the contract, on delivering the first draft, and on delivering the final draft) and the book was killed in production due to bean counters, and because, up against deadline pressure, I paid someone else $2,000 to write two chapters for me. I figured this would work out okay since the point of the book was to get name recognition, but then they didn't publish it, so I was paid about $4,000 for several months of work. And it was basically unpublishable afterward -- to get another publisher to take it, they'd have to buy the rights from the original publisher at a fee that exceeded what they'd have to pay an author to write a similar book. My advice is that you seek to have a "kill fee" put in your contract whereby if they cancel the book after accepting your first draft, they still owe you the rest of the advance or at least the next chunk of it. This will give them less incentive to cancel the book and if they do, you won't get totally screwed.

If you have name recognition, you could probably even more for the advance. I expect you will have a real difficult time getting the copyright assigned to you, though it's good advice.

Writing a book is a lot of work and you should not assume you'll ever make more than the advance. Your hourly wage will likely work out to be something like $5.
posted by kindall at 11:18 AM on August 20, 2005

There are a few other things in the contract to which you should pay attention. These guidelines are generally based on a trade book contract. If it's a professional book or a book as part of a larger series, you probably won't have leverage on all of them. With royalties, check the royalty rates. Be sure to read if they are based on the suggested retail price or the cost of the book (the price of the book for retailers). This is specific to trade books since professional books don't necessarily have prices listed on them. There's a big difference on getting an 8% royalty on a book with a $20.00 list price and what the bookstores pay for it (generally 40- 50% of list). Also make sure to notice if the royalty rate goes up the more you sell. If the publisher is doing their job (which they don't often do) they will calculate how many copies they hope to sell and how much money that will earn minus the production costs and other costs and figure out what the highest advance is and then try to lower it a little. I second the notion that you should request that the copyright is registered in your name. You should also see if they have a termination clause. The termination clause should clearly state when a termination might happen (after x years, or if the publisher sells less than xx copies per year) and how (automatic, a letter from you). Also be sure to check on how the advance is paid out. Publishers aren't necessarily going to pay an unknown author the whole advance up-front without any manuscript. You might be able to get the advnace split out in thirds or quarters, a little up front, a little more after you've delivered a few chapters, the final bit when the entire manuscript is in. This is great as it keeps you motivated to work since it give you a rewards throughout the process. Also check the rights (translation, english reprint, electronic, multimedia, audio)- who controls them and what the splits are. If you do go with the agent they might keep certain rights and sell them for you or they might let the publisher handle it. Sure this is big thinking but if some professional site wants to use some of your book on their site, it could mean more money and if you have to handle it it could be a big pain in the ass. Finally the most forgotten aspect of an author contract- permissions. Do you have to clear permissions for anything you want to use ro will the publisher? Who's going to pay to clear the permissions? And vice versa, who is going to be the contact for permissions if someone wants to use part of your book? Do you want to handle these people who are in a panic because they are under deadline, or do you want the publisher to process their request and charge a fee. That's at least the basics of it. If you do have a trade contract and have more specific questions or need more detail, send me an e-mail (see my profile) and I can help.
posted by rodz at 4:56 PM on August 20, 2005

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