How to Negotiate a Book Contract

Ben Shneiderman
Sep 9, 2020 · 13 min read

The ins and outs of getting your book published.

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Part of my learning portfolio of books that I wrote or edited.

If you are a grad student, assistant professor, or young researcher, you may be thinking of writing a book. There are many good reasons to do so and there are many rewards if you do a good job, but there is also a lot of hard work.

There’s an old belief that the best way to learn something is to teach it, with the related belief that writing it is even better. I agree and have found that putting my thoughts down on paper forces me to think much more deeply about the contents, especially if I can imagine the mind of the newcomer who is interested in the topic.

So that’s my encouragement to write a book, but this essay is about how to negotiate a book contract, which is an art in itself. I’ve done it at least 20 times so I have some experience, but things are changing fast, so you may have to invent your own methods. A textbook could be a big success, but there is probably a lot of competition for the large introductory course textbooks. A research book is likely to be designed to make a point that is longer than what you can do in a typical academic paper. Edited collections are a common category, in which you get others to write chapters, then work to improve quality and consistency in style. Chapter authors for edited books rarely get paid, but the book editor who coordinates the chapter writing often gets some royalty.

It’s difficult to write a textbook that makes enough money to pay the rent, because the competition is fierce. My first book, with my friend Charlie Kreitzberg, was to help programmers improve their style. It got some attention, but didn’t earn much. Our second book, an introductory programming textbook, was for a market that already had 200 books, but we managed to produce the best-seller, getting more than 15% of the market. My later textbook Designing the User Interface went from a single-authored first edition in 1986 to a sixth edition with five co-authors in 2016. Other books were edited collections or single author research ideas.

The Proposal

If you have written a book draft or know what book you want to write, then finding a publisher begins by writing a book proposal. Many publishers have their own format and you can find templates and examples online. The basic idea is to

  1. Describe your book idea in a few paragraphs, with a compelling meaningful title.
  2. Mention the 6–12 successful books that are similar to yours, while pointing out how yours is different and valuable.
  3. Define your primary and secondary audiences with a description of how to reach them to announce your book: conferences, newsletters, blogs, podcasts, email lists, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Give a list of book reviewers who might do a review in print, online, etc.
  4. Promise to speak about your book at your campus, other universities, conferences, companies, radio shows, etc.
  5. Give your bio and why you are an authority on this topic.
  6. Present your full outline, packed with the right keywords, with estimated page counts
  7. Append a sample chapter or two to give an idea of your tone, style, and writing ability.

In many disciplines, it is fine to send your proposal to 4–10 publishers who have published books in your area. Find out who the accessions editors are from friends and colleagues, or search online to identify them. If you get interest and then contract offers, you can run your own auction or simply tell the publisher you really want about the generous terms you got from their competitors. Be friendly… maybe say, I’d like to work with you, but X has offered me this, can you match that? In some disciplines, mainly the humanities, you are expected to develop a relationship with the editor and submit to one publisher at a time.

Academic presses are usually non-profits tied to a university such as MIT or Oxford University. They are prestigious to publish for and offer devoted editors who are eager to promote ideas in their areas. Commercial publishers focus on textbooks and professional books such as Springer, Pearson, or John Wiley. Other commercial publishers focus on trade or general reader books, so they look for bigger markets and are more selective in what they will publish, but they may do more to market and promote your book.

A big issue these days is whether you want your book to be free online? Some publishers will go along with this, or propose posting just a few chapters. Another strategy is to have hardcopy initially, so that libraries and early adopters will buy them, and within a year the book can go online openly for free, or with some fee for electronic access. Some publishers have found ways to publish an online book that is free, but maybe restricted in downloading, as well as a commercial version in hardcopy or electronic versions. New strategies are emerging regularly. A final approach is to do-it-yourself and produce, publicize, and distribute your book by yourself, which is free to readers or is sold. Amazon’s Kindle service has good tools to help you do the book by yourself, in exchange for a portion of your sales. Also check out Open Book Publishers and Wikibooks.

The Contract

If you are like most people, you will be impressed, but maybe challenged by getting a 4–10 page contract that spells out the deal. Take the time to read it carefully and find out what everything means. This will educate you about how these things work. It’s annoying, but I’ve learned what I need to know and never consulted a lawyer.

Most academic authors negotiate these contracts on their own, but if you are a rising young star writing for a general reader, you may want to find a book agent. They can bring you valuable connections and negotiate a good deal for you, but it will cost you 15–20% of your income. Good agents can be helpful in shaping your book, getting a good contract, helping with publicity, and generally supporting you if you are having troubles. Like most academic authors, I’ve done these things on my own, but some friends and colleagues are grateful to the agents.

If you are working directly with the accessions editor at a publisher, they can be helpful, although many are too overloaded to give you much personal attention. Book series editors are usually leading academics who work for a publisher to attract authors for a series of books. The series editors are eager to promote their topic and they earn a sliver of the royalties for each book in their series. I like the personal relationship with my acquisitions and series editors and have really appreciated their help and guidance. I’ve also been a book series editor, which brought me satisfaction in promoting human-computer interaction research by smoothing the way for friends and colleagues to publish their books.

The terms of the contract do matter, but also important is what is left out. For example, most contracts require you to deliver a manuscript of a certain length and number of figures by a certain date. However, they rarely say that the publisher is not obliged to publish your manuscript. Occasionally authors get told that their manuscript is not good enough, that the priorities of the publisher have changed, or that the editor who was advocating for you has moved to another company.

To deal with this potential problem, you could ask for a non-returnable advance on royalties. This is a payment that you get to keep if they don’t follow through to publication. You may want an advance on royalties to help pay your bills, but as a young academic advances may be small, like $500 or $1000. By the time you’ve done a few successful books you can ask for $10,000 or more, and ask for money to support research, travel, and other expenses. I like to ask for an advance on royalties, since it is one of the few ways authors get a commitment from the publisher that they will publish the book.

Once you agree on an amount for the advance on royalties, the publisher may bounce back by saying that they will deliver 1/3 on signing the contract, 1/3 when you deliver an acceptable manuscript, and 1/3 when the book is published. Remember that the advance on royalties gets taken out of your annual or bi-annual royalty checks, so if you have a strong advance, you may not get any more money at all.

Royalties can be complicated. While the contract may state that you get 10% of net income, this could be eaten away by all the book dealers and middle-people who get a share of the sale price. Contracts get more complicated when they give different royalty amounts for books sold directly by the publisher vs. books sold by Amazon or bookstores. Royalties for electronic versions, rentals, international sales, translation fees, all complicate the issue, so if you care, you will have to ask to have all these options spelled out. These days an increasing fraction of books are bought electronically, so try to get as good a deal as you can for electronic editions.

Another possibility is that the publisher makes bulk deals with universities, companies, or governments to sell electronic access to all their books, thereby clouding the issue of what share of the royalty you earn. You generally cannot stop this arrangement, so relax and take in the belief that more people are seeing your book, even though you have no accurate count of how many accessed it.

Check that your contract specifies that when your book is published in print, that it is simultaneously published in an accessible electronic format. Students, researchers, and practitioners with print-related disabilities should have equal access to your book. Publishers are generally willing to commit to a contract clause that says they will make an accessible EPUB3 version. Accessible format are the right thing to do and they increase your market.

Mostly, authors and publishers have a shared interest in a successful book. However, publishers are in business to make money, so they will try to keep royalties for themselves. The divergent interests also come up when discussing the price for the book. I generally will ask for a lower price than the publisher proposes. My goal is to sell more books, while the publisher wants to make more money, even if they sell fewer books.

Another financial issue is permissions fees for use of copyrighted materials, like figures, that you include. Most publishers require you to secure the permissions and pay for them, but if you negotiate well, you might get them to do this job and even pay for it, up to a certain amount. I’ve had to give up on desired photos, screengrabs, or illustrations because the owners wanted many hundreds of dollars, which was outside my budget. One publisher agreed to collect the permissions, which we thought they could negotiate to get a good price, but then, when it was too late to change, billed us for $16,000. Ouch!

Most publishers will send your proposal and then manuscript out for anonymous reviews, which will guide their decision on publishing and give you valuable feedback. I also get reviews for chapters and the whole manuscript from as many colleagues as I can. Once you revise your manuscript, the publisher will copy-edit your book, which is good news. I’ve learned a lot from copy editors, who have nearly always improved my writing and presentation. Usually publishers pay for copy-editing, but if you make a lot of late changes, then may bill you for that. Some publishers will redraw your figures to their standard style, so be sure to make sure they do a good job.

I like really good back of the book indexes, but I hate doing them, so I always ask that the publisher do it and pay for it.

Now the big deal: the cover. Contracts may not mention it, but tradition is that publishers get to design and choose your cover. I think covers are really important, so I require that I have contact with the designer/artist in advance and then have the opportunity to comment on the cover design. Mostly that has worked out well enough.

Promoting Your Book

Most academic books are done for love rather than money. If you earn enough to buy a few nice dinners that’s good news, but your real satisfaction will come from others reading, discussing, and citing your work. There is a lot to do to make your book a success. In the old days publishers produced, marketed, distributed, and promoted your book, but these days authors have to do a lot of the work, especially academic authors.

If you know enough and plan ahead you can get some agreements to promote your book at the time you negotiate your contract. The simplest item is to request copies of the hardcover or paperback editions, which standard contracts might limit to 10 copies or 5 to each co-author. I always ask for at least 25 copies or 10 copies per co-author. It’s nice to give these to family, friends, colleagues, and those who have helped you with the book. I also say I need a few copies to give to journalists, book reviewers, or potential book adopters. I like to sign the books with thank you notes before I give them away. Publishers may push for fewer hard copies, preferring to send PDFs, so decide what you want.

Another contract item is to ensure that publishers will send hard copies to journalists, book reviewers, or potential textbook adopters.

I like to request that publishers prepare a well-designed one-page flyer for the book with a discount coupon for distribution at conferences or when I speak somewhere. The publisher might send you 300 or more nicely printed color copies by mail and provide a PDF you can send by email or print. A popular idea is to make small business cards, postcards, or bookmarks that mention your book and include the cover graphics. You can leave these at conferences or hand out to your friends and colleagues. Publishers are usually willing to do this, but may describe this only in an accompanying letter.

Publishers are reluctant to put specifics about promotion in the contract, but you might get some things spelled out in an email or letter that lays out their intention to make a best effort. Paper catalogs and paper mailings are mostly gone, but a booksite that you build by yourself and a booksite built by publishers from your materials is a good idea. You can include extended abstracts, chapter summaries, outlines, slide decks, videos, course outlines and blurbs promoting your book from respected leaders in your field. Make sure that all your materials are accessible for people with disabilities.

The current attention is on use of social media to promote books. One publisher sent me a well-written 42-page description of their social media efforts. The cost to them is low and they do pretty much the same thing for every book they publish, so you’ll have to push to get some special attention. Getting more than a single Facebook post, Twitter tweet, and Instagram cover picture will take some effort, so think about what you want to have them do. You could offer to prepare a short video or podcast for them to post on the booksite, Youtube, or elsewhere.

My 2016 book, The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations, devotes Chapter 10 to strategies that “Promote adoption and assess impact” of research papers and ideas. However, the same strategies apply to books. That chapter describes social media strategies and places great emphasis on personal connections. You will spread your ideas and books by giving talks around your campus (I gave 15 talks on this book just at the University of Maryland), other campuses (30+), conferences (10+), etc. The main idea is to make personal connections with people who care about your work, especially prominent leaders in your field. Make an appointment to talk with the course organizer who could adopt your book or the research luminary who might talk about your book. Follow up with email after your visit to build the relationship.

I have found publishers to be helpful in arranging bulk sales when I speak at a conference, especially if I have been successful in convincing the conference organizers to buy a copy for every attendee or at least make the book available for sale. The publisher may give up to a 50% discount and ship to the conference directly, so I can sign books at the event. Remember to ask that if there are extras the conference organizers can return the unused ones for a refund.

Another approach is to write short articles about one of the themes in your book for the publisher’s blog, your blog, or a prominent blog in your field.

You can also have some fun. I have made coffee mugs and bumper stickers for my books, and one publisher made t-shirts with my book cover on it. I like to have parties, or just a signing event at the publisher’s booth at a conference, if the COVID crisis recedes and in-person conferences are again popular. As you publish a string of successful books a publisher is more likely to throw a party or do something special.

I close by encouraging you to write books. I think it helps sharpen your thinking and improve your work as a researcher and teacher. In some fields, books are expected from junior faculty coming up for tenure. In other fields, you may be steered to publish research papers, but in most fields a respected academic book or textbook is a big plus for your career. Writing books is hard work that usually takes longer than you expect, but still it has been an important, enjoyable, and satisfying part of my career. I hope it is for you too.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to graduate student Madison Elliott for asking the question that prompted this essay and to Tamara Munzner for helpful comments on an early draft. Both are at the University of British Columbia. My long-time colleague and frequent co-author, Catherine Plaisant at the University of Maryland, also provided very helpful comments. Other valued UMd colleagues added further comments, including Jonathan Lazar.

Biography

Ben Shneiderman (www.cs.umd.edu/~ben) is a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Sparks of Innovation: Stories from the HCIL

Research at the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at…

Ben Shneiderman

Written by

BEN SHNEIDERMAN (http://www.cs.umd.edu/~ben) is an Emeritus Distinguished Univof Maryland Professor in Computer Science, Member National Academy of Engineering

Sparks of Innovation: Stories from the HCIL

Research at the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at University of Maryland

Ben Shneiderman

Written by

BEN SHNEIDERMAN (http://www.cs.umd.edu/~ben) is an Emeritus Distinguished Univof Maryland Professor in Computer Science, Member National Academy of Engineering

Sparks of Innovation: Stories from the HCIL

Research at the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at University of Maryland

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