Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lesson 10: Competing With the Man or Woman in the Mirror

Before a publisher buys your book, you may have to tell the house what other books are out there that compete with yours. But when you sign the contract, the publisher is more concerned about whether you will compete with yourself. A competing works clause prohibits you from competing through a different publisher, and a revisions clause allows the publisher to compete with you when revising the book.

Neither of these clauses is necessary for fiction, and many fiction contracts don't have them. If yours does, try to eliminate those clauses.*

Nonfiction is different. Say you have written a college textbook for introductory psychology classes. It will compete with other introductory college textbooks in the market, and your publisher knows that. But the publisher does not expect it to compete with a similar textbook you wrote for the same audience but self-published or sold to a different publisher. This is also true for a Bible study on Lamentations or a travel guide to the Holy Land. It isn't fair for the author to compete with the publisher that has taken a risk and invested its money.

Still, a clause that simply talks about "competing works" could apply to anything with the same subject matter, so try to narrow it if you can. See if you can limit the prohibition to psychology textbooks or, even better, to introductory psychology textbooks. And if developments in psychology move fast enough that a textbook is obsolete after five years, maybe you can get the clause to terminate in five years.

But that brings up another issue. What if the publisher wants to update the book and release it as a new edition? Are you required to make the changes? What happens when you don't?

This is where the revisions clause comes in. This provision is especially important for textbooks and other nonfiction books containing information that changes over time.

A revisions clause says who makes the revisions and who pays for them. Many clauses require you, as the original author, to make the changes. Some give you the right of first refusal, meaning that the publisher must offer you the opportunity but you don't have to accept it. Ideally, you want to retain as much control as possible over who will make the revisions if you don't.

If you are unable or unwilling to revise the book, the usual clause allows the publisher to hire someone else. That person will get paid from your royalties, so you want to make sure the amount is not excessive. It might be a flat fee, or it might be a percentage of the royalties. For example, if you were getting a 10% royalty and the reviser gets 2%, your subsequent royalty rate will be 8%.

Of course, you can always try to get the publisher to pay for the revisions. I wish you luck.

Then there are issues such as whether the reviser gets listed as a coauthor; whether you can take your name off if the reviser butchers the book; and how many revisions the book can go through before the contract simply terminates. If I were to address those, this would be an article rather than a blog post.

So for now, just make sure you know how far you can--or must--go when competing with yourself.

Kathryn Page Camp

* If the publisher won't eliminate a competing works clause for fiction, make sure the wording isn't so broad that it could prohibit you from using the same characters in other books. If it could, you may be better walking away.

1 comment:

  1. Per your last sentence, Kathryn, to date I have "walked away" from more than six publisher contracts and five years with agents -- and exactly for some of the reasons you mention. I guess the "indie" experience has been too much fun and profitable for me to "give it away" too easily. . . Great post -- SURE appreciate your expertise! :-)