This week I learned the seemingly obvious: publishing contracts are the lifeblood of publishing. This may seem rather simplistic but my experience in business, including the mistakes I made when operating as a startup have taught me that a contract can either be a millstone around one’s neck or a financial life raft. Sifting through the finer points of a publishing contract yielded few surprises but it seemed nonetheless useful to learn that, for example, deadlines, word counts, royalty agreements and work specifications are all laid out in fairly precise terms. It was not a surprise to learn that Tony has never fully enforced the punitive elements of a contract. This seems to me to be down not only to his shrewdness in assessing a writer and a project before committing, but also the fact that taking an academic to the cleaners over a broken contract is pointless since they have little money to take from them in court.
It gave a greater insight also into the publisher/author relationship, with particular reference to one rather cantankerous author who demanded extraordinarily detailed information about ever more picky minutiae of a book contract. Suffice to say that MUP did not publish him.
The key to this relationship is that it is a symbiosis, that bridges are never burned and that there is a clear outline of the expectations and responsibilities that all parties to the agreement bear. To a relatively small degree most elements of a contract are negotiable, with the caveat that the sums of money involved are so small that in reality such negotiations are of little real consequence beyond a nominal change to the contractual stipulation in question, for example the terms of payment on royalties may be altered but it does not change the fact that academic royalties are next to nothing in terms of the amount paid. Textbooks can yield good money for authors but these are few and far between to say the least.
The lion’s share of managing a book contract successfully comes down to managing expectations and not leaving things until the last minute. So, for example, if a book is to be delivered a month late then this should not be a surprise to a good commissioning editor since he or she will be in regular contact with the author and will be aware of any issues and how it is progressing generally. No publishing contract should ever be managed in such away that the writer signs and then no contact is made until the completed manuscript is demanded on deadline day. Regular and consistent, yet polite and unintrusive chasing is how a contract ought to be managed.