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Negotiating a book contract: free books and a pony

Endurance sports: Swimming, writing and getting published

The spirit behind these articles on getting published is to encourage you to start writing your book, if nothing else will fully satisfy you, and to take you through some of the ups and downs of getting published. I'm a first time author. My climate book, "The Big Swim," will be published by New Society Publishers in February, 2015.

Ingrid, the publishing editor at New Society Publishers, emailed me a draft book contract which I discussed with my author friends. Yes, I am proud to say that I have author friends. I’ve always wanted some and as they appeared in my life I felt like I must be approaching the rarified realms in which books get published. These friends helped me immensely. And, unlike me, they have agents who negotiated their contracts.

I learned that royalty arrangements are more important than advances unless you need the cash upfront or think you can get an advance that is larger than your royalties will be. This latter case seems unlikely because publishers are generally better at estimating royalties than authors are. Royalties can be based on net proceeds (the publisher’s profits after expenses are paid) or the on the retail cover price which would be, of course, much more. My contract based royalties on net proceeds. A friend’s contract based royalties on the cover price. My rough estimate is that she will get close to two dollars for each book sold while I will get about $.70.

“You have to have cover and title approval,” another friend told me. “And don’t give them rights to your next book.”

“I can’t give up cover or title approval,” I told Ingrid over the phone.

“We never give cover or title approval to authors,” Ingrid said. “But we work with them. I don’t think we’ve ever published a cover the author didn’t like.”

“Okay,” I said, checking cover and title approval off my list.

“I don’t want to give away the rights to my second book. I hope to have an agent by then.”

“That’s a toothless provision,” Ingrid said. “If you don’t like the price we offer, you go somewhere else.”

“Okay,” I said, checking off rights to my next book.

One friend told me that she had gotten twenty free copies of her book instead of twelve and, according to her agent, this was a lot. The draft contract said I would get twelve.

 “I want twenty free books,” I said. It sounded petulant.

“And a free pony?” Ingrid asked.

“Yes, a pony for sure,” I agreed. We laughed.

She agreed to twenty books, then we talked about how many books I would buy at a reduced rate up front. We decided we each needed to talk to our peeps about this one. I made a spreadsheet that showed I would make ten times more per book if I sold the book myself.

“Why do you want four hundred books?” my husband Barry asked. “Do you want to be a book seller or a book writer?”

I imagined myself on a book tour, pulling a dolly of boxes full of books across Canada, on and off busses and trains. Nope.

“What I really want,” I told Ingrid in our next conversation, “is enough books to send to people I feel connected to from different parts of my life so I can ask them to consider buying the book as a gift for their friends and reviewing it on Amazon.”

She arranged for me to have fifty free books for publicity purposes. My author friend who would make twice as much per book as me was totally impressed by this number and, as a result, my negotiation skills.

Ingrid’s email accepting my book for publication had piqued my curiosity: “Whew, your book sure has generated lots of lively discussion around here!” So I asked my new editor-friend what the discussion was about. 

 “Your book isn’t typical for us,” Ingrid said. “Our books are more practical guides or books about developing sustainable economies. But we’ve talked about publishing literary non-fiction if the right manuscript came along and yours fit the bill. We’re very excited about that.”

She even had a name for my hybrid approach: “stealth sustainability.”

“I’d really like to do an audio book,” I said. “I read excerpts from the title essay on a CBC show and it came out really well.”

“That’s a great idea. We have licensing arrangements with an audio book company. I think it would be good for book clubs. Do you want to write a book club discussion guide?”    

“Yes, and I think it could be marketed as a gift book that people concerned about climate change give to their friends to invite them into the conversation.” 

“That’s a great idea. And it could be a premium for organizations to give to donors. They often look for something that is light but has a good message.”

“I love that idea. I was thinking about a section that lays out the climate problem and the solutions at the end, very short and clean.”

“Good idea,” Ingrid said.

We could feel each other beaming.

That night I crafted book group discussion questions. Here were a few that came to mind: 

 “In ‘The Oolichan and the Snake,’ how do the First Nations elders convey their ethical perspectives and values? How are these perspectives different from the dominant cultural perspectives? Which do you think are more practical?”

“In ‘The Scallop and the Chickadee,’ the protagonist explores ways to manage the emotionally overwhelming aspects of climate change. What emotions come up for you in the face of climate change? What would help you?”

“How does climate change raise different issues for people of different cultures and classes?”

If everyone gets their own version of heaven, I thought, writing questions that might engage people with climate change is mine.

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