Publisher Questions: What to Ask Before You Sign a Book Contract

One of the more important decisions every author has to make with their book is to decide whether to independently publish or go with a traditional publisher (I’ve written an extensive guide to making this decision). If you decide to go with a traditional publisher, it is important that you ask the right publisher questions before signing a contract.

I could write a book-length article just relaying the horror stories of authors that have signed contracts with publishers that did not protect them adequately. Stories of abandoned manuscripts that authors can’t get the rights back to. No creative control over the projects. Screwed up publishing dates. And on and on.

It is important, whether you are working with an agent or not, that you ask enough questions so you completely understand what your publisher will and won’t be doing and what rights you have once you sign the contract. Also, anything that is even remotely important to you should be in writing in the contract before you sign anything.

In an effort to help you with this task, I reached out to a few of my expert friends to help me compile a list of questions that you should go over with your potential publisher before signing anything. This is probably not all of the questions you will want to ask, but it is my effort to make sure you don’t miss anything major.

Obvious caveat: I’m not a lawyer. I’m not an agent. Make sure you get both involved in this process.

That said, let’s jump in.


Is there any cost for me to publish with you?

This answer should always be no. If you are paying to be published, you are not in a good situation. Paying for help publishing is common and fine, but you are at that point self-publishing. You should only be paying for services and not giving up any publishing or distribution rights. If a company wants you to pay them a fee to publish your book, you should be running the other way.

What examples of previous books like this have you published and how many copies did you sell?

You don’t want to be the first book your publisher has ever worked on in your genre. Ask to see other examples so you can judge the editing and design quality. Also, ask about sales and marketing efforts and the results.

What is the deadline for my manuscript?

If you are a first time novelist, you probably already have the manuscript done. Otherwise, make sure everyone agrees on this date ahead of time.

What happens if I don’t hit that deadline?

I once had a client say to me, “You know Tim. The publisher gives you a date your manuscript has to be done. But that’s not the real date. There’s really another secret date. But even that date isn’t real. There’s another super-secret drop-dead date that exist that they really don’t want to tell you about. That’s the date I shoot for.”

Obviously this is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s important to discuss with your publisher the ramifications of missing the due date for your manuscript.

Can I keep my audiobook rights?

You’ve decided to go with a traditional publisher for you print and ebook rights, but what about audio. Would you want to keep and self-publish the audiobook yourself? Is your publisher open to this?

What will my royalty rates be for the various editions? How is it calculated? What is the schedule of royalty payments once I have earned out my advance?

For most publishers, the royalty rates are locked and non-negotiable, but it’s good to know what they are. Also, it’s good to know when you can expect to be paid.

What’s the minimum royalty you’ll accept for international rights?

I don’t know a lot about international rights, but this question was given to me by one of the experts I asked. This is also something to go over with your agent and they should have some understanding of how it works. Joanna Penn also has a couple articles here and here about it.

Bottom line: Understand what your publisher is planning on doing with your book internationally and what kind of royalties they will be getting for international rights.

What happens if my editor leaves or is let go?

Often, if your acquiring editor leaves or if fired, your book becomes orphaned inside the publishing house. They contractually own the publishing rights to your book, but then they never actually publish the book.

Make sure you ask about this and follow up with questions like will my project be assigned to a new editor? Will I be let out of my contract? Will I need to pay back the advance?

Consider having a clause where the rights revert back to you if your book is not published within a certain, reasonable timeframe.

What happens if the book goes out of print or the publisher goes out of business?

Both of these are unlikely to happen. With the move to digital, most books are staying for sale forever. Also, publishers rarely go out of business. If it comes to that, they will sell their backlist to another publisher. However, it’s still good to have in writing that the publishing rights will automatically revert back to you in both of these cases.

Manuscript and Production

It is important to remember that this is still your book even though the publisher has contracted the publishing rights. Make sure you understand everything that is going to go into the production of your manuscript.

What is the publishing date of my book?

At the time of signing the contract you may or may not have an exact date of publication, but they should be able to give you a ball park based on their production schedule and existing product line.

Who is editing my book and what projects have they worked on?

Similar to the above question, but now focused on your editor. You don’t want your book to be the first your editor has worked on. I recommend reading other books in your genre that your editor has worked on to make sure you are happy with the results.

Who is my development editor, copywriter, and proofreader? Will this be outsourced?

You will have multiple people working on your manuscript. Make sure you know who they will be, what their responsibilities are, and whether the people are in-house staff or outsourced.

Who is handling the audiobook?

There’s a couple different ways your publisher can handle the audiobook. First, they can sell the rights to a audiobook publisher who will take over the production and distribution of the book. This is similar to how foreign rights are handled. More and more though your publisher is doing this part themselves since the audiobook market is growing at a rapid pace and they’ll make more money producing it themselves.

Either way, you should know what their plans are.

Can I record my own audiobook?

If you are interested in doing the recording yourself, you need to ask for that up front. Otherwise, they could choose to not allow you to do this.

Who has final say on creative decisions?

This is probably where I’ve run into the most contention between authors and their publishers during the production of their book. Questions like these come up.

  • How much input on my cover do I have?
  • Are you designing the cover in house or outsourcing it?
  • How much input do I have on the interior layout and design?

You’ll usually be hard pressed to get final say on any of these, but you can ask for input up front and make it known that you will want to be involved in the process.

Can I retain rights to trade dress?

This is another one I got from a friend of mine. I had to look up what “trade dress” means. Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

“a legal term of art that generally refers to characteristics of the visual appearance of a product or its packaging that signify the source of the product to consumers. Trade dress is a form of intellectual property.”

This is an important one.

Example: Who owns the copyright to the cover design of your new book?

If your publisher owns it, that means you need their permission to use the design. Sure, they’ll let you use it to promote the book. But what if you want to publish a workbook to go alongside your book? What if you want print it on a bunch of mugs and sell them at your speaking events? What if you want to sell a paid series of videos around your book?

These are one of those important questions that almost never gets asked but could easily come up in the future if you want to do something ancillary to your book.

What categories will my book be put in?

I have worked with authors that missed the Wall Street Journal bestseller list, even after selling enough copies to hit it, because their book was mis-categorized.

How many will you print on the first run?

Marketing and Promotion

The vast majority of the marketing and promotion will be your responsibility. However, your publisher is still a partner in the process. It’s important to be clear up front what they will and won’t do for you and to get it all in writing.

How many copies do they expect to sell in the first year?

This is an important conversation to have with your publisher. What are their plans for the book. What is a “win” for them? It’s nice to have a combined goal to reach towards.

How many copies do I need to sell to recoup my advance?

This will vary with print vs audio vs ebook, but it’s important to have a ballpark figure on how many copies you need to sell in order to earn out your advance and start earning royalties.

Has that publishing date been set with Amazon? The shipping department?

I had another client (different from above) that sold enough copies to hit the Wall Street Journal bestseller list but missed it because a guy in the shipping department put a date in wrong and books started shipping too early.

Make sure the publishing date is set correctly everywhere.

Who is my publicist?

You should have a publicist assigned to you that will help with promotion of the book. It’s important to find out who this is, what kind of resources they will put towards your book, and what exactly they will be doing.

How many galley/review copies will I get?

I’ve worked with multiple authors who did not ask this question and ended up getting twenty copies of their book to send out for reviews and promotion.

After that they had to pay the “author rate” for their own book which was always higher than what Amazon was selling it for. That means that the author had to pay just as much for their book as everyone else, even when they were buying them for promotional purposes.

Make sure it’s in writing that you will get enough review copies of your book. “Enough” is different for everyone, but I recommend starting at 100.

How much will I have to pay for copies of my own book?

See above. What are you going to have to pay for your own book after the initial batch of review copies.

Who is in charge of sending review copies out?

Your publicist should be able to help with this, but make sure to ask ahead of time. If you are responsible, you’ll need to get copies ASAP and plan to pay for packaging and shipping costs.

What percent of the book can I print and/or without additional permission?

This is another one that’s all over the map. I’ve had publishers allow the author to share half of the book. I’ve had publishers only allow the table of contents and first few pages.

How much money are they spending on marketing the book and can I see the marketing plan?

Again, you will be responsible for most of the marketing, but it is good to ask this ahead of time anyway. Make sure you get this in writing too. You will often get big promises before signing the contract that don’t ever materialize.

How will we communicate during the launch, to coordinate our efforts? Who will be my points of contact?

I have authors that literally couldn’t get anyone on the phone at their publisher a week after it came out. Ask ahead of time who will be your points of contact, what you can expect from them, and how best to communicate.

Also, let them know ahead of time that you will want at weekly updates of the sales figures. If you don’t ask for this, it is a rare publisher that will go out of their way to give you sales figures. If they say they can’t pull them weekly, they are lying to you. For their big A-listers they are getting daily sales reports so they can definitely get you weekly reports.

Do you have a problem if I completely rewrite the marketing copy (on Amazon, book flap)?

Most publishers are not going to mind if you have input on these things, but, again, it’s important to ask ahead of time.

What can I expect as far as in-store distribution? Will you be paying for co-op ads with B&N or any other retailers?

Again, this will vary greatly depending on the kind of deal you have made with your publisher. If you are a first time novelist getting a $5000 advance, the answer to these questions will probably be “none” and “no”. However, it’s good to ask anyway.

Can corporations get a special group rate?

This will be mainly non-fiction business books, but if you plan on selling bulk it’s good to see if you can get special pricing.

How much say will I have in the pricing of the book?

Again, the answer will probably be none, but it’s good to ask to see if there is wiggle room here.

Will you be willing to run price promotions from time to time?

Most publishers are now regularly running price promotions, especially for the digital versions of the book, but ask anyway.

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