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Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century
Mastering the Business of Publishing
by Richard Curtis
Originally published by E-Reads
FOR MANY WRITERS the term "multiple-book deal"
conjures images of byzantine negotiations conducted in a smoke-filled
conference room by a battery of literary agents, lawyers,
accountants, and publishing executives, of telephone-number
advances and thick contracts replete with state-of-the-art
jargon about best-seller escalators, book club passthroughs,
and topping privileges. The tyro author who would be overjoyed
to get even a one-book contract must view such deals as relevant
only to the gods in some literary Valhalla. What pertinence
do these Ludlumian, Michenerian, Grishamian transactions have
to the humble and brutish lives of nickel-a-word galley slaves?
The truth is that many more multiple-book
contracts are proffered to writers than most people imagine,
and most of them are no more complicated than one-book contracts.
And their terms are substantially lower than those generally
associated with Olympic-sized swimming pools on the grounds
of Beverly Hills estates. In fact, if you write in any of
the traditional genres the chances are that sooner or later
you'll be offered a multiple-book contract. Whether your specialty
is science fiction, mysteries, westerns, romances, male adventure,
or even popular nonfiction, it is likely that a publisher
will be interested in signing you up for more than one book
at a time. You may have created a character in a novel whose
exploits you or your publisher would like to extend to further
books. Or your publisher may like your work well enough to
ask you to write books in a series created "in the house,"
as it were. You would do well to understand the features of
such deals, if for no other reason than that, after longing
to have one offered to you, you might ultimately decide that
they're not that hot after all and you'd be better off selling
one book at a time.
When you think about it, a multiple-book deal is simply
an elaborate extension of your option clause. In a traditional
contract, the publisher usually gets an option on your next
book at terms to be negotiated. In a multiple-book contract,
the publisher makes a commitment to more than one book and
specifies the terms and conditions for the acquisition of
those books. The nature of those books is usually described
in detail: "Books number 4, 5, and 6 in the adult western
series featuring the hero Luke Starbuck," or "Four
saga-length works of fiction set on and around a Savannah,
Georgia, peanut farm during the American Civil War."
The general terms—"boilerplate"—that
characterize a contract for one book now cover two or three
or more at a time. The warranties you agree to on book number
one are identical to those on numbers two and three, for instance.
A few boilerplate items may be altered to adjust for the multiplicity
of books in the contract. The termination clause will have
the phrase "on each work" in it or something along
those lines in order to account for the probability that each
book in the contract will go out of print at a different time.
One of the reasons publishers like multiple-book contracts,
then, is simply that they are convenient. They enable publishers
to prepare one contract for several books whose terms are
pretty much identical. This may seem like insufficient reason
to offer such deals to authors, and in truth it is. But when
you realize how much time and labor goes into the preparation
of even a routine book contract, you might feel less inclined
to criticize publishers for wanting to speed up the flow of
paperwork, which after all benefits authors too.
The principal object of multiple-book deals is security.
Ideally, they should make publishers and authors feel equally
secure (agents don't mind a little security either, by the
way), but things don't always turn out that way, as we shall
The security comes in because all parties know where they
stand with each other for the duration of the contract. The
publisher knows that his author is not going to leave him
after the next book or the book after that. The publisher
also knows he won't be hit for a high price one or two books
from now if the author gets hot tomorrow, because the prices
for those future books will have been fixed at the outset,
when the multiple-book contract was signed. The author, by
the same token, knows there will be a home waiting for his
next two or three books, and can count on a specific sum of
money to be paid him when he delivers them. Even if the market
for his kind of books collapses, his publisher is still contractually
obligated to pay him for each delivered book, whereas if the
author made contracts with his publisher on a book-by-book
basis, the publisher could drop him as soon it became apparent
that there was no more market for his stuff.
Another important factor is scheduling dependability. Where
series or other related books are involved, success rests
heavily on the timing of release of the books, and that timing
can be set with certainty only if the publisher can absolutely
count on reliable delivery of three or four or six books.
By tying the author up for that many, the publisher knows
(or at least hopes) that the author won't accept contracts
with other publishers that will interfere with the delivery
and publication rhythm of the series.
Of course, the big multiple-book deals that make front-page
headlines incorporate all of the above factors plus very big
front-money. These deals are designed to nail down a bestselling
author for as long as possible, and in many cases there is
little or no description of the books because nobody including
the author knows what they're going to be about. Indeed, the
publisher may not even care what they're about as long as
it's guaranteed he'll get his mitts on them.
The publicity value of a multiple-book deal may outweigh
its actual monetary value. The pages of publishing trade publications
and writers' newsletters are filled with references to deals
that make author and publisher look good but do not necessarily
stand up to intense scrutiny. A "five-figure deal"
might be for $99,000 or it might only be for $10,000. Or you
may read about deals that "could bring the author $850,000
per book." They could, yes, if they sell like hotcakes,
get picked up by major book clubs, go on the best-seller list
for two years, and are made into major motion pictures. The
actual guaranteed money in such deals might be quite modest,
but the built-in escalators, bonuses, and similar features
enable the publishers to wring the most publicity out of them.
And of course, deals that may seem relatively small to the
public at large can be most impressive in the author's "hometown"—that
is, the genre in which he writes. A three-book deal for a
$75,000 advance might be sneezed at by the New York Times,
but if the books are science fiction, romance, westerns, or
some other genre, the writers and editors who read about such
exploits in the trade papers will sit up and take notice.
Big deals or little, the underlying accounting principles
are the same. Let's examine them.
There are several ways in which the accounting may be set
up in a multiple-book contract. The first is to fix the advance
for each title in the contract and to keep the royalty accounting
on each book separate from that on the other books in the
package. Thus you might have a three-book, $30,000 advance
contract, with the advance per book pegged at $10,000. When
book number one is published and earns more than $10,000 in
royalties, the author will collect the overage in royalties
even though the second book, say, has not yet earned back
its $10,000 and the third book has not even been published.
The other way to structure a multiple-book deal is to "jointly
account" the advances on each book. Joint accounting
(also known as "basket accounting" and "cross-collateralization")
creates a common royalty pool for the earnings of all books
in the contract. This means that royalties earned over and
above the advance on one book in the contract will not necessarily
be paid to the author but will instead be applied to the unearned
advances on other books in the contract. Until the total of
advances in that contract has been earned out by royalties
from any or all books in that contract, the author will not
receive additional royalties. For instance, suppose we have
that $30,000 advance deal for three books, but with joint
accounting. Book number one is published and earns $15,000.
Does the author receive royalties? No, because the three-book
combination must earn a total of $30,000. Suppose, further,
that the second book earns $15,000 too. Does the author now
receive royalties? Again, no, because the two books have earned,
together, no more than the $30,000 originally advanced to
the author. Now book number three is published and earns $4,500
in royalties. Does the author now get anything? Yes, he gets
$4,500, for the total royalties earned by the three books
is $34,500, or $4,500 more than was originally advanced. Of
course, it can work the other way around too.
uppose the first book in the package was a wild success and
earned $35,000. The author would then collect $5,000 royalties
on his three-book contract even though the second and third
books weren't yet published. And when those books were published,
all royalties they earned from the very first dollar would
go to the author, because his $30,000 advance would have been
earned out on the first book.
There are pitfalls for both author and publisher in multiple-book
deals, for such deals are like long-term commodity investments.
If you bet that a commodity will be worth X dollars one year
from now, and between now and then the value soars far beyond
what you estimated it would be, you will be left holding a
considerably undervalued contract. Apply this to the case
of an author who grabs a three-book contract for a $30,000
advance. The advance is paid in four equal installments of
$7,500 apiece, the first on signing and the next three on
delivery of each book. The first book is published and becomes
a wild success: book club, reprint, movie, the whole bit.
Now he delivers the second book and what does he get?—a
mere $7,500. He may be mad at himself (to say nothing of his
agent) for tying himself up for so long for so little. Of
course, the difference between an author and a pork belly
(and perhaps the only difference) is that the author at least
has the opportunity to make up in royalties for the inadequate
advance he negotiated two or three books ago when he was just
another lowly writer in the crowd. Thus he may only collect
$7,500 when he delivers book number two, but a few months
later he may collect $50,000 in royalties earned on book one.
Bear in mind that by the same token the publisher stands
to lose if the commodity—the author, his books, and
the market—go short, that is, drop below what the publisher
projected when he tied the author up for all those books.
If a publisher signs you up for that four-novel peanut-plantation
saga, and just around the time you're delivering the first
one the market for plantation sagas collapses and your publisher
can't give them away—well, there's going to be much
rending of garments and maybe of jobs at that publisher's
So, it's a bit of a crapshoot both ways, and if you feel
your books are going to be worth far more than the per-book
advance you've been offered in a multiple-book deal, then
turn that deal down. If the publisher doesn't agree with your
appraisal of your future value, then he'll turn the deal down.
Sometimes you can forge a compromise. If your publisher feels
that the individual value of the books in a three-book deal
is $10,000, and you feel it's $15,000, you can split the difference
by structuring advances of $10,000 on the first book, $12,500
on the second, and $15,000 on the third. If the deal is jointly
accounted, you'd simply add these advances up for a total
advance of $37,500, but when you negotiate the next contract
your price per book starts at $15,000.
Once a publisher has a good writer in his stable, he may
be willing to pay high, even to overpay, to keep him there
for a long, long time. I remember negotiating with a publisher
for an author he coveted, and I fixed a price of $225,000
for a three book contract. He winced. "That's awfully
"What can I tell you?" I said with a shrug. "That's
what I think he's worth, or will be by the time he writes
his third book."
"Who knows how much he'll be worth two years from now?"
the publisher sighed philosophically. "We could all be
dead two years from now."
"That's true," I replied. "So why don't we
just make a deal for one book and see how that one goes?"
The man sat bolt upright in his chair, a stricken look on
his face. "Don't do me any favors." Alarmed at the
prospect of having this rising young author for only one more
book, the publisher quickly met my terms.
WHILE THE SIZE of the advance is the criterion by which most
authors measure the commercial value of their books, the size
and timing of the installments in which the advance is paid
are just as significant, and sometimes more so. Because the
"payout schedule" directly affects the cash flow
of publishers and authors, it is often a bone of bitter contention
in negotiations, and many a player has walked away from an
otherwise good deal because the payout schedule nullified
advantages gained in the negotiation.
With few exceptions, advances are paid in installments.
Part of the total money is payable upon signing the contract,
the balance payable on acceptance of partial, complete, or
revised manuscript; on certain calendar dates; on publication;
and even after publication. Although the payout formula may
be fairly simple when the advance is small, publishers and
agents devote a great deal of attention to it when the stakes
get high, The reason, of course, is the cost of money.
Until recently, when the inflation rate ground to a comfortably
low single-digit crawl, it could be projected that the value
of one thousand dollars deferred for one year was nine hundred
dollars. At the same time, interest rates appreciated the
value of that thousand dollars to something like twelve hundred
in a year. Thus, between inflation and interest, a year's
postponement of payout to an author meant a swing of some
20 percent in the value of that money. Both interest rates
and inflation have, at this writing at any rate, stabilized
at manageable levels, but for both publishers and authors,
5 or 10 percent per annum is worth fighting over and may indeed
make a significant difference to their balance sheets.
Let's take a closer look at payout schedules installment
by installment and sketch some ways authors may improve their
position when the haggling begins.
• Payment due on signing of the contract. All contracts
large and small require a consideration to be paid on signing,
even if it be no more than one dollar, in order to bind the
agreement. If the total advance is small enough, it may be
payable in full upon signing. Most publishers today, however,
have policies prohibiting payment in full on signing, and
editors are ordered to defer some part of the advance in negotiations.
Even if your book is a flawless gem requiring not a jot of
revision, an editor may contrive to pay a second installment
of your advance "upon acceptance of revisions" in
order to satisfy company policy. Then, a week or two after
vouchering the signature installment, the editor will put
through the acceptance installment as well.
If the contract is for an unwritten book, the advance will
be divided at least into an on-signing payment and an acceptance
one to create an incentive for the author to deliver the work.
The publisher may try to divide the advance even further,
into installments payable on delivery of a partial manuscript
or first draft.
You will have to do some solid reckoning before accepting
too small an installment on signing, otherwise you'll run
out of money before you turn in material qualifying you for
the next installment. First you must subtract your agent's
commission if any, then calculate the amount of time that
will pass until you are entitled to the next payment. You
then have to figure whether your living costs (including anticipated
lump sum payments like school tuition, income taxes, or insurance
premiums) during that period will be covered by what you collect
when you sign your contract. A $50,000 advance may seem attractive
to you, but if your publisher wants to pay you $10,000 on
signing and it takes you six months to write the book, and
your monthly nut is $3,000, you're going to be up the creek
halfway through the writing of the book. So you must bargain
hard for a down payment that will sustain you until you've
turned your manuscript in.
• Payment due on delivery of partial manuscript
or first draft. These installments are generically known in
the book trade as "satisfactory progress" payments.
To help bridge the gap between the on-signing and the acceptance
checks, and to encourage or compel progress, publishers frequently
negotiate installments payable when the author turns in part
of the book. A typical deal might be structured: one third
on signing the contract, one third on delivery of half the
manuscript, and one third on delivery and acceptance of the
Of the many ploys cooked up by publishers to stretch out
their money, "satisfactory progress" is the least
effective, and if it weren't so dangerous it would be just
plain silly. At the very least, "satisfactory progress"
is satisfactory neither to authors nor publishers, and the
only thing it does for progress is halt it.
In a "satisfactory progress" situation, an author
faces a number of choices, all of them terrible. He can turn
in a rough draft, which is usually an embarrassing mess that
will send most editors into respiratory arrest, or at least
provoke them to request revisions that the author would ordinarily
make on his own when tackling the final draft. Or he can stop
work in the middle of the book, polish and retype what he's
done so far, and turn a partial manuscript in. Either way,
he will have to suspend work on his book until he has received
some feedback from his editor. Even if his editor offers no
feedback whatever, it may take weeks or longer to get that
editorial reaction, and such delays are inevitably harmful
to creativity and cash flow. If the editor does have criticisms,
the author may be required to rework what he's turned in in
order to get his hands on that money. To avoid all that hassle,
therefore, an author may choose to forgo his "satisfactory
progress" payment and forge ahead with the rest of the
book, which defeats the purpose of such interim payments.
Most authors do not polish chapters after drafting them, but
prefer to finish a rough draft of the entire book and polish
it in the final draft. Thus the time between the completion
of a first draft and a final draft, or delivery of half the
manuscript and all of it, may be so brief that the machinery
for putting through the "satisfactory progress"
installment will scarcely have begun turning when it will
be time to put through the final acceptance payment.
Furthermore, many editors feel it's silly to read a partial
manuscript or first draft when the final product will be turned
in a few weeks or a month later.
In short, "satisfactory progress" payments reflect
little understanding of how authors work and pose a genuine
threat to both the quality of a book and the timeliness of
its delivery. Ultimately, this ends up hurting the publisher
as badly as it hurts the author.
• Payment due on acceptance of the manuscript.
Whenever possible, the balance of the advance on a commissioned
book should be payable no later than upon acceptance. A number
of contracts stipulate that a manuscript is deemed acceptable
unless the publisher notifies the author to the contrary within
a period of time, thirty days, sixty days, or thereabouts.
This is a very desirable feature and one worth fighting for
if it does not appear in the boilerplate of your contract.
In most contracts the definition of "acceptability"
embraces revisions. If serious revisions are required by a
publisher, the acceptance segment of the advance may be delayed
until satisfactory revisions are turned in. If the revisions
are minor, however, the publisher may often be prevailed upon
to put through the acceptance money and take it on faith that
the author will turn in acceptable revisions. There is an
in-between state where revisions are necessary but the author
cannot afford to do them without some sort of financial relief.
In such cases the publisher may be persuaded to release some
of the acceptance money to carry the author during the revision
I've expressed myself many times about the prevailing requirement
in publishing contracts that an author must repay the on-signing
installment of his advance if his manuscript is rejected.
But in case you haven't read what I've said—well, I
think it stinks. The on-signing advance should be regarded
as a forfeitable investment, not a refundable loan. Needless
to say, hard-headed (or hard-hearted) publishers see things
• Payments due on publication. The purpose
of publication installments is to enable publishers to start
recouping what they've paid the author as soon as possible
after disbursing his advance. Publication payments used to
be the norm in American publishing. Then the rise of strong
agents in the 1960s drove publication payments out of favor.
But when money started to get expensive again in the 1970s
(with double-digit inflation and interest rates), publishers
pushed the agents back, and it is now common for publication
installments to be paid. In some foreign countries such as
England, the publication installment is still an article of
The most common mistake authors make when agreeing to publication
payments in a negotiation is failing to fix a time limit on
them. Unacceptable language is, "$5,000 payable upon
publication of the Work." Acceptable: "$5,000 payable
upon publication of the Work or twelve months after acceptance,
whichever date is sooner." The reason should become obvious
if you think it through. Few contracts require publication
of a book in less than twelve months after its acceptance,
and many allow for publication in eighteen or even twenty-four
months. Tacked on to these times are grace periods giving
publishers an additional six months or more beyond the deadline
to publish the work upon notification by the author that the
deadline has passed. A publication payment may therefore not
be due for as much as three years after a book has been accepted.
What is worse, publication of a book may be cancelled entirely
for any of a number of reasons: staff changes, new policies,
or events or trends that date that book. That means that the
publication portion of the advance will not be payable at
all, at least not according to the publisher's interpretation
of the contract. I don't know if the point has been tested
in court, but it can certainly be argued that if you sell
a book to a publisher for $25,000, and the publisher cancels
publication, you still sold the book for $25,000 even if some
of that sum was to have been paid, for the publisher's convenience,
on publication. Therefore, whenever you negotiate a publication
advance, you should always stipulate that the installment
will be due on publication or X months after acceptance, whichever
date comes first. The X is negotiable, but should be no longer
than the outside date by which the publisher is required to
publish your book.
• Postpublication payments. Publishers have devised
a fascinating array of gimmicks to postpone the day of reckoning
to authors. Among these is the postpublication advance. Such
installments may be payable on a specific date—X months
after publication, say—or, in the case of a hardcover-softcover
deal, one installment may be payable when the hardcover edition
is published, another when the paperback edition is brought
out. There are other creative variations on this theme, but
because a book begins earning royalties from the date it's
shipped, all postpublication advances amount to the same thing:
paying authors with their own money.
Authors may want to try to negotiate payout schedules advantageous
to their income tax status. An author who has already made
a lot of money in a year may not want to receive a large on-signing
payment that same year. A deal can be structured, therefore,
so that only a token amount is paid on signing the contract
and the balance of the on-signing advance is paid early in
January of the following year. Not surprisingly, publishers
like such setups, since they enable them to legitimately keep
authors' money for several months. Literary agents, however,
are not always thrilled to have their commissions deferred
just because a client is enjoying a good year, so I don't
feel your agent is out of line to request his commission on
the full on-signing advance now, and to take no commission
when the rest of your money comes in January.
If you do want to structure installments in a way that you
feel is advantageous to you tax-wise, and your publisher is
agreeable to the arrangement, the time to do it is when your
contract is negotiated. If a contract is already in force
and you ask your publisher to defer until next January a payment
that is due this October because you don't want more money
this year, the Internal Revenue Service may disallow it if
you are audited and your publishing contract examined. The
same holds true of requests to agents to hold money until
the start of the next year.
The law makes it quite clear that money received by a fiduciary—a
literary agent, for example—is construed to have been
received by the author. This is not to say that publishers
and agents do not hold money for authors in such circumstances,
but getting away with it doesn't alter the statutes concerning
"constructive receipt," and you may be liable for
an adjustment in tax for that year plus interest and penalties.
Even if you are nothing more than a working-stiff type writer,
it's still a good idea to get as much money up front as you
can. A smart agent and a smart accountant will help you to
structure your cash flow so that your hide is relatively intact
every April 15. Don't let publishers earn interest on your
money. Remember, the sooner you get your hands on it, the
sooner you can start blowing it on stupid investments.
All the best,