The greatest mystery: contracts

We writers are intrigued by mysteries. We read them. Many writers compose them. Hey, even I have a mystery novel manuscript in a box in my basement.

We are intrigued by the unknown.

The Greatest Mystery - Book Contracts

The Greatest Mystery – Book Contracts

Yet for many writers, the realm of book contracts goes beyond mystery and becomes a true horror story. As creative people, many writers avoid the business side of their work. Which may be why literary agents exist – to help writers make that connection between wonderful wordplay and the cold economics of the book business.

At a recent conference of The Creative Non-Fiction Collection, veteran literary agent Don Sedgwick gave a room full of writers a peak into the dark corridors of book publishing. It wasn’t so scary after all.

Don Sedgwick - President of Transatlantic Literary Agency

Don Sedgwick – President of TLA

Don is President of Transatlantic Literary Agency and has 30 years of experience as a publisher (Doubleday, Seal and Scholastic Canada) – which means he has a trove of war stories from publishing negotiations, good and bad.

“Writers,” he said, “need more contract literacy” to be able to make intelligent decisions about how their work gets to readers, and how they are compensated. “Think of yourself as Me, Inc.” he told the audience of nonfiction writers.

While recognizing that every writer’s situation will differ (novice, intermediate, established – in genres with significant market differences), Don works from a few basic principles. The first is, “don’t give anything away.”

Beginning authors with few publishing alternatives may not be in a strong bargaining position with publishers but they can still take sensible precautions to protect their interests. For example, if a publisher is insisting on retaining foreign rights for a book, ask for a sunset clause – a time period after which any unsold rights revert to you, the author.

The same goes for subsidiary rights (such as rights to games, merchandise, etc. linked to your creative work) – even if there is no apparent market for those rights now, retain them in your name. You just never know what may be of value down the road.

Some other tips from Don’s session:

  • be careful about signing away rights to future books
  • ensure royalties are based on retail prices, not net prices
  • ensure royalty percentages are set for all formats (hardcover, soft, e-book, excerpts)
  • ask what legal agreements the publisher has signed with Google
  • get a firm commitment on publication date
  • clearly define what the publisher means by ‘delivery and acceptance’ of the manuscript – this will influence the timing of any advances

“You don’t get what you don’t ask for,” Don notes. He encourages writers to ask their agent and/or publisher to clarify everything being covered in a contract and to negotiate changes.

While writers are right, he says, to question what traditional publishers bring to the table in this era of e-books, print-on-demand, and direct connections between writers and readers, the good news is that overall readership is expanding. New media are not replacing older media, they are supplementing them, in this experienced agent’s view.

There are significant opportunities for writers who are able to navigate the complexities of multiple media, varied publishing platforms, and diverse markets.

To help understand changes in the publishing industry, Don recommends that writers follow Mike Shatzkin of The Idea Logical Company (on Twitter at!/MikeShatzkin)



  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Lorne. This is excellent advice. Thank you for being so open to share your insights from the conference.

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