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Negotiating a Book or Journalism Contract over the Phone
by Ken Wachsberger

The most important part of negotiating a book or journalism contract is convincing yourself that you have a right to negotiate in the first place. Publishers count on the long-time practice of most writers to sign away all rights, no questions asked, in exchange for a correctly spelled byline. Your approach should be just the opposite: Don't ever sign a boilerplate contract. Publishers' contracts are written by publishers' attorneys for the sole benefit of publishers.

In addition, more than once I've heard a publisher tell me, "No one has ever asked for that before." Don't be intimidated by this response. Take it in as a compliment. You have broken new ground for writers. We thank you. With a few exceptions, every publisher is willing to make concessions. Those that aren't—don't write for them. Dignity before byline—not to mention the additional income and the control over your work that come with negotiating.

In negotiating a book or journalism contract over the phone, follow these eight steps:

Step one: "Self-hypnotize." Convince yourself that you're worth more than their boilerplate contract or you'll never convince the publisher. Two lines to say with conviction (practice speaking into a mirror before calling the publisher):

bullet"I am a professional writer"—This is especially important for academics. You're not just an academic who writes. You're an academic and a writer. They are two different, though related, careers. That's why you need to belong to your teachers' union and also the National Writers Union.
bullet"That seems a little low to me" (I have to credit NWU journalist Brett Harvey with that line)—I can't emphasize enough how much that attitude has earned me. Say it slowly, then pause. Wait for the publisher to respond.

Step two: Know your contract. If you join the National Writers Union and are a book author, you can obtain a copy of National Writers Union Guide to Book Contracts, our Bible. As a journalist, you can obtain a copy of NWU's standard journalism contract. Go through every clause in your contract and find counterparts from the Guide or the standard journalism contract.

Step three: Contact a book or journalism contract advisor. At the same time that you're calling the National Writers Union main office to request a Guide to Book Contracts or standard journalism contract, you can request a book or journalism contract advisor. Being able to tap into the NWU's contract advising network is one of the most valuable benefits of National Writers Union membership, for some members worth the dues alone.

Step four: Know your bottom line. In negotiating, you seldom get everything you want. The idea is to improve your contract as much as possible through compromise but not be so rigid that you lose a potentially workable contract. On the other hand, not every contract is workable. What are your line-in-the-sand issues, the ones for which you would rather walk than compromise? Two to fight for in this information and electronic age are copyright and electronic rights. As a book author, you want the right to profitably resell your books without penalty. What else matters to you? Only you know.

Step five: Prepare an opening script and good notes. If you're comfortable on the phone and totally primed for negotiations, maybe an exact script isn't necessary. But remember the value of a good first impression in setting the tone of your conversation. A script is most important in helping you overcome initial fear of negotiating. Write it down beforehand and practice repeating it until it sounds natural. Only then is it time to make your call to or accept a call from the publisher. Also, don't wing it or rely on memory during the negotiations. We're writers, not rememberers. Write down the points you want to make about every clause, including the first bids, the fallback bids, and the line-in-the-sand positions.

Step six: Take notes during the negotiations. The act of notetaking empowers you and it prepares you for the inevitable follow-up communications. Record dates of all phone correspondence, keep photocopies of all letters you send, print out all email correspondence, and record names of everyone you talk to, including secretaries.

Step seven: Take a day to think about your conversation before making any commitments. Don't feel compelled or pressured to make a snap decision over the phone. When you demand time to think, you are taking control. And, of course, the extra time allows you to psych yourself up and prepare a script if you need it.

Step eight: Be prepared to walk. Those writers who have no human dignity and are comfortable being stepped on can ignore this step. But because you've read this far, you demand respect. You've already determined your line-in-the-sand issues in step four. If the publisher can't respect those terms, go elsewhere.

Ken Wachsberger is the founder and co-chair of the National Writers Union's Academic Writers Organizing Caucus http://www.nwu.org, as well as a Book Contract Advisor specializing in academic publishing contracts, the NWU's Central Region Vice President, and Co-chair of the Southeast Michigan local http://www.geocities.com/nwu_sem/. He is a long-time editor and managing editor of international academic journals, and the author or editor of several books, most recently the soon-to-be published booklet, "So Your Partner Has Breast Cancer?: 21 Ways to Keep Sane as a Support Person." He teaches writing at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He may be reached at (734) 973-6536 or eng_wachsber@online.emich.edu

Article originally appeared at the National Writers Union website (www.nwu.org).  Reprinted with permission.

 

 

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