What Is a Book Contract?

Definition & Examples of a Book Contract

Two women discussing the terms of a book contract.
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A book contract is a legally binding agreement between an author and their book publisher that dictates the assignment of rights, obligations, and money earned. It also includes the author's deadlines and the expected word count.

Learn more about book contracts and how they work.

What Is a Book Contract?

A book contract is a written agreement that encompasses every facet of an author's work with a publisher. When a book publisher offers to publish a book, and the author accepts, there are deal points that must be discussed and agreed to.

Typically, these points are hashed out between the author's agent and publisher. If an author doesn't have an agent, an author may contract directly with a publisher.

Contracts also address how much the publisher will pay the author as an advance against royalties, royalties, and the delivery date of the completed manuscript. An advance is a payment credited against your future royalties. Royalties are a set amount you earn per book sold.

  • Alternate name: Book agreement

How a Book Contract Works

The publisher submits a draft contract to the author's agent after they've reached an initial publishing agreement. The agent then negotiates any needed changes to the draft contract for the author. Since contracts tend to favor the publishing house, agents can be vital in the negotiation of terms. 

Once everyone agrees on the details, the publisher executes a final version of the contract. The agent approves it and it goes to the author for a signature, and then the contract is returned to the publisher for a signature. At this point, the contract is considered executed, and the author gets a copy.

If you are negotiating a book contract, you should seek the counsel of a literary agent and/or an attorney. The Author's Guild, a paid-membership professional organization for writers, has a contract review service for members.

What Does a Book Contract Cover?

Perhaps the most important aspect of a book contract is your copyright. Your copyright is your right to reproduce and publish your work. In a traditional book contract, the author retains the copyright, and the book publisher purchases the right to distribute the book (referred to in the contract as "the work") in its many forms, over various territories. The contract outlines the obligations and the rights of each party in the agreement.

The book contract also covers the practical aspects of a book's development, such as:

  • What the work will be, including genre, reading level, and word count
  • The timing of the author's delivery of the manuscript
  • The author's right to approve manuscript changes
  • The author's right to approve the title, jacket, and layout
  • When the book will be published
  • How many books will be printed
  • How the book will be publicized

The financial aspects of the book deal are also covered in a book contract. This includes:

  • Schedules of advance monies paid against royalties
  • Exact royalty percentages that will be paid on each type of sale (hardcover, paperback, ​ebook, and others)
  • When royalties will be paid

Advances and royalties vary depending on the needs and priorities of the author. For example, the agreed-on advance for a cookbook might be $20,000. The publisher might want to pay $5,000 on contract signing and $15,000 on manuscript acceptance. The author might need more money upfront to develop the recipes, so the agent could try to negotiate $10,000 upfront and $10,000 on acceptance.

Subsidiary rights are also included in a book contract. These rights allow publishers to license your work to third parties to create audio books, foreign editions, movies, and other forms of your book. You and your agent may want to retain these rights or assign some or all of them to your publisher. They're essential to consider, though, as they provide more exposure for your work.

The contractual agreement between an author and a self-publishing service differs from a traditional publishing agreement or contract. Authors may earn more royalties with self-publishing and there's limited marketing support, but the author retains more creative control.

Key Takeaways

  • A book contract is a legally binding written agreement between an author and their publisher. 
  • Book contracts can (and should) be negotiated. An agent or attorney can help you secure the best terms. 
  • Book contracts specify what type of book will be submitted, how advances and royalties will work, whether the author has the right to approve changes, and more.