What Does a Publishing Contract Cover?

Many of you are looking forward to the day you sign your first publishing contract. But you also wonder… what the heck is in a publishing contract, anyway?

Below is a brief overview of some of the important contract clauses. This is *NOT* by any means comprehensive—contracts vary and are typically 12 to 20 pages long (single spaced). Some are more detailed than others.

I’ve put an asterisk (*) by the points I find myself negotiating most often. Remember, the agent’s job is to advocate for the author: first to make sure they are well-protected in every eventuality, and second to make sure they’re getting the best deal possible when all variables are taken into consideration. So the agent will negotiate any clauses that need it.

Here are some of the things a typical publishing contract contains:

→ Description of the work(s).

→ Provisions for registering the copyright (the publisher does this).

→ Which rights are being granted, in which territories.*

→ Amount of the advance.*

→ How the advance will be paid out, i.e. in halves, thirds or quarters, and what triggers each payment (contract signing, delivery of manuscript, publication of manuscript, etc.) Also, provision might be made for an advance bonus if certain sales goals are hit.*

→ Royalty rates broken out by editions: hardcover, trade paper, mass market paper, audio, digital audio, electronic book, special sales, book clubs, large print, overseas.*

→ When and how often the author will receive royalty checks and statements.

→ Description of licensing rights (how the proceeds are shared if the publisher sub-licenses these rights to another entity): reprints of any kind; book clubs; foreign language translations; electronic or audio reproduction; first or second serialization (excerpts appearing in periodicals before or after book publication); Braille; performance; video; motion picture; merchandising.*

→ Requirements for delivery of the manuscript. Due dates, word count, how to deliver. What happens if author doesn’t meet delivery requirements.

→ The publisher’s policy on editing and revisions.

→ Time limit from contract-date by which the publisher must publish the book; provisions for if they don’t.

→ Requirement for author to participate in publicity and promotion.

→ Requirement for author to refrain from publishing other works which would compete or infringe on the sale of the book being contracted.*

→ Whether or not the author has a right of creative consultation on matters of design and title.*

→ Number of free copies to author and agent.*

→ Author buyback discounts (price at which you can buy your book from publisher).*

→ Provisions for declaring the book “out of print” and reversion of rights to the author.*

→ Author warrants that their work doesn’t infringe on any laws or harm anybody.

→ Possible option on future works by the author.*

→ Provisions for remaindering, should it become necessary.

→ Provisions for termination of the agreement by either author or publisher.

→ What happens if the publisher goes bankrupt; what happens if the author dies.

→ Agency appointment.

→ Lots of legal language about indemnification, jurisdiction, mediation, etc.

→ There may also be Exhibits following the main contract, including permissions forms and photo release forms.

Usually the author just wants to hear about the advance and possibly the royalty rates, but the agent pays attention to every detail. Some contracts are easy to negotiate and take a couple of days; others can take weeks. In this era of changing dynamics and changing technology, hammering out certain details can be sticky, but I think the most important part of the agent’s job is making sure the client gets a fair contract, so we do whatever it takes.

What’s NOT in the contract?

→ Typically the contract doesn’t include any kind of marketing commitment on the part of the publisher, unless the agent has specifically requested it, which is common in cases where there was an auction with many publishers interested, and the marketing is one of the deciding factors.

→ Publication dates are never in the contract.

Hope this helps! Any thoughts or questions?

Image credit: tilo / 123RF Stock Photo

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. EddysGal on July 9, 2014 at 3:39 PM

    Hello; I’ve just finished reading your post and find it fitting as I’ve just received my first publishing contract offer. Yay me! The contract itself seems pretty straight forward to me, from my limited knowledge about such things. No advance is offered; it’s a royalty-based contract. What I’m unsure about is–what would a fair offer like this look like to an agent? **Books and Such caught my eye as I pitched this same novel to Rachel Kent back in April at the NW Christian Writer’s Renewal conference. Any light you can shed on this subject would be appreciated. Thanks!

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  8. Carol J. Garvin on June 2, 2012 at 2:38 PM

    Thanks for this, Rachelle. It’s very helpful.

    I have contracts with buyers of my purebred puppies/dogs and like to include clauses that will cover all possibilities. The documents may seem unnecessarily detailed, and in most cases the situations never occur, but it means there are no misunderstandings if a particular situation does come up. I can see that as a benefit of detailed publishing contracts, too.

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  11. Isaiah J. Campbell on May 30, 2012 at 3:52 PM

    When it comes to this:

    “Requirement for author to refrain from publishing other works which would compete or infringe on the sale of the book being contracted.”

    How tightly do they usually define competing works? Like, if I contract for a YA Novel, can I still peddle a MG Novel elsewhere, or would those be considered competing? What about a sci-fi vs a rom-com? Graphic Novel vs. Regular Novel.

  12. Cristin on May 30, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    Do authors ever request input on the voice talent for their audio books?

    Thanks for this post. Very interesting!

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  14. Jaime Wright Sundsmo on May 30, 2012 at 12:41 PM

    I’m convinced not to navigate these waters without an agent! YIKES!! (and why did I laugh at the clause of “if the author dies” – guess you have to think of everything!) 😉

  15. Peter DeHaan on May 29, 2012 at 8:48 PM

    Any sort of contract makes my head spin. I quickly begin seeing all the ways things could go really bad. Though I an excited about the deal beforehand, I am always less enthused afterwards.

    Therefore, because I know myself well, I will be glad to let an agent handle all my book contracts!

  16. Diana Harkness on May 29, 2012 at 5:09 PM

    I have a law degree and I would never think of interpreting a book contract because I have no expertise in that area. I’ll leave it to my agent. In fact if the publisher who has my book right now wants to publish it, I’ll be contacting you for representation.

  17. Reba on May 29, 2012 at 4:10 PM

    Whoa, that’s a lot of stuff, and causes a question to come to mind.
    Should an author have a lawyer to help go through such contracts and legalities?

  18. Colin Smith on May 29, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    Yay agents! This is one of the reasons I want to get an agent. While some nerdy side of me would be interested in the nitty-gritty of contracts, I don’t know that I have the negotiating skills or experience to do this kind of thing. And frankly, I want to be spending my time writing stories, not wrangling with publishers over contracts. Yet I want to be sure I don’t get screwed. I love the fact this is one of the things an agent would take care of for me. And who wouldn’t want an expert on their side, cheering you on and encouraging you, especially in the publishing industry?

    Thanks for the info, Rachelle!

  19. Kelly Cherry on May 29, 2012 at 3:17 PM

    I’ve signed over 21 contracts and still don’t understand them. This article is very helpful. Thanks!

  20. Michelle DeRusha on May 29, 2012 at 3:06 PM

    This is great, Rachelle – I hadn’t ever considered half this stuff (which is why it’s good I’ve got you in my camp…for the someday…).

  21. Sheri Richardson on May 29, 2012 at 2:59 PM

    Thank you for your consistently valuable information! I can’t wait to get you my book!!!

  22. Jan Morgan on May 29, 2012 at 2:43 PM

    Brilliant post. I know I’ll be very interested in e-book rights and marketing programs when I am at that stage. Ironically the advance will not be my main priority, I’d prefer to ensure the book sells more over the long term than the quick hit of cash.

    Rachelle I love reading your posts. You hit on questions I always want answered and I always come away from your articles knowing a lot more than I did before I hit your link. Thanks!

  23. Shannon LC Cate on May 29, 2012 at 2:39 PM

    Super helpful, as always, Rachelle. It’s nice to know agents are old hats at this, because I would probably ask for too little if I tried to negotiate these things myself.

    Question: What’s the difference between remaindering something and it going out of print?

  24. KarenM on May 29, 2012 at 1:43 PM

    Thanks for the terrific spring lessons, Rachelle! So much valuable information! Getting ready to start my query process, so all if this has been very timely for me. Thanks for all you do!

  25. Michelle Lim on May 29, 2012 at 12:35 PM

    Thanks for the information, Rachelle! It is something all of us wonder about sometimes and hope to find out in personal experience kind of way.

  26. LLKing on May 29, 2012 at 11:55 AM

    This is SO helpful, Rachelle! Thank you!

  27. Joan Cimyotte on May 29, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    How often does an agent have a law degree? Any time I see a contract I think lawyer. I know if I had a contract sitting on my desk and I only see jibber jabber, I need a lawyer. Fortunately my son is a lawyer.

    • Rachelle Gardner on May 29, 2012 at 2:37 PM

      99% of lawyers don’t know anything about publishing, which makes them almost useless in this process. It’s not about legalese, it’s about knowing the ins and outs of publishing. If you don’t, you can really get hosed.

  28. Lindsay Harrel on May 29, 2012 at 11:21 AM

    And THIS is one reason to have an agent, imo! I wouldn’t want to deal with all of that myself.

  29. Connie Almony on May 29, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    So really … who needs an agent? I guess the answer would be … me. I have a friend who published an article in a homeschool magazine and he was floored by the rights he had to negotiate. He didn’t know what was acceptable, usual or downright wrong as far as practices for this type of work. That’s why someone like me greatly appreciates someone who has the mind for that stuff. It’s not just about what I want, it’s about what I can expect given what the industry’s usual practices are.

  30. Gabrielle Meyer on May 29, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    More invaluable insight into publishing. Thanks, Rachelle. I want to know as much as I can before I see my first contract so I can be as prepared as possible. The same goes for all other aspects of publishing.

  31. Robin Patchen on May 29, 2012 at 10:34 AM

    Too… much… information. I know it’s Tuesday, but I have Monday-brain, and this almost gave me a headache. Thank God for agents!

  32. Jeanne T on May 29, 2012 at 10:31 AM

    Just reading all the aspects of a contract makes my head swirl. Seeing your most common areas of negotiation makes me realize how aware an agent must be of the nuances of publishing contracts and how to negotiate the best option for authors. Thanks for sharing this facet of publishing, Rachelle.

    • P. J. Casselman on May 29, 2012 at 1:20 PM

      It reminds me of the old day of major league baseball when they paid players in insurances. You had to literally die on the field to make the money! Fine print and nuances require experienced guardians.

      • Jeanne T on May 29, 2012 at 4:14 PM

        Yikes! Thank goodness for modern day superhero agents who know the ins and outs of the game on this publishing field!

  33. D.E. Stanley on May 29, 2012 at 10:17 AM

    Good info, as always. It’s such a complex business these days, or has it always been so?

    • Rachelle Gardner on May 29, 2012 at 2:36 PM

      It’s been a similar level of “complicated” for probably almost a hundred years!

  34. Geoff on May 29, 2012 at 10:08 AM

    What should the numbers be in the categories you mentioned, generally?

  35. Richard Mabry on May 29, 2012 at 9:52 AM

    Rachelle–thanks for sharing. Still surprised that, in view of all the stuff involved in negotiating a contract (and contracts can be negotiated, not “take it or leave it”), there are writers out there who don’t think they need an agent.

    • Jeanne T on May 29, 2012 at 10:21 AM

      My thoughts exactly!

  36. Jennifer Major on May 29, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    Perhaps it’s just moi, but so many of the things mentioned in the contract just seem logical, given all the different aspects of the publishing world. Or, I may have just slapped a flaming “Oh WOW you are OLD! Look at all the time you’ve had to learn all this!!” label on my forehead. Even the “here’s the chain, prepare to be jerked” clause when it comes to the publishing date.

    What about things like cover design? I do realize you’ve covered this, but what if there is a certain artist with whom the writer wants to work? Can the writer ask for and receive veto powers if they don’t like anything the publisher’s artist has done? Or is this just high maintenance, diva-esque nagging?

    Also, what about if the first book is lauded, feted and gushed upon, and then AFTER signing the contract, the writer is asked by, say, ohhhh, Jeanette Windle or Bodie Theone (dreaming here…)to co-write the sequel? Like I said, dreaming… but you never know!

    • Cherry Odelberg on May 29, 2012 at 10:56 AM

      Not to worry. Bodie will know exactly what to do.

      • Jennifer Major on May 29, 2012 at 11:58 AM

        Oh good!!! I hope she likes tea and cheesecake. I can feel the start of a beautiful partnership. Either that, or I have a stomach bug.

        • P. J. Casselman on May 29, 2012 at 1:28 PM

          Well if you’re going to dream, then dream big! (Bodie Thoene is my favorite Christian author. I have two bookshelves of her books! 🙂 )

        • Cherry Odelberg on May 29, 2012 at 1:33 PM

          What kind of tea? Maybe we’re a trio that is meant to be.
          I liked your word choice, “gushed”, that’s exactly what I did in my letter to Bodie (never sent) when I first stumbled on her books.
          BTW, have you ever read her “Writer to Writer” book? It is a bit out of date now. Back then, she was recommending not to go with an agent – wink.

          • Jennifer Major on May 29, 2012 at 2:26 PM

            I used to run a tea/coffee bar in Vancouver, we had 167 kinds of tea!! I tried almost all of them. My personal favourites are Earl Grey and Darjeeling.(I have a thread in my book about the hero’s love of Darjeeling.)
            Yes, to answer your unasked question, you DO boil the water before you make the tea.

            I would love to have tea with you, even if Bodie couldn’t make it. I’ll bring the cheesecakes.
            Do you have a copy of her book?

    • Eileen Cook on May 29, 2012 at 12:51 PM

      It is the very rare writer who has total control of cover design. The publisher typically has an entire sales/marketing/design department that is charged with coming up with a cover that works. Most contracts have “cover consultation.” My publisher has been great in including me in the process and I suspect if I hated something they would come back with something else. If this is something that is a vital issue to you, be sure to be talking to your agent about it.

      • Jennifer Major on May 29, 2012 at 12:58 PM

        I know what I don’t want, which may be evident on my face when I see someone’s work. I’ll aim to have that clause in the contract. Thank you for your advice.

        Okay..I did laugh when your mentioned talking to my agent…thank you for thinking I have one. 😉

    • P. J. Casselman on May 29, 2012 at 1:15 PM

      Perhaps contract demands are hurting my queries? In them, I insist that all my artwork be done by Vincent Van Gogh. One agent really gave me an earful about that.

      • Cherry Odelberg on May 29, 2012 at 1:35 PM

        So, are you he who has the ear of great artists?

        • P. J. Casselman on May 29, 2012 at 2:07 PM

          Well, you know what they say, “If you have the ears of great persons, give them a ring.”

      • Jennifer Major on May 29, 2012 at 2:20 PM

        WELL played!!

  37. Jackie Layton on May 29, 2012 at 7:43 AM

    Thanks for sharing this with us today.

    I’ve never allowed myself to really think about what the contract would involve.

    That’s why your job is so important to unpublished authors. I am sure I’ll be so excited to look at a publishing contract that I won’t be able to think clearly.

    I appreciate all you do for us on this blog!

    Have a great day!

  38. carol brill on May 29, 2012 at 7:00 AM

    Wow. Am I the only one who is surprised a contract is “typically 12 to 20 pages long (single spaced).”

    • Elissa on May 29, 2012 at 12:13 PM

      You obviously have never bought a house. 😉

      • carol brill on May 30, 2012 at 7:09 AM

        Actually, we have bought 3! Maybe it is like childbirth–I have not experienced– but they say you forget the pain. I love my house and guess I blocked out the “labor”ious paperwork 🙂

    • Jen on January 24, 2013 at 1:25 PM

      I’m negotiating a contract now that is just six pages. However I’m estimating the font size as 8 point. Maybe.

  39. Patricia Zell on May 29, 2012 at 6:44 AM

    Thanks, Rachelle, for the excellent information–I hope I get to use it in the near future. 😉

  40. Lorelei on May 29, 2012 at 4:45 AM

    My contract looked fine— didn’t even ask for any electronic rights. Then I read through the territories covered, which included “Great Britain and Rhodesia” and realized my publisher had found a boilerplate, and a very old one. I hired a publication attorney. The publisher came back with a new contract that asked for a grant of all rights, everywhere, forever. I ended up giving my entire advance and change to the attorney, but it was finally sorted and the book was published.

    Good thing I had a good contract; the publisher went out of business while I was still on book tour. At least I have all my rights back.

    • Jennifer Major on May 29, 2012 at 8:13 AM

      Rhodesia?? Are you serious? That is , well, pathetic really. Were there terms for Malaya and The Dominion of Canada as well?

    • Jeanne T on May 29, 2012 at 10:19 AM

      Wow, Lorelei, what an adventure you had getting your book published. It sounds like having a lawyer involved in your situation was wise. Hopefully things will go more smoothly for you in the future.

  41. Catherine Hudson on May 29, 2012 at 4:33 AM

    Very informative, as usual. Publication dates are never in the contract…I had to laugh a little as this just confirms all you have said on how long it can really take to hold that book in your hot little hand.


  42. mark williams international on May 29, 2012 at 4:30 AM

    Presuming all new books are being released in ebook form as well as other formats, how does the “out of print” clause work?

    Lots of established authors are now self-publishing books where the rights have reverted to them.

    In theory an ebook can be out there for ever, so a book would never again be out of print.

    • Eileen Cook on May 29, 2012 at 12:53 PM

      I assume this varies from contract to contract, but in mine it is listed as a number of books (both ebook and/or print) that need to be sold in a royalty reporting period. If it falls below that number than the book is considered “out of print.” As a result it is my interest to have my agent negotiate higher to give me flexibility.

      • Rachelle Gardner on May 29, 2012 at 2:33 PM

        Eileen, you’re right except we negotiate *lower* to get your rights back sooner. We also tend to negotiate based on amount of royalty earned in a given royalty period rather than number of units sold.

        • Eileen Cook on May 29, 2012 at 8:05 PM

          Ha! Yes, lower would be correct. This is why I have an agent to catch these pesky details. : )

  43. Joanne Bischof on May 29, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    I was SO thankful to have my agent when it came time to look over my contract. Not only was she invaluable in making the deal, but she made navigating all those pages and complicated terms so much easier. Agents rock. But you already knew that 😉

  44. EnnisP on May 29, 2012 at 3:17 AM

    Great post Rachelle! I tend to be “hands-on” (probably more than I should) so having this info up front is like getting an early Christmas present.

    And very generous of you to share.

  45. Wendy Delfosse on May 29, 2012 at 3:02 AM

    I know publishing contracts are not all an agent does but they’re a very, very real reason I wouldn’t want to jump into publishing without one! My brain hurts enough reading legalese on websites terms of use, I don’t want to imagine negotiating all these points (not that I mean I wouldn’t read my own contract, of course, but an agent lessens the whole burden of it.)

  46. Martha Ramirez on May 29, 2012 at 2:23 AM

    Very nice breakdown! Thank you, Rachelle!

  47. P. J. Casselman on May 29, 2012 at 2:09 AM

    I see no mention of chocolate for the agent. Or is that only part of the writer/agent contract?

    • Jennifer Major on May 29, 2012 at 8:10 AM

      Beat me to the punch again, Casselman!

  48. Elissa on May 29, 2012 at 1:08 AM

    Lots of great info here. Thanks for giving us unpubbed authors some idea of what to look out for should we ever get to sign one of these.

    Interesting that there are due dates for the author but no publication dates for the publisher.

    • Joseph Jerome on May 29, 2012 at 2:35 AM

      “Interesting that there are due dates for the author but no publication dates for the publisher.”

      Is any of this surprising? The more I read, the less interested I become in becoming published. Yet, new writers need to get their names and their work out there, which means publishers and their contracts.

      Quite a dilemma, but at the end of the day, I will be my own master, and I will not succumb to an unfair contract, even if it means struggling in near anonymity.

    • M on May 29, 2012 at 4:12 AM

      No publication dates specifically, but there is this:

      “→ Time limit from contract-date by which the publisher must publish the book; provisions for if they don’t.”

      Which is more or less a “you must publish the book by X, else X will happen.” It may not list a specific *publication* date, which is of course the date the book hits shelves, since this is fluid and can change often well after the contract is signed. But it does lay out a specific date it must be published *by*.

      • Kristin Laughtin on May 29, 2012 at 8:10 PM

        Exactly. This sort of general timeframe allows the publisher to adjust (within reason) the shelf date for the books. While I understand why many writers might immediately go on guard and fear the publisher could hold on to their book forever, this kind of clause can help authors, too–say, by allowing a publisher to adjust a date to ward off competition from a similar book, etc.

        • Lynne on May 30, 2012 at 11:36 AM

          I agree that there are lots of marketing reasons to delay or advance a book’s release; the publisher’s main goal is for the book to sell well.

          But here’s another reason for a fluid pub date. The editor has no idea what shape the book will be in when it lands on her desk. It might be almost ready to go or it might be a mess. Rather than rush the book to make some pre-selected pub date and release something sub-standard, she’s going to want the time and freedom to work with the author through several revisions and allow the book to mature.

          Not to mention that the author doesn’t always deliver exactly on time! So I’m grateful for the flexibility built into the system; I think it makes for a better book.