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Poetry Book Contracts: What to Know Before You Sign

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The route to publishing a book of poetry can be harrowing—especially for first books and books published via the contest system. With 500, 800, or even 1,500 manuscripts vying for the top spot in each contest, the odds are so bad that finally securing publication can feel like winning the lottery. So when a book contract does finally arrive, it can be tempting to do the briefest scan of the legalese before signing and sending it right back, as if reading too closely or asking questions of the press could make that good luck disappear. Even if you’re inclined to be a more critical reader of your contract, it can be hard to know exactly what all the sections mean, what’s standard, and where you might ask questions or try to negotiate.

I speak from firsthand experience: when I got the contract for my first book, Double Jinx, from Milkweed after it won the National Poetry Series, I knew only enough to know that I didn’t really know what it all meant. I asked a mentor to review the contract, and she confirmed that it was standard and fair. Her sole suggestion was that I request more author’s copies. Those extra 10 copies made me feel like a business genius. It was only as I began to work on the opposite side of the contract, as I solicited contributors and secured permissions as the co-editor for an anthology, The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood, that’s forthcoming with UGA in 2022, that I got a clearer sense of how contracts work. I also learned that many poets, even those with several books and an agent don’t always know exactly what rights they’ve given to whom and when!

Based on my own experiences and conversations with publishing professionals, I hope to demystify the contract process and explain the key terms you can expect to see in a poetry book contract. In general, a contract should delineate the responsibilities on both sides: when the poet will submit a final manuscript and how the press will handle it from there. You should see information about the editorial process, including copyediting and proofreading, as well as details about the book’s design and how royalties will be calculated and paid out. Chantz Erolin, an editor at Graywolf, reminded me that the responsibilities outlined in a book contract go both ways, noting that “one of the advantages of the legal document is that it holds the press accountable to the poet as well.”

Though the contract can be intimidating, all the editors I spoke with encourage poets to ask questions. Copper Canyon Press publisher Michael Wiegers says he often meets with poets new to the press to review the contract and answer questions. Erilon said, “I understand the intimidation, and I understand the hesitation around asking questions, but I just encourage it so much.”

So, before you sign, here’s what you should read carefully, what you might be able to negotiate, and a few things that might be red flags.

Grant of Rights

The first section of the contract, probably called The Author’s Grant or Grant of Rights, is where you’re officially granting the publisher the right to publish your work. As the author, you control all the rights to the work, which means you control who can print it, perform it, put it on a tote bag, and so on. Without a grant of rights, your publisher can’t move forward. As Peter Kracht, director of the University of Pittsburgh Press, put it, “The starting point is the author has all these rights, by dint of authorship, and we need a document that transfers the rights to us, or otherwise, our hands are tied. We don’t have the right to do anything with the material.”

Rights are defined in terms of format (paperback/hardcover/e-book, and so on), length of time (or “term”), and territory. The publisher will likely write this section of the contract in the broadest terms possible, so that they will have the rights to all media for the full term of copyright and any renewals throughout the world. Several organizations, including the Authors Alliance and the Authors Guild, advise against granting your press any rights they are unlikely to exploit, such as audiobook rights or translation. Michael S. Gross, the director of legal services at the Authors Guild, advised me via email to “always pay attention to the grant of rights sections, and make sure you are not granting non-print or translations rights.” The presses I spoke with told me that poets without agents only rarely negotiate this section and pointed out that if you retain those rights, it becomes your responsibility to sell them.

Instead of reserving rights, another approach is to ask your press about its ability to help you make use of them. If you believe there will be a market for your work overseas, for example, you could ask your press about its ability to help you with that.

Copyright

Granting your press the right to publish your work is not the same thing as assigning it your copyright. Several experts advise against transferring your copyright to the press; instead, you should see language in the contract indicating that the press will register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office within three months of publication. Having your copyright officially registered provides you additional protection in the event of unauthorized publication of your work, and also creates a clear paper trail if someone wants to identify the rights holder for your book in the future.

Royalties and Other Financial Matters

You probably won’t be shocked to know that there’s not much money to be made in poetry for either poet or publisher. (Rachel Mennies’s excellent Paying to Play: On Submission Fees in Poetry Publishing gives more context about the economics of poetry publishing for writers and presses.) Though there’s no magic word you can insert into your contract that will change the financial landscape of poetry publishing, you’ll still want to understand what your contract says about how you’ll be compensated for your work.

That compensation might come in the shape of a prize, an advance, royalties, or a combination of those things. It’s important to know that, if you receive an advance, you will not be paid royalties until your book has “earned out” the advance, meaning that you’ve sold enough copies for your press to recoup the advance it paid you. That said, advances seem to be relatively uncommon, especially with university presses and first books. Winning a prize remains the best way to make money on your poetry.

Royalties can be calculated in three different ways: as a percentage of the book’s cover price; as a percentage of net income, which reflects the price paid to the publisher by a bookstore or online vendor; or as a percentage net profit, meaning that the publisher calculates royalties after deducting cost of producing the book. At nonprofit presses, royalties are likely to be calculated based on net income, which means you’ll get a percentage of what a vendor pays your press rather than what a customer pays the bookstore.

Because the margins at nonprofit presses are so small, you’re unlikely to be able to negotiate your royalty rates or change the way the press is calculating your royalties. Several editors explained having royalties remain standard across their press’s contracts as an issue of fairness. Kracht, for example, told me that “we keep the same contract for every winner of a given prize. We feel it’s the fair position to take, so nobody’s getting a better deal than anybody else who wins the Agnes Lynch Starrett.”

There are two things you might try to negotiate with respect to royalties. If your publisher isn’t able to increase royalties for print, you might try— as Allison K. Williams suggested in a recent post on Brevity’s blog—requesting a higher royalty rate on e-books. You could also look for or request an “escalator clause,” meaning that as you sell more copies, you’ll get a higher percentage in royalties. Wiegers told me that, following the success of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Copper Canyon added an escalator clause retroactively to Vuong’s contract as a way to fairly compensate him for his book’s sales; that clause is now part of Copper Canyon’s standard contract. Black Lawrence Press also has an escalator clause in their standard contract.

Your contract should also explain when royalties will be paid out. Gross noted that poets should “make sure there are set royalty periods and firm deadlines by which the publisher must report.” Gross also suggested poets look for an audit clause, meaning that the writer or a representative can request a review of the book’s sales to ensure royalties are being paid in an accurate and timely manner. The language around royalties can be particularly confusing, and you should feel comfortable asking your press for clarification about anything you’re not sure you understand.

Author’s Copies and Discounts

Another way you’re likely to be compensated for your work is through free books called author’s copies, and a discount on additional copies. Ten author’s copies and a 40 percent discount seems to be average though some presses will grant additional author copies. Wiegers said he likes it when writers ask for additional author copies because it tells them they’ll be working hard to promote their book. Other presses see this as a matter of fairness and prefer to keep the number of author’s copies standard for every writer.

Some very small presses do not pay royalties and instead compensate their writers solely through author copies and discounts. Gross dislikes this practice and noted that “when publishers won’t pay money royalties, I get concerned.” However, some poets may feel that having the book published with a press they like is sufficient compensation. The decision of whether to publish with a press that does not offer royalties is ultimately a personal one, and poets should make that decision based on their goals for their books.

A final note about money: if your book uses epigraphs or otherwise quotes from copyrighted work, your contract will likely stipulate that you’re responsible for securing permission to use that work—a process that can be time-consuming and expensive. Leigh Stein told me that with her first book there was a Modest Mouse lyric she felt was essential for the project, so she ended up spending a quarter of her advance on the permissions to use it. (Permissions fees for poetry are generally less expensive than music.) Your press may be willing to advise you on whether the text you’re using falls under Fair Use, and you can also consult the Authors Alliance’s guide to Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors.

Option or Right of First Refusal

Your contract may also include language arounds options or a right of first refusal for your next book. If you’re happy with the press and would like them to consider publishing your next book as well, this kind of clause can feel like a compliment to you. However, you should understand that this language tends to favor the press because it reserves their right to consider your work before you pursue other offers while making no guarantees that they’ll publish your book.

You might consider clarifying two points in an options clause. If it’s not already in the contract, you could ask that the press stipulate the period of time (90 days is standard) they’ll have to consider your work before responding. You could also specify that only poetry will be covered under the options clause. It might be the case that you’d love for your press to publish your next book of poetry, but you’d like to keep your options open for other, more commercial projects you’re working on, such as a young adult novel or a memoir. And if you later secure an agent for those other projects, she’ll likely appreciate that you’ve cleared this potential hurdle for her.

Cover Art and Book Design     

Your contract may or may not specify exactly how cover art and design will be determined, but if it does it’s likely that the language is very firm about the press having final say. However, in practice, the design process is often more collaborative. It’s often helpful to scan the press’s recent books and share with the design team several covers you especially like. When I worked with Milkweed, I was asked about my preferences among the several covers their designers had produced for my book, and I was thrilled when my first choice was theirs as well. With my forthcoming book with LSU, my editor said they’d be open to suggestions of cover art, and they approved the image I shared, a watercolor by the British artist Kate Walters. If you’re not thrilled with the cover options you’ve been given, your editor can likely serve as an effective bridge between your vision for your book and the design team. With the initial drafts of a cover for my chapbook, Acadiana, I disliked the overall look but was struggling to convey why. My editor Kit Frick was able to translate my preferences about font and color palette into language the book’s designer understood, and we were all much happier with the result after her intervention.

My experiences are fairly typical, and all the presses I’m familiar with solicit the writer’s input about design. Kracht shared that poets often select the art for their covers: “Ninety-nine percent of the covers on our poetry books, the art was selected by the poet, often before they even approached us. And I’m here to tell you that 99 percent of the time, we like what they chose and we use it. There’s something about the way poets’ brains are wired aesthetically, they pick good art.”

If you’re concerned about the contract language around cover art and book design, you can ask for right of approval—which gives you the ability to approve (or reject) a cover or design—or right of consultation, so that the press would have to discuss the cover with you. What’s most important is that there’s clarity about the process and you trust that your press will take care with your book. If you’ve generally liked the appearance of other books your press has published, you can be reasonably confident they’ll make an attractive book for you as well.

Marketing and Publicity

Presses vary to the degree in which they will make specific commitments about marketing and publicity in the contract itself. By the time you’re signing a contract, you should have had a conversation with the press about its plans to promote your book. The author questionnaire, which you’ll fill out to help your press develop a marketing plan for your book, can give you additional information about your press’s marketing efforts. If you haven’t yet received an author questionnaire, you can ask for one at this stage.

In terms of specific marketing efforts, you can ask your press about distributing review copies and submitting your book to post-publication prizes. Some presses are very generous in their distribution of review copies, and others are more limited in this area. However, I’ve found that even small presses, who have less capacity to mail physical copies of your book, will make an electronic version that you can share directly with people interested in reviewing your book or interviewing you. Similarly, submitting to post-publication prizes can quickly get expensive for a press, but you should feel comfortable asking what your press is able to do in this area. As long as you’re questions are thoughtful and requests are reasonable, asking about marketing and publicity early in the process signals to your press that you’re also excited about launching your book and will also work hard at getting your book into the hands of readers.

A quick aside about poetry and marketing: I don’t know any writers who got into poetry because of a love of marketing, but promoting our own work is, in fact, just part of the job. If the self-promotion aspect of publication feels uncomfortable to you, I’ve found Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal to be a really helpful resource. It outlines both the support writers might get from their press’s publicity department and how writers can work on publicity themselves. Since most poets are working with a much smaller publicity department than the prose writers Maum’s book primarily targets, it can help us think about how to don a publicist hat and work on behalf of our books.

A Few Red Flags

Finally, a few red flags or issues that at least merit a serious conversation with your press: In general, you should not be paying money to your press. Diane Goettel of Black Lawrence said that requirements that require you to guarantee a certain number of pre-orders or personally purchase a number of copies are a sign that you’re potentially dealing with what she called a “predatory press.” Similarly, Kracht warned about presses that ask writers to pay for things like copyediting. He remarked that, “if a press asks you to cover the cost of copyediting, you’re almost certainly dealing with a vanity press, no matter what they call themselves.” Goettel also noted that authors should look carefully at how actively a press is promoting its books; presses that publish a ton of books each year without much promotional support for those titles are ones to shy away from.

A refusal to discuss the contract with you— or to issue a written contract at all—constitutes a major red flag. A reasonable publisher will want you to understand your contract and should be willing to explain any areas of concern, so unwillingness to discuss the contract with you would be a concern. If a publisher won’t issue a written contract at all, that’s a major red flag. After her first book of poetry won the first contest she entered it in, Stein told me the publisher declined to offer a written contract, saying they didn’t need to be so formal about it. Rather than risk entrusting her work to someone who wouldn’t specify the terms of their agreement in writing, Stein pulled the manuscript and had to wait another two years, until after she’d published her debut novel, to see that book of poetry in print. She said that it was worth it to wait, rather than turning her book over to someone she didn’t have total confidence in.

The good news is really scary stories like Stein’s are relatively uncommon, and the vast majority of presses want to do right by the poets whose work they publish. As Wiegers said, “we’re not the poetry version of oil barons. We’re just trying to get the work out there.”

Additional Help with Your Contract

I’ve occasionally felt envious of novelist friends who have agents with the expertise to review contracts and negotiate on their behalf. If you’d like that kind of personalized guidance, the Authors Guild offers contract review as a free service to its members, and they’ve just made their Model Trade Book Contract, which was previously only open to members, freely available online. The Authors Alliance Guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts is a comprehensive free resource that provides detailed explanations of rights, royalties, and other issues. If the mere thought of asking your publisher questions about your contract, much less doing anything you’d call “negotiation,” makes you queasy, its guide has a helpful chapter on how to approach negotiation that begins by reminding writers that “negotiation is a conversation, not a confrontation.”

One of the most helpful comments on this point came to me from Wiegers, who suggested that instead of thinking of the contract as an obstacle or a point of debate between poet and publisher, that poets should think of the contract as “a way in which you’re collaborating with your publisher to navigate capitalism.” From the other side of the desk, Chelsea B. DesAutels, whose book A Dangerous Place is forthcoming from Sarabande at the end of this year, described the contract as “the framework for your relationship. It literally sets out the contours of what you owe to each other.”

The terrain of poetry publishing can be intimidating, and it can seem like at every turn there are signals telling you how stiff the competition is and how you should be grateful for anything you get. But your work—the poems you’ve likely labored over for years—has immense value, whether or not you ever make much money on it. When you entrust your work to a press, you should have clarity on the terms of that relationship. Understanding your contract is one way to assert the value of your work.

Bonus Links:
Paying to Play: On Submission Fees in Poetry Publishing
Lessons: The Less-Traveled Road to Getting a Book Published
On Getting Paid: Literary Magazines and Remuneration

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