publishing contracts of the draconian variety

Publishing Contracts of the Draconian Variety

Chapter eleven in a series on Book and Art Business 101 wherein I show how the solid logic of art business sold me on self-publishing. If you’re too busy for the whole series, download your copy of my Cheat Sheet for Book and Art Business 101. 


We find out in On Writing that Stephen King signed a contract he considered not quite indentured slavery, but in the neighborhood, when he sold Carrie for a $2,500 advance.

I didn’t know that and had no literary agent to know if for me. Before it occurred to me that I might actually need an agent, I had generated well over three million dollars’ worth of income, a good deal of it for the publisher.

That was 1974. It’s 2016. 42 years later. Guess what the starting advance for a book deal is?


You know, $2,500 — the amount that was not quite indentured slavery, but in the neighborhood 42 years ago. Fast food workers aren’t the only ones whose wages have stagnated in order to pad the pockets of billionaires. Add to this the practice of most modern publishers who include a clause in their default book contracts that literally forfeits your sixth amendment right to a fair trial. Add to this the “most favored nation” clauses that prohibit you from charging, for instance, any less than $12.99 for the e-book version of your work, even though a lower price point typically results in much, much higher sales volume, out-earning even the $12.99 price point (more on that in the next article on author earnings). Add to this phrases like “advance against royalties generated from this or any other work of the author,” which basically bundles all of your work together to earn back the money the company fronted you in your advance.

The aforementioned $2,500 advance.

Add to this how you will need to sell tens of thousands of copies in a very crowded marketplace in order to get a second book deal and that your second book will need to sell tens of thousands more in order to justify a third and a fourth. And, of course, the little bit about how the publisher now owns the rights not only to these works, but to the characters in these works and — through that nice little non-compete clause — your right to work in that genre again.

By the end, you haven’t sold your book.

You’ve sold your career.

For $2,500.

Don’t worry, if you want the rights to your career back, they’ll always return it to you… for a price.

Contracts in publishing are no different from contracts in banking: they favor the big guy over the little guy.


As a little guy, you must find ways to work this towards your advantage starting with a refusal to sign contracts that:

  1. Don’t pay well,
  2. take away your right to a fair trial,
  3. take away large swaths of your intellectual rights,
  4. cripple you from the long play.

DO NOT accept short-term gains over long term, exponential momentum. DO NOT sell your birthright for a bowl of soup, your career for a couple grand. It’s not worth it. That’s the short of it. Remember: $2,500 today is worth $25,000 or even $2.5 million ten years from now.

READ NEXT:  The Gateway Drug: Poetry

If you want to read up more on contracts, grab a copy of How to be Your Own Literary Agent and pick Porter Anderson’s brain — he keeps a firm pulse on the industry.

Don’t have time for the whole series?

That’s okay, I made you a…


Here’s our outline for upcoming posts:

  1. Intro
  2. The Gateway Drug: Poetry
  3. Does Fiction Lie? — The Liar’s Club
  4. Where and How to Sell What You Write
  5. From Daydreams to Written Dreams
  6. Rejection Slips
  7. Any Money Makes a Professional Writer
  8. Regular Writing Assignments
  9. Making Good Money… in a shadow career
  10. Kinfolk and Advocates or “How to Build a Platform”
  11. Draconian Contracts
  12. Author Earnings
  13. Succeeding for Others
  14. Blaze a Trail All Your Own

lancelot tobias mearcstapa schaubert monogram

cover image from U.S. Geological Survey

%d bloggers like this: