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Questions to Ask a Publisher and How to Negotiate a Publishing Contract

your book writing coachAs we prepare for the final class of my Bring Your Book to Life® Program–a bonus call with literary agent Jody Rein–a participant sent in one of the most exciting questions you can imagine. A traditional publisher is interested in her book after reading the proposal. They had a few questions for clarification before bringing the book proposal to the editorial board.

She wanted to know what’s next. In particular, she wondered what questions to ask a publisher once you have a book offer in hand. Here are a few questions I recommended:

1. What’s their vision for the book? Are there things they would like to change? If so, what are they?

2. What will they do in terms of marketing the book?

3. Are they placing any limitations on how you can market and promote the book?

4. Do you, as author, have any say in title and cover design? How much?

There are other questions you will want answered–most of them will be spelled out in the contract, such as:

1. What is your advance and how will payments be distributed?

2. What is your royalty percentage and how is it calculated?  (Usually it’s 10% but make sure that’s on cover price or cover price minus transportation costs; if it’s on profit, you’ll likely never see a dime!)

3. Are there any bonuses in the contract when sales hit a certain target?

4. Who owns foreign rights, rights to other media? Who own copyright?

5. When is the final manuscript due?

6. What happens if the book goes out of print or the publisher goes out of business? Do the rights to publish revert to you?

I firmly encourage you not to negotiate any of this yourself. If you are going with a trade publisher, try to get an agent first. If you are going with a smaller publisher, an educational press or a professional press, it may be harder to get an agent (particularly for any book that has a smaller audience). In that case, hire an intellectual property attorney who has a good deal of experience negotiating book deals and they can negotiate a publishing contract for you.

book cover favorite child
Dr. Libby’s agent, Regina Brooks, negotiated for a longer turn around time for edits, among other things.

Quite a few of my clients have recently received an offer to publish with a traditional publisher  without having an agent and I have either found a literary agent whom I know well, who was willing to negotiate their contract or referred them to an IP attorney. Without such representation, it is too easy to end up stuck in a situation where you have little control over your fate–your book can go out of print, you might just not make any money, despite the book selling well, or you give away rights that an agent or attorney would have kept for you to negotiate at a later time (and likely with a different company).

Years ago, I worked with a client who gave her proposal to a colleague who sent it directly to a major publisher. The publisher immediately made her an offer and my client completely hit it off with the acquisitions editor.  She knew this was the person to bring her book into the world.

I strongly encouraged her to get an agent to negotiate a book deal. She felt uncomfortable and asked the acquisitions editor at the publishing house, “Should I get an agent?” Some publishers would have said no and had her sign a book contract that was written in favor of the publisher, but fortunately this publisher said, “Absolutely get an agent. That’s not the kind of relationship you have with me or want to have.”

I asked an agent colleague if she would represent this author and the agent even lowered her own percentage from 15% to 10% since she would not need to do the work of finding a publisher and would only need to negotiate a publishing contract. My client was amazed about how much more of an advance she got, in addition to other points of the contract that got negotiated. Another client shared with me how her agent negotiated for longer turn around times for editing–decreasing the amount of stress my client experienced in the revision process.

I have a colleague who did not have an agent or attorney to negotiate her first book deal. According to the contract, she would get 10% of profits. Guess what? After factoring in “fixed costs,” or overhead, the publisher was able to say that the book never made a profit. The author has published two other books since then and has never made that mistake again!

So, it’s fine to send a query and proposal to a publisher–particularly when you know that your book is unlikely to have a big enough audience to interest an agent (perhaps it’s a small niche market, for instance) or when the trade category is super competitive (a dating book or a diet book, for example) but there may be interest from a smaller or mid-sized publisher. Just be sure that when the offers do come in you, hire a professional to negotiate the publishing contract.



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The Joy of Writing Journal: Spark Your Creativity in 8 Minutes a Day

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

Reader Interactions


  1. Jess Haberman says

    Hi Lisa,
    Love your blog, as always, and was very intrigued to see what you’d say on this topic. And I think this is predominantly solid advice that any writer could benefit from. My only hangup is the 10% royalty on cover (or list) price. Are you finding publishers are still offering royalties on cover/list price? I have only worked with midsize publishers, but we (and our competitors, from what I’ve heard) have entirely done away with paying on list. It’s simply not a feasible option any longer, and is not in our business model. So I’d just add that AEs like myself want our authors to get a good deal, but paying royalties on list is simply not an option these days–and I don’t think we’re in the minority.

    Thanks, Lisa!

    • Lisa Tener says

      Thank you for weighing in, Jess. I am going to ask my clients who recently signed book deals what their contract says and update my post accordingly. I appreciate your sharing that as I was not aware.

  2. Janet So says

    I have written a Christian childrens book and am doing all the formatting, gathering the illustrations and hope to have it published.

    Any thoughts as to which Christian publisher to use??

    Too, will they provide copies to me and I send them out, my postage, my cost? how will it work?

    • Lisa Tener says

      Hi Janet, Are you looking for the self-publishing division of a Christian publishing company or do you wish to traditionally publish? If traditional, you’ll need a book proposal. My sense from this is self-publishing. You’ll need to look at the individual contract to see whether you get any copies or need to purchase them, and whether they will send copies to reviewers or the media. Most likely it will be your cost.
      I do not specialize in Christian publishing but I will ask a colleague to weigh in. Before I do that, can you tell me more about the book? Is it for young adults, middle schoolers or is it a chapter book, early reader or picture book? Nonfiction or fiction? Prescriptive or memoir? What is the main premise or theme? Thanks.

  3. Gerardo says

    Book publishing:
    Is this a good proposal from a publisher to publish my book?

    1. They keep the copyright of the book.
    2. My royalties are 10%.
    3. They provide International sales of print, ebook and kindle
    4. And if I want to terminate the publishing contract is their decision not mine. Thanks for your time. Jer

    • Lisa Tener says

      1. They keep the copyright of the book: It’s best if you can keep copyright.
      2. My royalties are 10%. Is it 10% of net? If so, they can make everything look like an expense and you end up with zero. I would have an agent or attorney look at this and negotiate.
      3. They provide International sales of print, ebook and kindle: Sometimes it’s ideal to hold on to international rights but it depends. Could be fine.
      4. And if I want to terminate the publishing contract is their decision not mine. I think you’d do best to work with an intellectual property attorney to go over the contract. The person I have in mind charges $600 and may well be worth that in saving you some of the rights, etc. Email me if you want an introduction.

  4. Richard O'Meara says

    Thank you so much for the information provided on your site.
    I’m new to the publishing field and have an idea I hope could be submitted in the near future. The idea is purely visual. I want my book idea to be a collection of drawings, however I’m not an artist. May I ask, does one need to be an artist/illustrator in order to be considered by a publisher? Any feedback or advise is greatly appreciated. Thank you

    Richard O’Meara

    • Lisa Tener says

      When you say “I’m not an artist” do you mean you are not known as an artist or that the drawings are amateurish? I assume the former. Publishers do want to know that you’ll sell books, so they are looking for proof that an author already reaches an audience. Without that, your chances of a traditional publisher may be quite small but self-publishing could be a great fit for you. Of course, without knowing more about the project, I really can’t predict whether publishers would take interest.

  5. Teresa says

    Hi Lisa!

    I appreciate your blog and the warmth you bring to these topics. I’m a counselor in Oregon, long time writer but brand-as-a-baby-butt-new to traditional publishing. I’m working on my one sheet for a book about the wonder of connection in a post-pandemic world, and am hoping to procure the support of an agent savvy in creative non-fiction genre and/or self-help. Just wondering if you have any suggestions or directions to begin. (A few good names, a few good questions to ask, tips for my query/letter, general warnings/admonitions, or any of the above). With appreciation and wishing you a very happy spring.

    • Lisa Tener says

      Hi Teresa, Thanks for reaching out. If this is self-help you would need a book proposal rather than a one-sheet. And you don’t want to send a query letter until your proposal is in tip-top shape and ready to send. I don’t know as much about creative nonfiction but I am pretty sure you would also need a book proposal and query letter.
      As to agents, you may be a bit ahead of yourself. I would get the proposal written and then figure out who is a strong fit. I can’t really recommend an agent without knowing the book more intimately but here are some resources you can use:

    • As to questions to ask a literary agent before signing on, these are my top questions to ask a literary agent.

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