Negotiating a Publishing Contract

Milt Toby

Identifying potential problem areas in publishing contracts is a primary focus of ASJA’s Contracts & Conflicts Committee. We’re good at pointing out troublesome language and suggesting changes to make a contract more palatable, but what’s a writer supposed to do with those suggestions? How do you convince an editor to make the changes you want?


Negotiating successfully is a skill that can be learned. My presentation at this year’s conference, “So You Want to Be … A Master Negotiator,” discussed the three phases of a successful negotiation: organization, prioritization, and compromise.


Phase 1—Organization

            Read and understand your contract. This advice should go without saying, but a surprising number of questions that come to the Contracts & Conflicts Committee are the direct result of a writer either misunderstanding an important contract clause, or worse, signing the agreement without reading it. Contracts are written by lawyers, for lawyers, and legalese can be a confusing language.

 Fortunately, the ASJA has online resources to help you identify problem areas common to typical publishing contracts and the Contracts & Conflicts Committee can assist in identifying issues specific to your contract ( Take advantage of the committee. We’re here to help.

Phase 2—Prioritize

            Separate the deal breakers from the throwaways. It’s an important distinction! Unless you’re the luckiest writer on Earth, a careful review of your publishing contract (with help from the ASJA or an attorney familiar with publishing contracts if necessary) will identify several items you’d like to change before signing.

Some of these changes will be more important than others. Deal breakers are different for every writer – it may be the amount of an advance for a book author, or payment on acceptance for a magazine freelancer – but there probably will be things that are you absolutely must have. Other changes would be nice to get but not essential to the deal. These are the throwaways, the changes that you are willing to bargain away to get something else. It’s important to know the difference before starting negotiations with an editor, so make a list, with the most important modifications at the top, the least important at the bottom.

Negotiation is a game of give and take. It’s impossible to play the game without a solid understanding of which issues truly matter to you and which ones do not.

Phase 3—Compromise

             I conduct mediations as part of my law practice, sessions where I try to facilitate negotiations between two parties who often come to the table from vastly different positions. I warn the parties at the start that if the negotiations are successful, no one will go home entirely happy, because no one will have gotten everything they wanted. Willingness to compromise is an essential element of a successful negotiation.

The takeaway from my session: The more you know about negotiation, the more likely you’ll get a decent publishing contract.