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Contracts (sometimes referred to more euphemistically as ‘Agreements’) are perhaps the most important part of publishing – not only is your company only as valuable as your filing system (these pieces of paper, after all, are the proof you hold the rights to publish works), but they are of vital importance in building your reputation. Here’s a whistle-stop tour of the world of contracts.

When should I write a contract?

You’ll probably find it’s a good idea to have a boilerplate contract in place from Day One, because you’ll want to be ready to be reactive and make offers as soon as you open submissions (if that’s the route you’re going down) or accept submissions from agents.

In terms of negotiations, once you’ve found a work you really want to see on your shelves, you’ll probably want to start by outlining terms (and if you’re working with an agent, they will probably steer the conversation by asking). When you’ve agreed on the essentials – advance, royalties, etc – you can get a draft contract in the works.

How can I write a contract?

Initially the contract itself might feel like an insurmountable object, but there is plenty of guidance around. Perhaps the best place to start is Clark’s Publishing Agreements, which is considered the Bible for Contracts.

Working in reverse, it’s also important to consider what terms are fair for your authors, and the Society of Authors has some guidance on this. See, for instance, their CREATOR fair contract terms.

While most agents will defer to you for your preferred contract, some bigger authors and agents might request that you use their boilerplate contract (or update clauses of yours to match theirs).

Things to include

As a baseline a contract should include the contracting parties’ names and addresses, and details of the work in question. The contract should make clear what advance is being offered, and contain details of royalty percentages and payment schedules for remittance to the author. They will include a warranty on the author’s behalf that the work is original and not plagiarised (and, increasingly, that it wasn’t written by AI) and a ‘grant of rights’, which details which rights are being licensed to the publisher, and the terms under which the deal is being made – which languages and territories, for instance. They should also cover the percentage split for any rights sales the publisher might make, and any terms and the protocol for the reversion of rights.

While most indie presses will have agonised over their contract boilerplate, once you have a working draft you might be able to convince one to give you some feedback. Likewise, the Society of Authors (and other membership organisations) gives authors a contract-reading service, and you’ll soon get used to receiving feedback and incorporating this into your model.

Of course, with rights it’s important to get it right right from the beginning – so if in doubt, it’s worth speaking to a specialist.


It’s important to think about your author: while you might feel like you’ve ‘discovered’ a book and are vital in helping it get to market – and while there is some truth in this – an author will likely have spent months, years, possibly decades working on their book, so it’s important to pay close attention to remuneration.

While some publishers choose to pay a fixed fee (a one-off payment – more common in buying rights to include a piece of work within a publication), the majority of trade publishers pay royalties, sometimes with a lump sum, or ‘advance against royalties’ up front.

Royalty rates vary drastically from publisher to publisher (author to author) and between areas of the industry, but it’s fair to say that they’re generally between 5% and 10%. The most common trade model is 10% on hardback sales and 7.5% on paperback sales, and this is traditionally paid on the RRP of a book, although in some cases they are paid on net receipts.

It’s important to make this clear in the contract, as it makes a big difference. For instance:

On sales of This Great Book by J. Smith, which retails at £10

Paid 7.5% of the RRP, J. Smith would receive 75p per sale.

Paid 7.5% of net receipts, and presuming sales were made at an average discount of 50%, with sales and distribution charges of 30%, J. Smith would receive 26p per sale.

After this, terms can get a bit trickier – perhaps an agent wants to see an escalator (e.g. 7.5% up to 10,000 copies, and then 10%), and if you’re selling copies in export or at high discounts you might need to adjust the royalty rate so you’re not losing money.

Royalty periods

When you’ve decided on all of the above, you’ll need to work out when you pay royalties. Since it’s a time-consuming and fiddly job, most publishers only run royalty reports once or twice a year, and it’s common practice to pay swiftly afterwards.

I can’t afford advances

If this is you, it’s important to bear in mind that the advance isn’t everything. If you can’t afford to pay advances, make sure your royalty model is more than fair – after all, an advance is only a share of the royalties up front, so if you can’t afford to pay thousands up front, focus on making it better for the author in the long run.

Some small presses also look to find other ways to demonstrate a commitment to their authors beyond an initial cheque – what can you do to make your press a better home for your authors? Perhaps it’s free copies, discounts on your list, free author websites, etc.


  • Clark’s Publishing Agreements (ed. Lynette Owen)*
  • Society of Authors – CREATOR


* For those who might find the RRP cost-prohibitive, bear in mind your library might have a copy. Some guild and society membership also offers a discount – so if you’re planning to join some societies, it might be worth checking this first.

Last updated: 16th September 2023
Author(s): Will Dady, Renard Press