Why and How to Negotiate with Academic Book Publishers

poor writerThe academics I have met who write books seem to assume one of two things. The first assumption is that publishers are doing authors a favour by publishing their books. The second is that the royalties offered are a set figure. Both of these assumptions are wrong.

I suspect the first assumption exists because academics need publications so badly that when someone agrees to publish their work it can feel like a massive relief and a cause for celebration. Yet publishers would not exist without authors. Nevertheless, publishers are hard-headed business people, and they are not going to publish a book if they don’t think it will turn a profit.

The second assumption may exist because we live in a society of set prices in shops, set salaries and fees for work, and so on. The notion of haggling is unfamiliar. So you need to know that the royalties a publisher proposes to give you are generally a starting point for negotiations rather than a fixed offer. In a moment I’ll give you some pointers on how to handle these negotiations, but first let’s look at why it is important to negotiate.

Publishers often belong to parent companies that are very, very rich. For example, the company Informa plc has four operating divisions: business intelligence, academic publishing, knowledge, and events. Its academic publishing division covers the humanities, social sciences, and STEM subjects, and includes publishers such as Taylor & Francis, Psychology Press, Cogent OA, and Routledge. In 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, this division made an adjusted operating profit of £187.2million. Informa as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £416.1million.

Here’s another example. The RELX Group plc is ‘a global provider of information and analytics for professional and business customers across industries’. This company includes the publisher Elsevier, which primarily publishes academic books in STEM subjects, as one of its four divisions. In 2017 Elsevier made an adjusted operating profit of £913million. The RELX Group as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £2,284million.

It is evident that academic publishing is very, very profitable for these companies, and their shareholders. Yet authors, who may work for years on a single book, are to be content with royalties of a few hundred pounds a year – or less?

One reason this power imbalance hasn’t been important before now is that most, if not all, academic authors used to be in permanent academic roles with more than adequate salaries and time to write books within their day jobs. Yet, as we know, these days more and more academics are in casual and precarious roles, and have to write books in their own time. Even those with permanent jobs are often so over-worked that they, too, have to write their books outside working hours. Also, some people writing scholarly books are not in any academic role, but are independent researchers, unemployed, retired and so on.

Authors are contractually prevented from discussing their own royalty rates. However, I can tell you that the Textbook and Academic Authors Association conducted an anonymous survey of academic authors in 2015. They found that average royalties for print books ranged from 9–14%, and the highest royalty reported was 30%. I can also tell you that, in the UK, academic writers earn the lowest annual averages from their books of any type of writer.

Clearly publishers do need to earn money from the books they publish, to pay for their staff, buildings, printing, marketing, and all the other costs associated with their business. They also need to make a profit (or, if they’re not-for-profit, a surplus) to reinvest in their business and, if a plc, pay dividends to their shareholders. However, do they really need profits of hundreds of millions of pounds, from the often unpaid work of academic authors?

I believe we should be negotiating harder for higher royalties on our scholarly books. I have done this myself, successfully, with different types of publisher. Here are some tips. First, forget about feelings such as gratitude or repulsion, and treat the deal as a business transaction. Position the conversation as a business deal by saying something like, ‘As we haven’t done business together before…’ Second, ask for more than you think they will agree to. There’s a chance they might say yes, and if not you are leaving space for them to make a counter-offer lower than your request but still considerably better than the original offer.

The publisher is likely to specify separate royalty rates for hardbacks, paperbacks, and e-books. You can negotiate really hard on e-book royalties. Publishers’ costs for e-book production and handling are much lower than for print books. They don’t have to pay for paper, printing, storage, shipping, or returns. Also, they don’t sell as many e-books as print books. This means they can give more here.

If you get stuck on a figure that doesn’t seem enough to you but the publisher won’t budge, you can ask for a ‘riser’. That means after, say, 1,000 copies have been sold in that format, your royalty will go up by a few percentage points. This is often easier for publishers to say yes to because if they sell 1,000 copies, they have already recouped most, all, or more of their investment in your work, so then they can afford to pay a higher royalty. It’s probably not worth asking for a riser for hardbacks, as they don’t sell many copies, but it is well worth giving it a go for paperbacks, especially if you’re writing a book that is likely to have a wide readership.

Occasionally an academic publisher will offer a small ‘advance’ of a few hundred pounds. This is not an extra advance payment, it is an advance on royalties which the publisher will claw back from your royalties until it has been fully repaid. If a few hundred pounds would make a real difference to your work for the book – enable you to buy other books, for example, or to travel for meetings or to interview people – then by all means accept. But do be aware that it’s not extra money, they’re simply rearranging the offer.

Bear in mind that the person you are negotiating with, usually your commissioning editor, will not have the power to make the final decision. Keep your relationship with them as cordial and professional as possible, and make your case as clearly and concisely as you can, because you need them to advocate for you within their organisation.

In many ways this is the simple part of the negotiations. Once you agree the royalty figures, the publisher will issue a draft contract. It is a really good idea to get independent professional advice on the contract, because it will be hard to understand its implications unless you have specific legal expertise. In the UK, you can join the Society of Authors as soon as you have a draft contract, and specialist vetting of that and any other contract you receive is included in your membership fee. They will tell you which points to negotiate on, and how.

Does all this negotiation sound icky to you? Get over it. You are going to work really hard on writing your books. It makes sense to do all you can to make your books work as hard as possible for you.

25 thoughts on “Why and How to Negotiate with Academic Book Publishers

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  3. Hi Helen
    Your advice is really useful.I have completed a Masters in Early Years Outdoor Learning.Do you have any recommendations for a publisher?
    Kind Regards
    Joanne Short

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Helen, this is hugely helpful. A rookie question: do any publishers tend to rescind the contract offer altogether instead of presenting a counter-offer? I guess academic authors are hesitant about negotiation because a draft contract is already a hard-earned victory after several months of blind review etc. Is it possible to risk losing the offer if we negotiate harder than usual? Thank you so much!

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    • Hi Liwen and thanks for your question. I’ve not heard of that happening initially, though I guess it could happen if someone negotiated too hard or was too inflexible in their negotiating. As an experienced commissioning editor recently said to me on this subject, ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get.’ If you are feeling a little shaky about your negotiating skills, there is brief advice on pp 90-92 of my book ‘Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners’, where I cite the book ‘Getting More’ by Stuart Diamond which I would recommend if you want a more detailed read. Good luck!

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  5. I have found this article of immense help. I am currently working with a publisher on an academic text.

    They have indicated: “You retain copyright of the text but you do need to grant us unlimited e-rights to distribute the book”

    I am somewhat unclear on the distinction here. Can you clarify for me?

    thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Stephen, thank you for your comment. To the best of my knowledge, copyright = intellectual property; distribution = getting the book in front of people. However, I’m not sure what they mean by e-rights. It seems you’re in the US. Are you a member of the Textbook and Academic Authors Association? If not, I’d recommend checking them out. Membership is reasonably priced (much cheaper than consulting a specialist lawyer, which is the other option) and gives you access to a wealth of resources and expertise. Good luck!

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  8. What a useful and clear post! Thanks a lot. Pity that I read it too late. I have already signed my contract with Bristol UP, and it did not even cross my mind that I could negotiate the royalties. I was very keen on negotiating a lower sales price (to ensure that the book would be accessible)… with some, but limited success… And actually I would have been ready to let go of some of my royalties if it increased the reach-out.
    It took long to write this book, and I had no external funding. I knew that I would not get a proper compensation, but some would feel fair…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ili – I’m sorry you read it too late, too, though if you’re with BUP even your un-negotiated royalties are likely to be better than most. I think I need to do an update anyway, as some things have changed in the pandemic. I hope your book does well.

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  9. Your website is really useful. Thanks. I am in the process of completing a Colour Recognition Course (see tubewindowsart.com) to market as an ebook to universities and colleges. Naively, as an experiment, I sent it to a publisher of Art Books. The rejection said that the illustrations were – not conducive to a commercial art publishing. I don’t know if this was a technical or a political comment but when I found that this editor wrote books on soft toy making, I felt she was not the right person to comment on my analysis of Bellini’s St Jerome! I realise, as you say, I will have to work as hard at researching the right editor as I have on the paintings. Keep up the good work. Angela

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Angela for your kind words. Your story is interesting and, I hope you don’t mind me saying, also rather more entertaining from a reader’s viewpoint than I suspect it was from the writer’s! I wish you the best of luck in finding the right editor for your work.

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  10. Hi Helen, Please never remove this post; it sheds light on a lot that authors like me never knew but should know! Thanks for the information.

    My story is great, but I want to go straight to the point: I have already published two scientific articles on drug/antibiotic resistance with an analysis that experts from around the world (literay, from ALL 5 continents!) have been sending me emails to congratulate me about. It’s just amazing the errors that are taking place in medicine right now. With that, I am expanding the whole analysis into the form of a book. I should finish it within the next 2 months or so. It also covers resistance in agriculture and in other areas of life. I know it will be a groundbreaker. I believe it is introducing a medical revolution on resistance control. Literally. In fact, my scientific journal article publications already gave a hint of that.

    You can enter my name into Google and read some of my publications to see what I am talking about. It is very serious.

    I am looking for a literary agent / Commissioning Editor to represent my book to a publisher, and I really would like you to be that person. Would you mind that? –I hope not.

    I have two questions:
    1) How can I find a publisher who is indexed in Pubmed (the US federal repository of scientifc publications in the Life Sciences), so that a copy of the online version can be deposited there ? (my previous publications were deposited there).

    Apart from that first question for you, I have another question that came to my mind as a resutl of reading your post:
    2) I would like my book to come in both online version and print version. Is that impossible?

    Thank you very much for the explanations you have provided on your website! We don’t find it elesewhere/

    Rudolf.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rudolf, thanks for your comment. I am an independent researcher and scholar, not a literary agent, so I can’t help you there – but I can tell you that to the best of my knowledge, there is no literary agent in the English-speaking world who will represent academic authors to academic publishers, because the economic returns are too low. We have to represent ourselves. Also, although my work is trans-disciplinary, it is mostly in the social sciences, arts, and humanities, so I don’t know the answer to your question about Pubmed either. If I want to find a publisher for a specific subject area, I look at the books in that subject area and see which publishers are represented, then research them to see which of them I think I might like to work with. Perhaps you can take that route. And I can tell you that these days books are commonly published with both digital and hard copies. Good luck with your book.

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  13. Hi. Thanks so much for sharing your publishing knowledge and experiences. I am definitely in the ‘first assumption’ phase. 🙂 I am about to submit a monograph proposal after a positive chat with a commissioning editor. Is there some way of protecting our hard won ideas/proposals? Can we attach something like a confidentiality clause to the proposal? Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sonia, good question! If you’re in the UK I recommend joining the Society of Authors; if you’re elsewhere there may be an equivalent organisation that works to protect authors’ rights. One good reason for joining the SoA is they have contract experts who will advise you about your draft contract before you sign, at no extra charge; their work is invaluable. You can certainly attach a confidentiality clause to your proposal. You could also email your proposal to a trusted friend/colleague, with a covering email explaining that you’re doing so to protect your ideas and asking them to save both the email and the document somewhere with an off-site backup. Make sure you too save and back up the email, then if there is any dispute later on you have dated evidence. (In the old days we used to do this by snail mail!) I hope that helps, and best of luck with your monograph.

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