How to Negotiate Like a Pro (Part 1)

I talk a lot about contracts, here and in my Twitter #PubLaw feed, but the publishing conversation doesn’t include nearly enough talk about how to negotiate changes to a publishing contract.

Negotiation isn’t a topic most people learn in school, and many authors feel adrift when it comes to the negotiation process. In light of that, my next few Wednesday posts will offer some tips on negotiation strategies and tactics.

Good negotiation doesn’t happen “by chance.” Successful negotiation requires proper planning, preparation, and execution.

This week, we’ll look at how to prepare a negotiation strategy. Next week, I’ll detail strategies on how to prepare for negotiation, and the following week, we’ll look at execution.

Although these posts are targeted for publishing contracts, the strategies apply to all forms of negotiation.

Ready? Let’s get started.

SUCCESSFUL NEGOTIATION STEP 1: Understand Your Objective.

I could talk at length about contract terms authors should try to obtain in their publishing contracts, and the terms themselves are clearly one objective in a contract negotiation. However, publishing contract negotiations also have a second objective, which authors should not ignore

The twin objectives of publishing contract negotiations are:

1. Reaching a mutually-acceptable set of contract terms, and

2. Establishing the basis for a positive business relationship moving forward.

Both of these goals are equally important. However, it’s hard to establish a positive relationship in a negotiation that feels like a street fight—even if you get the terms you wanted in the end.

Authors should learn to negotiate in a way that achieves acceptable terms without alienating the editor (or publisher) on the other side of the bargaining table. Fortunately, it’s usually possible to obtain the terms you want without creating hostility if you take the right attitude—and the right strategy—into the negotiation.

SUCCESSFUL NEGOTIATION STEP #2: Selecting the Proper Strategy

Two of the most common negotiating strategies are “Zero-Sum” (or “Zero-Sum Game”) and “Mutual Benefit.” Let’s take a look at each, and use translation rights (“foreign language rights”) as an example to show how each might play out in a contract negotiation.

Zero-Sum Negotiation / Zero-Sum Game

In economic and negotiating theory, a “Zero-Sum Game” is a mathematical representation of business actions in which each “point” earned by one party represents a loss for the other side. Negotiating by Zero-Sum tactics means approaching a negotiation, and the resulting contract, with an “I win-you lose” attitude. People who negotiate this way often  alienate the other side because they want to “win” as many points (in this case, acceptable contract terms) as possible.

In a Zero-Sum negotiation, the issue of foreign language rights comes down to “one of us gets them, the one does not.” Publishers often want to acquire as many rights as possible, and standard contract language almost always includes translation rights. In a zero-sum negotiation, the author’s position would be, “You can’t have translation rights and that’s the end of the matter.” Whoever ends up with the rights is the “winner” and the party without them “loses.”

Unfortunately, zero-sum negotiation in the publishing contract often leads to loss of a publishing deal, because if the publisher won’t give in the author must chose between “losing” those points and walking away from the contract. Even when the author “wins” some points, negotiation becomes a tug-of-war between absolute positions. When the dust settles, the author often feels unhappy about the points (s)he “lost” rather than pleased to have closed a deal.

Mutual Benefit Negotiation

The “Mutual Benefit” strategy represents a better choice for publishing negotiations. Mutual Benefit negotiation starts from the theory that it’s possible to reach a contract situation where each of the parties ends up in a better overall position as a result. The objective of Mutual Benefit negotiation is reaching a contract which, in the aggregate, benefits author and publisher while also laying the foundation for a positive business relationship.

Foreign rights negotiation proceeds quite differently with a mutual benefit perspective. If the publisher refuses to let the author to keep the rights, the author can propose an alternative option that benefits both sides. For example, asking for reversion of  translation rights if the publisher hasn’t sold them within a stated time (usually 24-36 months) after initial publication of the work.

By offering a third option—beyond “one wins/one loses”—mutual benefit negotiation allows for creative problem-solving to satisfy both parties’ needs. Even if the publisher doesn’t accept the author’s suggestion, offers made from a mutual benefit perspective  defuse tension in the negotiation process and make the other side feel respected. (Many publishers negotiate in this manner too, when authors and agents ask for concessions in a respectful way.)

Approaching negotiations from a mutual-benefit perspective sometimes requires an attitude adjustment, and can be difficult when the other side doesn’t seem to return the favor. However, the results are worth it—even if the publisher opts for zero-sum.

Cultivate a calm, professional attitude and creative problem-solving skills. The benefits you gain will help your career in many ways, including (but not limited to) your contract negotiations.

This week’s seahorse palate-cleanser is my little special-needs seahorse, Weeble, who has learned to hitch to the very top of the sea fan, where he can survey the entire reef:

16H17 Weeble