Negotiate Like a Pro (Part 3): The Negotiation

Welcome back to the negotiation mini-series!

Last week we took a look at how to create a pre-negotiation plan. To re-cap:

— Read the contract; make a list of points you’d like to change.

— Prioritize your list into deal breakers, important points, and “things to ask for.”

— Consider the publisher’s potential responses to your requests.

— Adjust your list, and strategy, to address potential publisher concerns.

Now, let’s look at tips for increasing your chances of success in an actual publishing contract negotiation*:

Publishers, like flies, prefer honey to vinegar: Be Polite.

No matter how the negotiation opens, proceeds, or finishes, you must remain professional throughout the process. Negotiations may occur by phone or by email. Regardless of method, take the time to phrase your comments in a polite and respectful manner.

Not all publishers (or their lawyers) treat authors (or agents, or anyone) with respect. That doesn’t excuse your rudeness in return. It isn’t easy to keep your temper and stay polite when the other side is hostile, condescending, or both. However, it’s the only way to get the best possible deal.

2. Pay attention to the publisher’s negotiating strategy—it’s an indicator of your future relationship.

A publisher or editor who condescends or ignores your concerns during negotiations probably won’t become more attentive and engaged when the contract is signed. On the other hand, a publisher who listens – even if the answer is no – is offering a positive sign about your future relationship.

Do not expect the publisher to grant everything you ask for. However, it’s reasonable to expect them not to insult you in the process.

One caveat: Sometimes a publisher’s attorney handles the negotiations on behalf of the acquiring editor, and the lawyer’s tactics may not reflect the editor’s normal behavior. In other words: don’t nuke a deal because the lawyer lacked appropriate social skills. (Far too many of us fall short when it comes to social niceties.)

3. When negotiating by email, remember that writing has trouble conveying tone—on your side or the publisher’s.

Text—especially simple, business-related text—can often convey a “shadow-tone” contrary to the writer’s intentions. When sending and receiving email, phrase your own words carefully and interpret the publisher’s responses generously with regard to tone. For example: “We’ve always done it this way” could be a polite explanation…or a hostile argument-ender; you can’t tell which it is from the words alone.

Proofread all negotiation emails before you hit “send,” not only for content and typographical errors but also for tone. When reading the publisher’s responses, give the benefit of the doubt with regard to tone whenever possible—and remember: don’t lose your temper, no matter what.

4. Negotiate your way through the contract paragraph by paragraph, rather than jumping around in the text.

Shortly before the negotiation, re-order your list of negotiating points to match the paragraph numbers in the contract. During negotiation, address each point as you come to it in the document. This ensures that every important point is discussed—if you work out of order, things often get missed or fall through the cracks.

5. Think on your feet—and outside the box.

If the publisher refuses your first suggestion for a contract amendment, quick thinking may help you to respond with a workable compromise.

Here’s an example: You ask to keep your translation rights. The editor refuses, saying the publishing house wants foreign language rights as part of the contract. “All right,” you say, “would you be willing to language that grants them to you for the first two years after publication, but lets me revert any unused foreign language rights at the end of that period?” Many publishers will consider—and agree to—this language.

6. Plan for more than one round of negotiations.

Sometimes, your requested changes may require permission (or consideration) by someone other than the acquiring editor. Don’t get upset if the editor tells you (s)he has to consider your request, or discuss it with the company lawyers. 

Negotiations can resolve all issues in a single shot, but far more often a publishing contract results from multiple rounds of negotiation over several weeks (or months).

When it comes to contracts, patience is indeed a virtue.

*Note: Authors often have more success in negotiations when assisted by a literary agent or publishing lawyer. I recommend that authors obtain professional contract review and assistance whenever possible. However, I’m offering these tips in recognition of the fact that such assistance isn’t always possible.