August 14th, 2015

Negotiate Like a Pro (Part 3 – The Negotiation)

Susan Spann 

Welcome back to the #PubLaw negotiation mini-series here at Writers in the Storm!

The last post 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 the actual negotiation:

1. Like flies, publishers prefer honey to vinegar.

No matter how the negotiation opens, proceeds, or finishes, you must remain professional throughout the process. Negotiations may occur by phone or (more commonly) 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. In fact, I just wrapped up a negotiation with a publishing attorney whose responses ranged from “merely condescending” to offensive. Though tempted to respond in kind, I kept my cool—and ended up obtaining several concessions she would never have agreed to if I’d used the tone she used with me.

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.

Look for red-flags in the publisher’s behavior. If you ask a reasonable question, does the editor answer reasonably or brush it aside as if your concerns don’t matter?

How does the editor respond to requests for compromise? A considerate refusal, which recognizes your request but explains why change isn’t possible, suggests a far more positive relationship than “we’ve always done it this way, and perhaps you should just self-publish if you don’t like it.” (And yes…I’ve seen that answer in a real negotiation.)

One caveat here: 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.

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 use 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.

Effective pre-negotiation planning helps you prepare for this kind of situation, too—the more you prepare, the more creative options you’ll have to offer.

5. 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 asks to consider your request, or discuss it with the company lawyers. This doesn’t mean the answer will be no!

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). Patience is, indeed, a virtue.

So…who’s ready to negotiate?

About Susan

SusanSpann_WITSSusan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI released in 2014, and her third novel, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, releases on July 14, 2015. Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business.

When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at, on Twitter (@SusanSpann), and on Facebook (SusanSpannAuthor).

7 comments to Negotiate Like a Pro (Part 3 – The Negotiation)

  • Fae Rowen

    This is absolutely brilliant, Susan! Even though I’ve negotiated labor contracts (years ago), negotiating a deal for my own book could be so personal. And every single one of your points made me say, “Oh, this is the BEST one!” You know, we have an editor, someone does our covers, there is a little bit of marketing–why not have a professional do my negotiating? Science fiction houses do buy unagented work, and if that happens to me, I’ll be calling you!

  • Susan, there’s a saying we always used in sales that this post reminds me of:

    “‘No’ is just ‘Yes, later.'”

    If an author takes a long-range view, it seems you can have almost anything you want, if you negotiate wisely and are willing to wait for some of it.

    • Exactly, Jenny! Always remember that publishing–and a writing career–is a marathon, not a sprint. Also, compromise is key to happiness in so many areas. Publishing is just one more!

  • Thinking on your feet is harder (for me) than it sounds, but planning ahead, including alternative amendments, is good advice.

    • Planning in advance can really help–especially when you’re not as comfortable thinking on your feet. Having a good list can keep you on track and help you remember the possible alternatives.