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Big Publishers, Small Publishers, and Contract Negotiations

In a previous post, I wrote about the ‘red lines’ that authors and publishers alike might encounter in book contract negotiations. In this post, which like the earlier one is drawn from a conference paper I presented late last year, I look at another important question for authors: Are big or small publishers easier to deal with when it comes to contract negotiations?

In my home country of Australia, the size and importance of the small and independent press sector has grown exponentially in recent years, which means that more authors and agents are working with small presses than ever before. In the paper, I presented interviews with authors and agents who had worked with both big and small publishers, focusing on how they viewed the contract negotiation experience. The answers offer some illuminating insights on the contrasting experiences and opinions within the industry:

‘Most publishers have a take it or leave it attitude to contracts. The bigger the organisation, the more they exert their will in terms of the details within the contract.’ (author-illustrator)

‘Small publishers are generally more nimble and flexible and are often less intent on holding certain rights so we’re generally able to reserve more for the author. Having said that, there are some small publishers who are inflexible on their terms because of their business model and that can be off putting for creators and/or agents.’ (agent)

‘I have found there has been more room to move in contract negotiations with larger publishers than small. The smaller the publisher, the more limited the budget, the less room there is to move with regards to money. But I have negotiated things like future writing work clauses, division of rights, and the number of copies I get.’ (author)

‘It’s not size but the company. For instance, taking two of our biggest publishers – one is very difficult to negotiate with and has a very hard-line approach, which is actually a disincentive to pitch to them at all, and another is always fair and reasonable to negotiate with – not a pushover, but you know you’ll get a straight answer. Many smaller publishers are great to negotiate with – they know their business and where they can bend, but a few use their small size to (wrongly) try to justify very poor terms for authors indeed.’ (agent)

‘Negotiating with small publishing houses has, in my experience, been quicker and more efficient than doing the same with major publishers, possibly because the deals have involved a lot less money and are therefore lower risk.’ (author)

‘There are many more small publishers and their lack of experience and under-capitalisation make them in my view a much riskier proposition for authors than do deals with larger, more established companies.’ (author organisation rep)

Most publishers, big or small want to acquire all rights in the books that they are buying for a low advance. Which means, more licenses to sell to others and the chances of earning out any advance improve with a low advance.  Better profit and loss. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a big or small house.’ (agent)

‘I’ve found the contracts with smaller publishers (and this is just my experience) to be a bit more flexible; I’ve had more say in terms of covers and illustrations. The hardest thing is chasing royalties with certain small presses.’ (author)

On balance, then, most of the authors I spoke to had a fairly positive view of negotiations with small publishers, despite some caveats, as did agents; but it was clear also that it depends not so much on the size, but the company itself.

Over to you: what’s your view on whether it’s easier to deal with big or small publishers? And what shoukd authors watch out for when dealing with either?

About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie’s new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.