By Richard Curtis
For many writers the term "multiple-book deal" conjures images of byzantine negotiations conducted in a crowded conference room by a battery of literary agents, lawyers, accountants, and publishing executives, of telephone-number advances and thick contracts replete with state-of-the-art jargon about best-seller escalators, book club passthroughs, and topping privileges. The tyro author who would be overjoyed to get even a one-book contract must view such deals as relevant only to the gods in some literary Valhalla. What pertinence do these John Grishamian, Dan Brownian, Nora Robertsian transactions have to the humble and brutish lives of nickel-a-word galley slaves?
The truth is that many more multiple-book contracts are proffered to writers than most people imagine, and most of them are no more complicated than one-book contracts. And their terms are substantially lower than those generally associated with Olympic-sized swimming pools on the grounds of Beverly Hills estates. In fact, if you write in any of the traditional genres the chances are that sooner or later you'll be offered a multiple-book contract. Whether your specialty is science fiction, mysteries, westerns, romances, male adventure, or even popular nonfiction, it is likely that a publisher will be interested in signing you up for more than one book at a time. You may have created a character in a novel whose exploits you or your publisher would like to extend to further books. Or your publisher may like your work well enough to ask you to write books in a series created "in the house," as it were. You would do well to understand the features of such deals, if for no other reason than that, after longing to have one offered to you, you might ultimately decide that they're not that hot after all and you'd be better off selling one book at a time.
When you think about it, a multiple-book deal is simply an elaborate extension of your option clause. In a traditional contract, the publisher usually gets an option on your next book at terms to be negotiated. In a multiple-book contract, the publisher makes a commitment to more than one book and specifies the terms and conditions for the acquisition of those books.
The nature of those books is usually described in detail: "Books number 4, 5, and 6 in the adult western series featuring the hero Buckyball Jones," or "Four saga-length works of fiction set on and around a Savannah, Georgia, peanut farm during the American Civil War." The general terms - "boilerplate" - that characterize a contract for one book now cover two or three or more at a time. The warranties you agree to on book number one are identical to those on numbers two and three, for instance. A few boilerplate items may be altered to adjust for the multiplicity of books in the contract. The termination clause will have the phrase "on each work" in it or something along those lines in order to account for the probability that each book in the contract will go out of print at a different time.
One of the reasons publishers like multiple-book contracts, then, is simply that they are convenient. They enable publishers to prepare one contract for several books whose terms are pretty much identical. This may seem like insufficient reason to offer such deals to authors, and in truth it is. But when you realize how much time and labor goes into the preparation of even a routine book contract, you might feel less inclined to criticize publishers for wanting to speed up the flow of paperwork, which after all benefits authors too.
The principal object of multiple-book deals is security. Ideally, they should make publishers and authors feel equally secure (agents don't mind a little security either, by the way), but things don't always turn out that way, as we shall see.
The security comes in because all parties know where they stand with each other for the duration of the contract. The publisher knows that his author is not going to leave him after the next book or the book after that. The publisher also knows he won't be hit for a high price one or two books from now if the author gets hot tomorrow, because the prices for those future books will have been fixed at the outset, when the multiple-book contract was signed. The author, by the same token, knows there will be a home waiting for his next two or three books, and can count on a specific sum of money to be paid him when he delivers them. Even if the market for his kind of books collapses, his publisher is still contractually obligated to pay him for each delivered book, whereas if the author made contracts with his publisher on a book-by-book basis, the publisher could drop him as soon it became apparent that there was no more market for his stuff.
Another important factor is scheduling dependability. Where series or other related books are involved, success rests heavily on the timing of release of the books, and that timing can be set with certainty only if the publisher can absolutely count on reliable delivery of three or four or six books. By tying the author up for that many, the publisher knows (or at least hopes) that the author won't accept contracts with other publishers that will interfere with the delivery and publication rhythm of the series.
In the second part of this article we'll take up structuring and negotiating multi-book deals.
This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
- Richard Curtis