Basics Money & Rights Traditional Publishing

Common Publishing Terms and Their Meaning

Taylor Harbin
Written by Taylor Harbin

You’ve secured an offer from a prestigious publishing company. You’re so excited that you want to sign the dotted line right away.


A publishing contract will make or break your novel and possibly your career. Sign something you don’t understand, and you might end up trapped in a terrible deal. Here are some basic terms to master before you sign.

Description of the “Work”

Every publishing contract has one of these. This section outlines the book you have submitted or have been contracted to write. It includes basic details such as title, genre, and word count.

This may seem self-explanatory, but you ought to read it anyway to make sure the description is accurate. It would be unfortunate if you submitted a huge stand-alone epic fantasy, only to get an email from the editor saying, “Hey, wait a minute, we contracted you for an eight-volume series!”

Manuscript Delivery

In most contracts, the author agrees to deliver a completed manuscript to the publisher by a certain date. “Complete” is defined on a case-by-case basis. A novel may be deemed complete if the story is finished. This clause will also contain language about the manuscript being “satisfying in form and content,” as well as specific instructions on how to format the manuscript and deliver it.


Rights are permissions you grant to the publisher to produce your work. They’re described in terms of media, the length of time a publisher will own them, and the physical territories where they will apply.

A description may read: “The author grants to the publisher a non-exclusive perpetual right to reproduce in print, audio, and electronic formats the submitted work.” It means you are granting them permission to create physical books, audiobooks, and electronic versions of your work, worldwide, and that these rights will never revert, but you can simultaneously sell non-exclusive rights to another publisher—if you find one who agrees to these terms.

When you consider the Rights section, be sure to check two factors:

  1. That you own all the rights you are selling. For example, if the contract says First Electronic rights, but you’ve already published the story on your blog, you no longer hold those rights and might get sued by the publisher.
  2. That you’re not giving away too many rights. Even if the idea of selling a story is highly appealing, don’t fall for “all rights” contracts. You might bitterly regret it in the end.

Here are some of the common rights being sold:

  • Print (hardcover and/or paperback)
  • Audiobook
  • Ebook (or “digital format”, which might include audio as well)
  • Serialization
  • Anthology
  • Film and drama. Your agent is the only one who should be selling those rights.

For each media type, a different royalty percentage will be specified. Any rights not expressly granted to the publisher will stay with the author.


A royalty payment is made to the author based on the number of copies sold within a given period of time. It is usually a percentage of the cover price, and you will earn different royalty rates for each version of your book (hardcover, paperback, audio). If the contract doesn’t say something to this effect, you and your agent should push for more concrete wording so there is no misunderstanding.

For full novels, expect royalties to range from 8% to 15% of the cover price, depending on the publication. If the royalties are marked against the net profit, as some publications will do, the percentage should be much higher, around 30% to 40%.

Short stories often receive a flat fee instead of royalties. A professional payment is considered 5 cents per word and above.


An advance is an amount of money paid to an author with the understanding that the author will hand over the finished manuscript in a timely manner (usually specified in the contract). An advance is often paid against royalties. That means when your book starts to sell, you won’t get any money from those sales until the publisher has made the advance back.

If this section contains language such as “upon completion,” fight for a change. An advance, by its name, is given in advance. The language should specify that you’ll get the payment as soon as possible.

However, do not forget your obligation to submit the work you are being paid for. Some advances are nonrefundable, but others are not. In the latter case, if you fail to deliver the manuscript or the publisher decides to reject the work after repeated attempts at making it “satisfactory,” you will be expected to pay the advance back.


Most trade publishers register the work with the US Copyright Office and pay the applicable fees. In many cases, this will happen “upon completion,” or close to the end of the publishing process when all possible changes have been made to the book and it is ready for release.

Reversion of Rights

Reversion is when rights to a work return to the author. Some contracts will stipulate a condition before this can happen. It’s very important to understand these conditions, especially if you’re dealing with a small or medium press. Does the contract say what will happen to your rights if the company sudden goes bankrupt and has to fold? What if they can’t produce the book by the agreed-upon date? If no such clause exists, or the existing clause fails to mention these scenarios, consult an expert.

Right of First Refusal

This grants the publisher the right to look at a new book and make an offer before anyone else. It may sound good in theory, but without imposing some tight restrictions, this can spell disaster for your career. Beware of blanket terms that do not stipulate how long a publisher has to consider the work or what kinds of work they can claim. In extreme scenarios, an editor could lock you into a contract by which you would be obligated to show them everything you write before submitting elsewhere, and they could prevent you from doing that by holding the work in indefinite consideration. If you can’t get the clause stricken entirely, try to negotiate some tight terms.

That’s Almost All…

As a professional author, you need to know as much as you can about publishing contracts. Each one will be unique in a sense, but knowing some of the most commonly-used terms will make them easier to navigate. When in doubt, consult an expert!

About the author

Taylor Harbin

Taylor Harbin

Taylor Harbin is a professional historian from southeast Missouri. Easily distracted by the internet, he composes all of his work on a manual typewriter. His fiction has appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly magazine.

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