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Negotiating Author-Friendly Publication Agreements — Negotiating with Publishers

Negotiating Overview

Any author can negotiate with any publisher, and it is often in the author's best interest to do so. Publisher copyright transfer agreements (CTA's) are written to the publisher's advantage, not the author's. A CTA is a boilerplate document, written to cover every eventuality whether or not it applies or is reasonable to a specific author. It is in the author's best interest to read and negotiate agreements to minimize any legal risk and to retain the right to reuse, share, and build on their own scholarship.

How to approach negotiation

These strategies can increase your likelihood of success when negotiating.

  1. Develop a rapport with representatives of the publisher. A 2004 experiment, whose results were published in the Harvard Negotiation Law Review, found that subjects were four times more likely to reach a mutually beneficial agreement AND feel good about the process if they engaged in five minutes of small talk over the phone before participating in a negotiation simulation via email.
  2. Negotiate for the win-win. When both you and the publisher get something you need, success rates go up. Try not to approach a negotiation as an adversarial situation where you win and they lose. Both parties have the same goal: to get your work published.
  3. Always ask (early and often!)  If you don't ask for what you need, how can you expect to get it? Don't assume contractual matters are written in stone. Generally you should wait until your article has been accepted before negotiating. However, you can always ask for a copy of the standard contract ahead of time so you can plan your negotiation.
  4. Know your alternatives. What is your next best option if negotiations fail? Knowing that should give you confidence and strengthen your hand going into negotiations.
  5. Pick your battles - how much do you care? Not everything is worth fighting for, and a few important wins are more likely that many less important ones. For example, you may want to spend more time negotiating author agreements for original, high-impact research as opposed to a minor op-ed or book review.
  6. Make a practical case for the publisher to say yes. Show them how it is to their advantage, or at least not to their disadvantage, for you to get what you want. Problem clauses may have been put into contracts years ago, and publishers may no longer care.
  7. Be a good partner. Cultivating relationships with publishers over time leads to better outcomes. Success once makes a precedent, meaning that you'll likely get what you want again next time you work with that publisher. Faculty editors can be powerful advocates on your behalf. Cultivate strong working relationships with them.

Conducting a negotiation

  • Ask courteously (email, phone) and explain what you want. Be prepared to go back and forth with an editor/production editor several times. Don't give up at the first obstacle.
  • Strike through the publisher's problematic terms and write in your changes. Print out and mark up the agreement, or use the comments and track changes in Word, Adobe, Google Docs, or other tools. Offer alternative terms. Explain your reasoning succinctly. Point to other publishers who have accepted your proposed changes. Make it easy for the publisher to say yes.
  • OR add an author addendum such as the SPARC Addendum. This approach can simplify the negotiation because you don't have to revise the publisher's contract. Learn more about this option on the Author Addenda page.

Common assumptions about negotiating

  • I don’t have time to negotiate with publishers. Negotiating actually doesn't take a lot of time, and the more you do it the easier it will be.
  • You need to be a lawyer to review an agreement. So long as you understand the basics, reviewing an agreement is not difficult, and it gets easier with practice.
  • Publishers will reject my article if I try to negotiate. Because negotiations take place after the article has been peer reviewed and accepted, by that point the publisher has already invested time and effort into publishing your article. They don't want to walk away any more than you do. Publishers often agree to changes to facilitate a work-in-progress. Moreover, it's unheard-of for a publisher to reject an article merely because the author tried to negotiate.
  • Publishers will not sue me or exploit me or my work. Publishers protect their interests, not yours. They have been known to send warning letters to authors for using their own works (e.g., sharing with students or posting online) in ways not permitted by the CTA. Authors who look out for their own interests are just being smart.
  • There are no repercussions if I transfer my copyright. Authors lose legal access to use their work when copyright is transferred.

Talk with your coauthors

Be on the same page with your coauthors early on. Usually the lead author signs the agreement on behalf of all. If you aren't the signatory, be sure to communicate your expectations before an agreement is signed on your behalf. You may need to educate your colleagues about the importance of negotiating your collective author agreement.