FAQs for educational writers

These FAQs and answers are offered by the EWG Committee on an informal, member-to-member basis. They are not a substitute for the individual advice on contracts and other publishing matters which is offered to members by the SoA advisory team. 

If you have a specific query or a contract you would like to be vetted - or a question suitable for this area of the website - please contact Catherine Pocock.

Approaching a publisher

Writing sample material

Royalties, fees and other payments

Contracts - general

Contracts - terms and conditions

Working in a team

Beyond the contract

Approaching a publisher

I have an idea for a book. How do I take it to a publisher?

It’s less common for publishers to take an unsolicited manuscript than for them to commission materials. But they are looking for talent, so although they may reject your manuscript, they may commission you to write something else.

Write your idea on one side of A4, draw up a list of contents and write a sample unit. Make sure you specify your target audience. Send it to one publisher initially, and be prepared to send it to five more. A publisher may reject a proposal for any number of reasons: it may not fit into their list, it may clash with an existing plan, they may not read it properly, or – and you have to accept this – it may not be very good.

Writing sample material

I have received a letter of agreement for a sample unit. In return for £150, I am expected to give copyright to the publisher. Is this reasonable?

No. First, you will probably be working for less than the minimum wage, so £150 is not reasonable. It is hard to get a fair deal for writing a sample unit. You have to decide whether you are willing to accept the fee in the hope that it will lead to a contract for a book.

It is increasingly common for the publisher to ask you to assign copyright in your sample to them; this means that even if they reject it, you cannot use the material elsewhere. You can ask for this clause to be removed on the reasonable grounds that the content is your copyright. Your publisher may argue that as you were writing to a brief which they have supplied, they do not want another publisher to be able to copy the concept or structure of a book they plan to publish. This is a flimsy argument, but in practice, it is hard to get the copyright clause removed.

What are publishers looking for in a sample unit?

Flair, originality ... all of that. But they also want someone who can keep to a brief, doesn’t overwrite and has a clear vision of what the material will look like on the page. Above all, if the book is to be used in class, they want material which works, even in the hands of an inexperienced teacher. And they want to be able to see that it works without too much investment of their time. With this in mind, go through your sample unit as if you were teaching it (or, better still, ask a colleague to); provide answer keys, and, if appropriate, tapescripts; and add notes to explain anything that might seem unusual. You will not be expected to provide visuals, but you should give clear descriptions of artwork and photos – and it doesn’t do any harm to include an example of what you are looking for.

As far as writing a sample for electronic material is concerned, you may be asked to work to a template which may seem impossibly complicated at first. If you can’t get the hang of it, ask your editor to give you some guidance.

I have been asked by a publisher to write a sample unit for a coursebook. What do I need to be aware of?

You may be offered a fee, which is likely to be small, so you need to ask yourself whether you really want to do it. A fee of £150 for a sample that will take you a week to write is not untypical.

You may submit your sample and find you are expected to revise it in the light of the editor’s (and readers’) comments. You may be asked to do more than one set of revisions. The fee remains the same, and you will not get it until all the revisions are made. Ask if you will be expected to revise your sample, and how many rounds of revision there will be.

Your publisher may be asking several people to write samples. Ask how many, so that you have an idea of what the competition is going to be.

The publishing proposal for the book may not have been approved by the publishing committee. Your publisher may be fishing for ideas, to see whether the book they have in mind is worth doing. Ask if this is the case.

You will probably be asked to sign a letter of agreement which sets out the publisher’s terms and conditions. This will specify delivery dates, requirements and what happens if your manuscript is accepted or rejected. It may also ask you to relinquish copyright.

And remember... an author should not be expected to do work at the request of a publisher without some agreed payment. If an author’s work is rejected for any reason other than the failure of the author to deliver what has been asked for, the agreed fee should be paid.

Royalties, fees and other payments

The publisher has offered me a royalty and an advance. How does it work?

The idea of the advance ought to be to compensate you for the time you spend writing your book before the royalties start to come in.

In practice, it is a token payment, to get you started. It is worth asking your publisher how the advance is calculated: it may represent a tenth of the net receipts from the first year’s predicted sales, for example. The amount of the advance will be deducted from your royalties, so bear in mind that the larger the advance, the longer it will take for you to receive royalties. At the same time, an advance is usually non-returnable, so if your share of the amount of money received from sales of your book does not cover the advance, you will not be expected to refund the balance to the publisher.

What is the standard royalty rate?

Royalty rates vary. On printed books, 10% of net receipts used to be the standard rate and you should still ask for that (in the knowledge that 9% or 8% is more usual nowadays). The proliferation of media through which content is made available and of subsidiary rights leads to many-tiered royalty systems. The Society will advise on what is standard.

Time was when publishers would listen sympathetically to a request for a rising or escalating royalty, which meant that in the event of a book being successful the royalty would rise from 10% to, say, 12.5% after a certain number of copies were sold, and then, perhaps, to 15% after a further threshold was crossed. It’s worth asking for a rising royalty, especially if you have a proven track record.

How are royalties calculated, and how frequently are they paid?

Educational publishers give discounts to booksellers. The rate will depend on the bookseller and on the country, but it is typically 30% to 40%. The amount the publishers get back, after discounts, free copies, agents’ fees and so on have been deducted, is called ‘net receipts’ or ‘sums received’. The author’s royalty is calculated on net receipts / sums received, so if a book sells for £10 and 40% is discounted, then the net receipt is £6; a royalty rate of 10% gives the author 10% of £6. i.e. 60p per book.

Books sell for different prices in different countries. A book selling for the equivalent of £10 in Switzerland may sell for the equivalent £1 in a poorer country. This will of course mean that there is a difference in the royalties you receive from those countries.

Typically, royalties are paid once or twice a year. It is crucial that you keep a check on when payments are due. At least one educational publisher pays royalties twice a year for old contracts and only once a year for new ones. If royalties can be paid twice a year on some books, they can be paid twice a year on all books.

Ask an author who has a long-standing relationship with your publisher how often they get paid (you’re not asking how much, so you don’t need to feel bashful about it); if that isn’t possible, ask your publisher if they pay every author on their books once a year.

The publisher likes my idea and has offered me a fee. I was expecting a royalty. Should I accept it?

Some authors are mainly fee-paid, and are happy with that. Others, who are used to earning royalties, are now being offered fees instead and are not happy.

Publishers like to know what their financial commitment is going to be so that they can cost a project more accurately and, of course, so that they make more money if the project is a success and stays in print for several years.

For something of the scope of a coursebook, it is impossible to know whether the fee you are being offered is likely to compensate you adequately, because you can’t predict how much work will be involved. If you want to go for a royalty, use the argument that only if the book is successful will you receive royalties (on top of the advance), so the publisher is not losing out.

If you accept a fee, your publisher may insist that they control all rights at the outset. This means that if, for example, you write something for the UK market, you may find that new versions and editions are subsequently produced for other markets without your receiving any extra payment.

One author gives the example of a self-study course she wrote for the UK market, for which she received a meagre fee. The course was subsequently repackaged and published in the US, and new editions were produced. Thirteen years later, the publisher is still making money from it and the author hasn’t received a penny more.

In an ELT (English Language Teaching) context, the same would apply to, say, a grammar book written for secondary school students learning English in Poland. The book is popular and attracts the attention of other markets. The publisher plans versions for other European countries and Latin America and stands to make a fair amount of money. The author will receive nothing from sales in these new markets.

Before you agree to the fee therefore, it is worth asking whether your publisher envisages producing other versions and editions or licensing the rights. You need to get the response in writing. You can then talk of negotiating a top-up fee in the event of new versions and editions; a clause to this effect should appear in your letter of agreement or contract. Or you can argue the case for a territory-specific agreement.

The publisher has offered me a fee. When should I expect to get it?

The payment of the fee will probably be staged. A payment should be made on signature of a letter of agreement or contract; you may then get a further payment on the acceptance of the manuscript; a final payment may be due when the book is published. The problem with a final payment on publication is that the book may never get published, or publication may be delayed. It is better to go for the first payment on signature, the second on acceptance of your first draft and the third on acceptance of the final manuscript.

Beware: You submit your draft manuscript for comments. You act on the comments of your editor and readers and resubmit. In your view, the manuscript is now final. It is rarely this simple. Your publisher may send out the resubmitted manuscript for additional comment... and so it goes on. You may only get the ‘acceptance’ part of the fee when the last t has been crossed and the last i dotted.

My publisher is commissioning authors to write supplementary material to accompany a coursebook I wrote. I will read and comment on the manuscripts but I will not be doing any writing. Can I expect any payment?

You can ask for a concept royalty, which acknowledges that without your coursebook, the supplementary material would not exist; or you can ask for a consultant’s fee. A concept royalty may only be 0.25 or 0.5%, but it means that your interest in the book continues to be recognised.

Contracts — general

My publisher has accepted the sample I wrote. I have now started writing the actual book but I still haven’t had a contract. Is this normal?

Unfortunately, it is. None of us should start writing until we have signed a contract. Publishers will say that the contracts department is very busy, and assure you that the contract will come. But what if, when it does come, there are clauses which are unacceptable to you? The answer is, don’t start writing until you have a contract.

There is a view that you have a stronger hand if you are well into the writing when the contract arrives, because your publisher is committed to the project and this strengthens your negotiating position; but it’s a dangerous game to play.

And what if the reason you haven’t had a contract is that the project hasn’t been fully approved? You need to find out when full approval is due, after which date you should receive a contract without delay. You may be put under pressure to start writing in order to meet the publishing deadline, but you can quite reasonably say that you will do so as soon as both parties have signed the contract.

I have had my proposal for a book accepted and the publisher has sent me a contract. Should I simply sign it and return it?

No. A standard contract will represent the publisher’s interests, not yours. It will be sent out without any guidance. Some of the clauses are pretty impenetrable and require someone with a legal background to explain them.

Send your contract to the SoA for their comments. They will be able to tell you if, in their view, there are clauses which should be changed or deleted, and they will advise on clauses which need to be inserted. A contract is an agreement between two parties. An author should not be presented with a contract as a fait accompli.

Contracts — Terms and Conditions

I have been commissioned to write a book. Do I keep the copyright in my work?

At present, some publishers allow authors to retain copyright in the text (as distinct from the illustrations and design); others do not. It is increasingly the case that publishers demand total copyright in your work.

They argue that as the media through which a work is made available become increasingly diversified, it is not practical for them to come back to authors every time there is a possibility of an adaptation of their work.

This may seem unreasonable to you, but you may find they are unwilling to move. For a discussion of some recommended safeguards, see the SoA Guide to Publishing Contracts, and the Guidance on Fee-Based Assignments. 

My publisher wants to put a clause in my contract committing me to promoting the book for four weeks a year. Is this reasonable?

You need to decide how much time you are willing to spend on promotion. Your publisher will argue that as promotion of your book should increase sales and consequently your royalties, it is not reasonable to expect to be paid for promotion, though they will pay your expenses (travel, accommodation and subsistence).

If you put a time limit on the amount of promotion you are prepared to do, you need to make it clear that additional promotional work would need to be paid for. If your daily rate for writing occasional articles is £250, ask for a similar fee for promotional work.

If you are being paid on a fee basis, then any promotional work should be paid for, separately and in addition to the payment you have received for writing. 

There is a clause in my contract entitled ‘Involvement in competing works’. It seems to prevent me from writing anything similar to the work which is the subject of the contract. Is this reasonable?

A publisher, understandably, wants to protect their interest in your work. If you have written, say, a coursebook for GCSE History for Publisher A and a couple of years later, you are approached by Publisher B to write a similar book, Publisher A is likely to lose revenue. However, this clause is often expressed in such general terms that it may prevent you from writing anything to do with GCSE History in the foreseeable future.

Ask for the clause to be deleted on the grounds that you have to make a living as a writer in a particular field and this clause may well seriously affect your ability to do so. At the very least, ask for the clause to be made more specific, concerning the subject matter, the target audience and the territories in which the work is sold; and ask to be released from the clause once annual sales have fallen below a certain number. If you are writing on a fee-only basis, there should be no non-compete clause.

Ask the SoA for further advice.

My publisher has sent me a contract in which there is a clause asking me to assign digital/electronic rights at the same royalty rate as the printed book. Is this OK?

If you ask the SoA to vet your contract they will give you advice on this issue. Generally, digital rights should attract a (much) higher royalty, although publishers do not often see it this way.

My book will contain lots of ‘realia’ – adapted or unadapted extracts from books, newspapers, magazines and the web. In my contract, the publisher pays up to a certain figure for their use, but after that I’m responsible for the costs. How can I know what these costs are likely to be?

Ask your publisher what their preferred sources are for permissions. Different media charge at wildly different rates, and an extract from one newspaper may cost ten times more than a similar extract from another. In an ideal world, permissions are cleared before too much work has been done; in reality, expect to hear the dreaded words ‘permission refused’ (or ‘too expensive’) right up to final proofs.

There’s nothing in my contract about my attendance at audio-recording sessions and photo and artwork selection meetings. I want to be as involved as possible in the publishing process so what should I do?

If you haven’t yet signed your contract, ask for a clause to be included to that effect; if you have signed it, write to the publisher explaining your wish for involvement. Attendance, especially at recording sessions, used to be expected but is becoming increasingly unusual as publishers streamline processes and see the author as a producer of content rather than an integral member of a team.

Your photo or audio brief may be clear and detailed, but the person in charge of the photo or recording session will not be aware of all the contextual implications of what you have written, which is why you want to be involved. You may find that your publisher resists authorial involvement (because they think you are a nuisance and will get in the way and hold things up), so you may have to work hard to assure them that you’re there to help, to answer ad hoc questions on the spot and to make things run more smoothly.

What are my responsibilities as an author?

These are set out in your contract and in the schedule or appendix attached to the contract. There will be a number of deadlines to do with the various stages of submission of a manuscript. If you have doubts about being able to meet them, raise them before you sign the contract.

Late delivery of a manuscript may lead to late publication, lost sales and possibly the annulment of the contract. If you want your publisher to take deadlines seriously, you must take them seriously too.

In terms of the content of your manuscript, you must at the very least ensure that all the facts are correct, that no-one is libelled and that you have not breached anyone’s copyright. If you are responsible for clearing permissions, you must be scrupulous about doing so, with everything agreed in writing; if your publisher is responsible, you must inform the publisher of all your sources. In either case, it is up to the publisher to decide whether the material can be included.

Working in a team

A publisher has asked me to be one of a team of authors working on a new course. I don’t know the other authors. What are the pitfalls?

The team may include one or two writers who are inexperienced; they may sign the contract without reading it properly or sending it to the SoA to vet; they may not meet deadlines; they may produce work which requires a lot of editorial intervention, thus slowing down the whole project; they may not pull their weight; they may be DAs (Difficult Authors), not getting on with other members of the team – in short, there are any number of problems with a multi-author project.

If you are in at the early stages of a project, suggest to your publisher other authors whom you know to be reliable. People who have chosen to work together are likely to make a better team than those who have not. If the author team is to be decided by the publisher, ask for regular meetings to be included in the schedule, so that problems can addressed face-to-face.

Beyond the contract

I have received proofs of my work and I notice that errors have crept in during the design and production process that were not in the original manuscript. Should I be expected to correct these or should I leave them to the editor to do?

Do not leave them to the editor. They may not spot them. If you have to spend time correcting errors that are not yours, keep track of how long this takes, contact your editor and ask for payment for this extra work. It’s unlikely that you’ll get it, but it may come in useful as a bargaining tool in a subsequent negotiation, e.g. concerning promotional work.

My publisher has written to me saying that a book of mine is being put out of print. What should I do?

Check your contract and write to the publisher asking for the rights in the book to revert to you. This used to be standard but nowadays you may find publishers more reluctant to relinquish rights in case there is potential for digital exploitation of the material. Once the rights have reverted to you, you can set about reusing/repackaging the material.