The Millions

Poetry Book Contracts: What to Know Before You Sign

The route to publishing a book of poetry can be harrowing—especially for first books and books published via the contest system. With 500, 800, or even 1,500 manuscripts vying for the top spot in each contest, the odds are so bad that finally securing publication can feel like winning the lottery. So when a book contract does finally arrive, it can be tempting to do the briefest scan of the legalese before signing and sending it right back, as if reading too closely or asking questions of the press could make that good luck disappear. Even if you’re inclined to be a more critical reader of your contract, it can be hard to know exactly what all the sections mean, what’s standard, and where you might ask questions or try to negotiate.

I speak from firsthand experience: when I got the contract for my first book, Double Jinx, from Milkweed after it won the National Poetry Series, I knew only enough to know that I didn’t really know what it all meant. I asked a mentor to review the contract, and she confirmed that it was standard and fair. Her sole suggestion was that I request more author’s copies. Those extra 10 copies made me feel like a business genius. It was only as I began to work on the opposite side of the contract, as I solicited contributors and secured permissions as the co-editor for an anthology, The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood, that’s forthcoming with UGA in 2022, that I got a clearer sense of how contracts work. I also learned that many poets, even those with several books and an agent don’t always know exactly what rights they’ve given to whom and when!

Based on my own experiences and conversations with publishing professionals, I hope to demystify the contract process and explain the key terms you can expect to see in a poetry book contract. In general, a contract should delineate the responsibilities on both sides: when the poet will submit a final manuscript and how the press will handle it from there. You should, an editor at Graywolf, reminded me that the responsibilities outlined in a book contract go both ways, noting that “one of the advantages of the legal document is that it holds the press accountable to the poet as well.”

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