What Comes First? The Book or the Contract?

Tim McGuire talks to a range of Australian writers and publishers, including Penguin’s Cate Blake and writers Tom Doig, Krissy Kneen and Michelle Law, about the advantages - and drawbacks of putting the publishing contract before the book.

Photo by Jebediah Laub-Klein.

What came first? It’s an old adage, a universal question we can apply to any two correlating forces. In the case of the book and the book deal, though, perhaps it’s worth considering the stickier, more formidable question, which should come first?

The road to publication isn’t as traditional as it used to be, but, with the exception of self-publishing, the imperatives remain the same. You need an author, a book, a publisher and a book deal. It’s the sequence of these that have become unstuck. When a publisher catches the whiff of a potential bestseller, at what point should contracts (and money) change hands? Should there ever be a book deal before there’s a book?

Managing editor for Penguin Books Australia, Cate Blake, is quick to identify the advantages of signing with an author based on a book proposal alone. ‘One of the benefits from a publishing perspective is that you can work with the author to develop the manuscript, offering editorial support right from the outset,’ she says. ‘It also enables you to acquire a promising book as soon as you think it’s viable, rather than holding out for the full manuscript and risking losing it to another publisher.’

Of a similar opinion, and at the opposite end of the industry, is New Zealand born writer Tom Doig, author of the 2013 travel memoir Moron to Moron. He reflects on the moment when publisher Allen and Unwin offered him his first book deal. ‘If that hadn’t happened, I think I could still be flailing around with a first draft,’ he admits. ‘I’m so glad that the contract came through and gave me the impetus to obsessively dedicate eight months to get the manuscript up to scratch. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the balls or the morale or the money to do it,’ he says with a laugh.

Doig raises the important, albeit prickly, point of money. Unlike Doig, Brisbane author and bookseller Krissy Kneen prefers to write first and sign second, ‘but it’s nice to have some money to live on,’ she agrees. ‘There’s more pressure if you’ve already got some money up front.’

With a number of books already behind her (her most recent, the 2013 novel Steeplechase), Kneen is no stranger to writer-publisher negotiations. Dollars, she says, are a top concern for both parties. ‘I got a little bit worried because what I wrote is not really what [my publisher] commissioned,’ Kneen says coyly of her next book, stirring a spoon through her coffee while she talks. ‘As I was writing, the book kind of took a different turn and I thought, ‘I’m not actually writing what I’m being paid for and maybe they’ll just say no and send me back to the drawing board and I’ll have to start again.’’

Kneen’s books are published by Text, but her point about submitting the wrong manuscript to a paying company is a reality that translates across the industry, and the publishing giant Penguin is no exception. ‘The danger is that the manuscript that’s ultimately delivered may not be what you’d initially hoped for,’ Blake says of signing before seeing a finished manuscript, ‘Or that the author might take much longer than expected to deliver.’

It’s not just editors and publishers who are sweating deadlines, though. Readers have their own expectations, ones that they’re becoming increasingly less shy about voicing. George R.R. Martin, author of the books that inspired the hugely popular Game of Thrones TV series, has been repeatedly criticised by his readers for the growing delay between his books. ‘That’s the main reason why I no longer want to give any completion dates,’ Martin wrote to his fans online. ‘I am sick and tired of people jumping down my throat when I miss them.’

Managing readers’ expectations, while perhaps goading for authors like Martin, is essential for publishers like Blake. After all, it’s this group that ultimately drives sales and determines the success of a book.

In a system where the reader needs the author, the author needs the publisher, and the publisher needs the reader, Doig recognises the linked fates of all three. ‘If you get a book deal before you have a finished manuscript, you really should sweat blood to make it as awesome as you’re constitutionally capable of,’ he warns. ‘If you don’t, and something half-baked gets published, everyone loses. Not just you the first-time author, although it could well fuck your career. It’s crap for the publishers, who lose money and faith in first-time writers, and are less likely to invest in new talent.’

The implications of a variable in the chronology of the publishing process aren’t drawn in the sand yet, but they’re already starting to be felt by the next generation of authors. ‘Being a young writer adds another layer to it, I think,’ says Brisbane writer and blogger Michelle Law. ‘There’s definitely pressure on younger writers to be publishing. Everyone’s getting younger and younger and we’re expected to be precocious and put something out there.’

Negotiating the politics of what comes first might in fact be the best way for authors and publishers to keep each other from finishing last.

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