Publishing your literary work

Many individuals who produce their own work such as literature, poetry, prose, journals, magazine articles etc will wish to get their work out into the public sphere through arranging for their work to be published.

When trying to get your work published there are a variety of factors that you should take into consideration, the first being the way in which you will organise the publishing of your work.

Self publishing versus a publishing house

There are two avenues by which you can organise your work to be published which are self publishing or publishing through a dedicated publishing house. The first option is a complex process which will require you to fully understand all the intricacies of publishing and at times is a difficult route to exploit the commercial value in your work.

Getting your work published through a publishing house is the most common option to choose as it provides significant advantages due to the existing market knowledge of the publishers in how to fully exploit the commercial value of your work. However, there will be certain legal issues in relation to the contract and certain elements such as the payment of royalties which you will be required to be fully aware of.

The Role of Literary Agents

Most publishers will not accept submissions directly from the author of the work; they will only accept submissions which have been provided to them by literary agents. Using an agent is an advantage as many will specialise in the area of your work and will have already existing contacts with the publishing houses.

How do I find a literary agent?

There is a large amount of literary agents through the UK, many of which have dedicated websites. It is advisable to thoroughly research both the agency and the dedicated agent to which you will send your work rather than sending it to every agency you can. Different agencies will have different submission procedures in relation to different kinds of work.

How do I pay an agent?

If an agent agrees to take you on they will be required to be paid for their role. There are two avenues by which to pay an agent with one being a direct annual amount and the other a percentage of the money you make.

Contracts with a publisher – issues to consider

When entering into a contract with a publisher in relation to your work there are various issues which you should take into consideration. They are as follows:

  • Standard Contracts

  • Ownership of Rights

  • Editing issues

  • Obtaining Clearances

  • Royalties

  • Competition

  • Revisions and editions

  • Warranties

  • Termination

Standard Contracts

Publishing houses will have standard terms and conditions which they will require you to sign before they agree to take on the publishing of your work. As these terms and conditions are unilateral often they will contain terms which directly benefit the publishing house rather than the author.

You must undertake a full inspection of the terms and conditions before signing. As literary agents will deal with many clients you will be required to sign similar terms and conditions it is advisable to obtain the opinion of your agent before signing.

Ownership of Rights

When the work is first written by the author all the rights will immediately belong to the author. When a publishing agreement is entered all of these rights are fully negotiable. This may have its advantages as if the publishing house owns all the rights in the work it will mean that each aspect can be exploited by one source. This will often be the case in relation to first time authors.

Authors who have a little more bargaining power, who may have already written a successful book may be able to retain rights such as electronic rights or foreign rights which can be sold to other sources at greater financial gain for the author.

What will happen to the copyright in the work?

As the author of the work is the one who owns the copyright immediately from the creation this right should stay with the author. It is likely that the publishing agreement will state this but that the publishing house has the right to exercise the rights of the copyright owner.

Editing Issues

Both the author and the publisher may want to have the final say in relation to the editing of the work. When signing the contract you must ensure that the parameters of the editing process are fully established.

Obtaining Clearances

Many books as well as involving original writing will contain work from other sources such as quotes or photographs. Before the work can be published you must ensure that the appropriate licensing has been established for the use of these works. It is often the case that the publishing house will obtain the licences and pay any appropriate licensing fees. You must make sure that this is fully provided for in the contract you sign with the publishing house.


The percentage of the money made on the publishing of the book which you will earn is established either on the retail or cover price of the book or done by a percentage of net incomes.

The rate will often depend on whether the book is a paperback, trade paperback or a hardback and will often be established on a sliding scale according to sales.

You must ensure that before you sign a contract with a publishing house that you are fully aware of all the issues and implications of the royalty system.


An issue that is not often considered when entering in a publishing agreement is the possibility of the same writer writing a spin-off or a competitive book exploiting the potential of the first book. Often a publisher will want to restrict this as they will want to protect the franchise they have in the original book. An author should think carefully when doing this as it could affect rights owned by both parties.

Revisions and Editions

An author will want to retain the right to revise and edit the work therefore preventing the publisher from doing it and the possibility of bringing in another writer. An author will also wish to negotiate better terms on revisions and editions due to the success of the original book establishing the market for the new version.


Warranties are legal clauses which set out what will happen in the scenario of a third party bringing a claim against the work alleging that their rights have been infringed. In the publishing arena this will often involve issues of defamation, copyright infringement, or invasion of privacy.

Often authors and agents will not fully understand the scope of these terms. It is therefore, advisable to obtain legal advice when dealing with these terms.


You will need to be fully aware of all issues specified in the publishing agreement in relation to termination paying particular attention to the following issues:

  • What events will trigger termination

  • What are your rights following termination

  • Who owns the rights to the work following termination