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Guidebook Contract Offer  

A real-life example...  

I received a message from "Mexico Mike" Nelson, an author specializing on Mexico, asking my opinion of a book deal he had been offered. His questions and the responses might be helpful to other authors.

Tom, perhaps you'd be willing to help me with a good "problem". I've been offered a chance to do a book on Mexico (a travel guide) by [a travel guide series]. They have guides to Hawaii, Australia and that part of the world, but nothing on Mexico. I'd be starting from scratch. Length is to be 300-500 pages. They offered me a royalty 10% for the first 7,500, 12% next 7,500 etc. with an advance of $10,000 over 4 payments. $2,500 upon signing contract, $2,500 when half manuscript is finished etc. Royalties are based on "actual monies received", so that's the wholesale price less returns as I read it.

I think it is a low offer. Frankly, I figured that something of that magnitude would be worth about $60,000, considering the expenses involved. On the other hand, I have done most of the traveling and will do the rest this year. What I don't have is a lot of the details like taxi prices, bus schedules etc.

One friend said I should do the book as a vehicle to get my name known. I don't know if guidebooks are the way to do that or not. You certainly have quite a name in the field. Another said that writing articles would be more lucrative and a better vehicle.

Is their offer ok? Any observations you can give me will be most gratefully appreciated. My idea before this offer was to write small books and self-publish, but I need an investment of about $6,000 to get the cost per book down to where it is reasonable.

Thanks, "Mexico" Mike.


1. A $10,000 advance is average, but I would hold out for at least 40% of it (better, 50%) before you start the work. You may need the capital. It is common for publishers to pay out the rest as the work progresses, particularly with a first-time author.

2. The royalty rates offered to you are average (10% with an escalator to 12%) for percentage of net. However, your contract should determine very precisely what constitutes "net," and how the books will be sold. If the publisher decides after a year to sell off the guides at cost, you get nothing, whereas if your contract had stipulated cover price you would have to be paid full royalty. "Net" is a slippery term. "Cover price" is an indisputable amount of money. And all royalties are based on sales less returns.

It's instructive to know the publisher's returns policy, and how long they will be permitted. Also, will the publisher withhold a "reserve against returns?" For how long, and when will the reserves be released to you? Find out.

3. I can't tell if this is a low offer or not. In a sense, only time will tell. It depends upon how good a book you write, the market, the way the publisher promotes the book, whether or not there are any bad headlines which dissuade travelers from going to Mexico, etc. On the face of it, these terms sound normal, but one bad clause in the contract can change that. Publishers do all sorts of things these days, some of them quite unethical.

4. Writing a book makes you an instant expert, particularly if the book is in a respected series. It promotes your reputation far faster and farther than a series of newspaper or magazine articles. The very big magazines pay better (I've earned $2 per six-character word), but they only give the work out to writers they know and trust--writers who have already made names for themselves by, say, writing a guidebook!

5. Bottom line: If you like detail, like writing, like Mexico, trust the publisher, get a good contract, and plan to do the revisions to the guide, it can be a pretty good deal. The first edition won't make you much money (if any); succeeding editions may make decent money (but see No 3 above) because you don't have to do all of the writing again, and you'll know where a lot of the info is.

6. Self-publishing can be quite lucrative. Richard Bloomgarten made a good living on his simple self-published books to Mexico because he very smartly set up his own distribution network. But that's another subject entirely.

Hope this helps.


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Tom Brosnahan