In this WordPunk blog, we bluntly talk about the publishing industry, and on being an author, and how to value your work and why you must get paid on time.  Publishers don’t like authors and content providers to talk about contractual specifics because they prefer boilerplate contracts where everybody is paid the same — and nobody should ever blindly sign a boilerplate contract “as is” because there are always protections you need to ask for, and enforce, as an author and content provider that are not included in a boilerplate publisher’s contract.

Today, I’m going to share a story with you about our raw experiences over time dealing with the McGraw-Hill publishing house.

My first experience with that publisher was several years ago when they approached us to write an all-new “American Sign Language Dictionary.”  We were excited and daunted by the challenge.  We did about a month’s worth of work on the project before the McGraw-Hill editor who contacted us told us the idea had been killed by her editorial board.  We had no contract.  We had worked on faith for a month because, we were told, the idea had the internal support of McGraw-Hill, and that it was only a matter of working out the details.

On closer, postmortem examination, it appeared the editor who contacted us was just “looking for ideas to pitch” — and she had no solid green light for her ASL Dictionary.  We felt burned and burdened by that McGraw-Hill editor who sought us out, used our free goodwill and blind faith for a month, and then turned around and danced away from us when the truth came out that she had no deal to offer.

The next experience we had with McGraw-Hill was also several years ago when they approached us to use some of our GIS screenshots in their textbooks.  We were happy to provide the screenshots for the books under a North American Rights publishing agreement.  We also asked for three copies of each book.  McGraw-Hill paid us $2,700.00 for the rights and, even though they didn’t want to also provide book copies, they agreed to give us those copies and they placed that promise in our contract.  The books had a first run and a second run a couple of years later.

We were recently contacted again by McGraw-Hill to give them the rights to a “Spanish” translation of one of the books.  Now, we though that was an odd request — because book rights are usually done by region of the world, and not by language, and there were no other limits mentioned to the rights extension.  We were urged to hurry up and fax back our release.  They didn’t seem to want to pay us anything for the “Spanish” rights, they just needed our release signature to move forward.

We weren’t that desperate to see our screenshots in print in Spanish, and when a publisher is in “hurry up” mode — that’s a red flag that the deadline they’re giving you is to their advantage and not yours.

I replied to the email saying we were not really that interested in doing a Spanish translation deal with them, because they did not live up to the terms of our original North American Rights contract: McGraw-Hill violated that contract by never sending us the three copies of the textbooks even though we repeatedly asked that they be sent.  We negotiated a great deal on the first go around and, I believe, that is part of the reason why McGraw-Hill didn’t feel like sending us copies of the books as contractually required.

We were also told that the Spanish translation would be a first run of 11,000 copies — that’s a pretty big run for any textbook — and I checked online and learned the current, discounted, English version of the book was selling in the USA for $110.00USD.  Doing some quick calculations, a Spanish translation of the same book could end up worth well over $1.2 million USD to McGraw-Hill under the first run terms they presented to us in email.

I told McGraw-Hill we wanted $5,000.USD for the “Spanish” rights to our screenshots — the price would be cheaper if we did the deal based on region, and not language, as we had already done in the first contract — and I said we wanted six copies of the new translation as well as the three copies of the previous textbooks that were never delivered.

We didn’t hear from McGraw-Hill for the rest of the day — that’s a bad omen when claimed deadlines are looming and they’re pressuring you to sign — and, sure enough, the next morning we received a disingenuous, but chipper, email from one of the lesser contacts there telling us they would not be using our screenshots after all.

What a non-surprise!  McGraw-Hill, once again, played with us and then wasted our time and money!

We replied to their condescending email saying we’d be keep an eye out for the Spanish translation of the book, and that if we saw our screenshots in the book, we would have our attorneys contact them.

I believe the lesson in this mess is that McGraw-Hill never really intended to pay us anything for the “Spanish” rights — they just wanted a quick and dirty signature on their way to collecting $1.2 million USD — and if there was any obstacle in their way, they’d just remove it and rebuff it and move on; and that’s fine with us, because, in the end, you can’t really lose $5,000.00USD if there was never really any intention behind the negotiation in the first place to actually pay you anything for extending the rights.


    1. Thanks, Gordon!

      I know they thought it would be an “ego boost” to be published in the Spanish translation — and for some authors and content providers, that’s enough — and they’ll gladly sign away all their rights.

      However, I prefer to be paid for the for-hire work I do, and if you don’t want to fairly make money together — then there’s no point in pretending to do business together. “Negotiating in bad faith,” brings on a whole new legal echo.

  1. Definitely and interesting story, David. So no counter proposal to your initial $5k offer plus books, right? That does seem hinky. There’s always wiggle room in any negotiation.

    1. Yes, once we mentioned a price — and that we weren’t going to just sign away the Spanish rights for no compensation — they went quiet. No counter. No negotiation. No wondering. No apologies for breaking the original contract. Just the final cutoff. Beware!

      1. Messing with you on the ASL dictionary was pretty low, too. What did they expect you to do when the truth came out? Thank them for wasting your time and money?

        1. Yes, that ASL Dictionary still stings today. You know me, and we never would’ve even entertained starting to write the book unless we were quite certain we had a deal in place and we were only waiting for the paperwork.

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