fawny.org: Beware of Apress contracts

Beware of Apress contracts

Now includes responses from Apress

A young computer publishing house, Apress (not aPress or APress or A Press, Apress), is gaining increasing geek attention for its allegedly progressive treatment of authors.

The lore of Apress holds that its founders are geeks who had had it up to here with the unfairness of existing geek-book contracts. While this is a coded reference to O’Reilly, which does apparently pay poorly, the criticism is actually fair in general. It is not unheard-of to find a publishing contract that, for example, pays you lower royalties on sales outside the U.S. than inside, or might actually pay lower percentage royalties on larger increments of sales. (The more popular your book, the less you earn per copy.) They’re even cheap with free copies of your book for your own use.

Popular mythology also holds that Apress acts like a partnership: Publish a book with them and they give you shares in the company. This, supposedly, works to counter the master/slave relationship of traditional publishing.

Even Dave Winer talks up Apress. “I’ve been hearing great things about Apress. It was described to me as an author’s book publishing company. If you write a book for them you get stock. Right on.”

That is the lore.

For the purposes of review and commentary, let me explain in my own words the mild advantages and severe disadvantages of Apress contracts. Consider it a form of public service. If you are planning to write a computer book, these lessons may be useful to you.

The reality

Joel on Software mentioned that “his publisher” was looking for an author of a book on accessibility. Since I had a ready-made proposal sitting here for a book on Web access (currently under consideration by two other publishers), I perked up. I eventually received a message from an Apress editor.

After submitting my existing proposal, I immediately received a wildly enthusiastic E-mail saying, in effect, "Let’s do it.” This is not at all remotely how the publishing industry works, with the possible exception of quickie tie-in books linked to a news event (like Karla Homolka or the Clinton impeachment). It takes months just to get to the contract stage.

Compare and contrast

Ah, yes, the contract. This is where the lore breaks down. Apress has two models of contract:

  1. One pays royalties and an advance.
  2. The other pays royalties and will also pay you a “grant” of up to US$1,000 – but only on presentation of receipts for items that could reasonably be seen as facilitating the writing effort. This might as well be called the Æron Chair Version.

Note that, in the Æron Chair Version, you front the money, wait to get reimbursed, and then slog away for months without receiving a dime. And you have to pay the money back if Apress rejects your book and you want to publish it elsewhere.

Very progressive.

In nearly all other respects, Apress contracts are no better than the industry norm. And in one particular way, they are significantly worse.

How do I know? I have an Apress contract and a contract from a Competing Technology Publisher.

Let's look at similarities first.

  1. Both are willing to register the copyright in your name, but they hold effectively all rights for the duration of the copyright, which extends decades past the date of your death. Your name may be on it, but they own it.
  2. Both attempt to secure rights in every medium, critically including electronic formats. While geeks may get all excited about finally publishing an E-book!, there’s a wee little problem here: If your publisher owns the E-rights, your book will never go out of print.
    1. Computer books have definite lifespans. If you don’t revise your book, it should expire after a while and become an artifact. If you do revise your book, the clock resets: You have just given it a new lease on life.
    2. Both contracts allow for ownership of the work to revert to you should the book actually go out of print. But even if the publisher produces exactly one run of your book and every printed copy is distributed, sold, or given away, your book will not be deemed out of print if there is any kind of electronic version.
    3. Which would you rather have: A dribble of electronic sales for years or the wholesale return of your property? Assignment of E-rights is sharecropping.
  3. Both have final say on every aspect of graphic design, book title, presentation, and marketing. (Apress promises to “consult” with you, but they decide any disagreements.) With both, however, you are required to assist with marketing, and must provide your likeness for that purpose. (Apress has a slight advantage: They’ll use your picture only if it’s reputable and dignified.)
  4. Both pay royalties in instalments (Apress has an advantage: Four times a year versus two) and provide a litany of reasons to make deductions from your royalties.
  5. Both pay only a fraction of regular royalties for “subsidiary” rights, which in practice means everything other than publication of the first print edition in the United States. (Second and subsequent U.S. print editions are a separate issue.) All foreign sales and all sales of translations fall into this category, as do sales of electronic versions, CD-ROMs, and all the other variants they own. (Remember the E-books issue? It’s lose-lose.) ¶ And here’s a big note to Canadians: You write a book for an American publisher and sales in your own country earn you a fraction of U.S. sales.
  6. Both pay royalties according to sliding scales, with many provisos on how sales are counted. Apress has a likely disadvantage here: Its increments are zero to 25,000, 25,001 to 49,999, and everything else. The Competing Technical Publisher works in 10,000-unit increments. It may be easier to sell 11,000 technical books (knocking you into the second increment with the Competition) than 21,000 (as with Apress), though the resulting royalty dollars may not scale equally.

Apress contracts offer a couple of clear advantages:

  1. If they don’t actually sell any subsidiary rights, you can secure them.
  2. The noncompete clause is much more realistic. You can, for example, write articles about the same subject-matter as your book and they will almost certainly not be deemed competitive with your book. With the Competition, all you can do is conduct training or seminars.
  3. Even if your book does go out of print, the Competition owns the title, graphic design, and everything else but the actual text, which is pretty much all you can get back. With Apress, you can buy back the plates and files involved, among other things.

Why Apress ain’t so hot after all

Apress contracts offer quite modest advantages over the Competition. And one severe disadvantage: They’re nonnegotiable.

Apress sends you a contract. (In my case, it wasn’t even discussed whether I’d get the advance or the Æron Chair version. It was the latter.) You sign it and start writing.

No changes are permitted whatsoever.

Does that sound like a contract or an ultimatum?

It gets worse. Occasionally, contracts are altered by Apress’s board of directors. Retroactively.

So let’s recap:

  1. The actual terms of Apress contracts are only slightly more favourable than the industry standard.
  2. Given that they are nonnegotiable, contracts are not actually contracts but ultimatums.
  3. Even after acceding to the ultimatum, terms may be changed without your consent, knowledge, or involvement at a later date.

How is this an author’s book company?


The Apress contract makes no mention at all of earning shares in the company after the book is published. The editor I was dealing with confirmed that it’s true.

This sounds a bit like the Fraternity Hazing Ritual model of book publishing, doesn’t it? Sign on with the ultimatum, get through the naked push-ups into a jar of Hellmann’s Dijonnaise and the elephant walk, and we’ll cut you in on the company. (The analogy preferred by the editor is some kind of apprenticeship at a law firm.)

My advice

Geek-book publishers are used to working with programmers, not writers. They’re accustomed to coaxing understandable English out of programmers, who in turn are unfamiliar with the publishing business. Are programmer types willing and able to stand up for their rights?

Oh, probably not. They’re just so excited at the idea of writing a book that they’ll go along with more or less anything.

Well, don’t. Not with Apress, anyway. There are other fish in the sea. If you have a viable book topic, other publishers will bite. Heck, for a while there I was courting three publishers. Now I’m down to “only” two. Something might happen or nothing might happen. But what won’t happen is my giving in to an Apress ultimatum.

“Author’s book publishing company” my arse.

Anyway, I signed on the dotted line with New Riders Publishing and am writing the book Building Accessible Websites for that house.

Updated 2002.05.05

You were here: fawny.org > Beware of Apress contracts