Writers in the Storm

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March 10, 2017

10 Questions to Ask Before You Accept a Traditional Publishing Deal

Susan Spann

The explosion of independent publishing houses in the U.S. and abroad makes it vital for authors to investigate publishers carefully before signing a contract. While even diligent research can't ensure you’ll avoid every possible problem, here are some questions to ask before you accept a traditional publishing deal:

  1. Does the Contract Require You (the Author) to Pay for Anything?

If the  answer is "yes," this is not a traditional publishing house, and probably not a deal you should sign. Traditional deals don’t require the author to pay for anything, either out of pocket or by allowing the publisher to recoup expenses before calculating the author’s royalty share.*

This applies not only to publishing costs but also to marketing – legitimate publishers don’t require authors to pay the publisher or an affiliated firm for marketing services.

Traditional publishers also don’t require the author to purchase any finished books. (Most allow you to do so, but a traditional deal never involves a mandatory purchase.)

*Note: some “hybrid” presses offer authors a cost-sharing arrangement under which the author has more control and receives a higher share of the profits; however, this is not a “traditional” deal—have an agent or lawyer review any hybrid contract before you sign.

  1. Does the Publisher Make Any Claims About Success, Sales, or Reviews?

No legitimate publisher can or will promise any author success (financial or otherwise). Any publisher that promises you sales (or good reviews) is not a legitimate publishing house. Also, beware of publishers whose websites contain statements like: "Make extra income writing books!" or "Become a bestseller with us!"

Run, don't walk, in the opposite direction.

  1. How Long Has the Publisher Been in Business?

This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it's an important point to consider. The longer a publisher has been in business, and the more books it produces, the better you can evaluate the publisher's history of contract compliance, distribution, sales, and successfully published works.

It's OK to take a chance on a newer publisher if you choose...but only if all of the other factors align with industry standards. Also, be aware that working with newer publishers is a risk, because publishing houses have high failure rates (among other reasons). Make sure your contract contains appropriate protections and termination rights.

  1. How Much Publishing Experience Do the Publisher’s Owner & Editors Have?

Many independent publishers open with great intentions, but little or no experience in traditional publishing, sales, and distribution. This creates enormous risk for the publisher and the author. Before signing with any publisher, ask about the owner and editors’ industry experience. Remember: inexperienced publishers often have more difficulty negotiating contracts and complying with legal obligations--not from malice, but because they don't have experience running a traditional publishing house.

  1. What is the Publisher’s Reputation in the Industry?

Never, ever sign with a publishing house unless you've researched both the house and the publisher/editor with industry watchdogs like Publisher's Marketplace, Writer Beware, and Preditors and Editors. Pay attention to what you see, and don't sign with any publisher unless you can confirm its legitimacy with industry watchdog sites.

Also, talk with 2-3 of the publisher’s other authors before you sign. If the authors won't speak with you honestly (or tell you the contract won't let them talk), move on.

You and your work deserve a press that gets glowing reviews from authors and the industry. Don’t settle for less.

  1. Have You Seen the Publisher's Other Books?

Go to a bookstore (or Amazon) and find the books the publisher produces. Hold them—or look at them on an e-reader if the publisher is a digital-only press. Consider the font, the production value, the covers, and ask yourself: will I be proud if my book comes out like this? If not … you have your answer.

  1. How Are the Publisher's Books Distributed? Where Are They Sold?

Many small presses don't have elaborate distribution arrangements. They may or may not have books on bookstore shelves. Find out where the publisher's books are sold, and use that information to evaluate whether the press can support your work the way you want it to. There is no “right” answer, incidentally. Distribution is a business decision every author has the right—and the obligation—to make individually.

  1. How Many Books Does the Publisher Release Each Year?

Generally speaking, the more books a publisher releases annually, the fewer resources the publisher has to dedicate to each individual book. Moreover, many publishers give the lion's share of their time and resources to A-list titles by authors who already have a substantial following. That said, the answer to this question is not a deal breaker. It’s simply another business point for authors to evaluate.

  1. Does Anything Else Seem...Odd?

Trust your instincts. They're better than you think. If anything seems "off" about the publisher, remember: you're better off with no publishing deal than signing a deal you later regret.

  1. Has an Agent or Attorney Reviewed Your Contract?

Navy regulations don't allow a compromised captain on the bridge...and every author is compromised when it comes to evaluating his or her own publishing deal. Consult a lawyer or an agent before you sign, especially if you're not fluent in legalese.

I can't promise these tips will save you from a deal you regret, or protect you against every predatory or inexperienced publisher. That said, they will at least give you a start in evaluating a publishing offer or deal.

*Disclaimer: This post does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship between the author and any person. It is intended for educational purposes only. The author does not represent or warrant that this post contains all information required to protect you when choosing a publishing house, escaping a swarm of killer bees, or trying to avoid a shambling horde of zombie lawyers. Your experience, legal rights, and candy

Have you ever run into a 'run don't walk' publisher who fit the above description?

Do you have any publishing law questions for me?

*     *    *     *     *

About Susan

Susan Spann is a California transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business, and is also the author of the Hiro Hattori (Shinobi) mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo. Her fourth novel, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, released from Seventh Street Books in August 2016. Susan was the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.

Find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com, on Twitter (@SusanSpann), and on Facebook (/SusanSpannBooks).

20 comments on “10 Questions to Ask Before You Accept a Traditional Publishing Deal”

  1. This list will no doubt save authors a lot of heartache, Susan. Thanks for writing it. If you've been working on a project for a long time, it's so easy to compromise on something important just to see it in print. Desperation is not a good business partner.

    1. I hope it does, Kathryn - and I'm glad I can help them. It's so true that desperation is a poor business parther, and I hope this list helps people keep good business judgment in play when making decisions.

  2. I sometimes feel that learning all I need to know about being an author is as complicated as finding my way through Boston, but today's post shed light on one more side street. Thanks you Susan. And thanks, Kathryn, for the advice.

    1. I'm truly glad I can help, Deb. Publishing is complicated, but it's so important to educate yourself so you can manage your career and your works. Thank you for stopping by!

  3. Excellent questions, Susan. Actually nearly all of them (except #1) would pertain to signing ANY contract--like when hiring a house contractor. But authors have such a personal thrill at the very idea that a publisher is interested in their book that they just don't think of the due diligence they would normally do with any business contract. So this is a great reminder.

    Years ago I needed a printer, not publisher, for a client's book. We would ask for samples of their printed books (your #6), expecting, of course, they would send only their best. Not so. They sent some dreadful samples, what looked like their rejects! It was an eye-opener. If they offered that to POTENTIAL customers, yikes. BTW, if a writer doesn't have an agent to review the contract, I always recommend your #10--having a lawyer. But I would add only one familiar with literary contracts. Like you.

    1. Even #1 partially applies to contracts such as hiring a house contractor. No up front money to any contractor at any time! Not for materials, not for paint, not for whatever!

      1. It's so true - these really are mostly common sense, but so often authors don't realize that they apply to publishers as well as other business areas.

        I wish I could say your experience with the samples surprises me, but I'm afraid some inexperienced businesspeople don't realize just how badly sloppy work reflects on their businesses (another thing that applies to writers and publishers too!). I'm glad they sent the bad samples, though, so at least you had enough warning to go another way!

    1. Thank you Denise! I actually created this list originally to help small and indie press authors, because I know a few who work without agents and wanted a list to help them make decisions. I'm glad you liked it too.

  4. As always, thanks for keeping us safe, Susan. The best advice my mom ever gave me (besides not jumping off a cliff, if my friends did) was, 'If it sounds too good to be true, it is.'

    I go into any contract with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, the other side wrote it - who do you think they're looking out for?

    1. Thank you for letting me guest post here, Laura - I appreciate having the chance to help keep writers (and their careers) safe.

      Your comment about the cliff makes me think of a poem I once read somewhere:

      "We is bestest friends./ You laugh, I laugh / You cry, I cry / You dance, I dance.
      You jump off bridge ... I miss you."

      Probably inappropriate, but it made me laugh.

      Good call on the contract skepticism, too. Publishing is a business, and the publishers *absolutely* see it as a business, not a personal deal. Authors need to see it that way too.

  5. As always, great tips on contracts, Susan. If God is willing, maybe a book contract is in my future. Here's hoping. I've shared this post online. All best to you.

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