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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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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).