Writers in the Storm

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May 12, 2017

Knowing When to Walk Away from a Publishing Deal

Susan Spann

In the immortal words of Don Schlitz (made famous by Kenny Rogers): “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away … know when to run.”

Smart words for any gambler, but equally valid for authors. Unfortunately, too many authors don’t have the courage of those convictions when a long-awaited publishing offer comes … even when they suspect the offer isn’t necessarily a good one.

Learning when to walk away from an offer (and developing the strength to do it when necessary) is one of the most important business skills an author can develop.

No one can, or should, tell you when to refuse a contract, but let’s look at a few situations when wise authors should at least consider refusing a publishing deal:

1. The publisher is a vanity press or offers a predatory contract.

Legitimate traditional publishers never ask authors to pay for anything out-of-pocket. Legitimate publishers pay royalties based on gross receipts or “receipts on all sales of the work,” less returns, without deducting publishing costs or expenses before calculating royalties due to the author.

Any publisher that requires the author to pay publishing expenses (or pay for anything out of pocket!), to purchase “mandatory copies” of the work, or to agree to non-standard contract terms is not offering a fair and equitable deal. Beware, in particular, of publishers who attempt to place short time limits on accepting the deal, try to prevent the author from hiring a lawyer or agent to review the contract, or bully the author in any way.

2. The publisher won’t agree to a reasonable, industry-standard contract.

Sometimes, even legitimate publishers’ contracts don’t meet industry standards. Most publishers will negotiate, but if the publisher won’t budge on terms you consider vital, or won’t allow you reasonable termination rights if: (a) they fail to publish within 12-18 months of signing the contract, or (b) if sales drop too low, it’s better to walk away than to sign a contract you consider unreasonable or unfair.

I strongly recommend hiring an agent or publishing lawyer to advise you and negotiate any contract on your behalf. That said, you, the author, have the right to decide what business terms you will and will not accept. You have the power to refuse any deal that doesn’t meet your standards.

3. The publisher lacks the experience or capacity to publish and distribute your work appropriately.

Small publishers and micro-presses often lack extensive distribution; larger publishers may not give your work the attention it would receive at a smaller house. Different presses have different advantages (and disadvantages) – and you, the author, have the right (and obligation) to choose your path. Create a business plan for your work, and follow the publishing path that meets your goals. However, always investigate the publisher’s resources, distribution, experience, reputation, and business practices before you sign a deal.

4. The publisher can’t do more for you than you could accomplish as an author-publisher.

Before accepting a publishing deal, ask yourself: can this publisher do more for me, and for my work, than I could do if I published the book myself?

If the answer is “no”—or even, “I’m not certain”—you should seriously consider walking away from the deal altogether. Becoming an author-publisher is a serious business decision that no author should make lightly. However, signing a contract is serious too. Never entrust your work to a publisher that can’t do more for you than you could on your own (or by hiring people to assist you).

It’s better to walk away from ANY offer than it is to sign a contract you regret.

Have you walked away from a publishing deal? Would you have the strength to do it, if you recognized the offer was not a good one?

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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 “Knowing When to Walk Away from a Publishing Deal”

  1. Good advice Susan. I printed and filed JIC (just in case) I ever get ready to publish.

  2. I wish I'd known you and read your blogs before I signed my first contract. I was lucky in that it only had a 3 year term, but even that was about 2 years too long. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with all of us, and helping keep us out of (another) bad deal.

    1. I'm sorry you ended up in a place you wish you hadn't, Terri - but I'm glad you now know what to look out for (even though I do wish you didn't have to have the bad experience along the way!)

  3. Yes, Susan, great advice. Finding a commercial publisher seems to be the ideal to most writers, but often isn't so ideal at all. Even writers who go the self-publishing route can find themselves in contracts for printing and other services with unsatisfactory aspects. I'm hoping you can address that in a future article. I'll be passing this one on to my writing clients.

    1. It's definitely important for authors to manage their contracts properly, no matter which publishing path they choose. My best advice for author-publishers is actually to hire an attorney familiar with publishing contracts (including vendor agreements), and not to work with anyone who doesn't have a professional, written contract that the author-publisher's attorney has reviewed. Professional publishing houses hire lawyers to represent them in their business endeavors, and author-publishers are running a publishing house - thus, they need counsel too, and for the same reasons.

  4. I love these posts, Susan. They always make me think. I'm not to the contract stage yet, but ALL writers need to know this information before we sign.

  5. Even if you think you understand the contracts have an attorney look it over. I signed ten of them- standard contract- that has a clause in it about that allows the publisher to hold part the royalties to offset books that are returned, no books are returned but they hold on part of the money that is owed till the next royalty period where they pay that was held and take another part of the royalty that is due. This was not used till the company was sold to another company who suddenly used it.

    1. I definitely advise hiring an attorney (or an agent) - and not just because I am a publishing attorney myself. It's important to have someone familiar with the standard terms and legalities look at contracts on your behalf.

      As it happens, the clause you describe (it's known as the publisher holding a reserve against returns) is industry standard, and most contracts do have it. It's not a reason to refuse a contract, though I can understand how it might have been confusing or upsetting if the publisher didn't actually hold the reserve initially, and you started having to adjust to it later on.

  6. Thank you, Susan, for reminding us that we have the responsibility and the obligation to shepherd our writing careers in a way that sometimes means putting the brakes on something we've been working so hard, and sometimes so long, for.

  7. I took classes in how to negotiate (not writing, but other contracts) and you're right (as always), Susan. The number one rule is to know where you WON'T go, before you ever see the contract. Decide what you'll be flexible on, and what is a deal-breaker, and no matter what - stick to it!

    And yes, I know how hard that can be...

  8. Wonderful advice as always Susan. For the unseasoned among us, do you have suggestions on what is important to consider when going into a contractual agreement? I know this will probably vary, but a baseline of knowledge would be helpful. Are there any classes you might recommend that would answer the new author's concerns?

  9. Thank you for this incredible article full of great advice for the author.

  10. Thank you Susan. Not sure yet what I have to decide upon. What it all means.
    But am hoping my intended agent (with successful mainstream authors) heads me in the right direction. And I will certainly weigh it all up along with your advice. Thanks again.

  11. This advice applies not only to book contracts, but also anthologies of essays/articles, short stories and poems, either on the way to building your platform for an eventual book or if you write for them and may want to one day gather them into a collection. Look at the rights you are giving away, in particular.

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