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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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).