While at the Virginia Festival of the Book, pimping books for the publishing company I help operate, I spoke to an author who mentioned she had been offered a contract by a renowned publisher of romance. A rather big name in the genre at that, one to which many writers I know have aspired to join. So, you can imagine my surprise when this author told me that she declined. Then she revealed the reason: the contract was not to her liking.
That I can understand. As a publisher, I do have to negotiate at times with potential authors and editors, and as a writer I have had to learn some legalese so as to protect my own interests. However, over the years it has shocked me to know how many authors (many who had only been published for the first time) practically signed the ones offered to them without putting much thought into it. Sadly, it’s such situations that account for the growing number of complaints lodged against certain dubious companies; then again, there are companies that spell everything out, then don’t deliver. It’s no wonder the image of the writer suffering for his craft rings true.
To be certain, I have done my share of suffering (watch for my horror story soon), brought on by my haste to see my name in print. I can feel for authors in the same situation, it is the desire to be published right here, right now that sometimes causes one to chase butterflies and quickly find moths chewing on the net. If I ever accomplish something important in my short life, I hope it will involve keeping writers from signing away their lives or finding disappointment where there should be dreams. Achieving this will require that writers do a good amount of research, and learn to embrace patience.
It is with this in mind that I submit this short list of publishing red flags. This post differs from others in that it focuses solely on dubious practices by print and eBook publishers alike. While there may exist small presses that are not regularly shelved at B&N, that doesn’t mean the press should be avoided. It is true that having a book in a physical store is a wonderful thing, but bear in mind how bookstores work, and how the Internet and other options can open many other avenues of promotion for authors. If your book is written for a specific market, don’t discount a small press that specializes in that market on the basis of distribution. You many such a press can benefit you in other ways.
So, to all you novice writers about to sign your lives away, please look for these red flags before you do anything:
Fees – Listen carefully: never, never, never, never, never, never, never, NEVER pay a fee to a publisher, editor, or agent! Have you heard the adage “Money flows to the author, not away?” This is what that means (of course, many authors will spend to promote, but that’s another post). Any publisher that would ask you pay a mandatory fee, or subsidize the publication of your book, should be avoided. The goal of a publisher is to make money, but that income should come from readers, not authors. The goal of an agent is to make money from the authors they represent, but that money comes from the publishers, not the writers.
What, you may ask, about eBook houses that subject authors to pay for print options? This is a sticky one. Some debate that the houses are legit, since they don’t charge outright for all methods of production, only the bare minimum to offset POD printing. Others say, they charge a fee, set them free. If you don’t care about being in print, it’s not an issue. If you want a print book, watch out.
Rights clauses in contracts – I once knew an author who had signed on with a publisher of dubious reputation, then spent a year and a lot of money in legal fees trying to get his book back. Seems this particular house acquired all rights to the book for seven years – that’s print, film/TV, foreign language editions, everything. All promises made to the author were broken, and it was just an ordeal for the author to get the book back. My only hope is that the drive to see the book placed elsewhere remained strong.
Read your contract. Find out how long the publishers want your rights. Believe it or not, there are some that want lifetime rights to your work. Some might argue that it makes sense for certain anthologies, so they don’t have to be reprinted should an author withdrawl, but even in those situations there are ways to keep the author and publisher happy.
One other clause to look for is the right of first refusal. Normally one would find this applicable if an author is planning to write books in a series, like mystery or science fiction authors often do. The publisher will naturally want first crack at the next book to keep the series going under one roof. Read that clause carefully, though, because some publishers may require right of first refusal on everything you write, regardless of relation to the first work. This means if you wrote a romance novel for Publisher A who specializes in romance, then wrote a mystery novel, you have to give it to Publisher A. Publisher B may be more adept in marketing mystery, but even if Publisher A refuses out of courtesy it could put your book in unnecessary limbo.
Once Bitten – The best to learn about the reputation of a publisher is to research authors with, or formerly with, that house. For the novice writer scoping out publishers, the best thing you can do before sending anything out is to consult one or all of these websites:
Piers Anthony’s Publishing List
Preditors and Editors
These are the top watchdog sites on the Internet, evaluating small presses and eBook houses according to the personal experiences of authors and editors. While the information provided may not be 100% accurate (you may get the occasional anonymous tipster with an axe to grind), they normally provide a good picture. Eventually, where bad apples are concerned you are likely to see the same names coming up over and again. Use your good intuition, take things slowly, and be prepared for any speedbumps.Above all else, never give up, even if you do get burned. I didn’t.