How to Spot–and Avoid–Predatory “Pay to Play” Publishing Contracts

Scammers flourish in places where art and business intersect, because too many artists (including writers) don’t learn to protect themselves and their rights.

The best way to protect yourself as an author is to learn as much as possible about the publishing industry, including how to identify the warning signs of predatory publishing deals. Today, we’re kicking off a mini-series on scam avoidance with a look at predatory “pay to play” publishing contracts.

Industry standard publishing contracts:

— Do not require the author to pay for anything up front, including publishing costs.

— Do not allow the publisher to deduct the costs of publication from receipts before calculating the author’s royalty share.

The “pay to play” publishing offer turns the industry standard around, by requiring the author to pay for publishing (& sometimes marketing) costs.

Sometimes, the contract requires the author to pay the publishing costs “up front,” as a lump-sum out-of-pocket payment to the publisher.

Other times, the predatory contract offers “industry-standard” royalty rates, but also allows the publisher to deduct all costs from receipts before calculating the author’s share — which often results in the author receiving nothing. Royalties should be calculated based on the actual sums the publisher receives (less only returns and additional sums – like shipping and taxes – paid by buyers in addition to the purchase price).

The publisher, not the author, should be responsible for all the publishing costs in a traditional publishing deal.

Predatory “pay to play” terms sometimes lurk in the contract’s royalty language – so be sure to read the entire contract carefully. Any contract which has the effect of making the author pay the costs of editing, publishing, distribution or marketing is non-standard, and may be predatory.

Any time a publisher tries to shift the costs of publishing the Work to the author—either up front or in the royalty share—the publisher is altering the traditional model. Author, beware.

In “Hybrid” publishing contracts , the author and publisher share the costs of publication–but the author also gets a much higher share of profits. Also, in a hybrid arrangement, the author has more control over cover art and other parts of the publishing process.

However, legitimate hybrid publishers are always up front about the nature of the arrangement and the fact that the author isn’t being offered a “traditional deal.” Anyone who tries to tell you that the “author pays” model is a “typical New York contract” or a “traditional publishing opportunity” is trying to take advantage of your ignorance.

Never sign a hybrid publishing contract without hiring a professional (an agent or a publishing attorney) to review & negotiate on your behalf.

When evaluating a traditional publishing offer, remember:

— The author should never pay the publisher out-of-pocket for publishing or other related costs. (Note: some contracts do require authors to pay for excessive changes to the book at the final proof stage – that’s normal, but that’s not the same as paying the publishing costs.)

— The publisher should not be able to “recoup” the editing, publishing, marketing, or distribution costs — in part or in full — from the author’s share of sales.

If you see either of these terms in the contract, BEWARE – and definitely obtain professional review before you sign.