Publishing Red-Flags to Avoid

The last few years have seen an explosion of small and micro-press publishers (as well as scammers, though that’s not exactly the purpose of this post) and a corresponding increase in the number of authors published by smaller houses. While many small publishers have the intention of running a legitimate publishing business, some have entered the field without an adequate understanding of the industry. Even experienced publishers often have trouble succeeding–and authors need to beware of signing contracts with publishers that might not be able to manage the business properly.

Here are some important red-flags to consider before signing with any publishing house, but particularly a newly-established one:

1. Non-Standard or Overreaching Contract Terms. The smaller the press, the less the publisher “needs” subsidiary rights like foreign translations, merchandising, TV and film adaptations. Even large publishers generally don’t try to keep merchandising, TV and film rights–a small publisher wanting these windfalls is a red-flag.

2. Owner/Publisher Lacks Significant Experience Working for a Traditional Publishing House. Publishing involves more than simply choosing and printing good books. The technical aspects of layout, cover design, printing, distribution, sales, and royalty payments all require training and experience to handle well. At New York publishing houses, people train for years to move into positions of authority in any one of these areas. It’s almost impossible (not absolutely, but almost) for an inexperienced person to open a publishing house and succeed without significant prior experience in these areas.

3. Apologies For Lack of Experience or Expertise. Publishers should never expect the authors they publish to “forgive our lack of experience” or overlook non-professional behavior. “Hang in there, we’re new” is not something an author should hear from the publishing house. If a publishing house wants to publish your work, it should conduct its business operations with professionalism and a top-notch understanding of the industry. You have a right to expect–and receive–no less.

4. Nondisclosure Clauses Prohibiting Public Discussion of the Publishing House. Some publishers attempt to prevent “bad press” by contract clauses which prohibit authors from making any “negative public statements” about the publishing house. This isn’t normal contract language. It’s actually in the author’s best interest not to disparage a publisher in public–after all, the publisher produces the author’s books. It’s normal for a nondisclosure clause to prevent the author from disclosing contract terms–but if such a clause exists, it should be narrowly tailored to contract terms alone.

5. Lack of an Established Track Record of Publication and Royalty Payments. New publishers do need time to get started, but authors should be extremely wary of signing with a publisher that hasn’t got a history of publishing books and paying royalties to authors on time. Generally speaking, it’s better to let someone else be the guinea pig, and choose a publisher you know can deliver on the contract promises.

While none of these red flags requires an author to refuse an offer, authors should beware of signing contracts where too many red flags are present–and only you can decide what “too many” means for you.

There are many excellent small and micro-presses in the United States (and elsewhere) that are worthy of authors’ trust–and in many cases, the authors they publish are glad to tell you about their experiences. The key is not avoiding small or mid-sized presses, but rather entering into any publishing deal with open eyes and an awareness of the issues to avoid.

While nothing can prevent every problem, and sometimes even good presses fail, authors who know the industry and insist on working with experienced, professional publishers tend to have better and more satisfying experiences in the long run.

Thanks for joining me for today’s post about publishing red flags. Have questions about this or other publishing legal and business topics? Feel free to ask in the comments or on Twitter, using the #PubLaw hashtag!