Down the Publishing Rabbit Hole: To Ask the Proper Questions

Today we continue the publishing mini-series that takes you “Down the Publishing Rabbit Hole” and examines some publishers authors should avoid.

The first post, “To Catch a Charlatan,” took a look at publishing scammers, and last week we looked at Small Publishers an Author May Want to Avoid.

This week, we’ll finish up with a list of questions an authors should ask when considering signing a small press publishing contract.

To reiterate a point I’ve made before: I’m a fan of small presses, and hybrid presses, as well as large-press publishing. The keys are making sure to sign with the type of press that meets the author’s individual goals and needs, and making sure to treat the publisher-author relationship as a business decision, rather than an emotional one. 

Also: the questions I suggest below aren’t only for small-press authors. An author should really ask these questions–and know the answers–before signing with ANY publishing house:

1. Does the contract contain industry-standard terms, or better? (It should.)

Authors who publish with smaller houses give up the “big 5” label recognition, usually in favor of better or more author-friendly terms. Make sure your small-press publishing contract lives up to that promise. It’s worth hiring a publishing lawyer (or working with an agent) to ensure that the contract isn’t overly restrictive or inappropriate. In addition, a smaller house usually shouldn’t keep film, TV, app, merchandising, and gaming rights–those should remain with the author alone.

2. Does the contract contain a confidentiality clause or a “gag clause” preventing the author from speaking about the publisher in public? (It shouldn’t.)

Large traditional publishers don’t try to “muffle” authors by including restrictive language forbidding the author from talking about the publisher–or the author’s publishing experience–in public. We teach our children that adults trying to tell them to “keep a secret” is dangerous, and the same is true of a publishing house that tries to stop its authors from speaking about their experiences.

3. Do you know your editor’s name? (You should.)

Don’t accept a contract if the publisher can’t tell you the name of the person responsible for editing your work. You should know your editor’s name and direct contact information before you sign. Some small presses have an acquisitions editor who acquires all of the books and then assigns the individual titles to sub-editors for editing. That’s fine, and a normal practice, but it’s fair for an author to know the name of the person who will be editing the work up front. 

4. Do you have to pay any costs or expenses, either up front or out of your royalty share? (You shouldn’t – unless you’re hybrid – and even then, beware.) 

Traditional publishing contracts don’t require the author to pay ANY costs, either up front or out of the author’s royalty share. If the author receives an advance, the advance amount is deducted from royalties before the author receives additional payments, but nothing else is deducted from the author’s share. Editing, production, marketing, publishing, and distribution costs are all paid by the publisher alone.

Hybrid publishing houses sometimes allow (or expect) an author to share the publishing costs, to one extent or another, but this is offset by higher royalty percentages and other contract terms. Also, legitimate hybrid houses list specific costs and details the manner in which those costs are paid. This is not a place for ambiguity or generalities in the contract.

If your contract requires you to pay ANY costs, have it vetted by an experienced attorney (or agent) before you sign. 

5. Check References and Sample Titles.

Never sign a contract with any publishing house until you’ve seen and read at least one sample title the house has produced. If the publisher produces print copies, go to a bookstore or library and handle one (or order a book online, if you’re willing to buy it). If the publisher is e-only, purchase an ebook or download a sample. Make sure the publisher’s other works have the quality, font, and formatting you expect from a professional publishing house.

Don’t assume “my book will be better/different/unusual.” 

You would never buy a business sight-unseen, without examining the products the business produced. A publishing contract is a business decision (and one which might survive you, if the contract lasts for the term of copyright). Examine the product BEFORE you sign the contract.

In addition to looking at physical books, contact at least one author whose work is published by the publishing house and ask to talk about that author’s experiences. If the author won’t talk with you (or says “I’d love to, but my contract won’t allow it”) – that’s a huge red flag. Beware.

Asking these questions can’t guarantee you a good experience with your publisher, but they can help you avoid a bad situation by raising red flags before a contract is signed. These aren’t the only questions an author should ask–the specifics of each author’s situation will vary, and it’s impossible to offer an exhaustive list in a single post. However, starting with these will guide the discussion in ways that should help reveal which other questions you need to ask before you sign.

What other questions would you ask a publisher before signing a publishing deal?


2 thoughts on “Down the Publishing Rabbit Hole: To Ask the Proper Questions

  • March 10, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks for this series! Basket accounting, reversion-of-rights, and non-compete clauses are good ones to scrutinize.

    • March 16, 2014 at 9:46 pm

      They are, indeed. Thank you for stopping by, and I’m glad you liked the series!

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