Down the Publishing Rabbit Hole – to Catch a Charlatan

Last week, I had to tell two different authors to walk away from publishing contracts.

To walk away from a dream.

In both cases, the decision wasn’t based on terms that “weren’t good enough,” or on traditional publishing’s refusal to meet the author’s reasonable needs. For these authors, the rabbit hole–and the problems–went much deeper.

This is the place to get off this post if you don’t want to hear an unpleasant truth about modern publishing. To quote Morpheus from The Matrix: “You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

14B23 Rabbit Hole

Still with me?

Here we go.

There are four different kinds of traditional publishers populating the publishing landscape today. They break down like this:

1. The large, legitimate publisher, whose contracts might pinch at times, but who in the long run is operating a business and living up to contract obligations.

2. The small, legitimate publisher, whose contracts might-or-might-not respect the author, but who in the long run is operating a business and living up to contract obligations.

3. The charlatan, whose publishing house exists to make a profit for the publisher alone, who might or might not actually produce the books as promised, and whose contract exists to take as many rights (and screw over the author as thoroughly) as possible.

4. The newbie publisher, who would really REALLY like to become a legitimate professional publishing house, but  doesn’t really understand contracts  or have the experience to do a good job producing and distributing books and fulfilling contract obligations.

Author, beware: Category 3 and 4 are equally dangerous, for different reasons. We’ll look at the Charlatan today, and next Monday, we’ll follow up with a look at the inexperienced publisher and why you should probably avoid them, too.

Many authors know about the publishers who want to take advantage of inexperienced or unwary authors. Watchdog websites and industry reputations help authors keep an eye out for those who would knowingly take advantage. Even so, it’s easy for an author to fall prey to a convincing charlatan who offers an official looking “contract” and sounds like a small but reputable publishing house.

How do you tell the difference?

The charlatan’s contract will often be very short (sometimes only a page) and will seem to offer the author a fabulous deal. However, the terms will often be ambiguous, and many important protections will be omitted. Among the most common: termination, out-of-print status, author’s remedies if the publisher breaches, and a definite time by which the publisher must offer the book for sale. There are many other problems too — but unless you know what to look for, you probably won’t realize they’re missing.

The charlatan’s contract usually won’t offer an advance up front, and it often lets the author “repay the publisher’s costs and expenses through sales, rather than up-front fees!” (In the alternative, the publisher may offer to let the author pay for these services up front…but won’t list the costs anywhere in the contract.) Many charlatans recognize that authors now see an up-front fee for publication as a danger signal. As a result, many have shifted to a “net royalty” business model, where the author’s royalties are calculated based on sales receipts less the publisher’s costs, including editing, cover art, and proofreading.

Please note: the lack of an advance, without more, does NOT make a publisher a charlatan or a bad risk. Many legitimate smaller houses do not offer advances. The key is making sure the OTHER contract terms are fair and legitimate.

The charlatan will refuse to negotiate contract terms at all, and will sometimes offer to withdraw the offer if the author asks to have the contract reviewed by an agent or an attorney.

The charlatan tells the author to “trust me” and says “I have only your best interests at heart.” This publisher wants you to believe that publishing is about your dreams, and all the wonderful money you’ll make, rather than your business sense. Don’t trust that line. Publishing is a business — YOUR business — and you need to treat it as one, especially when you’re looking at contracts.

Ultimately, there is no hard-and-fast rule to identifying the charlatan publisher. It’s a facts and circumstances test every time. The good news, however, is that the charlatan (like the cockroach) runs for cover when you shine a bright light on the contract and the business model. Professional help from an agent or an attorney will almost always expose the charlatan — as long as you get that help BEFORE you sign. 

10 thoughts on “Down the Publishing Rabbit Hole – to Catch a Charlatan

  • February 24, 2014 at 11:49 am

    Great series, Susan. With each new opportunity for authors to profit comes a new opportunity for authors to get scammed.

    • February 24, 2014 at 10:25 pm

      So sad, but so true, Piper. The more the publishing industry grows, the more the scammers will try to find ways to profit from it. Education, and help from those in the know, will go a long way toward helping stop them.

  • February 24, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you for sharing this, Susan. As someone who is hoping to get her hands on a contract from a publisher, it is definitely helpful to know the importance of getting all agreements vetted.

    • February 24, 2014 at 10:24 pm

      Thanks Corinne! When your contract comes (and it will!) shoot me an email. I’ll be glad to help.

    • February 24, 2014 at 10:24 pm

      Thank you, Laura. I agree – it’s a sad thing that we have to have the conversation, but I’m glad to add my words to the mix, in the hope they will help.

  • February 24, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    Sounds to me as if the best test of a publisher is simply to tell them you need to have your attorney take a look at the contract (then have Susan Spann look at it). If they say NO well that tells you a lot. The new publisher — do your homework about what they’ve already done.

    • February 24, 2014 at 10:23 pm

      Getting someone with experience and a distance from the deal to look at the contract is exactly the right first step, Karen. If more people did that, we might be able to start putting some of the charlatans out of business.

  • February 25, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Whenever someone says ‘trust me’ in what’s supposed to be a legal business arrangement, that’s a huge red flag. Run, do not walk, away. Excellent advice, Susan.

  • Pingback: Game Delayed … On Account of Bugs | Spann of Time

Comments are closed.