OMG, someone wants to publish my book!

It’s happened to me, and I’m seeing it happen to several of my writing friends. In the race to be published, you submit pretty much indiscriminately to agents and publishers who publish your genre and are open for submissions, and are not on the Predators & Editors blacklist.

And one morning, you download your email and lo, there is an offer of publication.

OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book! OMG, someone wants to publish my book!

Once you’ve finished jumping around, you sit down and have a look at the contract. But really, you don’t know anything about contracts. You don’t know what’s supposed to be in them, and what the standards are. The publisher making the offer is a small publisher. You don’t know them. You don’t have an agent and have never been able to get one for this particular book. You don’t have the publishing credits to belong to a professional writers’ organisation. You check the internet for information, but it contains cases about contracts that are obviously dodgy, and you’re reasonably sure this publisher is not a scam.

So you’re stuck up the creek. You feel you should be happy, and all your friends are happy for you, but there are a number of things that make you uneasy.

They could be any of the following:

The publisher is also using the press to push his or her own books. It happens. There is nothing as such ‘wrong’ with it, but do you want to be published by someone who may give his or own work preference when it comes to marketing?

The contract you get asks for rights the press doesn’t intend to use. For example, they sell only ebooks, but they want you to sign away the print rights. They are inflexible about changing this.

The person you are dealing with comes across as not very professional. For example, not all your questions are answered, or it takes an extra-ordinarily long time for you to get a reply. There may be deadlines (if you don’t accept this by…), or pushing of a certain editorial service. Whatever it is, it’s not illegal, but you feel uneasy about it.

You check the press’ web presence and the listings for a couple of their books (randomly-chosen—don’t pick their most popular titles) are not encouraging. You can barely find the books on Amazon, and when you do, there are no covers and no reviews.

The venture looks like an author-mill: it has books listed by many authors, and seem to be pushing quantity over quality.

None of those things are illegal, and some of their authors seem reasonably happy.

But you’re still unsure.

Let me ask you a question: if you were to plan an extensive home renovation, and you asked for quotes, and the company offering the cheapest quote had a lousy telephone service, took three days to get back to you, and only sent the quote after you rang them up and asked them for it, would you sign with them? Would you trust them with your money and your beloved house?

A publishing contract is a bit like this. Moreover, once you sign, you’re stuck with these people for a while. You had better like their professional conduct and feel that they could do the best by your book.

If you feel iffy now, imagine what you feel like three years down the track. A publishing contract is an agreement of service: of the publisher, to you. You are going to have to work with these people. One of them will edit you work. Any inter-personal difficulties or differences of opinion will be blown out of the water by this process. You don’t want to start off feeling dubious about their professionalism. These people will design your cover. They will send you regular sales updates. Do you feel confident that you’ll like what they do?

If you have doubts that you’ll be able to work with these people, I’d think twice about signing.

13 comments on “OMG, someone wants to publish my book!

    • Exactly! And you feel like you can’t turn this down because otherwise you’ll neeeeever be published.

      There are some really good small presses out there, and some really bad ones. Most, I think, rate no better than ‘meh’ and are probably no more professional than you or I. They mean well, but… you know…

      It’s hard to know which are the good ones,especially when they are overseas.

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  2. As a media lawyer, I strongly second the sentiments in this post. Breaking free of a disadvantageous contract is much more difficult than one might think, and even if you succeed it will almost always cost you something. There are attorneys who specialize in reviewing literary contracts who are authors themselves (full disclosure — I’m not one of them but I know several). If you’re concerned a small investment up front can avoid a lot of heartache later on.

    • Thanks so much for replying, Jeff. I’m nowhere near a lawyer, but I think sometimes writers get so excited by being offered a contract, they overlook these sorts of things in the rush of happiness. It’s as if logic goes out the window.

      As times I wish I could shout out to people: for cring out loud, if you feel uneasy about something, don’t sign it.

  3. Really good advice. I’ve gone to several author readings at my local indie bookstore in the last couple of months and seen what look like fairly sleazy and confining contracts for the authors involved – and NO marketing/distribution help. Authors completely on their own for that. Plus, I bought one of the books and it was so poorly printed and bound that it fell apart in the car on the way home.

    Definitely beware before signing! Indie publishing looks better and better…

    • In terms of small publisher vs self-publishing, I think when you get a contract from a small publisher, the first question you have to ask is: what can they do for me that I can’t do just as well myself. The publisher should work for you, not the other way around. It’s your product; they add value. If the value they add is barely perceptible, then you shouldn’t sign.

  4. Thanks so much for this post, Patty. It’s really helpful! At least I’ll know what to look for when a contract comes 😀

  5. Firstly, Patty, congratulations! I can only make a couple of suggestions: for the reputability of the publisher, check with someone who knows a lot. Simon Petrie certainly seems to know his way around them all! Or you can go to the Eidolist and ask around. Once you’ve decided that the publisher concerned is legitimate, then check the contract. I remember when I got my first contract I sent it to the Australian Society of Authors, which runs a contract-checking service. You have to pay, but it’s worth it. The first education contract I got was such a shock I nearly refused it, but I showed it to a writer who may not be known anywhere outside school libraries, but who was making a living from writing, and he reassured me.

    And even then you can never tell. About a year ago, I wrote a book for a woman who had left one of the big education publishing companies and set up her own. She was recommended to me as pretty good.

    Turns out she didn’t actually have the money to publish the series of books she’d commissioned. She was waiting for money to come through from Canada and the Canadian publishers had told her that the money was not there because of the international financial crisis. AFTER we’d all gone and written the books! I don’t blame the Canadian bunch, I blame her for commissioning what she couldn’t afford to pay for.

    Publishing is an iffy business. Even the big companies can do the dirty on you. I know of at least one whose publisher decided not to go ahead with the last two in a series – books she’d already written – and she’s a big name writer.

    But you’re right – don’t sign this contract, no matter how excited you are, till you’ve checked out it and the company.

    And then, all going well, share the joyous news with your friends in the co-op! 🙂

    • Er- it seems you misunderstood. I got such a contract about a year and a half ago, and I never signed it, and every day I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve seen this very thing happen to too many of my friends recently.
      I don’t have an agent, and I won’t be signing with anyone unless they’re reputable, and unless the timing suits me. It most likely won’t be an Australian publisher. If I need to ask anyone, I can ask the many knowledgeable people at SFWA. This post was intended for people who find themselves in the situation I was in a year and a half ago, without easily accessible advice.
      Follow your heart is the best advice there is 😉

  6. Oh, rats. Sorry, I got so excited for you. But you did the right thing. And if your book is SF as opposed to fantasy, it probably is best to submit it outside of Oz, because all they publish here is fat fantasy sagas. I have seen some Sean Williams space opera, but I suspect it was first published in the US. Even he has to do fantasy locally, as does Simon Brown.

    • This happens so often. There was someone with the same situation on Authonomy just yesterday. Because you’re new, and because you really want to hear good news, you tend to be blind to the negatives. There are schemes out there that are plain scams, but most small presses are not; they are just not very good at marketing and selling their material, or not very professional at dealing with their authors, and they tend to ‘vanish’.

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