Navigating Publishing Contracts

June 1, 2009

Over the weekend, I received my contract from QueeredFiction for “The Man in the Mirror.” I was glad that I’d worked in publishing prior to getting published myself so that I actually understood the contract. Signing on the dotted line can be scary, especially for new authors. Unfortunately, a lot of publishers attempt to take advantage of an author’s desire to be published. So here are a few issues to help discern what items in a contract should be red flags — and which shouldn’t be.

  1. Requiring an author to pay a fee — for anything. This includes a fee for publishing itself as well as fees for “services” such as editing or marketing of your writing. In addition, think twice before signing a contract that requires you to pay for a copy of your own book, especially if it’s an expensive book. Go ahead and publish this way if you like; in most cases, you will get a published book at the end. Just be aware that you’re working with a self-publisher/vanity publisher and not a traditional publisher, regardless of how they present themselves. They make their money off their authors, and not off sales of their books.
  2. Purchasing “All Rights.” Many legitimate publishers will attempt to purchase “all rights” to your piece. This means that you’re essentially handing over ownership and copyright to the publisher. You cannot submit the piece ever again, and people interested in reprinting it will go through the publisher, not you.  While you may get royalties for reprints, the publisher will be pocketing some of the fee as well. Weigh the wisdom of signing away all rights to a piece before you do it; if it’s a major publisher buying your novel and you’re getting a nice advance, it’s probably not a big deal if you can’t use that piece again. If it’s a poem that you’re not getting paid much for, and that has the potential to be published elsewhere, think twice before signing away its rights. Some publishers will offer one-time rights or first rights instead upon request.
  3. No monetary advance. While we’d all like to receive money upfront for our writing, publishing is not the world’s most lucrative business. Small presses and other traditional publishers often can’t afford to pay an advance before the book has sold, but many will offer royalties once the book is on the market. Just because a publisher doesn’t offer upfront payment doesn’t mean they’re not legitimate.
  4. No monetary compensation whatsoever. This can also be a hard pill to swallow, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the publisher isn’t legitimate. Many small presses publish for the love of the material itself and can’t afford to pay writers. However, you should expect a free copy of the publication containing your work at the very least. Refer to #1 if there’s no monetary compensation and you’re expected to shell out for a copy of the publication.
  5. An expectation that you do your own marketing. This may seem, at first glance, like a red flag. After all, shouldn’t the publisher be just as invested in marketing your book as you are? But the publishing industry is changing, and even major publishing houses now rely on authors to meet them at least halfway when it comes to marketing. That’s one reason why there’s such a slew of author blogs on the Internet.

The long and short of it is this: a traditional publisher will have as much invested in your work as you do. They know the published piece reflects upon them, and as such will put forth their own resources (such as editors, designers, etc.) to make the piece the best it can be. They’ll pay all publishing costs, and they should offer you a payment of some sort, even if it’s just free copies of the publication. If the publisher isn’t willing to put any of their own resources into a piece without money from you, you’re self-publishing. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.


On Self Publishing, part 2: Vanity Presses

February 3, 2009

So, yesterday I wrote about self publishers and vanity presses without making a distinction between the two. But there is a difference in the types of methods various “self publishers” employ to get you to fork over money to publish your book. Although this is not an official definition, I think of vanity presses as those that are not as upfront about the fact that they’ll be asking you for money.

These days, most self publishers are very upfront about who they are and what they do: you pay the money, they publish the book. They expect you to make most of the decisions about how many books you want to print, the size you want, etc. etc. They’re in the business of providing a service, and they don’t care how good or bad your book is, and they don’t pretend to care. Lulu and AuthorHouse are examples of this type of publisher.

Vanity presses, as I think of them, are generally not so forthright; for one thing, they don’t call themselves vanity presses, but use words like “self publisher,” “boutique publisher” or “subsidiary publisher.” They present themselves as “traditional” publishers at the outset. They’ll usually ask you to submit your manuscript as though they were a traditional publisher, then respond by flattering you with talk about how your manuscript has great potential, how you’re very talented, etc.  Then, after you’ve been sufficiently puffed up, and possibly after you’ve signed a contract, they pull out the fees by offering various services or asking for a “good faith” offering to help subsidize the cost of a potentially “risky” publishing endeavor. By the time things start to feel a little fishy, you’ve already begun envisioning yourself as a published author and possibly told friends and family that your book has been accepted. Many authors back out when the fees are revealed, but many don’t; that’s how vanity presses stay in business. Tate Publishing and American Book Publishing are examples of this type of publisher.

You’ll find a lot of bloggers writing about vanity presses as though they are run by the devil, and yeah, taking advantage of an author’s desire to be published to make a quick buck is pretty crummy. But in this day of easy and quick Internet searches, there’s really no excuse for not researching a publisher before you move forward with them. Such a search will reveal publishers like this often referred to as “scams” because they’re out for your money, not your success. But if what you want is a published book that you can distribute, sell, and put on your shelf, they will deliver. And honestly, that’s more than most authors will ever see from a traditional publishing house.

So, my opinion? Do your research. Decide whether you want to publish your book badly enough to pay for it. Understand that a publisher that asks you to offer up money for the publication of your book is a vanity press, no matter how they present themselves. That doesn’t automatically mean you shouldn’t publish with them, just that you should know who you’re publishing wtih. Whatever decision you make, make sure it’s an informed one.