A few weeks ago, I read a thread on Twitter by an author who had been submitting her novel to small publishers. And she got an offer! So she read some author reviews, researched the contract she was given, and decided to turn them down.
The Twitter comments were bewildering: what? No! Why did you do that?! Offers are rare! You might never get that chance again! Why didn’t you just say yes?! Maybe it would have been non-ideal, but you would have been published!
When you’re unpublished, ANY offer sounds like a dream come true.
It’s feels awful, doesn’t it? When you want to be published, but you’ve never had a professional–like an agent, editor, or a publisher–actually say “Wow, this piece has some real potential…” Yeah. It’s the worst. It’s easy to feel like trash, like you aren’t actually any good until someone with authority comes down and tells you that you are.
So you fantasize about how life-changing it’ll be. If you got an offer, that would mean you were a good writer! It’d mean you were a “real” writer! Your dream of being published would come true!
And that passion, while awesome, can make you make bad decisions. Like, oh, settling for a publisher who gives you nothing in return–or who actively hinders the success of your book or your ability to make any money off it.
Red Flag #1: They can’t handle the basics
So let’s start at the very beginning. What do publishers do? Well, at the core of it, they provide a few crucial services:
- A professional edit
- Cover art
- The actual laying out of the book for e-book and print
“Marketing” is the iffy one on this list–it’s very common for most medium and small presses to offer little to no marketing support, and even large publishers have to choose which of their clients get the bulk of their attention. So a publisher that doesn’t do much in the way of marketing isn’t necessarily a red flag–instead, it’s a good selling point when they do do something.
But everything else in that list? Those are not optional.
- What if your book is badly edited–or not edited at all?
- What if the cover looks like it was badly spliced together in Microsoft Paint?
- What if the e-book or print version has weird line breaks, errors, or margins that make it look weird and unprofessional?
That’s a pretty bad start, isn’t it? But ohhhh, don’t worry. There are worse things than having a really ugly, really hard-to-read book.
Red Flag #2: The contract is terrible.
Contract law is massive, and I don’t understand it well enough to debate it. But your contract describes everything important: how long you and the publisher will work together. When and how you get paid. How you or the publisher can break the contract if something goes wrong.
You better believe that a bad contract will screw you over.
For endless examples of this, go read Writer Beware. Here’s a random sampling:
- This brand-new one about publishers claiming the copyright the edited version of your story
- An old post about publishers outright having you transfer copyright of the entire book to the publisher while the contract’s in effect
- The aptly named “bad publishing contract clauses“
- The danger of having a contract that doesn’t include sufficient language about when the rights revert back to the author–effectively giving the publisher the rights to sell your book for a very long time (or, if it’s bad enough, forever!)
Your contract could also just be blatantly unfair. I once read a post on Reddit’s r/Writing from a person who was wondering if they should sign a contract with a publisher that did no edits, had amateurish covers, and said the authors were only given royalties for e-book sales–with 100% of all print sales going to the publisher. Holy moly.
Red Flag #3: They have a terrible reputation.
You can learn a lot about a publisher just by looking them up on Absolute Write or Googling them: how do they work with their clients? Are their authors happy? Do they get paid on time? Is there anything iffy going on?
You do not want a publisher embroiled in scandal. They flame authors who leave? They aren’t paying authors regularly anymore? They’re refusing to revert rights unless their authors pay them an exorbitant amount? They’re mid-lawsuit? Yeah. They probably aren’t a great partner for you.
Red Flag #4: They just straight-up ask you to pay money to be published.
Yeah, don’t use those.
Okay, so there are bad publishers out there. But why would it be WORSE to use them than to remain unpublished?
So let’s imagine that every single thing on this page that could go wrong did. What happens?
- Your book is badly edited. Readers are turned off by clumsy writing and typos. The reviews all mention the errors. Some are OK with this, but some simply couldn’t get past the grammar and had to put the book down. The reviews make it clear that it’s, at the very least, very unpolished and hard to read.
- Your book looks unprofessional and/or ugly. People do judge books by their covers.
- And guess what? Because of your terrible contract, you can’t make it better or sell it to another publisher (or self-publish it) for a really long time… or ever!
- What else is in your contract? Oh, they have the rights to all your sequels? And they have all your rights, so you can’t even release a better quality audiobook to make some more money? Well, that sucks. Guess you can’t write a better book #2 and sell it anywhere, either–but even if you did, it’d just be ugly and badly edited, too.
- And maybe the publisher struggles to pay you. Maybe all your payments are late. Or they’re poorly documented, so you can’t tell where your sales are from or why they’re so low. And also, the publisher is unresponsive and unhelpful when you email them.
So now your book is ugly, you won’t get the rights back in a timely manner, and you aren’t making any money, either. Hurray?
So, in conclusion: don’t settle. You can do better.
This is all obvious, right? No one thinks, “You know what would be great? If my debut novel was hideous, full of typos, and sold by a publisher who never paid me.” That isn’t being “published, but in a non-ideal way,” that’s just a terrible situation.
At the core of it, publishers get the majority of your book sales. And if they’re keeping 60+% of the profits on every book sale, and all you get in exchange is an ugly book and an uncooperative business partner… you really would have been better waiting for a better offer. Or self-publishing! Or writing the next book! Anything other than working with someone who’s just taking your money and giving you nothing in return.
So research who you submit to. You don’t want just anyone. You want to do your book proud. Don’t settle just because you want to be published.