Questions for Publishers

As often happens, a question arises on social media (in this case, Twitter) and I spend way too much time answering it via a long thread. So I thought I’d also put it all here in a handy, dandy blog post.

Does anyone read blogs anymore?

Well, just in case someone does, here’s the setup: I admitted that I once had a couple small publishers for my books, but that they didn’t work out for me. And that, if I were ever to consider another small publisher, I would have a number of questions before signing with them.

Without naming names, I’ll say that these publishers were fairly typical of their kind and did nothing illegal. They just also weren’t the best advocates for my (or other authors’) books, and that’s something I think a publisher needs to be.

So let’s say you have an offer from a small publisher. You’ve submitted directly to them; you have no agent to look out for your interests, so you’re on your own. I recommend you have knowledgeable people go over the contract, for one thing. If you don’t understand something, have someone explain it to you. It’s okay to ask questions, and if the publisher doesn’t like that you’re asking, that’s a red flag right there. If they’re rushing you, giving you some kind of deadline for signing, walk away.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot you should know about the publisher, too. Ideally, you learn all this before submitting, as there’s no point in wasting everyone’s time after the fact. But definitely have answers to these questions before you sign anything.

  • How long has the publisher been in business?
  • What publishing experience do the people involved have?
  • What is their process for publication? (What does the editing cycle look like?)
  • How long does it take them to go from signing to publishing?
  • How many books/authors do they publish per week/month/year?
  • Does the publisher pay an advance?
  • What is their marketing plan for your book?
  • Where are their books available? (Bookstores? Libraries? Only online?)
  • Will your book be in both print and digital format?
  • Will your book be in audio format?
  • Which rights are the publisher demanding? (If they’re asking for audiobook rights but don’t make audiobooks, for example, that’s a red flag.)
  • Which rights do you retain? (Can you have your own audiobook made? Can you sell the film or TV rights? Foreign language rights?)
  • How long is the duration of the contract? (Is there a rights reversion clause?)
  • Under what conditions can either you or the publisher terminate the contract?
  • What happens to your rights if the publisher folds?

These are the basics, and certainly not an exhaustive list, but a solid place to start. Remember that a publisher should only make money if and when your book sells. That means YOU, the author, should never have to pay for anything. A publisher invests money in books and authors it believes will make them a profit. It’s a gamble that, if the publisher is good at what they do, pays off more often than not and keeps the company afloat.

Some things I, personally, would avoid:

  • Publishers with little to no publishing experience and/or that have not been in business for at least a couple years (yes, this includes authors starting their own companies if they’ve never actually worked in publishing—writing and publishing are two different skill sets).
  • Publishers who churn out many titles and authors each week or month. This usually means they’re not giving any one title or author very much attention. They’re throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, so to speak.
  • Publishers who don’t do a serious editing cycle. If they only do a light proofread and copy edit, that’s not ideal. You want an editor, and an experienced one at that. (Yes, even if you paid a freelance editor before submitting!)
  • Publishers whose marketing plan includes YOU doing most of the work, by which I mean they expect you to post online about your book or try to hand sell to your local bookstore or library. Yes, you should expect to do some promotion, but a good publisher has distribution and contacts. Certainly, hitting up the bookstore to see if they’d promote a local author is a fair idea, but your publisher should have more up its sleeves than that.
  • Publishers whose marketing plan includes you shilling for their other authors (and vice versa). This is usually accompanied by language stating, “We’re like a family!” or something to that end.
  • Publishers whose marketing plan demands that you pay for things like a blog tour or other advertising or reviews. Your publisher should be the one setting those things up—and paying for it.
  • Publishers who grab more rights than they intend to exercise.
  • Publishers who create their paperbacks via Amazon. (I say this because I discovered that many of my local bookstores refused to stock my book when one of my publishers used CreateSpace to make the book.)
  • Publishers who take money out of your royalties to cover the costs of editing, cover design, etc. Again, the publisher should be paying for all that under the belief that your book will sell and they will make that money back. Otherwise, why would they publish your book? A publisher invests money up front, and that includes covering the costs of editing, design, and marketing.
  • Publishers who demand some kind of “buy out” if you ask for your rights back. On the surface, this might actually seem reasonable: they’ve put money into your book and either it didn’t sell or you’re not happy for some reason. Then you should pay them back, right? No. If the book isn’t selling, the publisher shouldn’t try to make up the difference by charging the author on the back end. That’s a hostage situation—they’re holding your book ransom just because their investment didn’t work out. If the book did sell and you’re unhappy for other reasons, then there’s no reason the publisher should charge you money for leaving. If the contract states you have to pay to walk away, walk away before signing!

Of course, only you can decide what you consider a deal breaker. Just don’t be so flattered and eager that you overlook any red flags. Do your research. Ask authors who have published with those companies about their experiences. (And again, if the publisher doesn’t want you to talk to their authors, run!)

And go in with a solid notion of what you consider “success.” If it’s selling a certain number of books, getting on a bestselling list, making x amount of money… Know that. And maybe ask the publisher what they consider a successful book (or author), too. What are their goals for you and your work? Do those goals align with yours? And are you agreed on how to reach those goalstogether?