Navigating Publishing Contracts

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.