Welcome to Book Plug Friday. Gods willing, it will actually come on Friday this week.
This week, we’ve got a guest post from James Young, on his lessons learned from dealing with a “real” publisher.
Every independent author starts writing for their own reasons. An almost universal desire amongst us is to someday be offered a “real contract” from an established publisher or press. Therefore, getting contacted by an editor or agent is often a heady, euphoric experience. However, after the initial surge of adrenaline, it is often a good idea to apply some calm, logical thought to the situation. Like a bad marriage, a poor deal is something that may scar an author forever. In the interest of keeping folks from becoming a cautionary tale, here are an even dozen things to think about before signing a deal:
1.) Anyone with a “take it, or leave it” attitude towards your questions is best avoided. Not to stretch the aforementioned analogy too much, but remember that entering into a intellectual property agreement is only a few small clicks of the dial below standing in front of Elvis in Vegas in “this could go awesomely bad” potential. Would it make your more or less suspicious if the person who was trying to woo you always responded with sullen silence or sobbing “Don’t you trust me?!” to basic questions? That same jaundiced instinct of self-preservation should apply to the press or editor who is wanting you to potentially sign away your rights.
2.) Keep your head on a swivel. When that really friendly editor from the cool sounding press runs up the “Help Wanted, All Takers” sign on Facebook, Twitter, or your local writers group, understand that this is not normal. Yes, there’s a chance that you just may be lucky enough to have caught someone in a benevolent mood. However, if so, they won’t mind waiting (a short time) while you check them out. On the other hand, if the person gets cagey when you ask who the CEO / Chief Editor is, walk away. Even if they give you a name, Google that person along with “sued” and see what comes up. In my personal experience, I found out that the head of a certain press (we’ll call them “Perdition, Inc.”) making me an offer had been sued by authors trying to get their rights back. Yes, she won every time (albeit twice it took appeals), but a little digging showed that the cases involved authors trying to get out of $800-$1000 fees that the press required due to “processing costs.”
3.) BOHICA as a way of life. The aforementioned press and its Chief Editor, in response to the authors’ complaints, claimed both in court and on the Internet that these fees were “the industry standard.” I prefer to translate the phrase “industry standard” as short hand for, “Well the big guys screw people like this, why can’t we?” In other words, remember that, yes, it’s painful, annoying, and expensive to do everything yourself. It’s even more excruciating to sign an “industry standard” contract to a press that has sold maybe ~1000 books over 10 titles in the last five years, have them only give you 30% royalties on the dozen or so copies of your book that they sell, then realize that you’re still going to have to do the majority of things yourself. [BOHICA: “Bend over, here it comes again.” – Charlie]
4.) Use the tools available. Much like the horror movie soundtrack which tells you the serial killer is in the closet or the shark is off the beach (“Why do these people never listen?”), there are sites which can warn you about these presses / bad agreements. Preditors and Editors, The Passive Voice, the SFWA’s Writer’s Beware, etc., are just a few of the resources available free of charge for an independent author. Rather than learning from your own experience, look for the flaming wreckage of others’ misfortune then choose another path.
5.) Be that guy/gal. Even if a press doesn’t show up on any of these sites and is generally charming when you deal with them, this is no reason not to ask a bunch of questions. Figure out what the presses marketing plan is. Inquire as to who some of their other authors are and what these individuals’ Amazon ranks are. Look at the titles on their website then see where they’re available. If the answers to your questions are things like “Well that’s proprietary…” or “We don’t know…”, time to move on. If reviewer after reviewer of the works that the press has published complain about bad formatting, spelling errors, long waits for delivery, etc., that is also a sign it’s time to make like a white tail hearing a branch crack. Bambi’s father probably got shot because he wanted to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and your work is just as unsold through benign incompetence and good-natured poor performance as it would be due to malevolent, scamming intent.
6.) The Devil told Faust about the interest rates up front. As part of the quest for information, ask to see a press’ author’s guide up front. The aforementioned Perdition, Inc.’s author guide had the following phrase: “If, at any time, you fail to make edits, do not respond to your editor, or do not send in the corrections list, we will assume complete control of the manuscript and proceed forward in the publication process.” Yes, Perdition basically said up front that if I got sideways with an editor, by virtue of my writing agreement they could take my story, change protagonists, setting, dialogue, etc., then still publish it under my name. When I raised an issue with this language, I was informed that I did not understand the editorial process despite having published four short stories, placed in multiple writing contests, and had my work published in a major academic journal. In short, they were full of it, and despite the vehemence of their response knew that these were terms that gave all the power to the press / editor. Like Old Scratch, most folks who don’t have your best interest at heart will reveal their malevolent intentions up front provided you actually read the information they give you.
7.) You are probably not a lawyer. Even if you are one, remember what your 1L professor said about “fool for a client.” Even given the fact that most scammers resemble B-movie bad guys and will tell you their entire evil plot, it is worth your while to get legal advice from a professional. Bluntly, if you cannot afford a lawyer, you probably cannot really afford to enter into a contract. In Perdition, Inc.’s case, their fees to break out of an agreement were $800-$1000 depending on which of their victims you asked. In addition, small presses have not only made people pay fees to get their intellectual property back, but then turned around and sued these authors for defamation when they took to the internet to complain about their treatment. Therefore, it is better to pay $2-$500 to have a lawyer look over an agreement up front than $3-4,000 (if you’re lucky) fighting with some scumbag who knows they’re wrong but also realizes that you don’t have the spare funds to face them.
8.) But I thought he/she would change! This is pretty simple—if the person you’re dealing with is treating you like crap, doesn’t return your communications, talks down to you, etc., etc. before you sign, what makes you think they’ll be any different after? Do not be the starry eyed author who constantly explains away unprofessional behavior, or you’ll be that bitter writer whose book is six months late leaving the fiftieth voice mail. Plus, remember that the person who is a jerk to you probably does not have an off switch for that behavior. Most bookstores, local chains, etc. do not buy books from someone who is abrasive, so do not go into business with a press that employs people who fit that description.
9.) Money flows to the author. Always. When a press says “We charge you $$$ for our operating, printing, etc…”, that translates to “We have no clue how to actually sell books to make money, so we keep surviving on finding schmucks like you.” The reason you get a lower royalty from a physical press as opposed to Amazon Kindle’s 70% is because said press should be paying for things like paper, printing presses, binding, cover artists, etc.. Anyone who expects the author to pitch in is either confused or trying to scam you. Either way, not your problem.
10.) We are the Rabid Badgers. Our Clan is strong, and full of wisdom. Regardless of what the group calls itself, there are many competent gatherings of independent authors out there. Similarly, several authors, many of them who are successful enough to survive on their work full time, are willing to impart wisdom and point out pratfalls to the less experienced. As long as you remember that these aren’t folks whose minds you’re trying to change on the pressing issues of the day (i.e., minimal politics, religion, sports, etc.), being part of an online writer’s group can be worth every bit of effort you put into the interactions.
11.) You are a special snowflake. Fate’s blowtorch melts you all the same. Keep in mind that writing is a business and there a literally millions attempting it. Yes, there are people who do well enough to stop their day jobs. There are also people who get killed by lightning, bitten by sharks, and have their brakes fail at the most inopportune time. In other words, even if you get an offer from a reputable press / publishing house, don’t assume that Lady Luck has cast her favorable gaze upon you. It is just as likely that said deity is actually Loki, with Hera leaning happily on his shoulder, telling the gathered ranks of Olympus and Asgard, “Hey guys, watch what I do to this mortal…”. Keep writing, and don’t put all your eggs in one basket no matter how sweet your current deal is.
12.) You can do bad on your own, you don’t need help. Above all else, remember that you, your work, and your desire to succeed all have intrinsic worth. Even if you are not selling well, it is better to be in the doldrums on your own then having a First Class ticket with Titanic Press, LLC. While under no illusions that I have had several lucky bounces, I can proudly proclaim that after turning down Perdition Press, I still managed to singlehandedly outsell their entire catalog. Sometimes the best deals are the way you walk away from.
James Young is an independent author hailing from the Midwest. His first full novel, An Unproven Concept, has sold over 2,300 copies since publication in December 2013. His alternate history novel, Acts of War, was released on November 11 of this year.
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