I’ve seen a slew of bad publishing contracts lately, which makes this guest blog post by author Kfir Luzatto especially resonant for me. Turning down a publishing offer when you have one in hand is one of the toughest decisions you will ever have to make…but sometimes, if the publisher has a poor reputation or the contract terms are bad, it’s the wise thing to do.
To Kfir’s good advice, I’d add one nugget of my own: don’t wait until after you have a contract in hand to research the publisher. You will save yourself a ton of grief (and, possibly, an agonizing decision process) if you check publishers’ reputations before sending off a query.
Scroll down to the bottom of the post for some good resources for checking publishers’ reputations, getting feedback from other writers, and learning more about publishing contracts.
MUSTERING THE COURAGE TO TURN DOWN A PUBLISHING CONTRACT
by Kfir Luzzatto
Only few emotions compare with the elation of an author, who opens an envelope (whether a paper or a virtual one) and reads the beautiful words, “…we would like to publish your novel.” Winning a lottery is probably like it (although I wouldn’t know, I never won one), and some authors have gone as far as to liken it to the birth of their first child.
But sticking to the lottery simile, imagine being asked to “be reasonable and tear the winning ticket up”. To be able to even consider it you must first realize that you’d be tearing up your ticket to hell — but that doesn’t make it any easier.
Love is blind, and your love for your book is blind and deaf and numbs your senses, starting with your common sense. You read that contract and your brain realizes that your future publisher can’t spell (which can’t be a good sign), but your heart refuses to acknowledge it; you skip the payment clauses because you know that there will be no real money there, but what really matters to you is to get the book published, even if it means ignoring all the good advice that you have found posted on Writer Beware and all over the web.
This is the time to sit down and consider all the good reasons for turning that contract down. I’ve been there and done that, so I know it isn’t easy, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do (and a woman too). Here are ten tips to help you through it:
1. When that letter comes in, don’t start calling everybody to brag about it. Don’t tweet it; leave your Facebook status alone. Make extra sure that it is the real thing before you tell the world.
2. Make sure that you have not been offered a vanity publishing contract. If that’s what it is you must simply trash it and stop thinking about it. It doesn’t deserve any of your time and emotions. It’s spam and should be treated like it.
3. Be optimistic, but…a pessimist is an experienced optimist, and experience shows that bad contracts float around in droves, so yours may turn out to be one of those. Start your review of the contract with a low level of expectation.
4. Check out the expected publication date. If the contract speaks of publication in one or two years, take time to consider your options; what’s the rush anyway?
5. Now that you have calmed down and realize that not all that glitters may be gold, do yourself a favor and analyze the contract taking advantage of the many useful resources available on the web, for instance, here.
6. Take advice from others. Writing can be a very solitary endeavor, but if you’ve been at it for a while and have developed relationships with other authors, listen to what they have to say about the publisher, a clause that you find jarring and anything else that you may want to ask them.
7. It is not uncommon for new authors to submit to numerous publishers taken from lists found on the web, which may be old and outdated, or simply not based on much insight into the business of those listed. If you haven’t researched this particular publisher really thoroughly before submitting, now is the time to do it. If you find off-putting references to it on the web it may make your decision to turn the contract down much easier.
8. Think positively. Notwithstanding the bad contract, the publisher in most cases is not a scammer and he really liked your work, which means that your novel is worthy and perhaps you can place it with a better publisher, who will offer you a reasonable contract.
9. Realize that this is not a failure — it’s your decision. You and you alone have the power over the fate of your work. Just like you wouldn’t send your kid to a bad school because it is a couple of blocks closer to your home, you are not sending your brain child to a bad publisher simply because he’s the first one who sent you a contract.
10. Remind yourself that each battle of wills between your brain and your heart is a big stop on the learning curve of the writing business. You will emerge from it a better and stronger author.
But then, you may worry, what happens if this is the only contract offer I’ll ever get? Won’t I feel as if I have wasted my only chance?
Heck, no! If you believe in your work you know that other, better opportunities will come along. And if you don’t believe in it, what’s the purpose of publishing it anyway?
Kfir Luzzatto is the author of five published novels and several short stories. You can read his blog at www.kfirluzzatto.com and follow him on Twitter at @KfirLuzzatto.
Publisher Cautions and Checking Reputations:
- Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler (there are many other resources here for writers, including a great Share Your Work critiqe forum)
- Writer Beware’s Small Presses page
- Email Writer Beware (we’ll check our database of complaints for you): beware [at] sfwa [dot] org
Publishing Contract Resources:
- This article from publishing and entertainment attorney Lloyd J. Jassin is written from the publisher’s perspective, but provides a helpful checklist of the components of a book contract.
- Advice on book contract clauses from intellectual property lawyer Daniel Steven.
- The Authors Guild on improving your book contract.
- A checklist of publishing contract deal terms, from IP attorney Howard G. Zaharoff.
- David Koehser, also an IP attorney, provides advice on how to read a publishing agreement.
- Agent Rachelle Gardner on the book contract clauses she is most likely to negotiate.
- KeepYourCopyright.org provides examples and discussion of actual book contract clauses, good and bad.
- Publishing lawyer Mark Fowler provides some suggestions on resources for getting advice and information on publishing contracts.
- There’s contract discussion and advice at The Passive Voice (the blog of an IP lawyer), along with general discussion of publishers and publishing.
- If you’d like experience-based feedback on your publishing contract (not legal advice–I am not a lawyer), you can email me: beware [at] sfwa [dot] org. (What does it say about me that I enjoy reading publishing contracts?)
Writer Beware Blog Posts on Contract Issues: