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:
Thank you, Victoria. I appreciate the advice.
I haven't heard good things about the publishing company, and that's the main reason why I want to decline the contract. Seeing as I hadn't made any comments to them about the actual contract being unacceptable, I was trying to find a way of replying that would not show my hand, essentially. Your advice to keep my reply neutral, professional, and short sounds good. Thank you 🙂
Michelle–just be polite and factual. Thank the publisher for their time and consideration, and let them know that you can't accepting their offer. If you've heard negative things about the publisher, or they have a bad contract, or you feel they haven't been professional, don't mention it. Just stick to "thank you" and "not at this time."
I can't imagine that this would damage your chances. A large publisher is professional enough to know that these are the breaks. If it's a small press, there really isn't the kind of professional community where people talk to each other, as there is in trade publishing. Even if there were, there's no reason for the publisher to be upset with you, as long as you're professional about saying no. If they do get upset, it only makes _them_ look unprofessional.
Thanks for a great post. I'm in this boat at present – trying to figure out how to bring myself to turn down that magical publishing contract, and it's reassuring to know that others have that dilemma too.
One thing I was wondering – do you think there's a particular way one should reject a contract? Could this damage my chances with other publishers, or is it something that I shouldn't worry about, as long as my letter is polite?
Anyway, thanks for such a helpful post 🙂
I don't know what I'd do without this site. I've followed this blog for quite a while now, and am astounded to think that this information isn't found on postgraduate course programs.
I've spent an entire semester listening to writers supposedly discuss publishing, but they all hardly provided anything of significance.
Saying no to your life's dream…gotta be tough. Someday, maybe I'll get to do the research and make the tough decision.
This stays in my "future look at me now" file.
The one thing I think needs to be added is that a person should have an attorney familiar with IP law examine any contract t eyes are seriously considering. It will make it easier to know if the offer is bad or good in a business sense.
Stephanie's point is an important one. As long as an author signs a contract with open eyes, after having studied it carefully and weighed the pros and cons, it's all fair and square even if the deal is a lousy one. The problems begin when the author refuses to come to terms with the reality that is reflected in the contract and develops unreasonable expectations, which is bad not only for the author but also for the publisher.
Unfortunately, the publisher doesn't have a way to know that the author has signed the contract with eyes wide shut and that disillusionment will inevitably ensue once the excitement subsides and reality creeps in.
Thanks for the insight. I remember getting an offer to "publish" my thesis. I was really excited, until I realized that it was a vanity press collecting graduate work to sell to the masses and someone told me it was poor quality at best. I turned it down, and have never looked back.
I'm a publisher, and I completely agree with this post. Even if the publisher is reputable, it's still okay to say no if you feel it wouldn't be a good fit. One of my biggest concerns is when I get the contract back signed and the author has no questions. It's important to know exactly what you're getting into from the beginning.
Thanks for all the comments; they certainly help put the issue into perspective.
In this rapidly changing environment what was a perfectly reasonable small press a few month ago may have changed for the worse. We have seen small presses morphing into vanity presses, in an attempt to survive (as in the example reported by C. M. Albrecht.) That's why no amount of early research can guarantee a trouble-free contract and a careful assessment must be made once the contract is received.
This is very useful advice, both in the guest post and the introduction by Victoria. I think what she says in that intro is key:
It's very, very hard to say no to any offer because your emotions are so over-the-top. While the contract offered might still not be favorable, avoiding submitting to vanity presses and the like BEFORE you reach that point will at least give you one less thing to worry about.
I've had to talk friends out of offers that came about because of a lack of research. One offer was from a vanity press (she hadn't researched it in the first place) and another was the type of press that tried (as C.M. said, above) to shunt you off to the self-publishing department. I'm very grateful for your Writer Beware site because it makes researching before you sub so much easier. (Also, if an overly excited, overly optimistic pal doesn't listen to me, I can always send them to you before they make a mistake with a vanity publisher or the like–they're more likely to listen to you!)
Oh, and I'd like to add to something one of the Anonymous posters said: while genuine book publishers will most likely contact you by phone, agents (especially in the initial stages, where you haven't signed yet, but they are interested) will often send you an email and so will legitimate magazine editors. But again, research those before you submit to them, too.
Great advice here. I just want to add one thing. In my experience, legitimate offers of publication come over the phone, not by letter or email.
I've gotten "feelers" via email and snail-mail. But they always say they want to talk on the phone, and that's how the actual offer gets made.
Thank you for this article. I'm lucky enough I've got a publisher I'm happy with, but I'm always fielding questions from newbies who don't write in my genre looking for advice. Now I can send them here. 🙂
Interesting insights! …as well as great tips.
Ron Lee, Author
How to Create an eBook
THANK YOU! It's so hard to stand up and really take care of myself when it comes to things like this. I have a lot of the fears you mentioned. it's good to hear that I'm not alone, and that I just need to breathe, and then check everything out if I haven't already. This list is great, too!
There are all kinds. One sent me a glowing letter. They really liked my book, but due to the difficulty of promoting new authors, they had set up a separate department just for people like me: We'd share the cost of publication.
Desperate as I was to be published, I simply wasn't that desperate. I told them that, to me, being an "author" meant someone liked my work enough to invest in it and publish it. Then in my mind, I'd be an author. For some reason they never replied.
Thank-you so much for this post and the list of resources. It's a massive help.