That moment that a publisher says yes is an emotional moment. You’re probably riding on cloud nine… even if it’s not a well-known publisher, it’s a deeply validating thing to be told “yes, we want you.” Some less than scrupulous “publishers” take advantage of that sentiment and offer really bad contracts. This is the very reason that literary agents are a thing, or at least part of the reason.
I signed with a traditional publisher and negotiated some better terms for myself, a better royalty rate and some nuances of the audio rights. I went through the contract in detail, knowing a few things about both contracts and sales from previous non-publishing experience. Shortly after signing, the company restructured some of their sales stuff, blah blah blah, and they wanted all authors to sign a contract addendum that promised to make them much more money. I did all the math on my original contract and liked where we’d arrived. I should have looked much closer at the addendum—I actually lost more than 50% of my royalties because I didn’t do the math—it only made me lots of money if books were purchased through the publisher’s website (who does that!? Nobody goes to the Simon & Shuster website to buy books—they go to a retailer’s site). Lesson learned: never take someone’s word for it—always double check. I now make about twenty-five cents per book sold.
The school of hard knocks is brutal. But at least I can make a bunch on person to person sales, right? Well… almost. My Indie books cost me about five bucks to produce and so I make about ten bucks each sale. My traditional publisher gives a smaller than normal discount. Unless I’m buying in bulk I do not get the market-norm of a 40-50% discount off retail price. I got 30%… plus shipping is high. Watching your bottom line on details like this is critical—but very easy to slip into the background. My $16.99 book (which cost’s less than $4 to print) cost me $11.87 to buy, plus a buck and a half to ship. My books cost me about thirteen and a half dollars apiece. In the end, I felt like Lando Calrissian in Empire Strikes Back: “This deal is getting worse all the time.” I wanted to sell them for $15 each, but with a booth fee of $150 plus travel expenses, I’d have to sell more than a hundred books to break even. (This is the reason I always push my Indie titles at the same table… that number is more like 15 books, which is manageable.
Always do the math. Always read the fine print. If you have been offered a contract, many literary agents are willing to sign someone for a one-time, quick deal (although those bad publishers may put a short time limit to sign, making authors cave early under the false sense of urgency).
Following are some bad contract clauses that you should be on the lookout for in the event that you are offered a publishing deal. (I am not a literary agent nor a professional, so don’t take this as legal advice—but all contracts are negotiable, and these are aspects that can do you more harm than good, so beware!):
- The contract is forever (until you die+70 years)
- Right of first refusal on your next book (unless it’s a series—obviously)
- The option to match any other publisher’s bids on subsequent manuscripts (good luck ever getting published elsewhere!)
- A “net” royalty agreement/structure (that thing I signed in the above, tragic tale)
- Any requirement that an author purchases books
- Any requirement that the author purchase paid services from the publisher
- Author’s discount for personal copies is less than 40%
- Any mandatory marketing fees
- A Kill fee clause
- Clauses that make your contract automatically renew
- Noncompete clauses which
- Advances that must be paid back (how about we sign you up for this nice loan while we publish your book?)
- Royalty rates that drop when sales dip below a benchmark
- Indemnity clauses that mean only an author can be sued (and not the publisher)
- Copyright reservation is retained by the publisher and not the author (publisher usually registers them in author’s name and then gains specific rights for a specific time period.)