Columns > Published on October 10th, 2014

Things to Consider Before Signing a Publishing Contract

Writing a novel is damn hard. Selling one to a publisher, in its own distinct way, is even more difficult because you're essentially convincing a company to gamble on you and your work. This is part of the reason self-publishing is booming right now. Searching for a publisher is both a hassle and a blizzard of heartbreaking rejection, so when you actually do get an offer, it's a huge moment. So euphoric that emotion can often blind the writer to those important details on what's on the actual contract. It amazes me how many authors took their time working on their novels only to sign a contract after skimming it once. It's not an iTunes update, guys...read the damn thing. Here are some key things you should know before signing on the dotted line.

Who Are These People?

I will go on record and say that I have scared away authors from a publisher I went through because it was a sub-par experience. They're out of business now, if that tells you anything. What I'm saying though is that you should know the publisher before you sign any sort of contract that binds you to them. Now I don't recommend asking authors whether they do or don't like the publisher while you're querying, but after you get the offer, feel free to reach out and get a feel for how they're handling their business. Unhappy authors are usually a good indicator that you should tread lightly. 

Royalty Amount

This part might confuse you at first. You're going to see so many numbers and percentages that after the first read you might not know how much you're getting paid. My advice is to not sign a damn thing until you at least understand this part of it. Typically though, this portion will be broken up into sections: retailers, third parties, and electronic. More than likely, you'll have a different royalty amount for each. Considering that the majority of people reading this will be pushing their books via Amazon, my suggestion is that you lobby hard for those third party royalties. Oh, and make sure to get that W-9 form in order for tax season.

Advance Amount

Sometimes this money is free and clear. Sometimes it isn't and there will be a specific clause(s) in your contract outlining the terms of how you pay it back. Personally, I've only seen the latter. More than likely, if you're going with an indie press, an advance isn't going to be offered simply because they don't have that kind of cashflow. For a mid-size to large pub, you can expect to see some kind of advance amount...just make sure you're clear on the terms. Always ask that worst-case scenario question: "what happens if I don't earn it back?" Traditionally, the publisher will eat it, but it's not outside the realm of possibility that an author is required to pay back the difference. 

Rights

Know them. You're not just signing your book away; you're signing away the rights to the graphic novel, movie, board game, and series of Russian stacking dolls based on your book. Seriously, look at all the stuff I signed away for my first book (excerpt lifted from contract):

This grant of subsidiary rights to the Publisher to license other parties to publish and/or adapt said Work is exclusive and without exception and includes the rights to license:

a. The Work in book form, and distinct editions of the Work in newspaper or magazine serial, periodical, anthology, collected works, book clubs, digest, abridgement or in condensation or partial extract form, serialization, syndication, and translation.

b. The Work, or parts of the Work in all other forms and media, including but not limited to adaptation to sound recording, radio, recorded readings, film, film strip, cinema, stage, drama, animation, video tape, audio book, Braille and large type, as well as photographic reprints, visual projections, or supplemental products of the book such as charts, forms, and art that are reproduced for sale, software, electronic media, e-books, Internet, interactive or multimedia versions, other screen-display technologies, as well as verbatim text-only electronic editions, all other mechanical reproduction and transcription (including print-on-demand versions), all versions in any and all media and all technologies now existing or which may in the future come into existence, as well as to use the title and characters of the Work as the basis for trademarks or trade names for other products or in connection with merchandise in all forms, (collectively, the "Medium").

Of course, when my publisher shut its doors I got all this stuff back. The above is an example of how publishers try to lock you down for absolutely everything relating to your project.

Cover Art

So many authors forget about this while mulling over their contract, but cover art really is the first impression a book makes upon the reader...and the last thing you want is to make a shitty first impression. Unfortunately, who is doing the cover art and how the final product are going to turn out are done mostly on faith. You just have to wait and see and hope to God it doesn't suck. A good way to find this out beforehand is to cover browse all the other books the publisher has cranked over the past six months. If they're not up to your standards, you can inquire about hiring your own. Don't count on them allowing that though.

Editing

I've worked with two types of editors. The first are the really good ones like Pela Via who edited my last novel Good Sex, Great Prayers and Lorie Jones over at Medallion Press. These people catch the shit you've somehow been looking over for months and bring out the best in your work. The second kind of editor, which I've had the misfortune of working with, seem to miss absolutely everything and make no useful suggestions. This, my friends, is how books get released with typos and grammatical errors (more than the one-here-one-there norm). So do your homework. Talk to the current authors about the editing process and ask how their final products turned out. Read some of their current releases. You don't get to pick your editor, so the best way to cut down on errors is to comb the ms yourself under the proverbial microscope.

Reviews

Let me make this clear: you, as the author, are expected to bring attention for your book. Part of that means getting people/websites/blogs to review your work. Now let me make something else clear: part of the publisher's job, and part of the reason they are taking a cut out of your project, is because they're supposed to bring attention to your book as well. These are the people that are supposed to reach out to bloggers, reviewers, etc. and send out ARCs (review copies). That shitty publisher I mentioned earlier...yeah, they didn't do that. They released the book and expected me to do the rest. If I wanted to send a reviewer a book, I had to buy a copy and mail it out myself on my own dime. So when contract time comes, definitely make sure there's some publisher accountability on the review front lest you want to end up doing it yourself. 

In a related note, be wary of blog tours. It's so not the same as getting a review from Word Riot or any other established lit mag. These blog tour "reviewers" will sometimes take the free books they're given and throw up half-assed coverage. For more on that, read: Good Sex, Great Prayers Deemed So Offensive It's Unreadable (or: how to be a lazy reviewer)

Marketing:

You can bet your ass the publisher is going to ask, "What's your social media presence?" so you should have no qualms asking what theirs is while you're on the subject. Here's the thing...Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and all the rest of that shit aren't going to be worked into your contract. There's not going to be some clause that says, "The publisher will tweet about the work three times a week for the first two weeks after publication." You can ask for it to be worked in, but don't expect to see it in the initial offer. Regardless, social media and other forms of marketing are an important part of the book release process. Beyond reviews, you should definitely be asking about what the publisher's marketing plan is. Will there be any ads run? Are they going to set you up with a bookstore reading? What about business cards? Pretend it's release day: now ask yourself, "What are the tools I need to help me sell this thing?" Again, a certain amount of responsibility falls on the author, but the whole reason the publisher is getting a cut is because they are expected to help sell the book...not sit around on their hands all day. Make them accountable.

Conclusion

Don't be blinded by your contract. Signing a bad one can be the thing that ends up screwing you over for the life of the novel. Do your research, ask questions, and for the love of God, don't be afraid to ask for changes if you don't like something. If three author copies sound low—ask for more. If you don't want your book assigned to a certain designer—ask for an alternative. A contract is an agreement between two parties...not one party telling the other how it's going to be. 

About the author

Brandon Tietz is the author of Out of Touch and Good Sex, Great Prayers. His short stories have been widely published, appearing in Warmed and Bound, Amsterdamned If You Do, Spark (vol. II), and Burnt Tongues, the Chuck Palahniuk anthology. Visit him at www.brandontietz.com

Similar Columns

Explore other columns from across the blog.

Book Brawl: Geek Love vs. Water for Elephants

In Book Brawl, two books that are somehow related will get in the ring and fight it out for the coveted honor of being declared literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves. This month,...

The 10 Best Sci-Fi Books That Should Be Box Office Blockbusters

It seems as if Hollywood is entirely bereft of fresh material. Next year, three different live-action Snow White films will be released in the States. Disney is still terrorizing audiences with t...

Books Without Borders: Life after Liquidation

Though many true book enthusiasts, particularly in the Northwest where locally owned retailers are more common than paperback novels with Fabio on the cover, would never have set foot in a mega-c...

From Silk Purses to Sows’ Ears

Photo via Freeimages.com Moviegoers whose taste in cinema consists entirely of keeping up with the Joneses, or if they’re confident in their ignorance, being the Joneses - the middlebrow, the ...

Cliche, the Literary Default

Original Photo by Gerhard Lipold As writers, we’re constantly told to avoid the cliché. MFA programs in particular indoctrinate an almost Pavlovian shock response against it; workshops in...

A Recap Of... The Wicked Universe

Out of Oz marks Gregory Maguire’s fourth and final book in the series beginning with his brilliant, beloved Wicked. Maguire’s Wicked universe is richly complex, politically contentious, and fille...

Learning | Free Lesson — LitReactor | 2024-05

Try Reedsy's novel writing masterclass — 100% free

Sign up for a free video lesson and learn how to make readers care about your main character.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: