Recently, I learned that a publisher that once offered me a contract (which I passed on) is in a state of massive turmoil. Several authors (many of whom I know) are furious at how they’re being treated. Looking back on the situation, I believe I dodged a massive bullet.
And here’s how I did it.
The publisher in question had an excellent reputation and was doing well enough to have physical copies in bookstores. There was even a film adapted from one of their books. On a more personal level, they were also the first ones to publish my work when I started writing professionally several years ago. I had known the owner and many of the authors through the message board for a number of years, and I had good experiences with all parties involved. When I finished my first novel, it was the first place I wanted to hit up.
Then, shortly after I subbed, I learned the publisher had changed hands.
I remained cautiously optimistic while my book was under review, but my guts were already coiling a little. All the personal interaction I’d had up to that point no longer meant jack. I didn’t know the people in charge whatsoever, let alone how they would run the business. Still, I couldn’t help but be delighted when I received a glowing acceptance letter on my book. I had wanted to sign with them since I started my career, and here was the contract, just waiting for my signature.
Fortunately, this is where my cynical nature saved my ass. It’s also where I’ll tell you the first major point of this article in plain English: Always scrutinize your contracts. And if there’s something you’re uncertain about, ask someone with the experience to clarify it for you.
A number of the clauses immediately struck me as dubious, the legalese running thick even for a guy with a criminal justice degree. But even with the meaning somewhat muddled, I understood enough to become suspicious. So, I did the smart thing and decided to seek some outside help. Talking to some of the authors already signed was a great place to start. A number of them weighed in, some saying they had only signed because they had negotiated better deals through agents, etc. and pointing out problem areas. After a suggestion, I took the next logical step and consulted someone with a reputation for scrutinizing contracts. She took a look at mine and returned a list of complaints that was easily a page long.
Hoping some of this may have been some unfortunate oversight due to an outmoded/boilerplate contract, I requested a number of changes from the publisher … and was flatly told most of them would be impossible.
I walked then and there. The contractual issues would have been enough on their own, but I’d been keeping my eye on the press ever since I found out it changed hands (point number two, kids: always keep your eyes open for new developments if things look off), and I didn’t like what I saw.
Through social media, I found out that the publisher was buying up work at an absurd rate. So much so, they probably could have filled three or four years’ worth of releases. I knew firsthand how tough it could be to get proper marketing support from a publisher. How the hell could I trust them to do right by my book when they had dozens of others already piled up, presumably to be released right on top of each other?
None of it looked right, and it only made me more confident that I was making the right decision. And here we are now. Looking at a train wreck in progress.
Authors who had been expecting both physical and electronic releases are now only receiving the latter. And despite all the gnashing of teeth, it’s all legal. All covered in the contracts that were signed. That little right for the publisher to pull the rug out at any time obscured just beyond a smokescreen. And here I am, still on my feet.
Take nothing, and I do mean nothing for granted when it comes to the business side of writing. Because if you can’t make out all the small print when you sign, it’s a good bet it’ll loom large just when you least expect it.