Just because they offered you a contract doesn’t mean you need to take it

Because I’m fairly active on the Absolute Write Water Cooler, I receive a few emails and PMs from writers wondering if Brand-Spanking-New Publisher or Known-To-Be-A-Scam Publisher is a good bet. Anyone who knows me knows that I call ’em as I see ’em. If they’re a brand new company, I look at certain parameters:

  • Who’s running the company
  • Marketing and promotion capabilities
  • Distribution
  • Editing
  • Experience

Who Runs the Joint

I admit that I’m less picky about the “who” as I am the “what” – meaning that any author should head for the hills if the publisher has proven to be a shady character. There are a number of these wastes of skin and oxygen who scam authors, close up shop, and re-invent themselves with a new company…all so they can resume their assossity with a fresh batch of authors.

Conversely, there have been some great Cinderella stories where the publisher didn’t know much of anything, but worked hard, never screwed their authors, and eventually became esteemed publishers. Off the top of my head, Dominique Raccah, who started the amazing Sourcebooks, and Ben LeRoy, publisher and all-around Good Joe, who started Bleak House Books and Tyrus Books. Neither of them knew much about the industry at the very beginning, but they are amazing people who learned, persevered, and conquered.

They understood how to pick winner books. Not all newbies have that ability. So just because a newbie publisher offered you a contract, it doesn’t mean they have the confidence to determine how it measures up against the competition.

The problem with brand new companies is that they haven’t had the time to establish a reputation. Any number of things can happen along the way:

  • Run out of money – it takes anywhere from a few months to a couple years for a newbie to eat up their initial capital. They fold up, and the author loses.
  • They didn’t do their research on the industry and had no idea that books are so hard to sell…and they run out of money. They fold up, and the author loses.
  • They didn’t appreciate the notion of “returns.” So they ship out tons of books thinking that’s money in the bank. They do the Happy Dance and sing Tra La over bottles of champagne, only to die a thousand deaths when nearly all of them come back. They fold up, and the author loses.
  • They didn’t promote or market their books, so no one knew those books existed. They depended on the author to do this. The only money the publisher makes is the sales they garnered from selling to their own authors. If you’re a publisher with the initials P and A, then you’ve made this business model to a fine art. If you’re not that publisher, then you run out of money. They fold up, and the author loses.
  • They thought Ingram and Baker & Taylor were distributors, not warehousers, so their books never saw the indoors of bookstores around the country. They fold up, and the author loses.

Do you see the trend? While you may think it’s worthwhile to give a newbie publisher a shot, it’s also more often than not achingly dicey for the author. If these publishers fold – and they do – then your book is almost surely lost because many of them don’t bother to send out letters of reversion. Without that, no other publisher will touch a book.

If the publisher goes bankrupt, the authors’ books are wrapped up in bankruptcy court.

Marketing and promotion capabilities

New publishers may have their hearts in the right place – and that’s lovely. They may be really nice – also equally lovely. But those two characteristics don’t sell books. Marketing and promotion sells books. You owe it to yourself to find out what they do to promote and market their books.

Warning: You will find that many start-ups don’t understand this. Most newbies think being “distributed” by Ingram and Baker & Taylor equals marketing and promotion. It doesn’t. For starters, they’re wholesalers, as I mentioned before, meaning they stock the book to sell to bookstores and libraries. They don’t have sales teams who actively pitch their titles to the genre buyers of libraries and bookstores.

Marketing and promoting means they send out ARCs to reviewers and media. This means printing up hundreds of books that aren’t targeted for sale. Since many new publishers are on a budget, this is a big expense that has no guarantees. I can’t stress this enough:  Your prospective publisher MUST send out ARCs.

We never know what seeds we’re dropping when we send out books out to media and reviewers, but one thing is for sure – if we don’t, then we guarantee the book remains anonymous.

Marketing and promotion doesn’t stop with sending out ARCs. Find out if your publisher will get your name into the RTIR – Radio TV Interview Report. Again, it costs money to do this, and many on a severe budget can’t afford to do this because there’s no guarantee media producers will want their authors for an interview.

Does the publisher set up book signings? Do they look for other potential readerships? Do they enter their books in reputable book competitions?

Distribution

The better distributed a publisher’s books are, the more they will put into their marketing and promotion because they realize this is a major part of selling books. Their distributor expects it because it’s all about enticing book buyers placing orders. When I talk about distribution, I mean folks like IPG, Perseus, and Consortium, who represent commercial trade presses to the national and international book industry. They all have marketing staff on hand who will rip a book apart in order to find the best marketing/promo plan that will yield maximum interest from book buyers.

Not only do these companies have their in house marketing people, but they also have contracted book reps who cover the US and Canada (and other countries) territories. These are the godsends who have relationships with physical stores and talk directly to the store managers/buyers. This is especially important when a book has regional importance.

Publishers simply can’t have any hope of success if they don’t have distribution. Good distribution. Mind you, there are some horrible distributors out there who are little more than Ingram and Baker & Taylor. They don’t have sales people who actively promote their client-publishers’ books.

Editing

The dicey thing with a newbie publisher is editing. Authors have no way of knowing whether the editing is terrific or cover-your-eyes-and-scream. Best thing to do is wait until they have a few books out and actually read those books to see what they’re like. Be sure to check out the quality of the layout, cover art, spelling, pacing, flow, organization. This is extremely telling as to how they’ll treat your book.

Experience

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that experience is the best teacher. Even though we had great mentors when we first opened our doors, there are many things we’d do differently. There isn’t a publisher alive who won’t agree with this. However, the more they know about the industry, they’ll less those learning curves will adversely affect your book.

Think about whether you want your book to be the guinea pig for a new publisher. If so, you have an admirable intestinal fortitude, if not a lapse in judgement.

Desire

And that’s the key here. Most authors I know who have read all the minuses of a newbie publisher and still decide to go with them are all victim of “I Want It Now” Syndrome. Logically speaking, why else would an author sign with a risky, unproven publisher?

The desire to be published is as strong as the beagle’s desire to drink margaritas for breakfast, and many won’t listen to reason. They’ve been offered a contract. Someone loves them. Hurrah! They’re thinking of fame and fabulosity and completely forgetting the soul-sucking realities.

Desire is the counter punch to Common Sense. The ache and yearning is far stronger than admitting the possibility they’re headed down a road to Nowhere’s-ville…until it’s too late.

So before you lose all perspective of being offered a contract, please honor yourself and your writing by making sure your book is headed for greatness instead of a black hole.

22 Responses to Just because they offered you a contract doesn’t mean you need to take it

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    AND make sure that you have a way OUT of that contract if things don’t work out.

  2. Thing is, Ninjie, there is no sure-fire way out of a contract if the publisher is a jerk. Even if the publisher has a breech of contract (say, by not publishing a book within the stated time), the author has to sue to break that contract. Few have the money.

    I’ve seen cases where the publisher went belly up and authors thought they could shop their books. Uh uh. Not without a reversion of rights letter. It’s best to avoid an iffy publisher rather than hope you have an “out.” Invariably, you don’t. Be smart.

  3. Matt says:

    Hi Lynn
    I would really appreciate your advice as I am coming from the other side of the fence on this. I set up a small publishing company last year. We published in POD and Ebook. I assembled a small team of really good experts for the editing, book design etcand we created one book. We never expected to make a fortune and neither did the author. We did tell him properly about all that you mention in your blog, for example, we never had any illusions that Ingram was anything more than a wholesaler and that we had no distribution. The trouble with starting up is that until you have a bit of a back catalogue and history it is difficult to get a distributor interested. We did publish through POD and worked very hard to reach the niche market that the book was designed to sell to. We approached stores ourselves and approached many groups that were involved in what the author had written about. As a result the author did many talks with these groups and we eventually got an international magazine to ytake a bulk order of our books and sell them online. As we were using POD we were able to split the profit pretty much fifty/fifty with the author so we both made a little money as the book sold reasonably well.
    The trouble was we then came to the attention of the Water Cooler contributors including yourself who derided POD and, I’m sorry to say, us.
    I now have a book that has sold well and a little pile of money but great difficulty getting authors interested because they have read the comments about my company on a forum. For the record, I have never tried to scam anyone and have always been totally upfront about the potential sales of a book and my companys ability to distribute. We did produce ARCs and have continued to push the one book we have produced which I believe is a quality product.
    My point is that there are a few newbie publishers who are genuine and who also have to start small. I never had the luxury of starting a company with a large budget and it is sad that my attempt to grow something good were stifled by a few comments on a forum. Anyway, enough moaning, I will start again and try and be open, positive and honest. Small and new does not have to mean you’re a jerk.

  4. Matt, I don’t remember which publishing house is yours, so you have me at a disadvantage as to which AW thread discussed your publishing house. However, I’m fairly certain I didn’t deride you because you utilize digital printing and do small print runs. I have no idea if I did accuse you of being a scam. If I did, then there must have been verifiable information that proved otherwise.

    I probably took issue with your company because you provided no outstanding reasons as to what make your press a good choice. You lack distribution, you probably don’t have the resources to properly market and promote your titles. It’s great that you got some sales from your one book, but can you repeat that kind of time and energy to, say, five books? Ten? Twenty? At the same time? This is where POD publishers run into trouble because they lack proper financing and staff.

    Since I’m at that disadvantage to knowing your company, I can’t speak to your editing. I don’t know what you mean by a “really good experts for the editing, book design.” Do they have experience in the publishing industry? Do you have the kind of operating capital to pay people who have that experience? To date, I don’t know of a single experienced editor who’s willing to work for free, or low pay. This is the common problem with POD presses.

    You place blame at my and AW’s door for your lack of queries, yet I can’t better explain my comments on AW without knowing who you are. What I can say is the only way to refute something is to prove them wrong. For example, someone may feel we’re a crummy publisher, but sales and store placement pretty much flies in the face of that opinion. So I have to ask you what you’ve done to refute what people have said on AW.

    I’m glad you’re up front with those to whom you extend a contract, but it’s out of character for me to rip anyone a new orifice for being honest. Sorry, but there has to be more to your particular story that had me feeling the way I did.

    And just clarify, I may have certain reservations about PODs, but I do feel there is a legitimate use for them as long as they’re up front about what they can and can’t do for authors.

    You said:
    My point is that there are a few newbie publishers who are genuine and who also have to start small. I never had the luxury of starting a company with a large budget and it is sad that my attempt to grow something good were stifled by a few comments on a forum.
    Now, I’m sorry, but this happens to really piss me off. I never said newbie publishers weren’t genuine and honest. I said that being genuine and honest doesn’t sell books. Furthermore, this wah-wah “I never had the luxury of having a big budget to start my company” is plain lame. You know what you do if you don’t have proper operating capital? YOU DON’T OPEN UP A PUBLISHING COMPANY because you’re not only putting yourself at huge risk, but also your authors.

    You said: Small and new does not have to mean you’re a jerk.
    Puhleeze. No one is saying small and new means you’re a jerk, so stop playing the victim card. Grow up and act like a businessman instead of a third grader.

  5. Matt says:

    Lynn
    The only reason I was able to contact you was you had the decency to identify yourself on the forum, something that no one else did. I’m sorry, I didn’t wish to sound ‘lame’ and I’m far too old to know what a third grader is. I didn’t have the luxury of a big budget because that was not where the aim of the business was. Sharing good writing that sometimes gets overlooked by bigger, more commercial concerns was more where we are at. I may be a bit of a hippy, but not a victim.
    All I am saying is there is room for small presses operating in niches to produce some quality work that may not sell by the bucketload but will make a profit for author and publisher. It’s also real easy for people to write comments with the benefit of anonymity. As I pointed out, you stood by your words (which weren’t that harsh by comparison).
    Didn’t mean to ‘piss you off’ It’s a great blog.
    Matt

  6. Great advice, as always!

  7. PJ says:

    Matt
    I’m sorry but you’re wasting your time. Every post this person writes attacks any form of publishing other than the type she works for. It’s fair and balanced like Fox News is fair and balanced. You’re arguing with a vested interest.

  8. Matt, you said:
    The only reason I was able to contact you was you had the decency to identify yourself on the forum.

    You could have contacted anyone on that board – not just me – so that’s incorrect.

    I didn’t have the luxury of a big budget because that was not where the aim of the business was.
    What business person goes into business and not have the slightest idea about how they’re going to maintain financial stability? This puzzles me.

    Sharing good writing that sometimes gets overlooked by bigger, more commercial concerns was more where we are at. I may be a bit of a hippy, but not a victim.
    Oh come on. Benevolence does not pay the bills and keep a business solvent. Hippie or no, you have a bigger picture at issue here, and that’s the responsibility you have to your authors. What difference does your sharing good writing make to them if you roll up your carpets in a year?

    All I am saying is there is room for small presses operating in niches to produce some quality work that may not sell by the bucketload but will make a profit for author and publisher.
    I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve never said otherwise. But I plainly wrote this post for authors who have larger aspirations and the signs they need to look for to insure they find publishers who are better able to help them attain those goals. Barring that, I’m not sure what our dialog is meant to signify.

  9. Aston West says:

    Great stuff…and as someone who once signed a contract for this very reason, I highly recommend all those writers getting into publishing read and remember it all…

  10. PJ, I love nothing more than someone who comes here anonymously in order to fling unfounded accusations. How marvelously grown up of you.

    Given your UK email address, I assume we crossed paths on a UK writer’s site where you probably enjoyed closing your ears to how publishing really works.

  11. Julie Rowe says:

    Those who oppose the sharing of information are usually the ones who want to control it.

    Thanks for being a rebel Lynn!

  12. I’ve found those who try to drown out differing ideas have experienced a lot of rejections. As a response, they insist “traditional” publishing is dead and attack those who attempt to educate authors so they can make good, appropriate decisions that are advantageous to their writing careers.

  13. Matt says:

    Those who try to drown out differing ideas! Pot, kettle, black? I give up, good luck with your handbags.

  14. Matt, there’s a huge difference between discussing issues with fact and “drowning out” differing opinions. You give up because you refuse to say which thread is yours on the AW board, and you can’t back up your defense with facts. It’s impossible to carry on an intelligent conversation with so little to work with.

  15. Tony Levy says:

    Trouble is as a brand new author, when you do get an offer to publish can you afford to reject it. I took the only offer for my book and now have my book published. It is never gonna make me a fortune but my book is out there with all the associated interviews and the like, I know this is probably my Andy Warhol 15 mins of fame but I am making the most of it. Beyond my wildest dreams so far and some of the reviews from actual readers via Amazon are amazing.
    What would I have done by myself without dedicating more time than I have available after all I have to hold down a regular job as well.

  16. Hi Tony, thanks for your comments. I think each writer has to analyze their literary goals and follow the path that will support those goals. I see many authors take huge risks with publishers who don’t have the ability to get the job done, either due to their being very inexperienced, or not having enough operating capital.

    In the beginning the authors swear they’re perfectly happy to take those risks, but it’s a different story after the ink dries and they see how the publisher did few or none of the things they promised.

    So to answer your question, yes, a brand new author can absolutely afford to reject a contract offer because it’s better to remain unpublished that published badly.

  17. Tony Levy says:

    That is very true and I fully appreciate your comments. It is very difficult especially in the current economic climate throughout the world to break into the world of publication.
    There is also the element that despite having a publisher how much should the author do to try and promote their own book.
    I personally look at any way I can break into the market by my own efforts. I know that the initial response to my book will be from people that know me or worked with me or in the same industry, but how do you then get the book out into the mainstream public? The million dollar question.
    My book is about my 25 year career working in the British Prison Service and I know most purchasers are either ex colleagues or people that know me or work for Her Majesty’s Prison Service here in the UK.
    How to make the next step is a huge question whether you have a publisher or not!

  18. It is very difficult especially in the current economic climate throughout the world to break into the world of publication.

    I disagree with this. New writers are being published every day, and it boils down to the fact that they wrote a book the publishers felt were marketable.

    There is also the element that despite having a publisher how much should the author do to try and promote their own book.

    Author promotion is important, whether you’re with one of the Big Six or a smaller trade press. Your editor will discuss promo plans with you, so both parties know exactly how best to market your book.

    I personally look at any way I can break into the market by my own efforts. My book is about my 25 year career working in the British Prison Service and I know most purchasers are either ex colleagues or people that know me or work for Her Majesty’s Prison Service here in the UK.

    Understanding the industry is key to pinpointing your readership and the elements of your book that will capture their attention. The question to ask yourself is what makes your book a “gotta have it”? Why do readers want to know about your career? Will your book get people talking?

    Knowing what makes your book a stand out, and quality writing is what makes you an attractive choice to editors. Memoirs are a dime a dozen, and many of them are rejected because they are either too personal, or it’s not interesting. You need to look at your book dispassionately and treat it as a business…and do a ton of research on the industry so you understand how books are sold and how to analyze whether your book has what it takes to attract an audience.

    Just because your book is about the prison service doesn’t mean it’s going to attract your intended readership. There has to be a reason why your book rocks.

  19. Tony Levy says:

    Many thanks for your brilliant information a lot to take in and have a good look at.
    Will watch this blog with interest.

  20. Cheers to you, Tony. Hope it all works out fabulously for you!

  21. Bill Webb says:

    Hey Lynn, all of us who used to hang with you online at That PLace That Shall Not Be Named, want to know if you wouldn maybe blog about how you got your publishing career started. It’s a great story.

    Bill

  22. Actually, I think I did blog about it a while back. I’ll see if I can find the link.

Tell me what you really think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: