Friday, November 19, 2010

Before you sign on that dotted line . . .

This blog originally appeared at The Romance Studio on November 12, 2010.

Every month - or most every month - I've tried to post some pointers here for aspiring novelists. Most of those tips have revolved around writing techniques and self-promotion. But there's one big middle step I left out: signing with a publisher. Now, many authors today are skipping the publisher entirely and self-pubbing. This is a perfectly valid approach, but I wouldn't recommend it to a first-time author. There's too much you need to learn about how to edit, how to meet deadlines, how to choose cover art, and how to market yourself. Best if you let a publisher help you with some of those steps, at least for the first book ;-)

But how do you know if the publisher who's made an offer for your book is the right publisher for you? Simple answer: you don't. You can make an educated guess, by looking at what sorts of books the publisher has brought out in the past. But you probably already did that before you submitted your book to them. Still, even after careful consideration, you might find your publisher is less than dreamy once you're actually being forced to rewrite your favorite chapter for the fourth time or delete that character you loved. Every author has unhappy stories about publishers who made them change things about their books that the author loved. There's just no way to know whether something like that will happen until after you've signed the contract. The good news is -- sometimes the editor really does know best. Legendary editor Maxwell Perkins often ripped apart works by towering literary figures like Fitzgerald, Hemmingway and Wolfe. He actually demanded that Wolfe cut 90,000 words from his novel, Look Homeward, Angel. I can only hope your editor won't need to ask the same of you!

Editing your book is a give and take process with your publisher, but some things are much more rigid. The contract you sign with that publisher is a legally binding document, so you really must take the time to read it carefully and think long and hard before you sign it. If a publisher is pressuring you to sign that contract immediately, you should probably walk away from that publisher. I don't know of any legitimate publisher who would be unwilling to give you a few days to review their offer before signing.

What are some other things to consider when you sign that first contract? Herewith, a quick list thrown together with the help of some fellow authors. A list of things we all wish we'd known the first time around?

1) How long has the publisher been in business?

2) How long is the term of the contract? And if the answer to #1 is less than two or three years, do you really want to sign a 7-year contract with a brand new company in these uncertain economic times? Which leads to the next question:

3) Is the term of the contract negotiable?

4) Do they do print books or ebooks only? Ebooks are all the rage right now, and sometimes you can earn more from ebook royalties than from print editions? But if you really want a book you can hold in your hand, make sure your contract specifies a PRINT edition will be issued.

5) If they do print books, do they offer distribution through Ingram or Baker & Taylor? Without that, it's almost impossible to get your book into a bookstore, since most bookstores order all their books from one distributor. And that distributor is Ingram or Baker & Taylor.

6) Are their books available for sale at popular third-party websites such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Fictionwise? Don't take their word for it. Look for some of their books at those sites. If the publisher's books are only available through its own website, you probably won't sell many books. Readers don't want to think about who your publisher is, and they want to be able to order their books from a trusted website where they've done business in the past.

7) How long does it take this publisher to go from signed contract to getting your book out for sale?

8) Do you know anyone else who has been published by them and are those authors completely happy with that publisher? If not, why not? Did the author just not like the cover the publisher chose (a relatively minor issue) or is the author having trouble collecting their royalties ( a huge issue)?

9) Is there a clause in the contract guaranteeing that your rights revert to you if the company goes out of business or declares bankruptcy?

And last, but not least:

10) If there's an advance, how is it paid? The name "advance" has become deceptive. Publishers used to pay the full amount up front. Now many pay that advance out in thirds -- a third on signing, a third on delivery of the edited book and a third on publication. There's nothing wrong with that, but you should know when you're going to get paid!

I'm sure there are dozens of other issues I haven't even thought about including here. If other authors out there have some ideas on issues you should be considering, I  hope they'll feel free to post them in the comments section here.

I'll see you all again in December - have a happy Thanksgiving in the meantime!

Lynn Reynolds is the author of "chick noir" suspense novel Thirty-Nine Again, which RT Book Reviews called "a first-class mystery and a first-class read." Her new book, Love, Capri Style, is a sun-drenched, fun-filled contemporary romance set on the island of Capri. It's available now exclusively as an ebook. Visit to learn more or to order either book.