About a year after I began submitting my writing, I was offered a contract on one of my satirical thrillers, Driven. Because I felt at the time that it was the least polished of my efforts, I began asking advice, and I will never forget one of the earliest and wisest things that anyone has told me to date.
Victoria Strauss wrote, “Being unpublished is better than being badly published.”
At first, I thought that maybe managing the blog at Writer Beware had made Victoria paranoid. I wasn’t even sure what she meant by “badly published.” If someone was willing to print and sell my first novel on my behalf, how bad a publisher could they be?
Of course, Victoria’s mission is to protect a writer’s work and reputation to future publishers, so I knuckled into some research. I quickly learned a few ways to spot a publisher that even new writers don’t want, and have been learning more and more of those ever since.
Every publisher should offer a clearly worded contract. Some do not. I learned the hard way that ticking a box on a submissions manager is a very poor substitute for a real, big-boy’s contract… and that a real, big-girl’s contract should be about fifteen pages long.
Inside that contract should be a very specific statement about what rights you are signing over. These should be limited, and temporary. Typically, someone selling to an American publisher would only agree to “First North American Serial Rights,” or FNASR. I’ve discovered that some publishers do not even know this term, so it’s worthwhile making sure it is there. Of course, you might be willing to sign over additional rights, but the point is that the contract needs to name them all and exclude any others.
More importantly, the contract should clearly state when rights revert to the author. This would normally be after first publication… but what if publication never happens? If you find yourself disagreeing with your publisher, you need to know that you will still own your work when they decide it’s time to frack your fiction. Asking for rights back after a relationship sours can be a minefield, so make sure it’s covered in the contract.
If you know that your piece still needs material added or deleted to make it viable, you need to make sure that the publisher agrees to consider your revisions. Of course, they are under no obligation to accept them, but one thing I have learned is to write a clause about revisions straight into that contract. The very best time to agree to include them is before the first edits are done; that way, your revisions won’t get lost in someone else’s busy day.
Sales and Marketing
There are droves of articles written about the importance of authors taking ownership of their own marketing. That is a debate for elsewhere. For now, let’s agree that the advantage of having a publisher (rather than self-publishing) is that a business with more resources should be taking on a share of that marketing. A quick way to tell how well they do so is to look up a dozen or so of their titles on Amazon.com. Each listing will include a sales ranking for that title; if the book ranks in five figures, they are probably doing some marketing. If it ranks in six (or even seven!) there is probably a reason.
For longer works, every publisher should provide both copy editing, line editing and content editing. Many claim to provide editing services, but really only copy- or line-edit (and some quite inexpertly, at that). Some questions in advance revealed to me that my first offer would only provide very cursory copy editing. For me, this was the tipping point that made me turn down that contract.
Of course, the opposite can also be a problem. If a publisher picks up your work, they should love it already without too many changes. Too much of the wrong kind of editing can make your work unrecognizable, or even introduce more errors than it removes. If that happens, you need an escape clause that keeps your precious work in your name. You know what will let you do that, don’t you?
That’s right law-lovers; the good old contract will let you do that.
So, that’s what it comes back to, every time: making friendly deals that you can back up with legal binding. If you are a writer, you might be willing to risk shorter work, and you will develop relationships with publishers whom you can trust: publishers who have the best interests of writers at heart, like Sandra and Justine Fluck from The Write Launch; like Angela Mackintosh from WOW; like B. Lynn Goodwin from Writer Advice. Perhaps they can’t publish and market your beloved novel, but they are among thousands of good people to have on your side.
Still, that same old caution of the late A.C. Crispin’s always applies: Writer Beware.