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Knowing When to Walk Away from a Publishing Deal


Many authors spend years (if not decades) seeking a traditional publishing deal. Unfortunately, when the offer comes, it isn’t always a good one—and knowing when to walk away (and having the strength to do it, despite the steepness of the road) is one of the most important business skills an author can develop.

While no one can, or should, tell you when to refuse a contract, let’s look at a few situations when wise authors should consider walking away from a publishing deal:

1.  When the publisher is a vanity press, a scam, or taking advantage of authors. 

Legitimate traditional publishers never ask the author to pay for anything out-of-pocket (and should pay royalties based on gross receipts or sales, without deducting publishing costs or expenses before calculating the author’s share). If the publisher asks the author to pay expenses or purchase “mandatory copies” of the work, bullies the author during negotiations (it happens!), or does anything else that suggests the publisher or the deal is not legitimate, the author should refuse the deal.

Investigate publishers carefully before submitting your work or signing a deal. If the publisher’s reputation isn’t squeaky-clean, or if anything seems “off,” don’t be afraid to walk away.

2.  When the publisher won’t offer industry-standard terms or negotiate a reasonable contract. 

Sometimes, even legitimate publishers’ contracts don’t meet industry standards for fairness. Most publishers are willing to negotiate, but if the publisher won’t budge on terms you consider vital, it’s better to walk away than to sign a contract you consider unreasonable or unfair.

I strongly recommend that authors obtain professional assistance with contract negotiations. Hire an agent or publishing lawyer who knows the industry to advise you or negotiate on your behalf. That said, each author has the right to determine the business terms (s)he is willing to accept. You have the power to refuse any deal that doesn’t meet your business standards. 

3.  When the publisher lacks the experience or capacity to publish and distribute the author’s work appropriately. 

Smaller publishers and micro-presses may lack extensive distribution networks; larger publishers may not give authors the attention their works would receive at a smaller house. Authors should create a business plan for their works, and follow the publishing path (or plan) that meets the plan for the work in question. Also, be sure to investigate and ask intelligent questions about the publisher’s resources, distribution, experience, and business practices.

In some cases, it makes sense to sign with a micro-press or a newer publishing house. However, you should always ensure the publisher has the experience and publishing capacity to handle your work appropriately. If not, you should walk away from the deal and find a publisher better suited to your goals and needs. 

4.  When the publisher’s plans for the work don’t match the author’s. 

Publishers won’t always tell an author, in advance, exactly how much support the publisher plans to invest in the author’s work. However, you can investigate the way the publisher treats its other titles (and authors)—and never assume that a publishing house will treat you better than it treats its mid-list writers. (If your title does well, you might end up with A-list treatment, but you can’t assume.)

If a publisher can’t (or won’t) give you and your work the care and consideration you want, you’re better off walking away than signing a deal you regret.

5.  When the author could accomplish more by self-publishing than the publisher could do for the author’s work. 

Authors have many options in the current publishing climate. The explosion of small and micro-publishers means that authors can often find a publishing house willing to publish quality work in any genre. However, signing with a traditional publishing house isn’t always the author’s best option.

Before accepting a publishing deal, ask yourself: can this publisher do more for me, and my work, than I could do if I published the book myself?

If the answer is “no”—or even, “I’m not certain”—you may be better off turning down the deal. Becoming an author-publisher is a serious business decision, and no author should make it lightly. However, signing a contract is serious too, and you should never entrust your work to a publisher that can’t do more for you than you could on your own (or by hiring people to assist you).

Ultimately, it’s better to walk away from ANY offer than it is to sign a contract you regret.

Obviously, I don’t have room in a single post to discuss every situation where an author might want to walk away from a publishing deal—or all of the factors that contribute to analysis of a publishing offer. However, one great thing about the Writer Unboxed community is the wealth of experience (and viewpoints) all of you have to offer. So, I’m throwing this open for more discussion in the comments.

Have you got advice for authors evaluating a publishing deal, or deciding whether or not to walk away? 

About Susan Spann [1]

Susan Spann [2] writes the Hiro Hattori Novels (Shinobi Mysteries) featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo, who solve mysteries set in medieval Japan. Her first novel, Claws of the Cat [3]: A Shinobi Mystery (Minotaur, 2013) was a Library Journal mystery debut of the month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. Her fourth Hiro Hattori novel, The Ninja’s Daughter [4], releases August 2, 2016 from Seventh Street Books. Susan is the 2015 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year, and also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on business and publishing law. She founded and curates the Twitter hashtag #PubLaw (for Writers), where she answers questions and provides information about publishing business and legal issues. When not writing or representing clients, Susan enjoys traditional archery, reading fiction and nonfiction, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. She lives outside Sacramento, California, but you can find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com [2], on Twitter (@SusanSpann [5]), or on Facebook/SusanSpannBooks [6].