During the early days—correction, decade—of my writing career, before I had either an agent or a publishing deal, I often felt a kind of desperation. When would it finally be my turn? When would I see my work in print?
Would my day ever come?
I wrote, I researched agents and publishers, I pitched and queried, and—like everyone—I received rejections. Rejections upon rejections, until I almost dreaded opening my email for fear of finding another missive that began, “Although I enjoyed your work, I’m afraid I just didn’t love it quite enough to take a chance in this difficult market . . .”
At times I felt tempted to stop researching “fits” and simply adopt a shotgun approach in the hopes of finding any agent or publisher willing to take a chance on my stories.
Fortunately, twenty years of experience as a publishing lawyer stayed my hand. Because, despite the temptation, I knew that having no agent and no publishing deal is better than having a deal I would later regret.
The same is true for you.
Before signing a contract with an agent or publishing house, you must take off the emotional artist hat and evaluate the offer with a non-emotional, business manager’s eye. Consider every aspect of the deal. Does it make business sense? Does it fit your plans and desires for your overall career? For where you are now, and where you hope to go?
Beyond that, take the time to consider these important factors:
- The history and reputation of the person or business making you an offer. While you should research all agents, publishers, and other third-parties (e.g., printers and cover designers, in the case of author-publishers) before you receive an offer, you absolutely must know the other side’s reputation and capacity before you sign. In the case of agents, ask to speak with other current or former clients. (And follow up with calls.) In the case of publishers, research things like total sales numbers, payment history, and distribution network. Hiring a cover artist? Look at his or her other work. Does it meet your needs in terms of quality and design?
- Inexperienced Authors Benefit From Experienced Business Partners. Generally speaking, new authors benefit from working with experienced agents, publishers, artists, and other professionals. While many mid-career authors may have acquired the knowledge to manage and benefit from contracts with less experienced business partners, unpublished authors should think twice before signing with inexperienced representatives. That doesn’t necessarily mean “don’t ever sign with an inexperienced agent or publisher” or “don’t work with new cover designers or printing houses” but it does mean—wherever you are in your career—that you consider the decision with special care.
- In Traditional Publishing, The Author Never Pays For Anything. Never. No exceptions. If an offer requires the author to pay out-of-pocket, the deal is either hybrid (meaning a mixture of traditional and author-publisher) or an author-publisher (aka “self-publishing”) arrangement. In many cases, contracts that claim they’re “traditional” but require the author to pay charge several times more than the author would have to pay if (s)he hired contractors and pursued publication directly as an independent author-publisher. In other words: beware of those who try to trick you into paying more than necessary with claims that they can “help” make the process easier.
- Friends Are Nice, But Publishing Is A Business. If I had a dollar for every time an author told me, “I know/knew the contract is/was questionable, but (s)he was so nice,” I could retire to a private island and pay everyone to be nice to me as well. Without discounting the added value of friendship—and I consider my agent a personal friend as well as a business partner—in publishing, professionalism and experience are always more important than friendliness. First and foremost, your agent, publisher, cover designer, printer, editor, and everyone else related to your publishing career is a business partner. “Nice” and “friendly” are value-adds, but secondary to experience, skill, and professionalism.
- You And Your Work Deserve (At Least) Industry Standard Treatment. Learn the standards for contracts in the publishing industry. At a minimum, know the standards for your path (author-publisher or traditional). If possible, learn the standards for both—doing so will help you negotiate and manage your career with extra skill. And never, ever settle for less than industry standard terms in any contract. You and your work are worth it.
- If Necessary, Have The Courage To Walk Away. If the contract offer doesn’t stand up to business-based analysis, or if anything else seems weird, or if you’re not comfortable with the situation, have the courage to say no and walk away. Having no deal at all is always, always better than signing a deal you later regret. It may not feel that way right now, but in publishing, as in math, zero is always worth more than a negative one.
Obviously, the list above is not an exhaustive or complete list of the questions authors should ask before signing a publishing-related contract. What factors are important to you? Have you walked away from a deal you’re glad you passed up? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!