Over the last five years, the publishing world has undergone an unbelievably rapid transformation. Before the advent of modern self-publishing outlets like CreateSpace, Amazon Kindle, Lightning Source and Smashwords—predatory vanity publishers still hover in the weeds to snap up the unwary—an aspiring author had only two choices how to get published: get picked up by a traditional publishing house or go with a growing list of e-book publishers.
As with everything in life, the old maxim ‘Buyer beware’ also applies to e-book publishers. Having accumulated a boxful of agent and traditional publisher rejection slips, it is easy to understand how an author would give up in disgust and turn to an e-book publisher, anticipating almost instant success. And he will find success easily. All it takes is a Google search and our author will have more lists of e-book publishers than he can use. Having had lots of experience making submissions, churning out a few more to five or six e-book handlers will be easy. What happens next is all too predictable. Our author gets a warm e-mail saying the editor would love to see the complete work, and some time later, a contract appears in the Inbox. Our author is delighted beyond words, wondering why he hadn’t done this before, dashes off his signature, and in six to nine months, his book comes out. Too easy, right?
Our wide-eyed author may now be in a world of hives. Remember that old maxim? What does he really know about his publisher? In his eagerness to get the book to his waiting readers, has he read the contract and does he understand the clauses and what they mean? The slippery slope to pain and gnashing of teeth is constantly greased by ignorance and carelessness. How does our trusting author realize he is fast sliding down that slope? A nagging doubt will start bubbling when he smells something isn’t right, whether the book is late coming out, there might be something wrong with his royalties, or one of a number of issues he banged his face into. More than slightly worried, our author dusts off his contract and starts to read it in detail for perhaps the first time. Too late, he has already hit the bottom. Do I get any resonance from somebody?
Okay, what should our author have done before signing a contract? Remembering that predators lay waiting out there, our trusting author needs to be armed to ward them off. These are some of the main things to look into:
· From the list of e-book publishers, check the pedigree of every publisher: how long have they been in business, what genres do they publish, have they changed owners a number of times, what do bulletin boards say about them, warnings from Preditors & Editors. You get the idea.
· Check the publisher’s website. Is it professional and easy to navigate? Does it provide information about what they are and what they really do, about the owners, how many editors they have on staff, list of their published authors, breakdown of books they sold, is it easy to purchase a book from the site, links to Amazon, an FAQ section, submission guidelines, sample contract, are they on Facebook and Twitter?
· If they are on Facebook, check out the page and read posted comments. Ask for author references.
Sounds like hard work? It all takes time, certainly, but once our author has selected several candidates he feels gooey about, he is ready to move to the next and most critical step I his research—the contract. A ‘good’ e-book publisher will have a sample contract on his website. If one doesn’t, ask for a copy. If they are not prepared to send you one, he should scratch them off his list. But I digress. The contract lists all the publisher obligations, and the author’s. It behooves our author to be intimately familiar with every clause. Things like:
· Grant of Publisher Rights: This section lists the rights the author grants to the publisher. Boiling it all down, the author should only grant worldwide right to publish his book in various e-book formats and Print on Demand. Never grant any other rights. I always get a chuckle with the part that says, ‘…in all electronic formats now invented or will ever be invented…’. The first part is all right, but you can scratch the latter. It is nonsense.
· Copyright: Never assign or grant copyright of your book to anyone!
· Ability for the author to provide his own cover art. If the contract doesn’t say so, put it there.
· The contract must state the timeframe for publishing the book from date of contract signature. Where a contract does not state this, the author may not see his book published for 12 months or more. Not good.
· Subsidiary Rights: Unless the author is familiar with these rights and what it means to grant them, scratch this from the contract.
· Payment of royalties. This can vary from monthly, quarterly, to six monthly. I would shy away from the last one and negotiate—or dump the publisher.
· Terms of Contract: Many e-book publishers want to lock in an author for three years. That’s fine, provided you insert a clause allowing the publisher and the author to terminate the contract for any reason, without obligation or cost, by giving a 30-day written notice. If the publisher doesn’t like that, dump him.
· The right to inspect the publisher’s accounts. Can be very handy.
· Indemnity: A publisher may dangle a variation of this clause:
If a judgment is obtained against Publisher for usurping rights still controlled by a Publisher or an entity other than the Publisher or the Author, the Author agrees to hold the Publisher harmless and to indemnify the Publisher for damages and costs. If Publisher prevails against a suing party or resolves the matter by an out of court settlement, the Author will be liable to indemnify the Publisher for defense and settlement cost.
This is a sucker clause, and our trusting author must reword it immediately to say that both parties will hold each other harmless and free from any liability or costs. Better still; have the clause deleted altogether.
· Pricing your book: Another sucker clause is the publisher’s right to lower your book price in order to boost sales. This is really ripping you off! You can retain such a clause, but add something like, ‘but only with the permission from the author’. Price lowering usually puts your book into the junk category and doesn’t do anything for your sales.
This is the juicy part where the publisher gets clever, and can create a really bad day for our author. Generally, this section is in two parts: e-book and POD royalties. There may also be one for subsidiary rights, but I’d scratch that, as it is only applicable for traditional publisher contracts. With e-book royalties, the author’s eyes might light up when he sees that he’ll be getting a 40% royalty on all sales, or perhaps even more. Whatever is written in this clause, he should check the fine print carefully. If the royalty percentage spot is blank, it could be an invitation to negotiate, or there is an alligator pit there.
Most of the time, a publisher will offer something like 35%—or less. This should be a warning bell that this publisher wants to play hardball. Our trusting author should send them an e-mail asking if they are willing to haggle. If not, scratch them. No one should be prepared to accept such a percentage. Our author must know something important. This percentage refers to sales made from the publisher’s own website. The author will receive 40% of NET earnings, NOT 40% of the book’s listed price! So many writers get caught here. Of course, most sales will be through third party outlets like Amazon, and they pay much less than 40% back to the publisher. They also want a cut of the pie the author has created.
What the author should ask for is a fixed percentage of the book’s list price—e-book and POD. That way, no matter where the book is sold, he will know exactly how much he is getting. Otherwise, the author might end up with 75 cents for a POD book that sells for $12.99! One thing our author must keep in mind: apart from initial formatting of the e-book and POD version, the publisher has no ongoing expenses! His accounting? That’s covered by his initial capital cost for setting up business. Ongoing costs are covered from his bulging profits. E-book publishers make their money from volume, not quality.
· Publisher Obligations: A contract will have a number of clauses that deal with author obligations, but what is the publisher going to do for the author? Check out these hooks:
- Publisher shall have the right to produce, advertise, promote…
– Publisher will distribute the book where the Publisher deems appropriate…
– Publisher may advertise anywhere the Publisher deems appropriate…
– The Publisher, at its sole discretion, may provide promotional copies…
– Author agrees to promote both his book and his Publisher to the best of his abilities…
What does all this mean? Apart from posting a book on his website, offering it to Amazon, Barns&Noble, and perhaps Smashwords, but not likely, the publisher is not obligated to do anything for the author! These days, marketing is solely in the hands of the author.
One other thing our trusting author needs to know. If a publisher is not willing to negotiate contract clauses, he should dump him. Eagerness to get published should never override cold business sense.
A last plug: Realizing how little an e-book publisher actually delivers for the author, leaving the author to do all the hard work and the short end of the royalty stick, self-publishing is an avenue well worth considering, and the stigma that used to surround self-publishing is fast disappearing.