Monday, December 14, 2015

Turning Down a Publishing Contract

by Lisa Lickel

I know--who does that these days? Scary, you say?

Doesn’t have to be, authors. It depends on what you want with your writing career, who you are, where you’ve been, and what you expect. I'm flying solo again these days, operating sans agent. It was my choice, mutually agreed-upon with my former agent. In my case, we worked together for a number of years, during which a manuscript that had piqued the interest of another agent and an acquiring agent for a long time finally got a contract. That's me, below, signing it, by the way. I even garnered some really groovy endorsers (which are now burned). Then some nasty stuff happened and we ended up canceling. Six months later. It was the last straw for me. 

I turned around and immediately sold another manuscript, sent one out to three other publishers, and started on a rewrite of the particular un-contracted manuscript that seems to be a bad-luck magnet--not that I really believe in such things. But it's the story of the sent-out one that I want to share with you today--the contract offer that I ultimately ended up turning down. (I am deliberately using bad grammar of pronoun plural disagreement in the following.)

I teach workshops on pitching manuscripts to publishers and agents. Nothing is ever really perfect or goes according to plan, and I've been rejected plenty, even by publishers who have already published other books of mine, so I have experience. I found the publisher through a connection with a state-wide organization I'm involved in. The author I contacted about the published work was optimistic. There were no major predator-editor warnings out on the publisher. The covers weren't horrible, but they weren't fantastic; I was warned as always about the lack of perfectionist editing and professional marketing. I went ahead and followed the submission rules as exactly as I could, and got the "don't call us, we'll call you but it might take 90-160 days" reply. About ten days later I received a request for a phone call appointment from the publisher. Yay. I spoke to the other author some more, was okay with what I heard and went ahead with the phone call from the publisher. The hour and ten minute-long scripted phone call. Good news. They wanted my book. 

I will lay out the pros and cons as they affected me and my career at this place, where I've had several agents, gone through six different indie and large publishing house experiences, and this would have been my twentieth published book. You already know the conclusion. Not everyone will do or should do the same thing that I did. I do want to stress this is a perfectly fine publisher.

  • Yay, they wanted to publish me
  • They are a legitimate book publisher with a real staff
  • They took time to telephone
  • They offered a very long contract
  • They understood that I had two books coming out next year so it would be awkward to schedule a release in 2016
  • They had some marketing in place
  • They work with an e-book distributor that is interesting
  • They had no complaints from others online

  • The first red flag was "dissing" some of the material they were publishing and agents.
  • The second red flag was the "scripted" phone call that even though the publisher said constantly they were sure I understood and that because I had a website they knew I was ahead of most of their other authors...they continued to weave back and forth with bending my ear
  • The biggest red flag was that they refused to tell me why they wanted my book. At first I got an answer that nearly made me hang up then and there. "Do you have any questions for me?" "Yes, could you please tell me what about my particular book makes you want to publish it? It would help me work on my marketing campaign." "Well, we have independent readers, and my reader liked it." "Oh? What did they say?" "He said, 'I hope you call Lisa, because this book has the potential to do really well and will make lots of money.'" Then the publisher said he would track down the reader's comments and get back to me. When the publisher responded to my follow-up question a few days later, the publisher said they don't tell authors this information, the same way they don't tell writers who are rejected what's wrong with their book.
  • The publisher explained he saw six typos in a national best-selling book he recently read and some errors always manage to creep in. I understood, but would they then correct the copy and reload it? The answer boiled down to five minutes of probably not. And they use free-lance editors, not staff ones, and do not allow direct editor/author contact.
  • The covers weren't above average.
  • The print prices were high.
  • Some books had few or no reviews on line; some had many.
  • They offered no courtesy print copies and high author costs
  • The royalty returns were poor.
  • They would not answer my main question
  • They offered for-hire marketing

In short, it felt like a book mill, even though there were no complaints and I could have signed the (lengthy!) contract. Some of the past contracts I've signed were similar, though never that detailed.

Even these cons aren't really complaints, and legitimately happen everywhere in the industry. Yes, I'm in it for the money, but I'm at the point where I can be a little pickier about who works with me to publish my books. And I'm not starry-eyed enough to believe that if there's no national marketing campaign and big-name endorsements, money most likely won't happen. If a publisher isn't excited about my story, just my book, and is up front about not having pride in the final product, I feel like I can say no. Yes, I prayed over it and talked to some other folks. I never felt enthusiastic about the deal and took the two weeks they gave me to consider the contract. I said no thank you. They thanked me for getting back to them. I didn't expect any other response and wasn't disappointed when it didn't appear. And that was just the final mark that showed they weren't really interested in me or the story that would would have made lots of money.

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