Author Beware — A book publishing horror story

By Sharon Hill

In 2001, my co-author and I signed a contract for a nonfiction book. I was a freelance writer/editor with my own business, and my client-turned-coauthor had come to me with a request to produce a brochure for his corporate clients. These executives were being hounded by requests from employees to implement telework into their firms and they needed guidance. Bill, an employment counselor, asked me to ghostwrite a booklet about implementing and managing telework.

Once we started the table of contents we realized the topics that needed to be covered were far too vast for a booklet. It became a book. One publisher friend suggested my credentials warranted my being named as co-author. Bill agreed. Then started the hunt for a publisher. I bought the latest version of Writer’s Market and started through the pages of business publishers. I came up with a list of 50 and painstakingly wrote queries to all. From those 50 letters came four encouraging replies. At the request of these four we sent sample chapters. We signed a contract with the first publisher who offered it. We discussed the wisdom of this, but being first-time authors, we were afraid that another offer might not come along and this one would go away if we dallied. So, after asking a few — too few, it turns out —questions, we signed the contract approximately two weeks later.

Then came the marketing questionnaire. At the publisher’s request we researched and listed 200 business people who should receive marketing materials — press releases, etc. — from the publisher. We also gave the publisher’s marketing rep an extensive list of business management and human resource management conferences that might be good places for us to showcase our book.

In the middle of writing and submitting subsequent chapters to the assigned editor, our publisher downsized and fired our editor. We got an e-mail after the fact but no name of the replacement contact. Our e-mails went unanswered for a couple of weeks. In fact the notification of the editor’s dismissal didn’t even come from the publisher. It came from the dismissed editor, who now had no obligation to even tell us. He, luckily, was just a nice guy who wanted to let us know since nobody responsible was going to.

Ultimately, our book was delayed one year. Our editor was replaced twice, and for quite some time we had no known publisher contact. We started looking at our contract with more observant eyes. We discovered that there was no deadline in it — no date by which the publisher had to have the book in print, or nullify the contract and return all rights to us. Our royalty checks were paid only once a year, so the book’s publishing delay also delayed our payment for another full year.

Nor did they offer any writing or publishing guidance. Several months after the contract, and well over a year into the writing I asked them about forwarding to them the e-mails that gave us permission to quote. It was then that I learned we had to have original signatures on all permissions. Neither e-mails nor faxes were acceptable. I had to go back to each company and person and send her or him the form to sign and have it mailed back to me. Some didn’t remember talking with me, some remembered but didn’t know what they had said and wanted to see it again, or update it. Some were no longer employed at the firm, so I had to get new quotes and permissions from their replacement.

Once the book was finally published we were informed that our mailing list was out of date (whose fault was that?), that they no longer sent announcements to 200 — 20 was now the maximum — along with review copies to 10-20 trade journals. When were they going to tell us all this if I hadn’t asked? Once again we perused our contract. Nowhere did it address the publisher’s marketing obligations.

We had also committed ourselves to creating the index — a task neither of us had ever tackled before.

Worst of all, we allowed the contract to include the provision that this publisher had the right of first denial on our next book. Even though we had now decided we never wanted to work with this publisher again we had to give them the opportunity to decide if they were going to publish our next book before we sought another publisher.

Our book has been out since last December. Our royalties are to be paid sometime between the end of October and the end of December. The cut off is the end of June — this month. Each month end we get a statement about the number of books sold. For some reason they are late with May’s report, but as of April 30th we’ve sold a total of 183 books — devastatingly few. In fact, far fewer than pay for our time, expenses and efforts.

So, what did we learn from all this? Well, it’s not as tragic a story for me as it is for Bill. As a writer, whether profitable or not, a published book helps get me in many doors. And I am attempting to launch a speaking career about telework. I’ve also been able to resell the topic, with notes and research gathered during the writing of the book to many periodicals and sites. But I’m surely not going to get rich off the royalties. In fact, it’ll be a long time before I’m out of debt.

While we wanted to write another business management book we didn’t want to have to work with the same publisher. So we shelved the next business management idea temporarily in favor of a shorter historical publication completely unrelated to the topics this publisher handles, informed them by mail that we were sure they would not be interested (they weren’t), finished that short publication, and then started on our new business management book with a different publisher. We had managed to avoid the publisher from hell while also avoiding contract violation.

Before we signed the second contract I found a book I highly recommend: Tad Crawford’s Business and Legal Forms for Authors and Self-Publishers. In it we found Form 5, Book Publishing Contract. Not only was it full of good advice but I discovered that as I went through the new publisher’s proposed contract clause by clause, Crawford’s Form 5 followed the same format and addressed each separately, talking about the concerns of the clause and what an author would want to suggest as a preference.

While I don’t want to give this helpful author’s book away, let me give you just a few short examples. One piece of Crawford advice: “If the publisher does not publish within the specified time period, give the author the right to terminate the contract and keep all money received.” (Oh, how I wish I’d read this prior to the first contract.) Another Crawford suggestion: “If the author signs the contract first, a provision might be made to withdraw the offer if the publisher does not sign within 30-60 days after receipt of the contract.” Crawford also suggested that the author should be allowed to deliver a “complete” manuscript, rather than “a manuscript in form and content satisfactory to the publisher.”

Almost every one of the numerous addressed issues in Business and Legal Forms appeared in our contract. We sat the Crawford book down next to our contract, and clause-by-clause made the recommended alterations. We got everything we asked for. All changes were made as requested. I am convinced that the biggest reason for this was that we sounded like authors who knew what we were doing thanks to horrible lessons learned from our first experience, but thanks mostly to Tad Crawford’s book.

In summary, here is what I’ve found most important. The “wish I had known” items:

  • Don’t jump at the first book contract. Shop around. Get advice. Take the time to step back from it and then reread it a few days later.
  • Make sure your contract includes a deadline by which the publisher must publish or return all rights to you.
  • Ask for royalty payments more often than once a year.
  • Ask that publisher’s marketing obligations be included in the contract.
  • DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES allow a first denial clause in your contract.
  • Assume when you start working on your book that your publisher will want an original signature on every interview permission form. Immediately upon conclusion of a face-to-face, phone, or e-mail interview get that form out to the interviewee. Don’t wait more than a week. If you are mailing it include an SASE.

The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that no matter how great a publisher you sign with, no matter how terrific a contract you have, you — the author — are going to be the person with the most responsibility for marketing your book. Know as you start your authorship that your work on your book does not end with your writing of the last word. From that point you still have a long way to go before your work on your book is completed, if ever. If you are not prepared to market your book, you are not prepared to write it.

Bill and I learned this the hard way. We are still learning it.

Sharon Hill is owner of Yore Write Hand, a business writing/editing and advertising copywriting firm. Specializing in career and seniors issues, she has can be found on Tumblr.