Beware – A book publishing horror story
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
had also committed ourselves to creating the index – a task neither of us had
ever tackled before.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
* DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES allow a first denial clause in your
* 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
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.
and I learned this the hard way. We are still learning it.
Sharon Hill is owner of De Scribe, a business writing/editing and advertising copywriting firm. Specializing in career and seniors issues, she has written for Blue Ridge Business Journal, Classified Intelligence Report, HR.Com, Inside Recruitment, Suite101.com, Senior News, Retirement Lifestyles of the Carolinas Magazine, and others. She and Bill Fenson are co-authors of “Implementing and Managing Telework: a Guide for Those Who Make it Happen.” Sharon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She lives in North Augusta SC.
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