Getting a book deal can be very exciting, but don’t let all the thrill cloud your judgments. Sometimes, they could do you more harm than good. Helping first-time authors navigate the publishing world, Robin Colucci sits down with the founder of Publish Your Purpose, Jenn T. Grace. Publish Your Purpose is an acclaimed hybrid publishing company that gives first-time authors the secrets to getting their books written, finding an eager audience, and making their place in the publishing world. In this episode, Jenn goes into great detail on some of the warning signs you need to contemplate before signing on the dotted line with publishers. She breaks down the nine crucial questions you need to ask to ensure that what you’re getting into won’t turn out to negatively affect you, be that financially or your intellectual property. Join Jenn as she guides you into the intricacies of book publishing in this valuable conversation.
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The 9 Crucial Questions To Ask ANY Publisher Before You Sign On The Dotted Line With Jenn T Grace
I am pleased to introduce to you the amazing Jenn T. Grace. She is an award-winning author, a nationally recognized speaker, and a savvy publishing strategist. She’s the Founder of Publish Your Purpose, an acclaimed hybrid publishing company that gives first-time authors the secrets to getting their books written, finding an eager audience, and making their place in the publishing world. Publish Your Purpose is a certified B corp social enterprise and that means it meets the gold standard of socially and environmentally friendly business practices.
Jenn has published books of nearly 100 business owners, entrepreneurs, speakers, and memoirists so that more diverse stories can exist in the world and her authors can make a positive impact and achieve the recognition and success they deserve. She is the author of six books, including her memoir, House on Fire. Jenn has been featured in Forbes, the Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and CNBC.
I’m excited to share with you this conversation that Jenn and I had, which is focused on something that she and I both agree is a huge issue in the publishing industry. It is the fact that there are a lot of companies who pose as hybrid publishers when in fact what they’re doing is frankly taking advantage of unsuspecting, generally, first-time authors. We go into great detail about some of the warning signs that you might be contemplating entering a relationship that could turn out to have a negative impact on you both financially and in terms of your intellectual property.
Jenn and I are going to discuss her list of the nine questions that you must ask any publisher, by the way, including traditional publishers, hybrid presses, and self-publishing book packaging services. These are nine questions that you need to ask to make sure that you are not only going to get a book but you’re going to get a book that is done to a standard of excellence. Also, you are not inadvertently signing away your rights or other things that could impede you in moving forward towards your dreams. This is going to be a tremendously valuable episode. I hope that you get as much out of it as I did.
Jenn, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation.
I have, too. Thank you. We are on the same mind and spirit when it comes to wanting to help authors avoid predatory situations when it comes to a publisher. We all know that there are great people in the industry and people who are interested in profiting off of hopeful authors who have all kinds of big dreams. They’re willing to lead them astray, making them think that their dreams are coming true when they’re taking them for a ride. I know that you have this incredible list of questions that any one of the authors should ask before they get into an engagement with a publisher. Before we get into those, tell me a little bit about what led you to create the list in the first place.
I like to be efficient. When I started to recognize the pattern of how people were getting most taken advantage of, I thought, “How can I be more efficient in getting this message out there? Let me package them together in some cohesive way that can be a tool for an aspiring author to say, ‘I’m having this conversation with a publisher. Now, I have these nine questions that I can think through and I can point-blank ask them to get a better sense of, is this going to be the right publishing path and partner for me?’”
“I’m genuinely one of the most efficient people,” is what I hear all the time from others. I could spend a few minutes writing an email and giving them the list. I can have a conversation like this and say, “Go listen to this conversation.” The combination of being, “Here’s a good podcast I was on that talks about this,” which is going to be my new resource, by the way. “Also, here’s this guy that you can physically print out and have in front of you when you’re having that conversation.” Truly, it came down to how can I help people in a bigger way and be efficient while doing it?
One thing I love about the list is this list applies regardless of which publishing path you’re on. Whether you’re engaged in a conversation around a traditional book deal with a traditional publisher where you’re getting an advance or a hybrid publisher or a vanity press or if you’re going to a book packager, these questions are highly relevant. I looked at this list and I’m in love with it because I know if you ask these nine questions, you are going to get the answers you need to be able to make an informed decision.
That is the keyword, informed.
An informed choice because too often, people go in not understanding what they’re agreeing to and that can create all kinds of problems. Now that I’m bringing that up, maybe before we get to the list, let’s have you talk a little bit about some of the problems that people can face if they’re not asking the right questions because this can have a major impact.
You said hopeful authors when you were first teeing this up. I’m an author myself. When we have that dream of publishing our book, a lot of times we’re operating from our emotional center and we’re not operating from any logical center. That’s how a lot of buying decisions are made and things like that. We’re operating out of emotions and there might be this publisher who has presented themselves to you, whether you were connected to them or whether you saw an ad online, wherever it might be. You are coming from that emotional standpoint of feeling like, “I’m being seen and this publisher is taking interest in my work.”
Regardless of what that path might look like, you will feel good because someone’s taking interest in what you’re doing and that feels great. What happens is that we’re not critically thinking of, “What does this contractual arrangement mean for me?” Where this shows up the most is in the contractual arrangement. The nine questions cover some bigger picture things, but there’s a number of them that specifically cover the contract.
What happens often with me is that I have a friend who will say, “My friend signed this contract with,” insert any number of known names here. “I feel like something’s off but I don’t know what it is about it being off. Can you do me a favor and talk to them?” I will reach out and say, “Send me the contract and I can tell you exactly where the problem is going to be within a millisecond.” I always do and then they’re like, “I didn’t even look there.” It’s because we’re trained as a society to not look at the fine print. No one wants you looking there because when you do, that’s where the predatoriness is uncovered.
One of the impacts that can occur is you could lose your copyright to your own work. You can be put in a situation where you’re forced to buy back thousands of copies of your own book on top of paying for production. Sometimes if they offer you in advance, they turn around and insist that you buy books. These can have major financial impacts on your intellectual property and your ability to utilize your intellectual property. Those are a couple of things that I’m aware of. What’s something else that I didn’t mention that you see as something that could be an impact if you’re not paying attention and aware of what you’re signing?
There’s the right side of it. There’s certainly the royalty side of it. That’s another piece of it, too. There’s either a lack of information or misinformation out there. It’s a lot of gray areas, which the predators are going to love because they want the gray area. The less you know, the better for them. The more informed of a consumer you are, the worse because they’re going to be like, “Why would I do this?”
When we think about even something as simple as the royalties, on this surface, you would imagine, “If I’m paying a high upfront fee for a service, I shouldn’t be paying a high royalty as well. There should be some balance.” The publishers who are operating ethically and with integrity have a good balance there. It’s something as simple as that where you’re like, “I paid this higher fee upfront. Now I’m going to sign the dotted line but I didn’t look. They’re taking 85% of my royalties.” You’ve already signed the contract.A lot of times, people save money because they're not making mistakes that are costing them. Click To Tweet
“I paid them $25,000 to produce my book.” For our readers, that’s called double-dipping. In the publishing industry, it’s supposed to be more balanced. That’s an important point. The other thing too is sometimes they’ll try to upsell you into things that sound valuable but aren’t.
Sometimes they will be upselling you on something that should be fundamentally included in what you’re doing.
Give me an example.
You would imagine that you are working with a publisher that was going to edit your manuscript. That is not always true. A lot of times, the only thing that’s included is proofreading and then you, the author, have to go out and either procure your editors or you have to work with whatever editor. The editor’s price might be the same amount that you’ve already paid for your contract and you’re like, “How did I end up paying double?” It’s things like this. We have to look at that fine print because you never know what’s lurking beneath. At the same time, as a new author that doesn’t know what you should be looking at, it can be super overwhelming. That’s part of the reason why I created this, to at least try to alleviate some of that overwhelm.
What Are Their Company Values?
I’m not going to make our readers wait anymore. They’re probably reading right now and saying, “Get on with it already. What’s on the list?” Question number one, what are their company values? Tell us a little bit about this.
When it comes to company values, when you’re publishing your book, it’s a big decision. I feel like you can probably equate it to maybe purchasing a new car where you want to make sure that you’re getting something that is directly in alignment with who you are and what you need. A lot of these predatory publishers don’t have any criteria for what they will or will not publish. If your values are in alignment where you believe in equality for everybody or you believe in women’s rights or any number of things, that’s something that you hold value.
It could be something about environmentally friendly practices or sustainability. There are so many ways that this can go. Our company is a B corp. We have made a public declaration that we are going to treat every process that we have in an environmentally friendly way and in a sustainable way. That’s something that I’m committed to on a personal level. When I’m looking to do business with other people and vendors, I’m paying attention to what their practices and impact are.
Are they committed to environmental sustainability and diversity?
We want to make sure there’s a match. If somebody is doing terrible things where they don’t care about how much maybe paper they’re using or they have out of alignment practices. You don’t want to be working with somebody who you find out later is publishing books that are completely in opposition to what you believe because you don’t want to have your book aligned under that same house.
This is the tricky thing too because they won’t admit this. There are so-called publishers out there that will publish a book by anyone with a checkbook. You can tell if you look at the catalog of what they’ve got and ask yourself, “Is there real market viability here? Is this book offering something unique?” Is it a book that somebody said, “I want to write a book on this?” They said, “Give me $25,000 and I’ll publish it.” You can tell when you look at the catalog if it’s adding to the conversation or is it somebody wants to tell you about their amazing life.
There’s the Independent Book Publishers Association and they’re the ones that put out the criteria of what it means to be able to call yourself a hybrid publisher. One of their criteria points is, is there cohesion within the catalog? It is a telltale sign. If somebody is doing romance, a cookbook, and a leadership book, there are publishers that can find that balance but it’s how it’s presented too. At the same time, do you want your book on leadership next to an erotica book on the publishers’ website? Probably not.
What Kind Of Publisher Are They?
Talk about positioning, that gives it a whole other meaning. Question number two and this is perfect. What kind of publisher are they? We talked a little bit about hybrid. Let’s talk about this. There’s a self-publishing service provider, vanity press or hybrid publisher. Tell our readers a little bit about some of these key distinctions because this is important and so few people understand this.
I have a whole webinar on this because it’s that complicated. I’ll give you the abridged version. If we look at the landscape of publishing options, you have the traditional publishing on one side, you have self-publishing, all the way on the other side. Those two are the extremes but then there’s this whole wide middle of hybrid publishers, self-publishing service providers, vanity presses and a whole other litany of who knows what they would call themselves.
When we look at that, it’s first understanding what publishing path makes sense for you. That’s the most important thing. When we look at it on a sliding scale, I don’t even want to put vanity presses into the mix because they’re the root of all the problems in this industry but they’re in there, unfortunately. Hybrid publishers, to me, are that very beautiful middle ground where you get the services, expertise, quality, best practices, strategy and all of the things you would expect that a traditional house would do for you, but you’re paying expenses that are more in alignment with what you’d be paying if you’re trying to do it on your own.
A lot of times, people save money because they’re not making mistakes that are costing them money. There’s that but what happens is that a lot of times, there are hybrid publishers like my company that are being compared against vanity presses. A vanity press is what it sounds like where it’s a vanity thing. They’ll take any manuscript. They will make you feel so good about your work when they haven’t even looked at it. It’s very much a sales scheme. I’ve even had conversations with a few to see what the experience would be and it feels slimy and doesn’t feel good. Even in a conversation, if your instincts, intuition, and gut are like, “There’s something that doesn’t feel right.” Please honor that because that certainly can prevent you from going down one of these paths. That’s the options that are there.
I want to point out something because what I have seen is that a lot of vanity presses label themselves hybrid publishers and Jenn, before we spoke, when I heard you were a hybrid publisher, I was like, “Uh-oh.” I said to my team, “I need to get on the phone with her because I need to find out if she’s a true hybrid publisher.” I didn’t know you yet and I’m like, “I can’t have her on my podcast if she’s a vanity press.” I want to share with our readers a couple of things that showed me, first of all, your fees are very reasonable for the work that needs to happen and well within a reasonable range that I’m sure enables you to keep the doors open and enables the authors to get excellent work. The other thing is that your royalty ratio is immensely fair.
You’re giving the author 85% exactly of the sales and your company is only taking 15%. Understand readers that a traditional publisher is not going to give you anywhere near 85% or even 15% of your book sales. It is a tremendous fair arrangement. What I often see with these same hybrid presses that are charging $25,000, $40,000, just to edit and package your book and supposedly launch it, which is a whole other episode. They’re going to take royalties as if you were with a traditional house. They’re going to take 90% or more of your book sales and give you this tiny royalty on top of charging you tens of thousands of dollars to produce your book. They’re going to call themselves the hybrid press. This is so important to understand that because they say they’re a certain publisher, it’s only the contract that’s going to tell you what kind of publisher they really are.
It’s so beautifully said. I love that phrase.
Do They Have Successful And Happy Authors?
Let’s get to number three. Do they have successful and happy authors? What would you say constitute a successful and happy author? How do you know your authors are successful and happy?
What’s an interesting way to think of it is this way, number one, I know with my company that we do everything in our power to make sure that our authors have a happy and successful experience because it is so common that authors do not have that experience. It’s after the contract is signed, it’s down the road, you don’t realize what you’ve done until it’s too late. One thing that I would encourage everyone to do is go to Google, type in the name of the company that you’re speaking to, and type in, “Scam, review,” any of those words, and the internet will tell you what you need to know. Don’t type, “Publish Your Purpose Press and scam.” You’re not going to find a single thing but there are many companies that call themselves hybrid because we should also note that for vanity presses, they don’t call themselves a vanity press. That is a language that we would use.
They don’t want us calling them that.
No, they don’t. We’re not going to mention any but we have a smart audience. They can probably figure this out.
Go type in, “Scam,” into Google and see what comes up. There’s a company out there that has entire websites dedicated to how horrible they are. Go to the Better Business Bureau because it’s not one author. There are class action lawsuits everywhere in publishing. It’s very easy to find them by typing in a name. You could ask them, like, “Can I speak to a couple of your recent authors?” I have that asked of me all the time and I’m always happy to connect them. I know that our authors are going to be just as good salespeople as I would be because we go to great lengths to make sure that they’ve had a great experience.
Let Google do the work. Type in, “Scam or review,” you’ll find what you need to know. You might be disappointed or disenchanted with what you do find because it will be overwhelming and it will be a lot. I would give yourself some space to process it because it might feel like the balloon’s been popped in your face. I want to acknowledge that it might be an emotional process while you’re doing that, too.
It’s important to recognize that it’s a lot less painful because that balloon is going to burst at some point but it’s a lot less painful when it bursts while you still have $40,000 in the bank or it’s not a debt on your credit card. I see the prices going up because I’m thinking about all the little add-ons. One of my favorites is, “We’re going to get you distribution to bookstores.” Nobody can get you distribution to a bookstore. The bookstore has to find your book in a catalog and say, “I want to order that book.” Usually, those books are found because the publisher has a sales team that goes to the buyer of the bookstore and says, “Here are our new books.”
A lot of times when these vanity presses are saying, “We’ll get you distribution,” what that means is they’re going to fill out a form with Ingram, Baker & Taylor, or both, and they’re going to say, “This book is available for purchase and you can purchase it. We want to put it on Baker & Taylor or Ingram so that if a bookstore finds the book and wants to order it and put it on the shelf, they can.” I’ve seen some of these hybrid presses charge as much as $8,000 or $10,000, to “get you distribution” and really, all they’ve done is fill out a couple of forms.
Those forms that you speak of are by default, a part of the process with what we do. Why wouldn’t you just do that?The last thing you want to do is have a book that's putting out a bad first impression. Click To Tweet
What Are Their Company Processes?
Why would you charge someone for that when anybody, by the way, with an ISBN number can fill out that form. It’s a little bar code number that you use to scan a book so books then can get that it was purchased. Anybody with that code can fill out that form, including the author, by the way. That’s another way. Speaking of, let’s talk about number four, what are their company processes? Tell us about that one.
When it comes to company processes, there are companies that are a big façade. It might be one person who is claiming to have all these people, this infrastructure, and this team but the reality is that it’s being disseminated to a dozen different vendors and contractors in a bunch of different places. None of whom, actually know the other. That can be a tricky part when we think about processes. Sometimes, with some of these publishers, you’re not even assigned a project manager.
You’re assigned an account manager and an account manager is different than someone who’s managing the minutiae of your project, coordinating, orchestrating and making sure everyone’s on the same page. If you have this conversation with this editor, making sure that information translates to the next round of editing that you’re doing with the next person. A lot of times, they’re very disconnected and disjointed, which creates an overwhelming experience for an author who now feels like they have to project manage on top of having paid for somebody to project manage this.
An account manager, you can even tell in the title, that it is clearly about the account, a.k.a. the money and not about the product so much. That coordination is so important.
That’s what most people are paying for with a good publisher. Project management is where the large value, in addition to expertise and whatnot, but that’s the big value that a strong publisher brings to the table, the project management.
This is where working with a true hybrid press or a good book packager, which we send our clients who want to self-publish to a good book packager. There’s no reason for you to learn how to get an ISBN number, how to file a copyright registration, or how to get your book up on Amazon, or how to tell if your book is laid out properly and so many other things. These things should all be handled by people who do it a lot and not a first-time author or he might never need to do it again. It really is important.
You have the adage of, “You have one chance to make a good impression or first impression,” or whatever the thing is. The last thing you want to be doing is having a book that’s putting out a bad first impression and when you’re doing it on your own without the right guidance, that’s exactly what happens, unfortunately.
I saw a book by a gentleman who has incredibly good information that he self-published. I’m not sure what kind of press it was. When I saw the layout, the words went all the way down into the spine. There was no middle gutter for space. They had him use three colors at the beginning of every chapter. That took his print costs through the roof and this person did not have a lot of money. It was so sad. It was unreadable because you can’t enjoy reading a book where the words on page three are literally touching the words on page four. There was great information in there and I felt so badly for him. I even told the person who showed me the book, “Tell him, if he wants this fixed, I can probably get them a good deal to fix it.” It’s still it’s not going to be free, unfortunately, and it sucks. That’s the thing that makes me so sad.
Me as well, another thing that we’re touching on without saying is there’s also an accessibility issue with books that are not done right. There’re so many people that have different visual impairments. Maybe they rely on a screen reader that can certainly help that but there are plenty of people who might have sight problems. They need that gutter and those margins to be accurate in order for them to be able to read your book. By having a book that’s not properly set up, you’re alienating a large potential population of people who could be otherwise reading your book.
Even if it’s readable, there’s a subconscious thing that happens, and this can be especially damaging to experts who are authors is, if you’re reading a book and the interior isn’t laid out, another thing is the top line changes position. Sometimes it lines up, sometimes it’s higher and the other is lower. These kinds of things signal the reader and here’s the problem, the reader doesn’t know what they’re looking at but they know something’s off. It signals them, “Something’s off. Something’s wrong here.” Since they don’t know the interior layout, they don’t know what it’s supposed to look like. Guess what they’re going to decide is wrong?
The content. All of it.
Yes, the author, “There’s something off.” It can be particularly damaging in some ways when it’s subtle. They’re like, “Something about it makes me feel funny.”
I see people all the time. Almost exactly how you phrased it, they don’t know what’s wrong but they know something’s wrong and that’s all you need to know to not do that.
How Are They Going To Treat Your Manuscript?
They’re going to blame it on you, not because they’re being mean, but because they don’t know any better. How are they going to treat your manuscript? This is where you’re talking about the editing process and word count and stuff like that. You want to roll with that.
One of the big red flags is if you’re having a conversation with that perspective publisher, and one of the first questions, it’s not to say somebody should not ask how many words your manuscript is, because that is relevant to the conversation. If that’s what they’re leading with, what they’re doing is calculating in their mind how much value you were bringing to their sales funnel. If my first question is, “Robin, how many words is your manuscript?” You say, “It’s 50,000 words.” I might be like, “This is good.” I’m now calculating money in my head. “If it’s 50,000 words, I’m able to get her for $0.05 a word after this point.”
They’re calculating all of the ways you make the money or it could be the reverse where you say, “7,000 words,” then they’re like, “This isn’t going to be worth my time.” I’ve talked to so many authors where they’re like, “I don’t understand why that was the first question they asked me.” I’m like, “That is one of the last questions that I ask people.” It’s relevant when you’re preparing how we’re going to work together, but that is by far not how you should be kicking off. I share that because there’s a larger context to that.
I got you and I agree. At some point, you do have to ask that but I totally see that it should not be the first question, that’s for sure. I ask people that if they say they have a manuscript because sometimes if it’s too short, it’s not really a book. It’s a booklet. There’re even layout issues.
Sometimes it’s too long.
If it’s too long nobody will want to read it, probably. If it’s too short, there are certain kinds of spines, like, “You can’t have a spine if it’s too thin or if it’s short.” There are legitimate reasons but I agree with you, it’s definitely not a lead question.
No, because it shows that they’re reading from a script. It feels very scripted because they’re sitting there with some document in front of them filling in the information they need in order to send you a contract. The bigger that is. If you think about it, you’re like, “I need the word count. I need to know that maybe they do or don’t know what trim size they want.” We need that information as well and I do ask it. If you’re starting off and you’re just checking boxes of like, “What other information do I need?”
When the conversation should start off with, “Robin, tell me about your book. How did you get here? What’s inspiring you to do it now?” Get people talking because that’s when you can figure out how you can best serve them is when you have insight as to why they’re doing this, to begin with, back to the how they’ll treat your manuscript question where I feel like we keep going down rabbit holes, which are beautiful. We have this in our contract too, so I’m not saying this is not how they should be. What happens is that in ours, if we agree that your manuscript is going to be 50,000 words, if you send us something that is now 90,000, that is a big discrepancy from an editing standpoint, a typesetting standpoint, etc.
In ours, we say it’s a 5,000 discrepancy, plus or minus. As long as somewhere within that general range of 45,000 to 55,000, we’re in good shape. Beyond that, most of the time, it has to be very egregious for us to even consider adding any additional charges. It has to be egregious. It has to be 50,000 to 130,000, but what happens in these contracts is that it’ll say, “You get this amount for your word count and any number over that you are now paying X amount per word over.” That hits you in the editing phase. It’s not to say there’s anything wrong with editors working based on a word that’s totally fine and somewhat a standard.
I talked to somebody where she had twelve chapters of her book written and she wanted to add two more chapters in and they flat out said, “No. You absolutely can’t do that.” There should be a process in place to say, “You’re going to add two new chapters in, which is going to impact some level of the production here. It’s going to change timelines. It might change editing because two chapters is a big thing to be added into the mix.”
If your publisher has you centered in this conversation as the author, they’re going to work with you to figure out, “How do we make that work? How are we able to add your two chapters without break breaking your bank but making sure that we’re still getting compensated for what we’re doing for you?” Whereas, some would just say, “No.” That addition of those two chapters might make or break your whole premise of what your book is. There need to be processes around these types of things for them to not be treating your manuscript as something that can be easily discarded.
I want to clarify too because we are talking about someone who’s calling themselves a publisher. A traditional publisher or a true hybrid press, definitely, everything you’re saying. It should be a collaboration. It should be like, “We’re coming to this agreement together.” I do believe, however, if you’re working with a straight book packager, you’re self-publishing, they’re not taking any royalty. You’re paying for editorial services. You’re paying for them to lay it out, design it, help you print it out, and whatever. They need to charge you more. They need to know the word count so they can give you a bid and but they’re not taking anything after you’ve paid that fee.
That’s the distinction. I want to make sure because I don’t. A reputable book packager or anybody who helps people self-publish get criticized for asking what the word count is. In those cases, it will be one of the early questions so that they can help you figure out how much you’re going to invest in the process. Anyone who calls themselves a publisher, certainly a traditional publisher or a legitimate hybrid press, and again, you’re right, the vanity press is the root of all evil.
They ruin it for everybody.The vanity press is like the root of all evil. Click To Tweet
What Are My Rights As An Author?
They’re going to be dollar for dollaring you for any additional words. This is a really important one, number six, asking this question, “What are my rights as an author?”
This is a huge one because there are so many ways that rights can be broken out within publishing broadly. You can have worldwide rights, English speaking rights, audiobook rights, rights to movies, documentaries, any assortment of different scenarios. With the traditional publishers, most of the time, they are taking rights to a whole litany of things but at the same time, you have not paid them, there are caveats to this, majorly. They’re doing the lion’s share of the services performed.
They’re taking all the risk.
That’s exactly it. When we’re talking about hybrid publishers, there’s an array, there’s an assortment. I basically explain it to authors as, “We’re essentially licensing the rights to publish your book.”
Which is also what traditional publishers do.
That’s what makes sense. We’re not focused on having every single right for every single thing. We actually have in our contracts, it carved out that says, “If you take this to create a docuseries or some kind of film, that we do not maintain any of that because that is not ours,” is how I see it. There are other hybrid publishers. I even have a couple of friends of mine that also do publishing and there’s one that has the rights to everything, but then they’re going out and shopping around those rights in foreign countries and in different formats. That’s different. I will be honest and say I have no desire to be going to Frankfurt and shopping around rights. None whatsoever. Why would I hold those if I’m not going to do anything that’s going to benefit the author?
I want to throw in because we work mostly with traditionally published authors. In the traditional scenario, what happens is the publisher can just buy the rights. They can buy the license to publish the book but the agent will often also put on the table, “Do you want the audible rights? Do you want the eBook rights? Do you want the rights to sell it in certain countries? Do you want global rights?” That has increased the author’s advance on royalties, and then the publisher can take those rights and resell them or garner more profits. They can resell foreign rights and then they can also get more sales through audible and eBooks, but they’re compensating the author for those rights.
That’s the difference and you said it perfectly. The traditional publisher carries all of the risks, absolutely every bit of it. That is their business model and as long as you know that going into it, you’re okay. For the hybrid side or those vanity presses, they are going to take everything that they can get to take it to then go sue you when you try to do something different with it. That’s the challenge, too. You would imagine like, “I paid this company to do this thing for me. Why the hell would they have anything to do with this film that I’m creating?” You would assume that’s not there but if you didn’t read the contract, you wouldn’t know that you gave that away when you signed that line, unfortunately.
I also want to point out that you have to be very careful with certain traditional publishers, where they will have a clause in their contract that says, “You’re signing over a copyright.” I want all of our readers to know, it is highly unusual in the legitimate publishing industry, for any author to ever be asked to sign away their copyright. What you are signing is a license to publish your copyrighted material. That is a big one. When you sign away your copyright, you’re not just signing away your right to the book, you’re signing away your ability to teach that material in any format, anywhere you want. If your business is tied to your book, it could literally put you out of business.
That’s so shady.
Don’t sign away your copyright. No matter who you’re signing with.
How Do You Get Out Of The Contract
The fine print. We touched upon the fine print already. We talked about how people don’t like to read it and they tend to assume. Is there anything that we didn’t touch upon that we can add as it’s number seven?
There is because what I would say the big thing to be looking for in the fine print, in addition to all the other things that we’ve emphasized, is the control. How do you get out of the contract should you ever want to? That is a big thing to think about. It’s not that you want to go into a relationship thinking, “How am I going to get out of the relationship?” but when something goes wrong, what is your legal recourse as the author in the scenario?
What I have seen as one of the most common practices, and I don’t want to say there’s judgment, this is not how we do it, but it is what it is, is that a lot of times a publisher is going to charge some fee to get your files back from them if they let you out of the contracts at all. Sometimes, they’ll just say like, “You’re stuck here,” then you have to bring legal action to them to get them to let you out of it. Eventually, they always will let you out of it but they will make it difficult. What you want to be thinking about is, “What are they going to charge you to get your files back? What does that look like? How does that work?” Sometimes what they’ll charge you to get the files is the same price, if not more, than what you paid to get the book published, to begin with.
Or if you just took your Microsoft Word manuscript and started with the new layout designer and a new cover designer and just started from scratch.
Which would probably be less expensive, in many ways, yes.
Probably. The other thing that I was thinking about with this is because I have also spoken with authors who got into these kinds of situations where the publisher got into financial trouble or went bankrupt and never produced their book, and they still couldn’t get their rights back. Their book was literally held hostage for years.
I had a number of authors that we have worked with or do work with who we’ve helped take their book from another publisher who was going out of business or because they had a class action suit against them and basically turned it over to get the new ISBN and update all the things. It is never an easy task to get those files from people. Part of our practice is that any author at any time that we work with could say, “Can I have my files and we’ll share the Dropbox link.” It’s like, “They’re all yours. You own them as much as we do. We ask you kindly not to mess with them because you’re only going to cause chaos.”
Please don’t edit them without downloading them first.
Just leave them be. Do not go publishing them elsewhere. Ask us first. We could collaborate on this.
Do They Have A Minimum Number Of Books That An Author Must Buy?
This is so big. Number eight, do they have a minimum number of books that an author must buy? Talk to us.
This is the biggest one. When friends of mine say, “Will you look at my contract?” This is the first thing that I laser focus on because this is the first mark that you are going to get screwed over, eventually. What happens is that there are publishers out there again, it’s the vanity presses.
I’m not going to name names but it’s not only vanity presses.
There’s a couple of well-known used to be in high regard that they’re falling from grace.
All we can say is, “Read the contract no matter who it’s from.” Continue.
Go type in for reviews in Google.
Don’t assume that just because it’s traditional that there’s nothing shady in the contract.The traditional publisher carries all of the risks. Click To Tweet
What I see often, and I had this happen where I run an author lab on Facebook that gives people guidance and direction. It’s a workshop that I do free a bunch of times a year. In it, somebody said, “I have this contract from this publisher,” who shall remain nameless, “Will you take a look at it and tell me.” They had heard me talking about paying attention to the fine print. I looked at it and I was like, “I want you to see and be clear. They are charging you $3,000 to publish your book, which on the surface to you, I know looks like a good deal. However, when we actually look down to section H, here’s where you’re going to get in trouble.”
The typical calculation is that the author will buy the book from the publisher at 50% of the retail price. Easy math. Retails for $20, you’re buying it from them for $10, fine. That seems like easy math. That’s pretty standard. We sell ours at a cost but that’s a whole other story. From there, the minimum might say, “In order for this book to be published, you need to order at least 1,000 copies.” Sometimes that’s actually 2,000 copies.
I can think of someone specifically who’s asking for 2,000.
Let’s look at the economics of that. It’s $10 a copy from you and you have to buy at least 1,000, sometimes 2,000. That is now $10,000 to $20,000 in inventory that you now have to purchase before they will even put your book live in the distribution places that they should be doing it. What you thought was costing you $3,000, you’re like, “This is a great deal,” has now cost you $13,000 or $23,000. It’s inventory that now you have to move. It’s not to say you can’t recoup that investment because if you have the right strategy, you should be out there selling those books. It’s because the publisher is treating you as the end reader of your own book, rather than helping you reach the end reader outside of you. Again, it’s that whole double-dipping type of scenario.
Let’s get real here. If you’re self-publishing your book, and you buy 1,000 copies of your own book, you’re probably going to spend around $3,000 on your books. It’s a huge difference. There’re ways that you can pre-sell books. You can get commitments or you can move those books, and it can be a legitimate deal. It’s interesting but it shouldn’t be in the contract that you have to, as a matter of doing business. It’s the kind of thing that could be a negotiation point where maybe you say, “I’d rather have more of an advance, but I have these commitments where I already know I’m going to sell this number of books.” It’s interesting but when it’s sneaky, that’s the thing. When it’s just in there in the fine print, and it’s like, “By the way, you have to buy 2,000 copies of your own book.”
That conversation doesn’t happen until they’re seconds from going live. You, as the author, have created all this marketing promotion and they’re like, “By the way, here’s the invoice for your 2,000 copies.” They’re like, “What the hell?” They’re so confused as to what that invoice is for and then you look at the fine print, and it is black and white, and very clear. You have no recourse at that point because you signed the contract. This is what breaks my heart on a regular basis because it’s the lower price point vanity presses that are the ones that are the most predatory. It’ll look like, “They’re only going to charge me $500 to publish my book.” They think that they’re a hero for getting this great deal but really, it’s cost them over $20,000 to do it. I’d rather you just pay the $20,000 for the right services.
It’s the underhandedness. It’s the making it looks like you’re getting something and then it’s different. It’s not only important to ask these questions, I strongly encourage anybody who comes to me and asked me about their book contract. I’m not an attorney, you’re not an attorney. If you’re going with a traditional publisher, you should be working with a literary agent who can negotiate on your behalf. If the publisher wants you to buy back books, fine, but they’re going to give up something for that. They’re going to give you something more upfront or whatever it is.
What Is Your Royalty Arrangement?
There are attorneys who specialize in publishing contracts. It’s a smart idea, even if you’re working with the most reputable publisher in the world. They’ve done tens of thousands of book deals, you’ve done one. You should have someone who also has done thousands of books deals who can understand what they’re offering you. We have somehow made it to number nine. Pat yourself on the back. How did we get through nine in such a short time? What is your royalty arrangement? I know we’ve touched on this but I want to hear it from you. Let’s talk about how should we be looking at a royalty arrangement to understand whether or not it’s there?
There’s the question of fairness and then there’s the question of the actual payout process. On the fairness side, you want to be comparing apples to apples. Looking for something that feels equitable. If you’re paying a higher amount upfront, it should be a lower percentage. If you’re paying hardly anything, it’s going to be a higher percentage.
It’s a risk-reward, right?
The more risk the publisher is taking, the lower your royalties should be. That’s just fairness. They’re making the bigger investment, they should get the bigger reward. On the other hand, if you’re taking the lion’s share of the risk, then the publisher’s reward should be commensurately low, which is why I love your model. You know the author’s taking the bulk of the risk. You, in fairness, are asking for a much smaller royalty, which is fair.
The other thing is the payout process. Every publisher operates differently, and I don’t necessarily think that there’s any one right or wrong way to do it. Some publishers will pay out monthly, some payout quarterly, some payout every six months, some are annually. That’s all well and good. The publisher themselves has to pick what makes the most sense. One, as the author, you just need to know that. You need to know going into it that you’re not going to see royalties for your books until six months or a year later.
That’s not to say there’s anything right or wrong with that, but you want to know that going into it. Two, you want to make sure that they have a solid track record of paying said royalties. This is where there’s a lot of class-action lawsuits. If you poke around on the internet for a bit, you can find a lot of this information. It’s typically when one author is like, “I haven’t been paid my royalties for whatever period of time.” No one’s listened to them, they take it to social media. They find another author who works with the same publisher and says, “I didn’t get mine either.”
All of a sudden, they’re all together and they are coming after the publisher to get what is owed to them. I don’t understand, personally from an accounting standpoint, how you don’t have the money to pay your authors. We have a separate account where all the royalties go in and all royalties come out. It’s not rocket science. It’s something to pay attention to because there’s a lot of situations out there where authors are not getting paid on any consistent basis, if at all. As the author, do you want to be focusing on having to go hire a lawyer to go track them down to get your payment? It’s so much wasted energy.
They know that because they’re not offering you a very good royalty, anyway, most likely these vanity presses. It probably isn’t worth it to go track it down. Especially, if you’re an expert with a thriving practice or whatever, you’re not going to go chasing $90 a quarter with a lawyer.
Which is why they can get away with it, that’s how they get you. I’m telling you.
I feel good because not only do we get to vent but we got some great wisdom out to our readers.
We did. I have had this happen so many times that I included it as a bonus tip because I’m like, “I don’t understand how you are not paying attention.” My bonus tip is that when you are looking at things like the word copyright and the word foreword. Those are two words that are intrinsically linked to books. These are words that you, Robin, me, Jenn should know how to spell. I find it to be a bit of a red flag when you go to a website and one of those two words, if not both, are spelled incorrectly. That’s probably not a good sign.
We expect authors not to know how to spell them. We often have to correct how authors spell them.
One hundred percent and that’s okay.
However, someone who is putting themselves forward as, “I’m an expert in book publishing.” Yes, they should know how to spell copyright and foreword.
That is correct. It makes me sometimes laugh where I’m like, “Wow.” Especially on Facebook ads. I’ll get a Facebook ad for some fly-by-night thing, I’ll go to the website, and I’m like, “You didn’t spell foreword right. Come on, who are you convincing?” As you said, I have zero judgment whatsoever for any author who does not know how to spell it because in some way, why would you? That’s fine, but as an expert, that is unacceptable. That’s our job.
Readers, it’s foreword and copyright.
I have really enjoyed this conversation. This has been fun.
Me too, Jenn. It’s been such a pleasure having you and we won’t reveal too much but our readers should know we will be having you back and we will be talking about something completely different that’s also fascinating. Thank you again for sharing with us and thank you, readers. We’ll see you next time on the show.
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About Jenn Grace
An award-winning author, nationally recognized speaker, and savvy publishing strategist, Jenn T. Grace is the founder of Publish Your Purpose, the acclaimed hybrid publishing company that gives first-time authors the secrets to getting their books written, finding an eager audience & marking their place in the publishing world. Publish Your Purpose is a certified B Corp social enterprise that meets the gold standard of socially and environmentally-friendly business practices.
Jenn leads ambitious authors through every aspect of writing, editing, and publishing so their book strategically aligns with their business objectives. Whether it’s a business guide that shows the breadth of their expertise or an emotional memoir that takes readers deep into life’s challenges, she helps authors articulate their purpose and fulfill their mission.
Jenn has published the books of nearly 100 business owners, entrepreneurs, speakers, and memoirists so more diverse stories can exist in the world and her authors can make a positive impact and achieve the recognition and success they deserve. She is the author of six books, including her memoir, House on Fire.
Jenn has been featured in Forbes, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and CNBC. Jenn lives in Connecticut with her family and enjoys being outside with her son, kayaking, and admiring the birds and nature around her.
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