The Business Rusch: The Writer’s Guide To Evaluating A Traditional Publishing Company
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
About once a week, I get an e-mail from someone asking me to recommend a traditional publisher for them. I can’t, not because I don’t believe in traditional publishing, but because I have no idea what that person wants in a publisher, what that person is currently writing, and what’s going on within all the different traditional publishing houses.
That ain’t my job. My job is to manage my own career, and to know the things relevant to the writer that I am. Nothing more.
I also get letters asking me about my experiences with the various traditional publishers. Sometimes I can answer those letters. Sometimes I can’t, usually because my experiences are more than two years old, and too much has changed in the past two years to give a good answer.
I answer as truthfully as I can, but I also assume that the writer will forward my letter to other writers. So I don’t give out confidential information, nor do I say anything that I wouldn’t say in public.
Recently, I answered a question about one of my traditional publishers, and found myself getting angry. I’m going to excerpt what I wrote below. I’m removing names and identifying information, however, because this is going to be an example for the blog post, and not a blog post about bashing this particular publisher.
“I love my editor, but the support at [the publishing company] is awful. The company has never paid on time. I’ve had to threaten to pull books twice to get a payment that was significantly (months) overdue. I still haven’t gotten my royalty statement for one of my titles. (Statement owed two months before.) The production on my last two books ran so late that there were no review copies sent to major markets. By the way, I had turned in my manuscripts early, so the problem was entirely on the publisher’s end. This latest book, I had to ask for the copy edit because the book—out in two months—had no copy editing, proofing, or ARC.
“The e-book on my most recent title came out four months after the book appeared, to no fanfare and no advertising. The e-book sales were insignificant because all of the readers wanted the e-book when the paper book came out. The e-book on the previous volume came out nine months after the paper book. I suspect this is company policy and I think it short-sighted.
“Needless to say when they offered for the next book, I turned them down. I can’t recommend anyone work with them ever. I wish I could say better things because I like the editor. But the company is one to avoid these days.”
If the writer had asked me about one of my other current publishers, my response would have been almost entirely the opposite. I love the company, love how quick they are at payment, how organized their business is, how they are excellent at marketing. But I had a lot of trouble with the acquiring editor.
Having trouble with an editor, btw, is an easily resolved problem, if indeed the problem is the editor only. If you’re having trouble with one editor, ask for a new editor within the house. (If the problem is with the publishing house’s attitude toward fiction or writers, however, and the editor is acting on company orders, then that’s a different problem.)
I am as honest as I can be with writers who ask about publishers, just like I used to be honest about my agent (or former agents) when someone asked about them. The only way to evaluate relationships in the traditional publishing industry right now is to ask other writers who are involved with that company. Eventually, I would hope there will be some other way to evaluate, besides an editor beware column. Some sort of Better Business Bureau clearing house to report issues with publishers, etc.
(And no, to my knowledge, no one reports major publishers scummy business practices to the Better Business Bureau, although maybe they should.)
Some of the letters I get come from writers who are currently having trouble with their publisher. Even if I’m honest about that publisher, my information really can’t help except, maybe in a you-are-not-alone kinda way.
The best letters come from a writer who is thinking of approaching a publishing house or a writer who has a deal on the table, but hasn’t signed anything.
The time to find out about a traditional publishing company is before you sign an agreement with that company. Long before.
And even then, get information from a variety of writers. Writers who are bestsellers with that company. Midlist writers. Writers who are no longer with the company. And writers outside your genre.
Just because one writer loves that company doesn’t make the company good. And just because one writer loathes the company doesn’t make it bad. We all have different experiences and different natures, and sometimes one writer’s problem is another writer’s joy. So before you ever send your work to a traditional publishing company, do a bit of research. Don’t just look at their writer’s guidelines or read what they publish, but ask the writers who work with them what they think of the company itself.
And a side note: Writers guidelines are designed to discourage you and keep you out of the company, not to help you submit to it. Most of the hoops—particularly the submit-through-an-agent-only hoop are there to keep the masses away. Submit directly to an editor at the company, include an e-mail address and a self-addressed stamped envelope, and give your manuscript a shot. And if you can’t figure out who is working where, then you really need to research this business. One place to start is Publishers Marketplace. And that is all I’m going to say about the submission topic—even in private e-mail. So please, don’t ask.
When you ask a writer about their experiences with a traditional publishing company, make sure those experiences are recent—within the last two years. The publishing industry has changed so much that information older than that is worthless.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Will the company negotiate its contracts or is every point a deal breaker?
I’ve never submitted to certain traditional publishing companies because their contracts are too draconian. Not only do they want to control too many rights, but often (not always), they reserve the right to have another author revise my manuscript and still put that manuscript out under my name, even if it’s not my work. That’s a major, major, major deal breaker for me—more so than failing to pay me—and so I’ve never worked with these companies.
Some want to own all rights to any pen name used by its writers. Again, major deal breaker for me.
Sometimes writers can’t talk about the contract terms they have with their publisher because they have a confidentiality clause built into the contract itself. But you can always ask if the negotiations went smoothly. The author can answer that without revealing terms at all. Watch how you phrase your questions, and you can often get the answers you need even if the writer signed a confidentiality clause.
2. Has the publisher lived up to its contractual obligations?
Does the company pay on time (within 30 days of the payment’s due date)? Does the company issue royalty statements on time? Has it published the books in a timely fashion? If not, is this a one-time thing (happening to one writer) or is it chronic?
3. Has the publisher gone above and beyond, and done great things not included in the contract, things that have benefited the writer?
Some companies do. Many do for their bestsellers, but some do go above and beyond even for their midlist writers. It’s nice to know if the publisher enjoys working with—and rewarding—its authors.
4. Has the publisher tried to change the terms of the contract after the contract has been signed? If so, have these changes (usually in the form of addendums) been in the company’s favor or the writer’s favor? Did the writer feel forced to sign, even if he didn’t want to?
In the past two years, I have had many traditional publishers attempt to change the terms of my contract with them, mostly concerning e-rights. Only in one case did I benefit from the change (and I believe that was because the attorney for the publisher made a grievous error—which I wasn’t about to point out). In all of the other cases, the changes were for the worst—for me. These changes greatly benefited the publisher.
One publisher’s representative (not my editor, but some clown in legal) actually threatened me when I refused to sign the addendum. Since the book was already published, and the company needed my permission to make the changes, I just laughed. But I would wager that this guy’s threats forced a number of writers to sign that change.
Of course, after the threats, I’ve been monitoring that company to make certain that they didn’t just implement the changes even though I never signed the addendum.
A lot of companies these days think it’s okay to ask forgiveness when a writer refuses to give permission. Me, I don’t believe in forgiveness. If something like that happens, we start talking copyright violation and whether or not I should hand the entire mess over to my attorney.
(I know I’m being vague here, but if you don’t understand why a change in e-rights clauses could be a copyright violation, get thee to The Copyright Handbook right now. Because writers don’t sell books or stories or manuscripts. Writers license copyright. You should understand that much before you sign anything.)
5. Has someone in a position of power at the publishing company lied about something important?
That sounds so silly and so juvenile, but I can’t tell you how often editors, accountants, and others in a publishing company have lied to me. The most common lie these days? E-books make no money for the company because they’re such a small percentage of the market. So if you wouldn’t mind writing a short story or a novella in the world of your bestselling series for free, you’ll help us all out. We won’t make any money either.
Frankly, y’all, if anyone at your publishing company has said that to you, then they are lying, and the company holds you in contempt. This is a red flag, and should put you on alert in all of your dealings with that company.
And if you believe this lie even now, check out my post “How Traditional Publishing Companies Are Making Money,” which examines the third-quarter earnings statements. After reading that—and looking at the earnings statements—you’ll never believe that lie again.
6. How many times has the staff been cut?
Traditional publishing has pared its staff to the bones, and the problem with that is that the institutional memory goes with it. So even if your contact calls for a great advertising plan, the person who was supposed to implement that plan might have lost her job in the last few months. So the plan goes out the window.
In the 1990s, my Fey series was orphaned (I believe) seven times between my British and American publisher. By the time the last book came out, the British editor hadn’t even read the series. The American editor had no clue what promises were made and which ones weren’t. There was no in-house continuity on that series—and small wonder, since the entire fantasy publishing arm of the American company had gone through three major personnel changes for the duration.
Continual personnel changes might mean trouble at the top (one publisher I used to work with was known as the Evil Empire for this very reason), but it might also mean that the company is trying to get on firm financial footing. Once the company has improved its bottom line, the personnel changes will stop. It’s up to you to assess if the company with many personnel changes is firming up its bottom line or is vying to be this year’s Evil Empire.
7. Is the company organized?
Such a simple thing, and so crucial to book publishing. Over a decade ago, one of my editors forgot to put one of my books into production—and no one in the publishing house believed me when I said there was a problem. So the book was a year late. (For the full story, see this link.)
The company I complained about in my e-mail is either extremely disorganized (possible) or it’s having serious financial troubles (also possible). Either way, that’s not a company you want to work with.
On the other hand, one of my current publishers sends me the in-house production schedule whenever I turn in a book. That way I know when the revisions are due, when the copy edits will come my way, when I need to go over the galleys. And more than once, I’ve notified them that I would be traveling during a crunch period, and we’ve worked on the schedule together, making it work for all of us.
8. Does the company support its books?
This sounds so stupid, but it’s not. I’ve had books hit a bestseller list, and had the publishing company refuse to return to print on those books because the book was a midlist title. So no books were available when the additional orders came in, and the novel immediately dropped off the bestseller list. By the time the new books were printed and shipped, the interest had peaked, and the books sat in the warehouse for a long time.
In another instance, a traditional publisher sent me on a major book tour throughout Southern California. I stayed in 5-star hotels, did all kinds of media (TV, radio), and for no reason at all.
Because the company did not ship extra books to the California distributors.
By the time I got to most of the stores where I supposedly had signings, there were no books to sign, and none to be found in any of the surrounding warehouses. Only one independent bookstore had copies, and that was because the owner was prepared.
“This has happened to me over and over again with your publishing company,” the owner said. “I order extra books in advance when I see the word ‘tour.’”
Then he added: “Have you thought of getting a new publishing company?”
As you can tell, I’m not the only writer this has happened to. It happens all the time, especially through some companies. In fact, it happened to three of my friends who were with three different publishers just last year. Find out in advance which companies support their books and which ones do not.
9. How easy is it to revert the rights in your book?
This is becoming more and more dicey as time goes on. As e-books are growing, more and more companies do not want to revert the rights in the books that have been long out of print.
Here are two problems you might hear about:
The first is that the company keeps the paper book “in print” by having a print-on-demand edition in its catalog. Even if that edition only sells two or three copies per year, the book is still considered in print under some contracts (not all, but writers are still signing those awful contracts, so be forewarned).
The other problem is a true scam, and it’s being perpetrated by a major publishing company. Book goes out of print. The writer asks to revert the rights. Traditional Publisher A sends a rights reversion letter to the author. Relationship between author, traditional publisher, and book is severed except—
There is a clause in almost all publishing contracts that allows the traditional book company to continue to sell the remaining stock in its warehouse. By the time a book goes OP, that stock is usually gone. But for the sake of argument, let’s say there is still some stock that the publisher does not want to pulp.
This clause refers to paper books only. Got that? There can be no e-book backstock. None. It’s not possible.
Yet this particular traditional publishing company is telling writers that as long as there are paper books in the warehouse, the traditional publishing company has the right to sell the e-book.
That is a lie. Worse, that’s a violation of the author’s copyright.
A version of this happened to me with this traditional publishing company. My book remained available in e-version for one month after I got the reversion letter. I didn’t give the publisher a chance to lie to me. I told them to remove the book immediately. The company did not, so I notified them that if the e-book did not come down in the next two weeks, my lawyer would be talking to them about copyright violation.
Lo and behold, the e-book came down.
I thought that a fluke, an error, someone forgot to take the e-book down, until I heard from another writer with that company. Only the publisher had told her the lie above—that the e-book could remain in print as long as the paper book overstock was in the warehouse. Said writer’s agent thought this sounded fishy, but wasn’t sure why. (See why I rail against agents who have no legal background?)
So I told the writer what I just told you—it’s a copyright violation. (Please note that I am not a lawyer, so do not consider this general legal advice. Always make certain your own situation is similar before taking action.) I don’t know what happened in that writer’s case, but because this happened twice, I got suspicious. I then contacted some folks in the industry, folks with lots of writer clients (agents with legal backgrounds, lawyers) and found out that this practice is company policy for this traditional publisher.
It’s like a phishing scam. Many people won’t believe the lie, but those who do will give extra revenue to the publishing company.
If this is your publisher, be forewarned. They will make your life difficult at some point, because the company does not care about its writers. Only about its profits. And the company sees writers as interchangeable widgets.
10. What is the best thing the traditional publishing company has done for you? What is the worst?
If the writer you ask has trouble answering the “best” question, then there’s a problem. Listen closely to these answers because sometimes my “worst thing” might be something you want. Don’t criticize your source; just listen with a grain of salt.
Last week, I listed a few other questions to ask. If you haven’t read last week’s post, I suggest you do so, because it outlines ways writers should think about traditional publishing in this brave new world.
Finally, ask yourself one very important question about a traditional publisher before you approach that publisher:
What can this publisher do for you that you can’t do for yourself?
You may not have ventured into indie publishing yet. Pick up my husband Dean Wesley Smith’s book, Think Like a Publisher. You don’t have to become an indie publisher to appreciate the information in that book. You just have to know what’s possible for writers these days outside of traditional publishing. That way, you’ll know if going to some traditional publishers is a good deal for you or not.
In my case, I can do everything one of my traditional publishers does and more. In another case, I’m getting a lot of benefit from one of my traditional publishers that I wouldn’t get on my own.
Will it be that way in two years or ten years?
I don’t know. But right now, I can tell you I will work with some traditional publishers again and never work with others.
And because publishing is constantly changing, I will reassess my position in two years or so. Maybe the traditional publishers will become more writer friendly. Maybe I’ll need more traditional publisher support. Or maybe I’ll turn my back on traditional publishing forever.
Right now, however, I’m keeping a toe in both worlds—traditional and indie. I’m benefiting from both. Some writers will never go indie, but that doesn’t mean those writers should be screwed by their traditional publisher.
You need to research the publisher before approaching them.
And in next week’s post, I’ll tell you how to negotiate a good deal that will benefit you—and other writers—in traditional publishing.
Writers have clout now. We have alternatives to traditional publishing.
We don’t have to jump to the alternatives, but because they’re there, we have the ability to use them as leverage in our negotiations. That’s next week.
See you then.
Almost three years ago, I decided I had missed my window of opportunity to be traditionally published with my Freelancer’s Survival Guide. (I hadn’t written the book, and I believed it needed to be out immediately.) So I decided to publish it chapter by chapter on my blog.
I’m glad I did. It got me writing nonfiction regularly again, and it forced me to learn all the new forms of publishing. I still consider myself a fiction writer first and foremost. I make the bulk of my money on my fiction, so each nonfiction blog digs into my fiction earnings—unless I get support from the readers. So please, if you got a benefit from this post, please leave a tip on the way out.
And thanks to everyone who has commented, donated, sent me links, and e-mailed. I appreciate all of it.
“The Business Rusch: The Writers Guide to Evaluating A Traditional Publishing Company” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.