Why I Turned Down a Publishing Contract (and so should you)

In August of 2005, I received my first story acceptance. I remember it very clearly. My hands shook as I typed back a clumsy reply email, then the elation of success, kissing my wife, and the first celebratory toast. It was a monumental day, and in many ways, even more exhilarating than the larger sales since then.

Having a story accepted feels good. It should. An editor has sloshed though hundreds, if not thousands, of prospects and chosen YOU.

I recently had a story accepted by an anthology. It was a small press, and the editor contacted me and asked for a Valducan story.  The anthology call stated that they paid their authors in “Exposure and royalties.” That was my first red flag.  However, I could look past that.  My personal goal is to release several Valducan short stories, each expanding the world is various ways, and then eventually compiling them together with some new materiel and releasing that.  In the meantime, it would be a fun story for my readers to enjoy.

The story was accepted, and a contract was sent to me.  What it contained was enough for me to turn down the offer. I never imagined that a day would come when I would refuse a contract. But it happened.  So for any aspiring authors or aspiring small-press editors, allow me to explain why I turned down a contract.

PAY: Exposure is not pay.  I’ve sold stories for laughably little, but even the smallest of the small press have paid me something.  Pro rates are 6 cents a word.  Most small presses can’t afford that, and I understand that.  1 cent a word is acceptable, even a flat $25 is acceptable. Paying the author is a symbolic act. Even if the publisher cannot afford to pay the professional rates, they must show the author confidence enough in their work to pay them something.  Paying with “exposure” had better be really damned exposing.  If my exposure will get me in the New York Times, I’d consider it. But if that exposure is merely that I get to say that I was in an obscure anthology that I have to point people toward so that they even know about it, then you’re not giving me exposure. I’m giving you exposure.

Editors: Pay your authors.  Authors: Your blood sweat and tears has made this story, demand some pay, any pay, even if it’s just $5.

E-BOOKS:  Love them or hate them, but ebooks are a big deal.  The anthology contract said that there would be ebooks.  However, I checked the other titles by the same publisher and they were only available on Lulu print on demand.  There was no Kindle, no Smashwords, no Nook, nothing.  Ebooks generate a lot of sales that and can be the lifeline for a small press.  Also, you know what Amazon and other retailers will do?  They’ll promote you.  If people buy the title, they recommend it to other people who bought similar titles.  They want people to buy your book because they also get money.  Not using these mediums only decreases your “exposure” and makes it worth even less.  This was a major reason that I said no, but wasn’t the biggest.

Editors: Embrace ebooks. Authors: Embrace ebooks.

CONTRIBUTOR COPY:  I’ve never encountered a publisher that refuses to give their authors a contributor copy.  But this one did.  If a publisher demands that an author pay to see their own work in writing, it means that the publisher is looking to profit off the authors and not readers.  With ebooks now, contributor copies are super cheap (like free), so refusing even an ebook copy to the authors is an incredible slap to the face.  Like pay, the editor giving a copy to each of their contributing authors means that the editor believes in the work enough that they intend on generating sales from people that aren’t just between the pages.  This is officially a vanity press.  I would have refused to sign the contract here if I hadn’t already.  But this still wasn’t the biggest issue.

ROYALTIES:  Royalties sound great don’t they? But let’s break down this royalty agreement.

The publisher will keep 100% of the profit from the first 65 book sales and the first 65 ebooks sales.  After that, they will pay out 60% of the profits evenly among the contributors.  Now, not having ebooks available to sell means that that field is $0.  So we’re left with paperbacks which are only available on Lulu and not on higher visibility sites like Amazon or Barnes and Noble.  So sales will be generated by authors promoting the book and sending people there (and also buying their own copy, since none will be provided).  The number of contributors is 20.  That’s a quick 20 sales right there.  Once we’ve hit the magic 65 sales, you as an author can receive 3% of the profit.  How many sales do you expect with this non-visibility? Will it be enough to reimburse you for the cost of buying and shipping you your own book?

In my opinion, I see that every author will buy a copy and can probably get friends and family to buy 2-3 more copies at $14 (which is the price of their other anthologies in print).  Once that’s all done, the publisher has recuperated all their costs off of the authors and not the readers.  This screamed “vanity press” scam to me.  Again, I would have refused here, but it wasn’t the biggest reason.

RIGHTS:  The anthology call said that rights to publish will return to the author after 6 months from publication.  I could agree to that.  But the contract that I received did not state that. In fact it didn’t mention anything about when rights would return to me.  This means that I could have this story forever tied to this publisher if they wanted to.  I would never ever sign this.  Still…it gets worse.

EDITS:  Editing is a rough job.  My favorite editor ever was Crystal Wizard from Flashing Swords (seriously, she is a badass editor).  Many people mistakenly think that an editor’s job is to correct typos and punctuation.  That’s a huge part of it. But what makes a book editor different than a line editor is much much more.  An editor cleans up.  They make sure the author is clear, keeps the pace, doesn’t overuse words, doesn’t info-dump, has continuity, and a dozen other jobs.  Being an editor is hard work.  That’s why editors win huge awards.  They’re not just spellcheckers.

This anthology required that I do my own edits beforehand, but will make changes to spelling errors without my consent.  I even asked about this and they confirmed that aside from obvious spelling errors that they wouldn’t edit it.

Authors: If you ever see this, run. Run far away. Editors: Be an editor or don’t pretend to be one.

This was the lynch pin.  This. Right. Here.  If you can’t edit, then you don’t deserve 40% of the profits. You don’t deserve to profit off of my work. I want an editor that can help me improve my work, not leech off of it.  This isn’t an editor. This is a parasite.

There was once a time when I was so desperate to see my name in print that I would have taken this. I would have considered this an important stepping stone in my career and I would have gladly offered my wrists so that that some wannabe editor could drink deeply from my veins.  Not anymore.

Authors: You can do better than this.

Editors: Be better than this.

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