Thursday, August 9, 2007

Contract Quandary: Ted's Novel

Once again, I've changed my friend's name. However, I'm using the real name of the press he dealt with here because I want others who are potentially considering doing business with them to NOT do so, as they have been involved in lawsuits with more than one of their authors and have had seemingly countless complaints lodged against them. (Go ahead and Google them if you wish, and you'll see it for yourself.)

Ted's a novelist, and a rather talented one at that. But as I mentioned in a previous entry, the publishing industry is pretty tough right now, and Ted's been having a rough time. He sent his query out to many agents, but none of them were biting. He then started querying publishers directly. Still nothing. Finally at the end of his rope, Ted decided that he should probably just self-publish his book. After all, he believed in his book, he understood that it was somewhat unconventional and thus not being picked up by conventional publishers, and he just wanted to see his words in print. He tried for over a year to sell his book and got nowhere, so, in a very self-starter, DIY kind of way, he decided to just do it himself.

But just as he was about to undergo his self-publishing project, he was contacted by a publisher. They wanted to publish his book, they said. Ted was initially quite happy that he'd finally been picked up. He sent out an email to his friends letting them know of his success. "Publish America offered to publish my book," he said. He went on to explain that he would be making royalties from his book (though not very good ones, he admitted) and that he wouldn't have to pay to have his book produced, which is something he would have done if he self-published his work. And by being published by a press rather than being self-published, he thought it would be easier for people to buy his book.

When I received the email, I was curious because I'd never heard of Publish America, and, being a publishing student, I love to learn about different publishers. So I did an internet search to learn more.

I found the publisher's website. I wasn't too impressed with how it looked; it had a somewhat unpolished look that I didn't find terribly professional and the visuals weren't the best, but I knew I shouldn't judge a book by its cover, or a publisher by its website. I browsed around the site a bit, then I went back to the search results page and noticed that there were some articles written about them. I clicked.

What I read wasn't good. Publish America was branded as an "author mill" with countless complaints lodged against it. It was described as being nothing more than a souped-up vanity press, with books that were nearly impossible to find in bookstores, high cover prices, and little or no promotional effort. The company also did minimal editing, and actually charged authors money to edit their work substantially. I read a feature article from the Washington Post, an unflattering Wikipedia entry and posts on the Preditors and Editors site and on other author message boards. I was overwhelmed by the amount of negative feedback I found and quickly emailed Ted to warn him to proceed with caution. I was especially concerned because I read quite a few complaints about how bad the contract was and how hard it was to get out of it. Since I was in the thick of studying contracts, I also asked Ted if he'd signed the contract yet.

He had not. He thanked me for my honesty in warning him about the negative feedback from other Publish America authors and then sent me a copy of the contract they sent him.

At this point, I had seen a few contracts from traditional publishers and had read enough about rights and contractual clauses to have a general idea of what to look for. The contract began with a clause stating that the duration of the contract was seven years, during which time the publisher acquired the right to sell the book in the U.S. and Canada and that the publisher had the exclusive right to arrange for the book to be published in foreign countries. Hmmm, I thought. That's odd. It just sort of threw that in there but never discussed the royalty breakdown that the author would earn upon this sale. And after having read the disgruntled negative comments from Publish America authors, I deduced that the publisher didn't even bother to think about that because they didn't even bother to make the effort to sell the rights anywhere. And I noticed that their statement about selling other rights, such as dramatic and film rights, was a 50-50 split for all these rights, which differed from other publishers whose splits tend to favor the author. The contract also stipulated that the publisher had the right to publish the work electronically, but didn't stipulate royalty splits/author compensation.

The revision clause was pretty lousy, and stipulated no timeline for how much time the author had to revise the work and what constituted an acceptable work. Though through my research I found that the company not only typically didn't bother to revise or edit works but also that the company charged authors for extensive editorial services--that is, those exceeding simple copyediting. And I also noticed that the contract stipulated that if the author decided to add any material to the manuscript after signing the contract, the author had to pay the publisher in order to do this. This seemed messed up to me; I know that editorial departments in publishing houses aren't what they used to be, but surely publishers expect that material is to changed, added, and/or deleted after the contract is signed so that the book is edited up to publication standards. It's one thing to charge an author against expenses if the proofs are ready to go and the author decides to add three entirely new chapters; but it's another thing to charge the author for edits made after the contract is signed, at a point in time when the manuscript hasn't even gone through editing by the publisher.

The contract also stipulated that any revisions made to the work for future editions would not incur any additional initial payment by the publisher. What? Ted probably wouldn't revise any future editions of his novel, since fiction is very rarely revised, but I just thought that was sleazy.

That is, until I got to the portion of the contract detailing the advance. Talk about sleazy.

It was absolutely the last clause in the contract, right above the signature lines, which I also thought was odd because payment isn't usually the very last thing discussed in a contract. It said that the author would receive a one-dollar advance.

One dollar. As in, a buck.

This was what sealed the deal for me. The horror stories and testimonials and articles had me convinced that this company was crap. The one-dollar advance convinced me that not only was this company crap but also that Ted should run screaming for the hills away from this company.

What kind of traditional publisher wouldn't be willing to make an investment in an author, even if only a small $1,000 advance? The dollar advance was like a slap in the face, an insult to the writer. Publish America was nothing more than a vanity press that recovered its expenses by overpricing its books and trusting that the author and his friends and family would buy these overpriced copies directly from them--since they wouldn't be able to find them in bookstores. A paperback novel for $24.95? Why bother? You can get a new hardback novel for that price, or even less that. And you can get it at the bookstore.

Some of the testimonials I read also stated that frustrated authors found it difficult to get out of their contracts after they realized how awfully the company treated them. Others claimed that their contracts were suddenly terminated, with no explanation given by the company, but these people deduced that it was because they had the nerve to pester the company for answers about seemingly fraudulent royalty statements or to ask why bookstores had such problems ordering copies of the book. Bookstores usually don't carry print-on-demand books (which I realized that Publish America books were) because they can't be returned. Apparently, Publish America also offered booksellers a very low discount off of the already high cover price, discouraging stores from buying it. Booksellers and libraries reported having problems ordering copies of the books from major book distributors as well. What's the point of having a book in print, I wondered, if no one can buy it?

After reading the contract and the negative testimonials, I deduced that if Ted truly wanted to see his work in print, he would be better off self-publishing his book with another company. I knew it meant he would have to pay the company for their services and that he'd have to do a lot of publicity work on his own, but I felt that these expenses were Ted's way of paying for his sanity. By self-publishing, Ted would be able to retain all his rights and keep control of his work. He could determine how to market it, what subsidiary rights to sell, if any, and would get to cancel his contract with the self-publisher at any time. This meant that if a traditional publisher finally decided that it did want to publish his work, Ted could easily end his contract with the self-publisher and move on. Or if Ted's second book was picked up by a publisher and they decided to reissue his first book, he'd have the ease to do that as well. Ted may not make a boatload of money off his self-published novel, but at least he'll have the peace of mind that he can control the whole project instead of being locked into a poor contract with a nightmare company. To me, that seems priceless.


Phantom City said...

I have a friend who had his book published through them and had the same complaints. It's a great book, but unfortunately nobody knows about it.

peajayar said...

I am about to venture into self-publishing a novel down here in New Zealand. I'll be the publisher, and hence retain copyright. There are all kinds of pitfalls ahead, I am sure. I have set up a blog to record my experience. It's There's not much on it yet, but I plan to post at least weekly.

Raquel said...

Peajayar, thanks for your comment and for sharing the link to your blog. I'm sure it's going to be an interesting learning experience but hopefully it will be very gratifying for you. I'm looking forward to reading about your experiences!