When Traditional Publishing Comes Knocking

knock-clipart-knock-at-door-cHere at Indies Unlimited, we often engage in discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of being an indie versus being published by a traditional house. Just recently I talked about one major aspect, having control over the look and feel of a book. We’ve also discussed getting better royalties and having the flexibility to be instantly responsive to prices, trends, and sales.

But what happens when a traditional publisher wants your book?

I’ve done some thinking about this. I was lucky enough to have been inside the ropes of the traditional publishing process for the first few years of my writing career. I’ve also had some *ahem* experience with scammers and vanity presses. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot of lessons. If a traditional publisher approached me now, my response would be very different than it was the first time.

First of all, I would pore over the contract with a magnifying glass. If I had any questions about the meaning of a clause, or the validity of it or how it might affect me, I would get legal help. Next, I would concentrate on a few crucial areas, and if the details were not spelled out sufficiently (or not to my liking), I would begin negotiations to change that.

Input/influence with the title – Back in the day when I signed my first traditional contract, the publisher retained all control over the title of the book and I signed away any rights I might have had. Today, I would ask for the right of final approval.

Input/influence with the cover design – Like the title, it used to be that the publisher had total control over the cover design of the book. Likewise here, I would ask for the right of final approval. In addition, if a trad publisher wanted to pick up one of my already-published books, I would fight like crazy to keep the exact title and cover I already have.

Financial issues: royalties and pricing – We all know traditional publishers pay paltry royalties. I would certainly negotiate for a higher rate, especially knowing what I can get for myself by publishing independently. Another financial issue is the retail price of the book. I’ve seen a book of mine priced clear out of the stratosphere, and there was not a thing I could do about it. No more. I’d want to be included in the pricing process and would want final approval.

Timeframe – Traditional publishers are famous for being agonizingly slow. Why I can put out a book in weeks or, at the very most, months and they can’t do it in less than two years is beyond me. I would certainly ask about this, and about any recourse I might have if they didn’t meet their end of the deal.

Editing – Traditional publishers love to blather on about how much expertise they bring to the table, but my experience has been otherwise. My first two books were published by a NY house absolutely verbatim as I sent them in—including typos. If a traditional publisher promised editing, I would ask what that process was, how many eyes looked at it, and I would want final approval of any changes made.

Point of contact – When I signed with that NY house, I got very little communication from them. The few letters I did get (remember, this is before e-mail) never came from the same person. If I wrote back to ask questions of “my” editor, I was informed that that person was no longer there and I had a new editor. These days I would definitely ask about a single point of contact, someone I could call or e-mail whenever I had a question.

Length of contract – I no longer have my original contract, and I don’t remember what the length of the agreement was. Probably 2-5 years or thereabouts. Normally there’s a clause about renewing for an additional two years if all is going well. However, some publishers are now issuing contracts that stretch for seven and even ten years. When asked about it, they insist they require that much time to make back all the money they are pouring into the book. I would certainly think long and hard about tying up my book for that length of time. If by chance the relationship doesn’t work out as planned, that’s a lot of years to be tied to a company you really don’t want to do business with.

Rights – It used to be that all rights were pretty much lumped together, and all went to the publisher. Nowadays, though, with hybrid publishing, we might assign the print rights to a publisher but retain the digital rights. Don’t forget the movie rights and the audiobook rights. I’d be very selective about what I signed up for.

Promotion – I have contracts that say that all promotion is at the discretion of the publisher, but it gives no detail about what that promotion might look like. More often than not, it was putting my book up on their web page and store front and the rest was up to me. If a contract presented today were that vague, I would certainly ask for more details about what this process might look like.

Copies – Publishers tend to offer very few free copies these days. The first time I asked for more than was offered, I thought they might balk, but they agreed immediately. If you want more, ask. Believe me, they can afford to send you a few more.

Discounts – Most contracts will detail the author’s discount if we want to buy directly from them. If not, ask about it; if it’s there, see if you can negotiate a better deal. Remember, if you don’t ask, the answer is always no.

Those are the main issues that jump out at me. Having been an indie for many years now and having total control, just looking at this list gives me the heebie-jeebies. Signing a contract now would feel like slipping into a strait jacket. But that’s just me. If you ever do get approached by a traditional publisher for your book, I hope you will consider all the issues and make a very careful and informed choice. I’d also be interested to hear your own experiences and what other issues might be sticking points for you.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

31 thoughts on “When Traditional Publishing Comes Knocking”

    1. You know, Yvonne, I think it’s easy to believe that a trad publisher will “take care” of you, and that’s true in a sense. Only thing is, they will take care of you in ways that are only good for them, not necessarily good for you, and we’ve all learned over the years that those two are not the same. Being wrapped in cotton and set to the side while the trad-pub machinery stamps out its usual result is not my idea of care. I’ll fend for myself. Thanks for commenting.

    1. You’re welcome, Lynne. I figured it was time to pull the curtain aside (“Ignore that man behind that curtain!”) and let indie authors know what they might be signing away. Better to fight for their rights than go along without a whimper.

  1. Great list! There is so much debate about these issues today. The bloom is certainly off the rose…as in trad publishing…as of late. But some of it depends on genre as well. I think that any publishing contract, traditional or otherwise, bears close scrutiny in this ever changing industry.

    1. Thanks, Jacqueline. Yes, things have changed dramatically over the last 10, 20, 30 years. We no longer have only one option: going quietly to the slaughterhouse. We know our own worth and we can fight for it.

  2. Some thoughts:

    Royalties: As a general rule, you’re flat out not going to get higher royalties. Many top writers have “most favored nation” clauses in their contracts. If a publisher goes above X%, then they need to boost a bunch of their bestselling writers to the same level. It’s simply not going to happen. You might as well as for the moon. 😉

    Advance: Recall that 8 out of 9 trad pub books do not earn out their advance. So… Make this count. The advance is very likely ALL you will EVER see back on that book. It should either be:
    a) as much as you think you would ever earn on that book for the rest of your life if you kept it indie or
    b) a big enough figure that it makes a BIG difference in your life, and allows you time to write a bunch more indie books (I generally consider half a year’s salary from your day job as enough to count for this)
    Anything less, and I would personally walk.

    Length of Contract: If you’re working with a large publisher, flat out: it is duration of copyright, or darned close. You MIGHT get a reversion clause put in, but it’s a hard point to negotiate, and you’re generally looking at 10+ years, minimum.

    Rights: As a general rule, publishers get all rights, period. Hugh Howey famously got a deal where he sold print only rights. He also did it AFTER selling a million copies on his own… So unless you have done that, don’t count on retaining rights.

    There is a REASON why most indies who are making six+ figures a year are now routinely turning down six and seven figure offers from traditional publishers, guys.

    By the time you are big enough for them to come knocking, there really isn’t anything they can offer you that isn’t a loss of rights, control, AND income.

    1. Kevin, thanks for adding this. My last trad contract was 8 books ago, so I’m sure it’s all changed some since then. I do think you’re right, though, about the publishers being confined by their own guidelines which just restricts the author’s rights. Your last sentence pretty much says it all.

  3. Great advice, Melissa. I don’t expect any traditional publisher to come calling, besides, I am happy as an indie.

  4. Great post, Melissa. If I ever wrote a book, I can’t imagine even trying to go the trad route for all the reasons you listed and Kevin’s comment.

    However, I do have one nit to pick. That of royalty. What Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, etc pay you isn’t a royalty. It’s the publishers share of the money, some of which goes to the author. That you’re both is immaterial. I happen to know that when I self publish my publisher is planning to pay me 1% royalty and keep the rest for himself. 🙂

    I know that rate is really bad (even worse than Harlequin pays when they’re playing games to rip off their authors), but that’s the way my publisher is. A bit of a jerk and if I’m going to self publish, he’s the only choice I have. 🙂

    1. Good point, Al. I forget about that, since I am both. My publisher is also a skinflint, wanting to keep the cost of my books affordable, but I’m okay with that. Thanks for clearing that up.

      1. I should add that anyone who wants my publisher to push the “publish” button on KDP only has to provide a fully edited book with cover and they can get the same deal as I did. Just email the president (Al) at Love’s Savage Publishing. 🙂

        1. Wow, Al! Your self publisher pays you a whole one percent. I have yet to see a dime from my self publisher. I get paid in positive comments and self affirming notes. I’d love one percent, but my self-publisher is such a miser. I may have to switch. 😉

  5. I routinely meet new clients who have spent their first few years of retirement writing the book they’ve had in their mind for decades. You know the one – it will take the world by storm and publishers will be queuing up to accept it because it’s so different from anything else out there. Self publish it? Oh no, they want a real publisher who will take their clumsily-assembled Word doc in return for a big wad of cash and lifelong fame. I direct them gently but firmly to the Indies Unlimited site and let them do some homework about what real life publishing is like today. Then I help them to self publish, and they experience the excitement and satisfaction of making the book they’ve been dreaming of all these years. It won’t earn them that fortune, but seeing it finally in print? Priceless.

    1. So nice of you to gently disabuse them of the notion of instant fame and fortune, and send them to IU! I’m guessing few could imagine how satisfying it is to finally see that book in physical form AND to know they did it all themselves. You are doing a great service.

  6. Having read all of Melissa’s comments and then Kevin’s I just want to say that having been trad-pubbed back in the days when that was all there was worth considering and now being an Indie, there is only one way I would sell my rights to a trad-pub and it’s something I’m focusing on now. That’s FOREIGN language rights – translations. There is no other way you can get any kind of cut in a foreign language market unless you go through a trad-pub. I know someone who had a native German friend translate his book for him. Disaster. The trad-pubs know the good translators. They employ them. Translation is an art. You want pros on the job.

    One of the main reasons I wouldn’t sell my English language rights is because I have a chance of a film. Wouldn’t I kick myself if that happened and I had sold the rights?
    As far as selling the translation rights, it’s happened once with Ripple and the foreign tradpub meticulously copied my cover design, using the same graphic and the same colours and even the same font for the title.
    He bought only the “print” rights. No suggestion of e-rights at all.
    And I can promise you it was sooooo frustrating to return to the old sloooooow drawn-out world of the tradpub scene.

    I once watched my beautiful trad-pubbed children’s picture book fade to obscurity. Nothing I could do about it. The story became immortal in audio-form on radio but the book died because of too high a purchase price.

    1. Tui, you’ve shared a cautionary tale with us; thanks. And thanks, too, for bringing up foreign rights. I hadn’t remembered those when I wrote my post. Just one more addition to the list.

  7. Oh yeah, I’m definitely with you all the way on this one, Melissa. I mean we all know that, for quite some time, it’s been a changing world (I’m talking specifically the literary scene here), and the speed up has been the last five or six years; but it hasn’t reached its zenith yet! Who knows really where it will peak but one thing is for sure and that is that publishing will never again be the meat processing plant it grew to be before the decline.

    Excellent post, Melissa.

    1. Thanks, TD, and I think you’re right: publishing will never be what it was in the “old days,” and the possibilities of what it will become are endless. I’ve no doubt we have not seen the end of the evolution yet. It’s an exciting time, even if we do have to work constantly to keep up!

  8. I went from trad to hybrid to fully indie, and although it can be frustrating sometimes, I don’t think a knock on the door from a publisher would be that exciting. I’d be the last person they’d ask.

    Only the old-fashioned, nostalgic, what-if, fantasy thought of global bricks-and-mortar bookshop distribution, if it existed, might make me sit up … but …

  9. Great post Melissa. Reminds me of the mistakes I made when I first got started. Indies Unlimited wasn’t there to educate me, and I made costly mistakes. I’m sure there are authors making mistakes today, but thanks to IU, many less.

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