What to Look for in a Small Publisher, Part 2: Contract Terms


eye glasses resting on a piece of paper filled with typeface
Photo by Mari Helin-Tuominen on Unsplash.

M Pepper Langlinais was here on Tuesday talking about how to evaluate a small publisher based on its books, online presence, and marketing efforts. Now she’s back to talk about the legal stuff: contract terms.

It’s important not to sign any offer that a publisher sends you. Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s important to read contracts down to the last detail, and to negotiate anything you don’t feel comfortable with. Pepper’s guidance is essential for anyone reading a contract for the first time—or the fiftieth. Read your contract, highlight anything that doesn’t feel right, then ask your publisher to negotiate the terms. It’s likely they won’t want to budge on some things, but if they’re unwilling to negotiate on anything, or if issues like copyright become a sticking point, it may be time to look for a different publisher.

But I hope that doesn’t happen. Instead, may you be pleasantly surprised by your new publisher’s cordiality and enjoy a great working relationship. —Dale

What to Look for in a Small Publisher: Contract Terms

by M Pepper Langlinais

You’ve submitted a manuscript and been accepted! Now what? Sign on the dotted line, right? All your dreams are about to come true?


Yes, sorry, but you need to wait. Not all small publishers are created equal, and there are a few flags you should look for in the contract.

3. Review the contract.

  1. For how long does the publisher plan to hold the rights? There should always be an end date with the opportunity for the publisher to renew. Five years is pretty typical, though I’ve seen as many as seven to ten. Think about that for a minute. Waiting ten years to get your book back if you don’t love your publisher. Yes, you want this to be the perfect marriage that will last forever, but there needs to be a plan in place in case things don’t go as planned. Which leads us to …
  2. Is there something in the contract for rights reversion? Meaning, if the publisher goes under, do you get your rights back? Or if you want them back for other reasons, is there a way to retrieve them? In one of my small publishing contracts, I can buy my rights back. That’s not ideal, having to pay for your own content, but it’s something. In short, there should always be a fire escape in the contract.
  3. What about print? If your publisher offers books in print, do they guarantee your title will come out in some print version? If not, how important is that to you? Again, I learned this one the hard way. I talked about going to print, and my publisher hedged. Only after I’d signed my contract did they tell me I had to meet a minimum sales threshold to be considered for print. So make sure it’s laid out clearly, and that you know whether the publisher means actual printing or just print-on-demand (POD). Those are two different things, and you want to know which you’re getting, if anything. Because what you really need to know is …
  4. Does the publisher have distribution and marketing? Are they going to actively market your book? I’m going to say flat out that this is the most important thing a publisher can do for an author: market and distribute. Any- and everything else the author can do for him- or herself. Sure, it will cost money to get a professional cover made and a professional edit done, but if you have to market your own work, you might as well self-publish.
    The point of having a publisher is to have someone who can get your book in stores, libraries—in front of readers, basically. If you have to hunt up your own readers, you might as well do it all for yourself.
    As for distribution, what I mean is, does the publisher print copies and store them so that bookstores can order copies and return them if they don’t sell? This is key because bookstores don’t stock POD. They only buy and stock books they can get a discount on and can return. So if you want your book on that shelf, you’d better find a publisher who does this. (Or be prepared to go begging at your local stores to perhaps sell on consignment.)
  5. How and when do you get paid? This is tricky. Many small publishers pay based on net, meaning you only see money after they’ve taken a cut. They may say it’s for “operating expenses” or whatnot, but what it really means is that, in a backhanded way, you’re paying for the publisher’s services. That cover they made you, the editor they hired. It’s almost backward vanity press publishing in that, instead of paying up front, you’re paying at the back end. (Note that it IS normal for a publisher to want to earn back your advance, assuming you received one, though advances are very uncommon from small publishers.)
    A good publisher invests in you. They trust your work and themselves to make the money back without you having to pay them for it. Think of it this way: you have a pie. You want your royalties to be calculated based on the entire pie (gross) rather than based on an already partially eaten pie (net). And you want your slice to come regularly. Quarterly is normal, though some publishers pay bimonthly or even monthly. A few pay only twice a year. In any case, make sure it’s clear when your money is coming, how (check? some publishers won’t cut you one until you’ve made a certain amount of money), and from what size pie.
    All this said, you’re probably only going to get a net royalty. So make sure you know what expenses they’re taking out first and aim for a high percentage of that net.
  6. Do they own your next book(s)? It’s pretty typical for a contract to have first right of refusal on any other books you may write with the same characters or set in the same world. What you want to beware of is any contract that demands the publisher get first look at anything and everything else you write. Particularly if things don’t go well with the first book you send them, you don’t want to owe them every other manuscript.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and of course I highly encourage you to get legal advice any time you’re reading over a contract. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re satisfied with the paperwork. Is it finally okay to sign? Well …

Infographic with the following text: What to Look for in a Small Publisher Contract Terms Advice from M Pepper Langlinais more info: dalecameronlowry.com/contract-terms/ For how long does the publisher plan to hold the rights? There should always be an end date with the opportunity for the publisher to renew. Is there something in the contract for rights reversion? Is there a way to get your rights back if the publisher closes or you want to try a new publisher? Will your book appear in print? Does the publisher guarantee your title will have a print version? If not, how important is that to you? Does the publisher have distribution and marketing? Are they going to actively market your book? Will they distribute your book to stores and libraries? How and when do you get paid? Do you get paid monthly, quarterly, or yearly? Are royalties based on cover price ("gross"), or what the publisher gets after expenses ("net")? Do they own your next book(s)? If things don’t go well with your first book, you don’t want to owe the publisher all your manuscripts.
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4. Final considerations.

Every publisher has a culture of sorts, an attitude it fosters, and like with a job, you want to find a good fit. Here are a few things to keep an eye out for:

  1. How often does the publisher put out books? Weekly? Monthly? A publisher that is putting out multiple books rapidly is not giving any one book or author very much attention. They are simply throwing content out there and hoping something catches on. Beware of this.
  2. What’s their social media like? Most publishers will have Twitter and Facebook and various other social media links, but do they actively engage with readers or just toss out a post every time they have a new book to peddle? This is also a good way to discover whether the publisher does have a following and strong readership.
  3. Do they demand that authors cross-promote? If so, this publisher probably isn’t spending any money on marketing. Under the guise of fostering a “community,” they’re hoping the authors will market one another. It’s one thing when established authors help out new authors. But a bunch of new authors trying to sell each other’s books isn’t going to net anyone very many sales.

Again, this is by no means an all-inclusive list, but it’s a place to start. Good luck in your search! Questions? Additional items to add to these lists? Sob stories? Put ’em in the comments!

About M Pepper Langlinais

M Pepper Langlinais is an award-winning screenwriter, produced playwright, and published author.

M holds a master of arts in writing, literature and publishing and a bachelor of science in radio-television-film. She has a love of Shakespeare, having both performed and taught his work, and has also interned on Hollywood film sets. M worked for Houghton Mifflin and Pearson before deciding to devote her full time to her own writing (and occasionally parenting). She lives in Livermore, California, with her family, cats, and hamster. Find out more about her and her books at http://PepperWords.com.

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