My Musings

Guest Feature~Publishing Horror Story By Michelle Stimpson

Publishing Horror Story

Well, by this point, I’ve been published by 2 mainstream publishers, 3 smaller publishers, and I’ve also self-published. I’ve sold books with and without an agent, and I’ve published short stories for myself and others (

For the most part, I have had good experiences with publishers. One can imagine, however, that there have been a few hiccups along the way. My worst publishing experience came when a company held onto my book for 3 years while they went through a bankruptcy. Because my contract was so imprecise, I could do nothing to get my book out of their hands. That’s the horrible part.

But what I’d like to focus on is how to avoid a publishing horror story.

First let me say that I’m not an attorney, so I cannot give you legal advice. But as an author whose book is still tied up with a publisher who wasn’t able to put any money behind promoting that book and (to this day) won’t return the rights until the last 600 books sitting in their warehouse sell, I’ve learned a few things to look out for in contracts.

No Linking Royalties

In a multi-book contract, make sure the royalties will be paid separately. Reason being: If you have three books and the third one doesn’t do so well, you don’t want the publisher to subtract from your royalties on the first two, which have earned over and above their advance. Everyone (including you) is taking a risk with every single book, so let each book’s royalties stand alone.

  1. Reversion of Rights Policy

Make sure that there is a very specific way to know when you can get your copyright back. In a bad contract, the publisher will give the rights back whenever they’re no longer making a profit. A profit might be one book sold in a year’s time…who knows? Basically, they’ll give the rights back whenever they get good and ready. In the past, publishers might have been compelled to return rights once they ran out of books. But now, with e-books, they have no physical inventory to store, thus there’s nothing to lose by keeping the rights forever. If one e-book sells, they make a little. If nothing sells, they haven’t lost anything. You, however, might want to take that book, make some changes, re-release it as an e-book, give it a new cover and some new life, re-sell the mass market right to another publisher..the options are endless. But you can’t exercise any of those if you don’t have the rights.

In a decent contract, you can request the rights after two or three consecutive royalty statements falling below a certain amount of money. Whatever you negotiate, don’t leave your rights out of your reach forever.

  1. Movie rights

Keep them for yourself if at all possible. If it’s in the contract, just cross it out and write your initials. Talk about or negotiate it later–only if the publisher questions it.

  1. Specify genre and word length for First Right of Refusal

In just about every contract, the publisher will include a clause that says you have to show them your next book first so they can decide if they want to publish it. They have a certain amount of time (weeks or a few months) to let you know if they wish to publish it. This makes good sense for everyone, especially if you’d like to do a series.

You want to make sure, however, that you’re very specific about the genre represented in this clause. If you’re publishing a full-length Christian fiction novel with this company, you may not want to publish a memoir with this same publisher. If you have to submit it to them first, you may waste a few months in your submission process. Also, if you want to write a novella in this same genre and self-publish it as an e-book or submit it to another publisher, you want to be free and clear to do this. The way to protect yourself is to make sure this clause doesn’t say you have to submit your next “book” to the publisher. “Book” is too generic. This clause should be genre and word-count specific, i.e. “full-length (85,000+ word) African American Christian Novel.”

You can also specify which type of work you want your agent to represent, if you wish to limit your agent’s involvement.

  1. Exclusivity

If you would like to write for more than one publishing house, you need to make sure you secure the right to do so in your contract. Once secured, work with both publishers to make sure that your release dates don’t compete.

Well, that’s all that comes to mind now. If you have anything else to add, feel free to leave your contribution in the comments.

Be blessed!