If you have been paying attention this last week, you will have read some eye brow raising posts from and about epublishers, unfortunately, few of it good. The fact is that because of the low entries to barriers in the e publishing industry (i.e., lack of funding), many epublishing companies are started by individuals with little to no business experience, let alone editing or publishing experience. Authors who find themselves in the unfortunate position of having submitted books to these shaky publishing ships often end up not getting paid and being shamed by “friends” of the publisher into not speaking up.
There appears to be no organization that will step in to protect authors from themselves and unscrupulous or negligent publishers. RWA doesn’t understand epublishing and has no one in a leadership position that does. EPIC appears to be completely absent although its current president, Brenna Lyons, can be seen commenting at the Arizona Republic website disseminating inaccurate legal information about authors’ rights in bankruptcy. E published authors or aspiring epublished authors simply do not make enough money in royalties, for the most part, to be able to afford an agent who could help an author navigate the difficult contractual waters.
This means that the burden rests upon an author to seek out as much information as possible for signing with an epublisher. There are forums for authors to ask questions, such as Absolute Write Forum and the Romance Divas. There are places that exist that post information about prospective epublishers such as Piers Anthony and Emily Veinglory’s EREC site. More recently, Angela James of Samhain has provided some information to the Smart Bitches about epublishing and she has graciously offered her insight to us at Dear Author. I compiled a list of helpful hints with the assistance of Ms. James. It is not meant to be a) legal advice or b) comprehensive. It’s meant to jump start an e author or an aspiring e author in finding the right home for her or his hard work.
Before submitting to a house, basic research would include the following:
- Read the publisher's books. If you don’t read a publisher’s books then you cannot know the quality of the product the company is publishing. Someone else's idea of quality and great books might be vastly different from your own. You must make your own determination.
- Put on your reader’s cap and complete a transaction at the publisher’s place of purchase. How smoothly does the process go? Would you go back and make another purchase? Is customer service prompt/friendly in helping with difficulties?
- Look at the catalog of published books. Who is publishing with them? Is it a large assortment of authors or the same four or five. Does the publisher have his or her own books in the catalog and how many? Do you recognize any of the authors?
- Read the “About Us” page. What is the background of the owners? Do they have experience in business, publishing, etc.? Are they publishing their own books? Do they have a physical address and corresponding telephone number? Is the publishing house incorporated or is it simply a sole proprietorship or partnership? If it is not incorporated, who are the true owner(s)?
- Look at the cover art. Browse the website and get a feel for whether you'd buy the books based on the cover art. If you wouldn't, then why another reader?
- Is the website professional looking? Are there a lot of typos? Do they provide readers with covers/blurbs/excerpts for their catalog of books on sale and coming soon? As a reader, I would never have purchased a book at Mardi Gras Publishing because I immediately clicked away at the sound of the mp3 playing and I am not likely to buy a book from a site certified by Playgirl because that tells me nothing about the quality of the books.
- Google the publisher. You can learn a lot from casual blog mentions by both readers and authors.
- Choose a book from the publisher's catalog and Google it. How many places is it available to buy?
- Do not be afraid to ask questions. Talk to authors about their experiences with the publisher. Don't talk to just one, ask a couple. Most authors are happy to help a fellow author out. Things to ask: Does the company pay on time? Are they accessible if there's a problem with royalties/edits/cover art, etc.? Are the company executives professional? Does the company help with promotion and marketing? Are they supportive of authors writing for other publishers? Does the company encourage authors to write to a certain amount of sex, a certain storyline, genre, etc.? Is there a thorough editing process and did the author get a say in the edits or where they presented as a fait accompli? What are the sales numbers like?
There is a term called “queering the deal” used in referring to lawyerly interference in the consumation of deals. Essentially, lawyers are paid to look at the bleakest alternative to a contract and write a way out for their clients. By pointing out negatives and encouraging their clients to look at those negatives, lawyers are sometimes accused of “queering the deal.” Don’t be afraid to “queer the deal” by asking too many questions. Forearmed is forewarned.
- Find out if the company put their books in print (if this is important to you). Do all books go to print or just high sellers? Does the company require you to contribute to the print costs? What kind of print run do they have? If the books are print on demand, are they returnable (there are different types of print on demand so this is an important question because most bookstores will not order or carry books which are not returnable). Go to online bookstores, are the books available there? Got to your local bookstore, do they shelve the books or can they order them? Look at the quality of the print books (do they look like they'll fall apart after one reading? Is the formatting inside the books neat and professional? Do the covers draw your attention–"in a good way?)
After your research is done and you have submitted your manuscript and are offered a contract, these are things that you should consider:
- Read your contract and understand every term to which you are agreeing. If you don’t understand a term, ask the person offering you the contract what the term means. If that does not satisfy you, hire a lawyer. If a lawyer is too costly, then consider what the worst possible scenario would be to signing a contract without understanding the terms of it. I.e., the relinquishment of your rights to publish your work both now and in the future and then ask yourself what that is worth.
- Find out if the contract is negotiable. All contracts should be negotiable although not all parts of it might be. I.e., a publisher might say that clause B,C, and F are non negotiable and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the epublisher is shady but if the entire contract is non negotiable, beware.
- Clauses to be aware of in the epublishing business.
- a clause that asks you to promise to use your author name only for books written at that publisher
- Clauses that give the publisher rights to your characters
- Option clauses that give the publisher first right of refusal (of one book, of your books for a lifetime, of books in that series). Before you sign an option clause, know what you're getting in return. Option clauses are very dangerous for e-authors to sign because you are not getting an advance. Why give up something if you aren’t getting anything in return?
- Clauses that involve editing. You don't want to give a publisher the right to rewrite your work without approval, but you also don't want to force them into a situation where they have to send you a new copy for approval every time they add a missing period.
- Pay attention to how and when royalties are paid and make sure this is acceptable to you. What recourse do you have if royalties aren't paid in a timely manner?
- What "outs–? are given to publisher/author in the contract. What action is considered to be breach and curable v. what action is considered to be breach and thus terminates the contract? (This is sometimes determined by legal interpretation.
- Ask the editor who's offered you the contract to explain their editing process to you. What is their philosophy on edits? Do they look for basic grammar and typos or do they do deep content edits? How many rounds of edits do they do? Is there a separate final line editor/copy editor who will also go over the book and give it some polish?
- How long can the author expect from the time of contract to begin edits, and then to date of publication? This varies for every company and can play a large role in an author's decision. Know the answer before you sign the contract so there are no surprises.
- Ask the editor/publisher about the company's marketing/promotional efforts. What do they contribute to? What things do they do to promote the company and/or specific books. What do they expect from the author?