Friday, February 17, 2006

Finding the right publisher/politically correct funnies

Why Preditors and Editors is Wrong

“It is with publishers as it is with wives: one always wants someone else’s.”
Norman Douglas

I have worked at dozens of places. For tyrants who just enjoyed bullying. For thieving crooks who nickel-and-dime past every safety code regulation at the expense of the safety of children – which is generally when I get on my ethical high horse and give them the old two finger salute.

I’ve worked for some wonderful people who were bad bosses. And I’ve worked for some wonderful bosses who were regular people.

In my working life, I probably haven’t seen it all, but I feel I’ve come pretty damn close.

In the quest for publication, I’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs. My initial goal was to find a reputable Canadian publisher. Why? Why not? I hadn’t much insight into the workings of the book business then.

I was encouraged to try to find an agent. An arduous task almost as difficult as finding a publisher on your own.

What I ended up doing was trying a multifaceted approach. I queried both agents and publishers. Small publishers, because very few of the larger publishers accept unsolicited work.

And then the responses started coming in.

I have, in fact, been offered four contracts in the past…10 months or so I was actively looking. One agent turned out to be the kind that asked for cash when you signed. No thank you.

Why? Publishers know which agents are getting clients to pay for representation upfront. It means the agent isn’t necessarily passionate about the writing, and they have no incentive to push your work into the right market. They only commit to sending the book out to a set number of publishers.

The publishers I sent packing

I was offered a contract with a small publisher. Something about them didn’t smell right, from early on.

Then came another offer. This one seemed all very legit upfront. I did my homework and couldn’t find anything to suggest otherwise.

Until week 2 of discussions.

I got my contract, and there were problems. For one thing, they wanted rights to all my subsequent writing at the same contract terms for life. No out clause.

For another, they referred to “investing” in the publication of my book. All the percentages of returns were based on my “investment”.

Now, when I spoke to the publisher on the phone, he said I could invest for a higher return, or take a standard royalty with no investment.

So I had the contract checked over. And there were some other problems with it.

I sent off questions. The publisher would return with an email saying, “Good questions. Call me, let’s talk.”

Except once I phoned the UK at my own expense, I still didn’t have answers.

And then when things finally did come in writing, they weren’t what was said on the phone.

Turned out in the end, the publisher wanted to take 80% of my subsidiary rights.

And several days after getting the contract, I got a letter telling me the offer was based on the condition I “invest” 10,000 pounds in the printing of my book. No money, no publishing.

Fuck you very much.

Preditors and Editors has given that publisher a ‘not recommended’ rating.

Now, I was told a long time ago to use P&E as a reference. For a variety of reasons. I was under the impression they researched publishers to make an assessment.

Until I saw that they said, “Poor contract. Not recommended” about my publisher.

I’m going to get back to that in a second. But seeing that made me look through other listings. Wow.

I found some publishers of authors I know, with no warnings. And I know things about those publishers, things that contradict the P&E recommendation guidelines.

One of these publishers has it in the contract that any subsidiary sales the publisher gets all rights to, the author gets nothing.

I looked through their rating criteria, and the only thing I could find on their “not recommended” list that could even possibly apply to Tico Publishing was, “Offers a contract slanted heavily against the writer.”

Which is rather subjective.

Now, in correspondence with them what they said was that they didn’t like the publisher’s terms on subsidiary rights. Yes, the publisher asked for a percentage.

I argued the point on them. For one thing, that other publisher wanted 80% of my subsidiary rights. Tico wanted significantly less if someone made a movie.

And I think they deserve it.

Why? For one thing, it’s getting harder and harder for new writers to get agents and publishers. If a small publisher is willing to invest in finding new talent, they need to see a return on that.

For another, they are committed to shopping those rights, the same way an agent would. Since I don’t have an agent, I won’t sell movie rights unless my publisher works it out. And they aren’t going to do that for free.

How I assessed the contract.

I had two legal advisors review the contract for problems. There were very minor things, writing glitches actually, to be addressed.

I spoke to published authors about the pros and cons of small publishers and the terms of the contract. The authors essentially felt that the contract was fine, that for a new writer it was a pretty good starting point.

I spoke to a friend in the publishing business. She used to work at Mondo and now works at Rosen. She actually told me that they have people come to them all the time and ask for subsidiary rights for their writers – publishers in Malaysia, Japan, Singapore – that it’s standard practice anymore. And she asked me pointed questions about the contract – every question came back with the right answer. She works in publishing so she knows what she’s talking about and as my friend she wanted me to have a fair deal.

Also, after the last fiasco, I had read up on contracts. I knew what I was looking at. So had Kevin, and he deals with contracts in his work all the time.

I also talked to a bookstore owner about the distribution in place and got the thumbs up on it. It was, as I was told, a good option. No reason not to sign on based on that – they distribute in Canada, the UK and elsewhere.

I fired off a list of questions and points for change to my publisher.

My publisher phoned me to discuss these points. Every single thing I asked to have changed in the contract was changed. Every question I had was answered to my satisfaction.

And the conversation has been backed up via written correspondence, so there can be no “he said, she said” like what happened in the end with the other publisher.

Great editors do not discover nor produce great authors; great authors create and produce great publishers.
John Farrar, What happens in book publishing1957

I not only stand by my decision to take this contract: I will be mailing out my contract for a second book to them today.

Here’s why.

I’ve talked to a lot of authors. One of the questions I asked was, “Big or Small?”

The response I’ve gotten is that both can be very good, there is no hard or fast rule here.

In one case, the author said he made peanuts for his first four novels at a small publisher but when his editor went to St. Martin’s, he got taken along and got a six-book deal.

In my upcoming interview with Tracy Sharp one of the things she talks about is watching ebook authors get snatched up by large publishers. Starting small can mean moving big later, if you want to. Though not everyone does, and not everyone should.

Really, it boils down to the experience you have. I’d rather go with a small publisher I feel comfortable with than a large one where I feel lost.

The reality is, each person’s experience will be different. Many authors have started with small publishers – John Grisham was selling books out of the trunk of his car. Alexander McCall Smith, JK Rowling – I believe they started small.

In some cases, starting with a large publisher can be a problem. The publisher has other big names to push and you get very little of their promotional attention.

The truth is, there’s no right or wrong way.

But I find it astounding that a publisher that wanted to charge me 10,000 pounds sterling has been put on the level with a publisher that’s taking no fees from me, that’s invested in promoting my book, and that has shown me an exceptional level of professionalism. Why, just this morning at 5 am I got an email from my publisher telling me he was reading my blog.

And every question I’ve asked has been answered promptly, efficiently.

My input has been treated with respect.

If my publisher has any “alleged” flaw, it might be being too transparent on their website. I understand what they’re trying to do. Trying to be open and honest in publishing – which automatically makes many people suspicious.

But I really appreciated always knowing the status of my submissions. And these guys don’t just publish everyone who submits to them – you have to pass two review processes, minimum.

The truth is, some people have tried pretty damn hard to rain on my parade. Fine. They don’t want to go with a US publisher or a small publisher, that’s their business.

But I, for one, am thrilled with the publisher I’ve chosen. I’m ecstatic that my work will see the light of day.

And after having an agent tell me I couldn’t sell my work in the US, I’m pretty pleased to have a US publisher taking me on!

Plus, having authors tell me the contract was fine was enough. These are people who’ve supported and encouraged me.

And this was one of those times when I had an instinctive feeling – everything I’d been told I should hope to hear from an agent was what I was hearing from the publisher.

Besides, when I go into the bookstore, I don’t look at the spine and say, “I won’t buy a book from that publisher.” I go in and buy an author.

I know I’m in the honeymoon phase with my publisher and some of you are likely wondering if it will last. But let me at least say this: I did my homework on that contract. I got the amendments I asked for. And I am happy with it. The authors, editors and people in the publishing business I’ve talked to are really happy for me.

Oh, and one more thing about P&E. I can’t find on their site what qualifies a publisher as “recommended”. Does anyone know where that is? Because it’s making me pretty suspicious, considering I’ve seen people signed to questionable contracts…and dump the publisher after book 1.

As I mentioned earlier, and P&E has no warning on them, despite the fact they take 100% of subsidiary rights.

Not to mention that I wrote back to P&E about these points.

They didn’t answer any of my questions.

It’s got to make you wonder. I still think they’re worth checking as a resource, but I don’t think they’re the be-all and end-all to assessing publishers. When the time comes for you, proceed cautiously, talk to lawyers, authors, editors, people who deal with these things.

And for those that put subjective advice up on websites and fail to respond to emails addressing their ranking of publishers…Grain of salt.

Incidentally, I was surprised at how many people who are published and who are signed with agents, or are magazine editors, told me they didn’t trust P&E. I won’t betray confidences and quote names.

Don’t take their opinion as gospel, or mine. Just make sure you do your homework. At the point where you start querying, you should be researching publishers and contracts and be prepared so you know what you’re doing.

It’s the best protection you can possibly have.

And, since I've gone all taboo by taking on the might P&E today, why not encourage political correctness with everything else? Oldies, but still funnies. And Kim will likely feel all nostalgic reading them.

1. She is not a BABE or a CHICK...She is a BREASTED AMERICAN.
6. She is not an AIRHEAD...She is REALITY IMPAIRED.
7. She does not get DRUNK or TIPSY...She gets CHEMICALLY INCONVENIENCED.
9. She does not NAG YOU...She becomes VERBALLY REPETITIVE.
10. She is not a SLUT...She is SEXUALLY EXTROVERTED.
12. She is not a TWO-BIT WHORE...She is a LOW COST PROVIDER.

1. He does not have a BEER GUT....He has developed a LIQUID GRAIN STORAGE FACILITY.
2. He is not a BAD DANCER....He is OVERLY CAUCASIAN.
7. He does not act like a TOTAL ASS....He develops a case of RECTAL-CRANIAL INVERSION.
10. He is not HORNY....He is SEXUALLY FOCUSED.
11. It's not his crack you see hanging out of his pants....It is MALE CLEAVAGE!


Boy Kim said...

Nostalgia's all well and good, but it ain't what it used to be in my day.

JamesO said...

I'm glad you seem to have found a genuinely dedicated publisher, Sandra. As you know I've had a run in with the crooks myself and it beggars belief what these people try to get away with (and most likely succeed - a fool and his money...)

It's true that there are some writers who deserve to be published and yet never find anyone to do it for them, but generally speaking if a publisher's not prepared to put his time and money behind your work, then there's a damned good reason for that - your book's not good enough.

I made a decision when I started touting my first book (a travelogue, as it happens) that I wouldn't consider paying for publication unless I decided to do the whole thing myself - printing, binding, marketing, the works. There's nothing wrong with self-publishing as such - many great writers have done it. But there's a distinct line between self-publishing and vanity publishing. And then there's the crooks who prey on the desperate and needy, and try to screw £10k out of them as well as the rights to anything they ever produce. It makes me proud to be human.

Bernita said...

Just a superb post, Sandra.
Thank you.

Stephen Newton said...

Interesting reading, Sandra. I'll be back to check in on your progress with that book contract---congratulatiions!

Now that my first mystery is nearly complete except for last minute rewrites (done over the past year), I plan to send query letters to agents soon. I did this two years ago when I "thought" I was really finishd with the book and received 4 positives out of 10 letters. It was then that I discovered that I has a ways to go. But everyone did reply. It gave me hope that perhaps I'm doing something right.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Kim, are you sure you remember correctly?

James, you're totally right. Why pay someone else when you can do it yourself and take all the profit? Besides, I hear over and over again that the best seller of their book is the author!

Bernita, glad you found this helpful - the bookstore post is coming.

Stephen, hi, nice to see you! Sounds like you're doing all the right things with your own writing - good for you! An exciting time as you approach querying, but also pretty nerve-wracking! But with all the time you've invested in this, I'm willing to bet you're going to approach this as a total professional. Fingers crossed for you!

Boy Kim said...

Remember what?

(You should have put money on that, too!)

Gabriele C. said...

10.000 L (sorry, the correct sign is a code I keep forgetting) printing investment? And they expect you to do all the marketing (at least that's how I read between the lines)? Wow, that beats any scary stories I've heard about PA.

Erik Ivan James said...

Thank you for another excellent and educational post. I'm glad you're here!

TICO Publishing said...

Thought the blog was a riot. When your novel is a bestseller, then they can try to convince people that TICO Publishing is "not recommended". Why wouldn't I publish her, she writes like buuuttteeeerrrr!

Sandra Ruttan said...

See what I mean guys? A hands-on publisher that's monitoring my blog. Note to self: stop talking about sacrificing chickens and drinking cows blood...

Trace said...

I agree, not everyone should move on to a large publisher, and not everyone will want to. A small publisher who respects you is worth it's weight in gold.

Trace said...

I also find it interesting that in some cases the very publishers who rejected those ebook authors are offering them deals later, for the print rights of the very books they rejected.