There are a couple of reasons literary agents are still a go-to force in publishing–and not only because they tend to be the gatekeepers to large publishing houses. Beyond helping get you a publishing deal, agents can help you negotiate a contract once have a deal.
Of course you don’t always have to get an agent to get a book published. Neither of my books coming out this summer were sold with help of an agent. There are some good things about that, should you choose to go agent-less (namely, not having to give an agent a cut of your earnings) but then, what are you going to do about the contract? After all, a bad contract can seriously hurt you in the future.
Many people I know of suggest going to a lawyer to look over a contract. Of course you can always do that, but at least for me, I don’t find that necessary (I never have/I don’t know anyone who has personally). Of course I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice, but from my personal experience, it’s possible to keep from getting into a bad situation by just fully reading your contract and having a good head on your shoulders.
As someone with experience on both sides of publishing contracts, here are a few tips I would give authors going it alone.
1) Unless you chose to work with a vanity publisher, never sign a contract that says you will pay the publisher for services. Be them editing services, start-up costs, or anything else, legitimate publishers won’t ask for you to pay to have your book published. The general rule you can keep in mind is: Money flows to the author. Not from. Publishers make their money by selling your book. Big or small, traditional publishers won’t make you pay for them to edit, layout, get a cover artist, or market your book. They also won’t require you to purchase a set number of books. There are a few “back-end” vanity publishers out there that are flying under the radar of fledgling authors by not asking for money up front but asking questions like “How many books are you planning on buying?” with the intent of putting a nonstandard clause in a contract requiring the author to buy at least 75 (if not more) copies of their book once it’s published. They don’t ask for fees, but they’re making their money by having at least that many sales and making it the author’s duty to sell those copies under the guise of “normal author promotion” Yes, authors can buy their own book (generally at a sharp discount from the publisher) but they won’t require you to buy a certain amount of copies to agree to publish you, much less write it in to your contract.
2) Don’t jump at just any contract. You’ve gotten lord knows how many rejections, and finally you’ve gotten a yes! That’s always an exciting feeling, but especially if it’s your first sale. One of the biggest mistakes you can make, however is to sign that contract and sent it straight back. As with any contract read it throughly. Maybe you’ve found a less-than-honest publisher that has some nonstandard clause in it that will hurt you later on. You won’t know if you don’t read it.
Furthermore, even if the contract is completely legitimate, you might find something you want to negotiate. Negotiating is something your agent would do normally, but if you are selling your book yourself, you are your own agent, so it’s up to you to negotiate any points in your contract you are unhappy with. You don’t want to be difficult or argumentative, but if you feel there’s something you’d like to discuss before signing bring it up. By myself, I have negotiated e-book/print releases and higher royalties. Just because you aren’t a professional agent doesn’t mean you should let a publisher do whatever they want without question.
3) Know what you want. Maybe you just want to get your book out there. It doesn’t really matter who publishes it, or how much you make. If you are happy going with an untested publisher, or are fine with only having someone produce an e-book, that’s fine. Everyone wants something different from publisher. If you aren’t happy with a contract, however, and they won’t negotiate you don’t have to settle. Know what you’re willing to take for your work, and if one offer isn’t that, you can always walk away and look for another publisher.
4) Never sign away your rights. A publisher may help you with the copyright office, but your contract should never sign over artistic rights of your book (unless you were specifically hired as a ghost writer). Publishers are contracting the right to exclusively distribute your book, not buying the copyright to it. The book will stay in your name, and once the contract period is up (generally a few years) the book is once again yours to do with what you wish. You can re-contract it with the same publisher (if they wish to as well) or you can move to someone else. They don’t own your book. Likewise, do not sign over movie rights, audiobook rights, or anything similar. If you see a clause like that, you’re likely not dealing with a legitimate publisher.
5) If something seems fishy, ask someone before signing. Never discount gut instinct when reading a contract. If something doesn’t seem right to you, it very well might not be. In that case, you can always look for some outside help. Search the publisher online. There are some great sites like Writers Beware, Preditors and Editors, and Absolute Write Water Cooler that talk about known scam publishers. Likewise, you can also often find known scam publishers by typing in the publisher’s name followed by “scam” in a search engine (e.g. Weird Contact Publishers Scam). You can also ask others who might be a little more well-versed in publishing than you are, or, of course, consult a lawyer.
As I stated before, I am not a lawyer, and so none of this is true legal device, but I am very willing to help anyone out there who has questions about something that seems a little strange in a publishing contract. Anyone who is agent-less (or just wants a second opinion) is free to contact me, I’m always happy to help.
For now, I will leave the name of some publishers that have been complied by sites such as Writers Beware and Preditors and Editors as some that might not be on the straight and narrow. Anyone thinking of working with them are strongly advised to look into their contracts/what is written online about them (I have not seen most’s contracts so I can’t speak personally):
- Algora Publishing
- American Book Publishing
- Archebooks Publishing
- ASA Publishing Company
- AuthorHouse (formerly 1st Books)
- Black Rose Publishing
- Black Wyrm Publishing
- Cambridge House Books
- Dandelion Books
- Dorrance Publishing Company
- Diggory Press
- Helm Publishing
- Hilliard and Harris
- Oak Tree Press
- Park East Press (formerly Durban House and Oakley Press)
- PD Publishing
- Renaissance e-books
- Royal Fireworks Press/Silk Label Books
- SterlingHouse Publisher (imprints include, among others, Pemberton Mysteries, 8th Crow Books, Cambrian House Books, Blue Imp Books, Caroline House Books, Dove House Books, and PAJA Books)
- SBPRA/Strategic Book Publishing/Eloquent Books (formerly known as The Literary Agency Group and AEG Publishing Group)
- Tate Publishing
- Whitmore Publishing Company
- Zeus Publications
Note: These are only a few. Always use caution when submitting.