(Disclaimer time: I’m not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV. None of the opinions in this article should be construed as legal advice, when in doubt consult a licensed intellectual property lawyer.)
Three major milestones in every writer’s career are finishing a manuscript, submitting it to an editor and ‘The Call.’ Of these, only ‘The Call’ propels a mere writer into the hallowed halls of published author. For some, the golden road dead ends with novels mired in bankruptcy court. So what can an author do to avoid such litigious quicksand?
1.) Read your contract and do not believe the bankruptcy clause will protect you. All of the authors I interviewed said the courts ignore this clause and are selling their contracts as assets to pay off the company’s debts. Tina Gerow (www.tinagerow.com) says, “if something in the contract feels like you are getting screwed – then don’t sign it. Things like 20 year contracts, rights that don’t revert back to the author, or any other horrible terms – keep looking – there are places out there with better ones. Have a literary attorney look over the contract if you aren’t familiar with contracts – it’s worth the money!!”
2.) Research the company BEFORE you sign. As authors we are used to doing research. In fact, most authors were happy with the amount they had done before signing their contracts however… Look for specific things. Melanie Atkins (www.melanieatkins.com) recommends, you “talk with their authors and find out how easy it is to communicate with management, if the authors are happy and believe they are being treated fairly, if the company pays on time, if the editing is good, etc.” Sharona Nelson (www.sharonanelson.com) explains that when contacting authors with the house “make it clear you aren’t asking amounts or personal financial details, just whether they’ve been paid, and how they’ve been treated. This one fact should make it glaringly obvious whether the enterprise is sailing or sinking.”
3.) Remember writing is not just a business; it’s a partnership. Having been burned once, Cindy Appel (www.cynthianna.com) sums it up by saying, “We should both be working at gaining sales and making the purchasing process easy for the reader. If a publisher doesn’t act like they’re able, interested or capable of promoting my book, then no amount of self-promo is going to help that book sell.”
4.) Trust your gut/instincts/that little voice inside your head. Whatever you call it, know that subconsciously you are picking up on something either said or unsaid that is raising red flags. Don’t sign the contract until the little voice quiets.
5.) Sticking with an established business is a good way to hedge your bets. According to the Small Business Association, “two-thirds of new employer establishments survive at least two years, and 44 percent survive at least four years.” Basic math tells you that 66 percent fail in those first four years. Cindy (www.cynthianna.com) recommends you investigate further to discover if “the people in this e-publisher been involved in another e-publisher that folded? What were the circumstances surrounding that publisher’s collapse?”
6.) Communication is key. Speaking frankly Tina (www.tinagerow.com) says, “Don’t let them (the publisher) make you feel like you can’t ask.” All the authors shared the same experience: before their publishers filed bankruptcy, they ignored emails and treated authors as trouble makers if they asked questions.
7.) Distinguish between self-promotion and book promotion. Yes, promoting your latest release is a necessary part of the publishing business but promoting your brand can be done even without a book to sell. Sharona (www.sharonanelson.com) says the bankruptcy of her publisher hasn’t affected her promotion efforts. She says, “I always promote my “brands” as opposed to promoting a specific publisher. It’s just better for my bottom line to do so.”
8.) Multiple Publishers is the way to go. Melanie (www.melanieatkins.com ) is quick to point out the disadvantages of putting “all of my eggs in one basket… I would advise all authors to publish with multiple houses–so if one house goes down, you still have books out there. It’s much safer that way.”
9.) Learn from your experience. Did you make it through the process to the finished book? Then you’ve learned about proofs and galleys. You’ve learned how to promote your book and where to spend your money effectively. All these are valuable knowledge that not every writer has gained. Even if you didn’t make it to a finished book, you’re know a little bit more about what to look for in a publisher and some of the warning signs of a bad publisher. Don’t waste the knowledge, pass it on, just like Tina, Cindy, Sharona and Melanie did.
10.) Don’t give up on your dream! It may take a lot of people to get you on the New York Times best seller list but only one can derail all your dreams: You. Keep writing, you’ll be glad you did.
Nothing in life is fool-proof but sometimes you can hedge your bets. Businesses come and go and you may find yourself and your dreams caught in the middle. Knowledge is the best means to prevent such a thing from happening. A big thanks to Tina, Cindy, Sharona and Melanie for all their help with this article.