CopyrightsTraditional publishing

Why the offer of a publishing contract should scare you

From Rick:

Those of you who have read previous blog posts here on publishing and publishers know that Scott and I are strong advocates of self-publishing, and by “self-publishing” we don’t mean paying someone to publish your book for you. We mean doing most of the work yourself and hiring out only those services you cannot do yourself.

Having read the title of this week’s blog post, you’re probably thinking that either I’ve gone off the deep end or that I really don’t like traditional publishers at all. Or maybe you think I’m just a frustrated author who can’t get a publishing contract and has decided to foist his frustration on other writers.

First, let me set the record straight. I’ve had two publishing contracts, one from before self-publishing was even a viable option.

Answer true or false to the following:

1– A publishing contract, especially a contract from one of the Big Publishers, is the best thing for a writer.

2– If you land a publishing contract, your book will be in many or most bookstores.

3– Your publisher will handle most of the marketing.

4– You will make more money if you land a publishing contract from one of the major publishers than from one of the smaller publisher, and you will make considerably more than if you self-publish.

5– If do you choose to self-publish, you will pretty much eliminate your chances of ever landing a publishing contract with any legitimate publisher.


Before I get to the answers, let’s take a look at the book publishing business. We like to believe that all worthy books will get published, that most published books were worthy of publication, and that book publishers are the keepers of good literature, the latter meaning that publishers care about the quality of the books they publish. Decades ago, this might have been true, but today it’s not. Publishing is a business, which means that publishers must make enough money from overall book sales to stay in business. Take a look at the following articles.





The sad thing is that many good books go unpublished, not because they are not worthy but because publishers felt they wouldn’t generate enough revenue to pay for publication. I’ve heard on many occasions how publishers passed on books by some of their best-selling authors because the publisher had no clue how to market it or who to market it to. Sometimes they even liked the book. Many of these books, put away for years in the authors’ desk drawers, are now being self-published, many with good success.

Publishers want immediate return on investment. They are not willing to give a book much time to grab an audience. If it doesn’t sell well within a few months, it’s considered a failure and tossed aside. A number of books, now considered classics, didn’t sell well or were hated when first published.


It’s sad that today publishers treat books not as literature but as commodities to be sold. They don’t care what people think of the books. Their sole concern is whether the books sell.

Now, let’s go back to my little five-question quiz. If you answered “true” to any of those, you have not done your research on the current state of publishing. All of them are false. I’ll even go so far as to say that you’re not ready to be a serious writer if you believe any of them are true. Or at the very least, you are setting yourself up for a huge disappointment—especially if you believe #4 is true because I can almost guarantee that you have no chance of a career as a full-time writer.

I am not going to justify why the answers to these five questions are false. Readers of this blog will likely know why they are. Anyone who doesn’t know the reasoning should do the research. Trust me, it will be time well spent helping your writing career.

But I haven’t answered why the offer of a publishing contract should scare you. After reading the Kris Rusch article in the link below, I realized how very stupid I was back in 2003 when I signed my first publishing contract and how lucky I was that when the book went out of print I was able to get out of the contract and to get all of my rights back.


PLEASE read this article in its entirety. If it doesn’t have you shaking in your shoes at the thought of signing such a horrible contract with a major publisher, then you are probably not normal—or else you’re living in a fantasy world that you don’t want to leave.

The scarier part for me is that my first contract contained these egregious contract terms: the publisher was acquiring ALL world rights, the contract ran for the term of the copyright, the contract had an innocuous-sounding non-compete clause. Here’s how the offending clause read:

“Author shall not, without prior written consent of Publisher, publish or cause to be published or use any material in book form or otherwise, based in whole or in part on characters, names, places, events or other matter mentioned in the work OR that may limit or reduce Publisher’s sales of the Work or its disposition of any rights therein.”

Note the wording “in book form or otherwise” and especially note the “OR” that I purposely capitalized above). The clause does not merely restrict my use of material from the book IF it “competes” (whatever that’s supposed to mean). That “OR” is not an inclusive one, meaning use of material that competes. It’s an exclusive “OR.” It means that I not only can’t use material that might compete, but that the publisher could prevent me from using anything from the book anywhere. It says I can’t use the material without their permission. Period. This could include examples in blogs, even though those were not nearly as prominent on the Internet back then. Still…

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the clause ended with “Publisher’s reasonable determination made in good faith as to publications or uses within the prohibition of this section shall be conclusive and binding on the parties hereto.” That sentence means that THE PUBLISHER (not some court or nonpartisan committee) is the sole determiner of whether they consider the material “competing.” Yeah, I know that sounds paranoid, but it has happened in real life to some authors.

The contract also stated that the publisher could change the title of the work, make any additions, deletions, or revisions it saw fit.

The thing is that I did see the potential problems for me, but I was hungry for a publisher and excited that my novel would be IN PRINT. I signed it, believing that, despite the troubling contract terms, this kind-and-considerate publisher was merely protecting its own interests legally and would never be heavy-fisted enough to enforce the letter of these terms. Fortunate for me, they did not. One author, however, threatened legal action when they wanted to make some significant changes to a novel’s content that the author refused to do.

Now, had this publisher been one of the Big Guys today, that author would have had no recourse, and I would likely never have been able to get back my rights (at least not without having to pay to get them back). They could have, in theory, prevented me from using excerpts of my novel in my blog (something I do all the time), and they could have stopped Scott and me from publishing our Punctuation For Fiction Writers book, even though that book had nothing to do with the novel and no reasonable person would consider a punctuation book to be “competing material” with a science fantasy novel. Would a major publisher today have enforced those contract terms? It’s hard to say, but I shudder to think about the possibility of its happening. On top of that, a contract from the Big Guys might have included some nondisclosure agreement to prevent me from warning others about the trap I had fallen into. Yes, that’s been known to happen as well.

Or what if, prior to my novel going out of print, this publisher had been sold to another publishing house, one less friendly toward its authors, one that would enforce the letter of the contract?

For your dining pleasure, here’s another of Kris Rusch’s articles, the follow-up to the previous one.


I have great respect for Kris Rusch and the time she takes to prepare her extensive articles. As I’ve said before, you would be wise to subscribe to her blog.


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