Now, People, Let Me Put You Wise*

I don’t usually write personal posts. This is, after all, a blog about crime fiction (and sometimes, about writing), not about me. But if the story I’m about to share helps another writer, I consider that good enough reason to tell it.

It has to do with my second Joel Williams novel, B-Very Flat.  When I wrote it, I’d hoped it would be published by the same publisher who did my first novel, Publish or Perish. They didn’t accept it, which is, of course, any publisher’s right. So, I shopped B-Very Flat around.

I was thrilled (you know this feeling, don’t you, fellow authors?) when it was accepted for publication.  And it was made clear to me that I would not be expected to pay to have the book made available. To be fair, I was, in fact, never charged for having my book published.

At first, I was quite happy. Sales weren’t great (they rarely are for a ‘nobody’ author), but I wasn’t upset. Then, something started to happen. I started to get emails from the publisher, with all sorts of promotional things they were doing. And I noticed something. Everything they offered came with a fee. To put it another way, I was going to have to pay (and sometimes, quite a lot!) for anything other than pure availability and placement on the publisher’s website and on Amazon.

The other things happened. For instance, I discovered that, if I wanted B-Very Flat to be formatted as an ebook for the growing Kindle/Nook market, I was going to have to pay – a lot. And, because I was under contract, I was, of course, not free to do the formatting myself. This meant I lost out on a lot of potential readers. I went to my local branch of one our large book retailers, hoping they might carry B-Very Flat, and even allow me to do a signing/reading. They told me that because my publisher would not do a buyback of unsold copies, they wouldn’t carry the book, nor let me have an event there. I contacted the publisher, and was told they don’t do that, and that if I wanted their help arranging events, I could certainly get it. For a price.

For me, this meant that, in terms of face-to-face events, I was limited to very small, catch-as-catch-can opportunities to share my book. I got no promotional help from the publisher. I will say in all fairness that I could have taken advantage of their marketing emails, but each one came with a price.

The time came, as you can imagine, when I was a bit fed up with their unwillingness to do anything to promote my work unless I paid for it. I know that authors have to go to some expense for promotion (e.g. business cards, paying for a website, cost of personal copies of a book, and so on). I don’t object to that. But this particular publisher charged for even the most basic marketing things that any publisher should be doing as a matter of course.

My contract with the publisher ended last year. Instead of contacting me regarding my options (or, to be fair, I don’t recall such contact), the company automatically renewed my contract. That meant that I would have to either buy back my rights, or stay under contract for another seven years. That would be seven more years of a company doing absolutely nothing to make my book easy to find, easy to buy, and so on. I chose not to do that. I bought my rights back.

Thanks to talented Montréal artist Lesley Fletcher, B-Very Flat got a beautiful new cover. It’s got a new life now, and is available at an affordable price in both Kindle and paper format. So in that sense, I suppose you could say my story has a happy ending.

But it’s a cautionary tale. Trust me, writers, I know what it is to get that ‘phone call from a publisher. It’s so exciting! But please, take a lesson from me. Here are some things I wish I had done when I had the chance:

 

  • Get knowledgeable if you aren’t already about pricing structures. If your publisher isn’t going to make your book available to a wide audience at an affordable price, you’re not going to sell as well as you otherwise would. Yes, I know; it’s more complicated than that. But do understand the impact of pricing on people’s willingness to buy. That goes for format, too.

  • Find out exactly what the publisher will do in terms of promoting your book and making it easily available in several formats. You’ll have to do some of your own promotion, and you should be prepared for that. But your publisher should make it easy for readers to find you. And you shouldn’t have to pay for that. At the very least, you should be aware of what the publisher will and won’t do without a fee.

  • Be willing to say ‘no, thank you’ if the publisher is not going to support your work (see above). Yes, it’s hard to turn down a contract. But remember that once you sign on the dotted line, you must abide by the terms of the contract for its duration. That can mean you lose out on a lot of potential readers.

  • If you do sign a contract, and you discover that the publisher isn’t supporting you, start looking around as your contract nears its end (and keep that date somewhere where you won’t let it slip by). Don’t be afraid not to renew. Yes, it’s hard to have your book discontinued. But once you have the rights, they are yours. You can shop around again, or self-publish.

  • Cultivate a circle of creative folks in the editing/art design/technology businesses. If you do choose to keep your rights, you’ll be very grateful for professionals who can help you make your book stand out, and can help you get the word out to readers. I don’t know what I would have done had it not been for Lesley Fletcher and the other friends I’ve made in the business.

 

I learned some lessons the hard way. I hope I can spare someone else that. And, hey, B-Very Flat got a great new lease on life!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dion DiMucci‎ and ‎Ernie Maresca’s Runaround Sue.

52 Comments

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52 responses to “Now, People, Let Me Put You Wise*

  1. All sounds truly maddening but, at least, there was a happy ending, so congrats for that 😀

  2. If you’re looking for a good whodunit book consider reading Margot Kinberg’s B-Very Flat. This is a great book about a great mystery to be resolved.

  3. Keishon

    Glad your story had a happy ending, Margot.

  4. So much of this is familiar. I have a friend that just published his first book. The name on the spine of the book is his wife’s (the photographer). Now you can imagine that the book will be filed under her name and not his in libraries especially. They were unwilling to reprint them, of course.

  5. Sounds like the first publisher was more of a vanity press. So glad to hear it all worked out, Margot. It’s exciting venturing down a new path, one paved with endless possibilities.

    I’ll share my personal experience; maybe it’ll help someone. With my first publishing deal, I signed a horrible contract where the publisher demanded more rights than they ever intended to use. The release of print was also
    left up to when they felt like getting around to it (Marred took a solid year to release in paperback). So, after I’d signed the contract for Wings of Mayhem, I bought back my rights to place it with a different publisher who’d give me a definite print release. As it turns out, my first publisher is now my favorite publisher to date, even though I make a higher percentage of royalties with my second. Support is worth more to me than money. There’s nothing better than knowing your publisher is in your corner to help give you the best chance of success. Surprisingly enough, they even try to help me promote the book I took away from them, even though another publisher has the rights. As you know, that’s rare. Therefore, your comment about finding out what a publisher will and will not do is so important.

    As your post also clearly demonstrated, what it boils down to is this: knowledge is power. Without doing our homework about the publisher(s) we submit to, as well as knowing basic contract terms and potential pitfalls, writers can easily get taken advantage of with our big dreams. Incidentally, I was able to renegotiate my first contract before signing the second, for Cleaved. And that’s the other thing. It never hurts to try to renegotiate unfair or publisher-heavy terms, especially if said publisher wants the next book in a series. 😉 It might be the only time we have the upper-hand.

    Sorry for rambling on and on. This post hit home. Good for you for sharing your experience.

    • Thanks, Sue, for sharing your story with us. Ramble on all you want. Your experience shows just how important support from a publisher really is. Yes, of course, money matters. But I know just what you mean about a publisher being in your corner. Thanks, too, for sharing your idea about negotiating. It never hurts to ask, especially, as you say, when the author has something the publisher really wants. Even when that’s not the case, I think it’s important to be as empowered as possible. And, as you point out, that means being knowledgeable. It’s important to remember, as an author, that you’re not required to sign with a given publisher, accept a given term, etc.. right out of hand. The more informed and empowered an author is, the better able that author will be to find the right publishing situation.

  6. Margot, this information is disheartening yet invaluable for any of us who has dreamed of writing and publishing a novel! I’m so sorry you had to go through this ordeal. In an increasingly difficult publishing industry, it’s a tragedy that writers should be preyed upon! I’m glad the situation has improved for you with this book!

    • Thank you, Brad – on all counts. You touched on what I think is the biggest problem in some of the publishing world: authors are preyed upon by unscrupulous people. There are, of course, plenty of ethical publishers who do support their authors and help them succeed. After all, if the author sells well, that helps the publisher. But there are enough publishers who exploit authors that any author must be careful. And the best time to be cautious is before signing on the dotted line. That may mean more time being unpublished (always disheartening). It may mean more rejections (I’ve been there, too). But in the end, being careful pays off.

  7. Paddy Richardson

    Thanks, Margot, for your honesty in sharing your story with other writers. You are so right that it is exciting to have a ‘yes’ for a publisher. The problem is that the excitement can cloud a writer’s vision about what that ‘yes’ really means in terms of the contract. I’m so pleased you have managed to withdraw from this-and the new cover is wonderful. Good luck with the book!

    • Thanks, Paddy, on all counts. I really am fortunate that Lesley Fletcher was willing to put her talents to work. I love the cover, too. And you’re exactly right about how easy it is to lose perspective when you get that ‘yes.’ It can be very difficult to focus, and to understand what that contract is really saying and not saying. Writers have to advocate for themselves, and sometimes that includes stepping back and saying, ‘no,’ no matter how alluring that contract seems.

  8. What a cautionary tale! I was always wondering why the book was not available on Kindle (or in the UK at all), and now the mystery has been elucidated. I hope the book gets a lovely new lease on life with a gorgeous new cover. And thank you for sharing your lessons learnt!

    • Thanks for the good wishes, Marina Sofia. And, yes, that’s why B-Very Flat wasn’t widely available. It’s one of the many reasons I felt the need to get my rights back. If I can spare one writer all of this, it’s been worth it.

  9. How frustrating for you, Margot, and – unfortunately – not at all uncommon. It is refreshing, however, to see the number of publishers (and new authors) who are represented at major mystery conferences. There ARE good publishers out there; it’s unfortunate that you obviously hit one of the, er, not so good ones. Sounds like all’s well that ends well – I certainly hope that’s your case!

    • Thank you, Les. The whole thing really was frustrating, but, as you say, all’s well that ends well. And I appreciate the reminder that there are good publishers out there – ethical companies that want to support authors who write good books. I’m glad you mentioned the conferences, too. That’s one thing I would love to do is attend some of them. Budget constraints mean I can’t really do that now, but I hope to in the future.

  10. Indeed this is a cautionary tale…and a tough lesson to have to learn. I know someone in the music industry who has had a similarly disheartening experience so I suspect this kind of thing happens in multiple fields. It’s obviously not enough to be a good writer (or musician or potter for that matter) you have to know so much else too.

    • That’s just it, Bernadette. You do have to know a lot of things besides how to write/make music/throw clay pots, etc. It was definitely a difficult lesson to learn, but that’s part of life, too. And I’m not surprised that it’s similar in the music industry. There are always people out there who are ready to take advantage…

  11. Col

    Thanks for posting Margot. I’m hoping the dark days are behind you and better ones are ahead – in regards to your books!

  12. kathy d

    Thanks for publishing your story. It really is a cautionary tale.
    Your post should be must-reading for all writers seeking publishers.
    It is a dog-eat-dog world in publishing; money is at the core of it.

    And it’s so true more and more that publishers want to produce best-sellers and books by famous authors. It must be very hard for writers that are less known.

    Four friends have published books. They all do their own promotion. They have websites, Facebook pages, etc., all their own doing. The three fiction writers do their own promotion.

    The fourth, a former midwife, wrote about her experiences on the job and that book has caught on at midwifery courses, colleges, bookstores, women’s programs, etc. But that took a lot of work on her part and the help of other midwives, a lot of work.

    And now another friend self-published a book about the anti-Vietnam war movement and he is having to do all of his own publicity — everything.

    I sympathize with what happened with your book and contract. But you’ve liberated your book and can now do what you please. That’s the good part.
    So, best wishes in getting it to wider audiences.

    • Thanks for sharing your writer friends’ stories, Kathy. As you say, the world of publishing is a hard one, and publishing companies are interested in profit. So, for people who aren’t well-known and already selling a lot of books, it is very hard. And there are always companies who are happy to take advantage of that. But, as you say, I’ve got my rights to B- Very FLat back now, and I can chart my own course with it. And that is a very good thing.

  13. A fair warning to all writers, Margot. So sorry to hear you were caught up in such an awful thing, but very pleased to hear that you took positive steps to resolve it. Hope your book is a huge success!

  14. mudpuddle

    enlightening post; courageous of you to share… financial predators are becoming more prevalent as they progressively invade the smaller byways of human endeavor… because of overpopulation and increased competition?

  15. Glad to hear you managed to get your rights back! It’s like any other kind of contract – looks good till something goes wrong, when suddenly you find all the power is on one side. Although I think there are big advantages to getting a publisher, I can quite see the attraction of self-publishing and keeping control of what happens…

    • That’s just precisely it, FictionFan. Not to say that going with a publisher has to be a mistake. As Les says (See above) there are quality publishers out there. But there is something to keeping control of what you do. And yes, sometimes contracts hide a lot of things… Thanks for the good wishes.

  16. Thanks for sharing this, Margot. Wishing Very B-flat all success x

  17. Thank you for sharing this, Margot. It is a cautionary tale. I would add another note of warning: make sure you don’t let your publishers have your rights in perpetuity. Some publishers will try for this. Books don’t go out of print in the way they used to, because they can be available as e-books, giving publishers an excuse not to let the rights revert to an author (I know!).

    • Thanks so much for your addition, Christine. You’re absolutely right that it’s a mistake to get locked into a perpetuity contract. There are very good reasons to give yourself an ‘out’ after a certain amount of time. I appreciate your insights!

  18. So sorry this happened to you Margot. There are some dubious practices out there in the world of publishing. It’s such a shame.

    • Thanks, D.S. And you’re absolutely right. There are some dubious types in publishing, and it’s important for writers to be very careful with whom they deal.

  19. You have done many authors a great favour by sharing your experience. I’m glad you deviated from your regular posts for this invaluable information.
    My biggest red flag from one ‘publisher’, was getting a call on Christmas Eve, promising signings throughout the US. I suppose it was meant to close sales for the year and give ME a gift. Needless to say, I turned down the gift. All Indie, all the time!!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Lesley. More than that, thanks for your invaluable help and expertise. I couldn’t have done any of this without you. And that ‘offer’ you got sounds completely dubious. You were wise to say, ‘no.’

  20. Margot, I’m sorry you went through all this. It bugs me that you had to finally buy back the rights to your own book. Thanks for sharing your story and the publishing tips. I wish you and “B-Very Flat” all success. If and when my time comes to publish, I’m going to keep my eyes and ears open, and have a lawyer in tow.

    • I think that would be a wise idea, Prashant, I really do. And thanks for the good wishes. I wish I hadn’t had to buy the rights, too, but now I have them, and that’s what matters.

  21. I’m so pleased that your book now has a new lease of life along with its new cover and that it will be more widely available for those of us who would like to read it. Thank you for sharing what I’m sure is information any author with a book needs to know, a valuable post!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Cleo, and for your interest in my work. If you do get to read my stuff, I hope you’ll enjoy it. It’s been quite the journey, but I think you could say it ended well.

  22. I’m glad you posted – now I know to look out for the Kindle version. Thanks for sharing the advice. Hadn’t occurred to me that people would renew rights contracts automatically. “Going indie” has to be better!

    • Thanks for your interest in my work CC. And I wouldn’t have thought that contract would be automatically renewed, either. Well, I’ve got my rights back now, and that’s what’s important.

  23. Thanks for sharing this – I’m sure most of us don’t have a clue about these things. Well done for being so positive and persistent, I admire that.
    And – I just went straight over and bought B Flat on amazon for my Kindle.

    • Thank you, Moira – very much. I hope you won’t be too disappointed. And I am finding that perseverance is essential if you’re going to be an author. You have to have some faith in yourself, even on THOSE DAYS. Easier to write than do, but I get a lot of support, including from you.

  24. This is a very useful post, Margot. I won’t ever be publishing a book, but I am glad you shared your hard-earned knowledge with others who may need it.

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