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.