What are the signs of a bad publishing contract?

Since Quora likes to collapse my answers in an effort to keep me quiet, I’m copying and pasting some of the Quora Q and A’s in which I’ve participated. Here’s a question from Quora.

Question: What are the signs of a bad publishing contract?

Answer: It depends on what the meaning of bad is….

If a writer is offered a contract from a traditional publisher — a major publishing company like Penguin, or even a smaller company like Baen — all contracts will be fairly standard; advances, 5 years service, 25% royalties from print copies, maybe 33% to 50% from e-book sales.

A writer will be offered a reasonable advance from a large company; the advance is based on the projected sales of the book over the course of 6 months, sometimes it’s longer, and even though the writer is generally contracted for 5 years, if the book does not sell, the publisher has a right to release the writer; that is the end of your career in the mainstream publishing industry, period.

A smaller company will offer a smaller advance, if they offer one at all, but they won’t usually cut a writer free for failure to sell, although they may choose to not renew the contract after 5 years.

There are other kinds of contracts, ones from presses who claim to be mainstream publishers or even indie presses, and they are not. Here are some things to scare a writer off.

If the publisher demands a fee, run.

If the publisher wants you to do anything more than write, run.

If the publisher wants you to crowdfund the money to publish your book, run.

If the publisher wants you to promote the books of their other authors, run.

Most “indie publishers” are little more than three people publishing through Amazon and CreateSpace anyway. You can do everything they do on your own and keep all your money.

I went through an indie press that seemed reasonable, but they then charged $7 for my ebooks; how in Hell was I supposed to sell with my prices that high?

They never got me any reviews, they failed to edit my work properly — the biggest no-no — and they even “lost” my contracts.

There are real indie publishers like Baen Books, Rocking Horse, and Edge, so if you’re unsure about the publisher you’ve approached, research the company; when were they established? How many employees do they have? Which books and authors have they published? Then, track down an author, through their website or Twitter, and talk to them. Ask them how they like working for that publisher.

The basic premise to stand by is the following: If you can’t land an agent, you won’t land a publishing contract with a real company. If you want to land a contract with a mainstream publisher, learn how to land an agent; they’ll do the rest for you.

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