Emily Suess Talks About Self Publishing Contracts

Today, I am happy to share a guest post from Emily Suess. Emily is a freelance writer in Indianapolis, and has done extensive research regarding one company that offers contracts to self publishing. When I think “self publishing” I don’t think “contracts” at all. Instead, I envision needing help from a range of independent service providers – a freelance editor, a proofreader, a graphic designer, and maybe a layout specialist. Or, if there is no budget, investing the time to learn how to do a lot of things, finding trustworthy beta readers, and taking the plunge by putting a product out there. 

For some people, all of that is too much to contemplate. So, those folks work with companies that facilitate the whole process. They operate much like a traditional publisher would, but the writer has to pay up front for services. Frankly, I don’t understand making that choice versus finding and hiring individual professionals, but to each his own. 

If you are considering working with such a company, please heed Emily’s words of wisdom! 


How to Vet Self-Publishing Contracts

First, before I get into the good stuff, I have to get my disclaimer out of the way: Don’t take any part of this post as, you know, actual legal advice. Although my parents think I’m kind of brilliant and I passed the LSAT once, I never went to law school.

Instead, take what I’m about to tell you as friendly advice from someone who’s done a lot of digging on the subject of self-publishing, from someone who has interviewed more than a few authors with harrowing tales of being ripped off by sketchy self-publishing companies, and from someone who has spent a lot of time talking to reputable pros in the industry.

The Million-Dollar Self-Pub Question

The question I get asked most often is: Where should I self-publish my book? I’m glad to give a few recommendations for places to start, but honestly? I can only guide your search. I cannot answer this question definitively for anyone.

Policies change, companies get swallowed up by other companies, and just because your best friend had a wonderful experience with a company doesn’t mean you will. Signing the wrong contract can leave you broke and miserable with no way out. And as horrible as some self-pub companies are, if you sign a contract you didn’t read, you deserve whatever misery comes to you.

Sound harsh? Good. Because I’m not joking around here.

Vetting Self-Publishing Contracts

So, like I said, I can’t pick your company for you. However! If you’re overwhelmed by the self-publishing choices out there and need some tips to help you separate the wheat from the chaff, I can help with that. I’ve outlined some of the big-ticket things to look for early in the vetting process.

Note: If you can’t even get the company to give you a sample contract, mark them off your list immediately. And never, ever pay a dime for anything—even add-ons—without getting an agreement in writing. I don’t care how nice the sales person or how pleasant the experience so far.

Signs of a Crummy Contract

  • It’s only one page long. Things like rights, terms, termination, fees and clearly defined services aren’t something you can spell out in a couple of short paragraphs.
  • It grants all rights to the publisher. As the author of a work, the last thing you want to do is sign over all the rights to your book. The rights you do grant to the publisher should be limited to print and electronic in most cases, and they should have a set termination date. You can always sign a new contract later, but it’s hard to get out of a contract that never ends or one that renews automatically.
  • It requires you to pay for production files if you leave. The shadiest outfits make you pay to leave. Even though you paid the self-publishing fees upfront precisely to have them format your book, they charge you again (some of them $750 or more!) to email you the PDF document they already created when you decide you’re unhappy and want to publish elsewhere. Companies with these clauses have no motivation to do good work, because they make plenty of money even if they piss you off.
  • It requires you to pay the company’s court costs if there is a lawsuit and you lose. More money buys better attorneys, so who do you think is more likely to win a case if you do have a legal dispute with your self-publishing company? Little old you? Or a multi-million dollar company with a law firm on retainer?

Reading the Fine Print

Now, just because you’ve found a couple of contracts without these requirements doesn’t mean it’s time to sign on the dotted line. It just means that you’ve narrowed your choices, tossed the truly crummy businesses aside, and made it possible to focus on a more thorough vetting of self-publishing companies.

Read the remaining contracts a few times. And run through all the possible scenarios. If you only sell 4 books, how much money will you be out? Can you afford the costs without draining your life savings or whipping out that pretty plastic card? No? Then walk away.

Finally, if there are terms in the document you don’t understand, pay a real attorney to give you a professional opinion. Shoot, even if you think you know everything, hire a lawyer anyway. Don’t risk getting suckered by one of the scammy outifts.

But Emily, that sounds like it costs money and will be so much work. I just want to publish this thing and be famous already!

If that’s how you feel, go to Kinko’s or Staples or something and print a few copies on 20-lb. copy paper.

No, seriously.

Emily Suess is a freelance copywriter in Indianapolis. She writes about self-publishing and freelancing on her blog, Suess’s Pieces. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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