When I asked Josh Lanyon to be a part of this series I didn’t understand how seriously he took his responsibilities to help new M/M authors until I saw his post and realized how hard he must have worked, and how much time he must have spent putting this piece together. I know his horrific writing schedule and I’m amazed he managed to find the time for this article. For those of you who don’t know very much about Josh, I took the liberty of copying his bio off his site, which sounds very official:
A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author Josh Lanyon has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist.
Of course I would have used words like “awesome ” and “hot” to spice up this bland bio, but he made me promise not to change a single word, or he won’t be back. 🙂 However I can say that Josh offers M/M manuscript evaluations for authors who are looking for this service (and he didn’t pay one dime for this ad) 🙂 Josh’s book Man, Oh Man! Writing M/M Fiction for Kinks and Cash is available everywhere and if you’re an M/M author, or just aspiring to be one, this is a valuable resource that you can’t afford to be without.
Here, now, is Josh’s contribution to this series, and what a contribution it is. Thank you, Josh, for this very informative and helpful article which I know that authors everywhere will value.
Before we delve into what to look for in a publishing partner — and what to avoid — I want to point out that this post relates to niche publishing with small and indie presses. Much of what I’m discussing here is a non-issue in mainstream publishing.
With so many mini and micro-mini presses popping up in the m/m genre, it’s important to be clear about what you should be looking for in a publishing partner, including what publishers can offer that you can’t easily achieve on your own. We write for ourselves. We publish for others. Thanks to Amazon and the Kindle program, more and more authors in our genre are biting the bullet and becoming their own publisher — with varying success.
Enthusiasm, energy, and even experience as an author will only take you so far. Publishing requires its own skill set. The bottom line: we’re not all cut out to be publishers. Even our own publisher.
That said, a couple of the very best publishers I work with started out as self-publishers, and every week I seem to notice another author turned publisher. For these entrepreneurs, the old saying still goes. If you want something done right, do it yourself.
As one highly successful author/publisher put it:
My overall gripe is that I don’t think most e-publishers and their staff are professionals. They’re more like enthusiastic amateurs. And they’ll try to force weird things on authors like weird editing or horrible covers, and treat authors like they don’t know any better. Sometimes we do.
On the other hand, there’s no question that there’s a certain validation that comes from someone not related to you being willing to plunk down their own hard earned cash to publish your work. So much so, that as I think through this post I know that a lot of what I’m saying will fall on deaf ears. When your dream is to be a published writer, it’s very hard to turn down an offer to make your book a reality, even if you know in your heart you’re signing a less than favorable contract.
Guess what? That’s okay so long as you go into that contract with your eyes open. The fact is, our needs change throughout our publishing career. When you’re starting out, the imperative is simply to get published. Getting into print is often the next goal. As you move up the publishing food chain, you’ll find creative control and creative partnerships become more of an issue.
This might be hard to believe if you’re currently still unpublished, but no matter where you are in your publishing career, a publisher is not doing you a favor when he or she signs you. A publisher contracts your work because s/he believes it will appeal to enough readers to make it worth his investment. You contract your work to a publisher because you believe you will be able to reach more readers with the tools the publisher offers than you would be able to do on your own. Within that basic publishing paradigm there are the usual variables. I’ve signed with publishers because I wanted to work with a certain editor or writer or because I wanted to support a certain political or social cause, but most of the time I sign with publishers because I think I’ll make money with them. I’m a professional writer and I support myself with my storytelling. I’m in business, and my business is writing.
But the reasons that I stay with a publisher are more complex. I’ve been in the business longer than any of my m/m publishers have been around. Frankly, at this stage in my publishing career, I do expect to be treated differently than a first time writer. I expect to sell stories on proposals rather than completed manuscripts, I expect to have my occasional problems or questions treated respectfully and taken seriously, I expect to be kept up to date on changes regarding my book releases or anything else that specifically concerns me. In short, I expect to be treated like a valued equal. I expect to be treated like a partner.
I threw out the question What do you look for in a publishing partner? to my fellow writers and we came up with a wishlist. I think it’s interesting to note here that nearly all the writers I spoke to were mostly satisfied with their current publishers. When authors aren’t happy, they tend to move on. There are a lot of publishers out there. (There are also a lot of authors, which is why publishers with less than favorable business practices can usually survive for some time.)
Qualities to look for in a potential publisher:
This is both philosophy and attitude. The relationship between publisher and author is a symbiotic one. Neither can survive without the other. Yes, there is a never-ending supply of cannon-fodder-authors desperate to be published, but the best authors have multiple choices in publishers. You can tell a lot about a publishing house by checking out the current author roster.
And then contact some of those authors, past and present, and compare what they have to say. Compare. That means talk to more than one author. Ask them about such things as communication, transparency, accountability, integrity, and quality.
The clock starts on this one with your initial submission to the publisher. Come to think of it, it starts before that. It starts with the first time you check out the publisher’s website. Is it easy to find your way around their site? Are their submission guidelines clear? Is the submission process easy to follow? Are they easy to contact? Do they respond in a timely fashion? Are they courteous and professional? This is all the easy part. If you run into problems at this stage, chances are you’re going to have that failure to communicate throughout your publishing relationship.
Ironically, the inability to communicate effectively is one of the number one complaints authors have about their publishers. Things that authors would like to have communicated? Everything from being kept apprised on publishing schedule delays to information on how to market and promote their work.
Publishers that score highly on communication: Ellora’s Cave and Samhain. And the new kid in town, Carina Press, holds periodic and highly informative conference calls with their authors. Color me impressed.
To some extent we all have to take our publishers on trust. Which is why you want to ask around before you jump into bed with the first publisher who asks nicely. Yes, we can all call for accounting audits, but I’ve yet to meet an author who’s done so. There is a lot of lump sum accounting in this segment of the publishing industry. However innocent, it encourages inaccuracy.
A proper royalty statement should, at the absolute minimum, break down sales by vendor and by dollar amount.
Speaking of money, here’s a deal breaker in contract negotiation: royalties paid on net. The Author’s Guild (a highly recommended resource) is very clear on this one. Hold the line and do not sign any such contract. Royalties should be paid on gross or retail cover price. A very good explanation of why you don’t want to bend on this issue can be found right here:
A publisher, particularly an ebook publisher, who can’t afford to pay royalties on the retail price of a book is doing something wrong. You don’t have to take my word on it. There are many, many articles by those far more experienced and savvy than me.
When it comes to transparency in accounting, Loose Id does an especially good job. Their monthly royalty statements are probably the most detailed and easiest to read of any publisher I’ve worked with.
Publishing houses are made up of people, and people are fallible. Mistakes happen. Sometimes they’re little insignificant mistakes — imperfect copyediting — and sometimes they’re big ones — changing a book launch date and forgetting to let the author know. Authors don’t get it right all the time either. We miss deadlines, we ask dumb questions, we don’t like a lot of the cover art we see.
The goal is not to find a mistake-proof publisher, it’s to find a publisher who acts like a grown up when mistakes happen.
Or as author Angela Benedetti put it:
One important thing to remember is that everyone, and every business, does make mistakes. Don’t look for a publisher who never makes mistakes, because they don’t exist — look for a publisher who’ll respond quickly when a mistake is pointed out, fix if it can be fixed, or otherwise own the mistake and apologize for it, and try to do better next time. Same with anyone else you do business with — I don’t want to know whether they make mistakes, because everyone does. What do they do after they’ve made the mistake? That’s what separates the good businesses from the bad ones.
Among the publishers whose authors love them loudly and in public are Torquere, Dreamspinner Press, Amber Allure, and MLR Press. That kind of passion and loyalty from authors means something.
This is one of those tricky ones. How do you know if a publisher has integrity? Again, ask around. Talk to authors on the publisher’s roster.
One clue might be longevity. It’s possible to conduct bad business and still stay afloat for a certain period of time, but after a few years the word spreads and the bad business practices catch you up. A press that’s been around for a reasonable length of time — say five years or more — is probably doing something right.
Another clue is professionalism. Author Jess Faraday put it this way:
This is hard to judge until one has actually interacted with a publisher, but things that turned me off during my search included misspellings on the website, a bad website, poor articulation of policies, and lack of transparency in policies. After I did sub to BSB (Bold Stroke Books), I was impressed that they contacted me exactly when they said they would to the day, the contract was easy to read and they encouraged me to show it to an agent or lawyer before signing, and my editor and the marketing department contacted me within two weeks of acceptance.
A lot of publishers attend conferences and book fairs. Take the opportunity to observe them in action. See how they conduct themselves. How they treat readers and authors and other publishers. Do they play well with others?
A publisher who backstabs another publisher to you or discloses information about one author to another is a publisher behaving badly. You want to partner with professionals. Or, at the very least, grownups.
Two publishers I’ve worked with that have struck me with both their integrity and professionalism are Blind Eye Books and JCP Books. Lethe Press also has a solid reputation. And yet I don’t think BEB or JCP have passed their five year mile mark, so…it just goes to show that none of this is set in stone. You must take each publisher on a case by case basis.
This is one where it makes sense to listen to what readers have to say about a particular publishing house. Readers will be frank about things like cover art, copy-editing, ease of ordering in a way authors may not be — may not even be aware of.
A major key to quality has to do with how much a publisher is willing to invest in editorial staff. Editorial staff includes both content editors and copyeditors. Content editors are the editors responsible for acquiring work and developing authors. Finding the right content editor is one of the most important creative partnerships an author can form.
In mainstream publishing you rarely have authors serving as editors. There are several reasons for this, but one of the most obvious is that you don’t have to be a great writer yourself to understand, appreciate, and teach great writing. There are different skill sets involved and sometimes terrific writers, are not terrific editors. Or, let me put it this way: the best doctors are usually not also patients. Not at the same time, anyway.
Here in niche publishing, authors often pull double duty. I’ll just be frank. My preference is for editors who are not concerned with building their own writing careers and competing with me within a publishing house for promo dollars and shelf space. But I’ll allow that there are exceptions to any rule.
Copyeditors are a different thing entirely, but ideally they should have a rudimentary understanding of style and a decent background in literature as well as being trained in the rules of grammar and punctuation. In this genre, finding truly qualified copyeditors seems to be like the quest for the Holy Grail. I suspect that might be because they are often paid in books rather than cold, hard cash. There’s a reason that, despite all the cutbacks in mainstream publishing, big publishers still pay for copyediting. It matters.
In fact, you get what you pay for seems to be pretty much the golden rule of niche publishing. Hideous cover art, nonexistent editing, and house “style” manuals put together by people who apparently learned to write from eHow are all too prevalent here. Again, don’t take my word for it, listen to what readers have to say. They’re pretty vocal on the subject.
The closest I’ve seen to rigorous copyediting that meets mainstream’s standards would be Samhain Publishing. Granted, I haven’t worked with all of the publishers in this genre, but as I was surfing the net for this article I found my own experience to be backed up by what others had to say. Samhain’s copyediting has a terrific reputation with reviewers and readers.
And now a few thoughts in general about contracts:
I know this is hard. If you’re at the stage of looking over a contract, you want to sign. You badly want to sign. I understand and I sympathize. And here’s the sort of good news. Sometimes it makes sense to sign a bad contract. Sometimes the benefits of a bad contract will outweigh the negatives, but at least understand the implications of the negatives before you sign.
First and foremost: no matter what it is, get it in writing.
This can be awkward. I once signed with a start up publisher who I considered to be a good friend. We were both taking a risk, that was a given, but my friend promised several times in writing and verbally that if the day came, and I was unhappy, I would be released from the contract. The contract did not reflect this escape clause. I knew I should insist on it, but…we were friends. It seemed rude. It seemed untrusting to make an issue of it. I couldn’t imagine the day would come when I would be that unhappy.
I don’t need to tell you how the story ends.
Get it in writing.
We’ve already talked about being paid royalties on gross not net. Don’t take my word for it. Read the extensive information that’s out there. Please understand that in this, we authors must have solidarity. If too many of us are so desperate to see our name in print that we cave on this fundamental issue, we weaken the ability of all authors to make a decent living now and in the future. The publishing industry is in flux. At times it appears to be a war zone. Each time we fall back on one of these crucial negotiating points, we lose ground that is unlikely to ever be regained.
Don’t accept less than 30% royalties on ebooks. Mainstream publishers already don’t pay the royalty rates on ebooks that we receive here in niche publishing. They pay around half. It is not inconceivable that the day will come when one of our niche publishing partners proposes twenty-five percent royalties in exchange for…well, I’ll leave it to your imagination. Superior distribution? Greater marketing and promotion? I can hear it now.
It’s a slippery slope. Don’t take that first false step.
One of the single most important things to watch for in any contract you sign is a time line and end dates. Attaching timeframes and dates to the following points are especially important: how long the publisher can hold off on offering a contract — this pertains to having previously assigned the publisher first refusal to your next work or the next work in a series or featuring major characters from a previous work; how long the publisher can hold your contracted work without actually publishing it; and, most important, how long the publisher will hold your copyright to the work.
Mainstream publishers hold your print rights (and increasingly your ebook rights) for an industry standard of seven years. The trade off, the thing that makes it worth your while to hand your rights over for so many years, is that mainstream publishers are offering advances against royalties (yes, those advances are dwindling, but while five thousand dollars might be chicken feed to Stephen King, it still makes a difference to the rest of us) and doing actual print runs to get your books into brick and mortar stores. That’s significant revenue. A publisher using POD technology is not offering you a significant advance, is not doing print runs, and is not getting your books into bookstores in comparable numbers to a traditional mainstream press. You do not want to hand over your copyright for five to seven years to a publisher using POD. This is not to say that POD is not a perfectly valid technology or that publishers using that technology are not serious industry players, but it is not reasonable or fair for a publisher to demand the same rights without being able to offer the same advantages of a mainstream publisher.
If the book does well for you both, you’ll happily sign on for another year or three. If both partners are not happy, then it’s not an equitable arrangement. It is not a true partnership, and we should always be looking for partners in our publishing life.
One other thing on that first refusal clause — this is another one I learned the hard way. Exclusive options and first refusals are standard in mainstream publishing but it is also standard that the terms will be equal to or better than the original contract.
For example, Simon & Schuster’s contract reads: The Author grants the publisher an exclusive option to acquire the Author’s next (i.e., written after the Work) full-length work of XXXX for publication on mutually satisfactory terms.
And it gives them 60 days to make up their minds.
That “mutually satisfactory terms” is the key. An exclusive option or a first refusal or something similar that doesn’t include that phrase basically means the publisher has the right to acquire your next work on any terms they choose.
Now, that could probably be taken to court and argued, but who has time, money, or energy?
This is a non-issue for most of the publishers in our field whether they include that clause or not. In fact, in all my years of publishing, I’ve only known one publisher try to slip past a contract where the terms had been changed to less favorable ones. Since any publisher of integrity is not going to quibble on this point, I’d like to see it made standard in the contracts of all our ebook and indie publishers.
If PUBLISHER extends an offer of publication on the new work, it shall be on terms no less favorable than in this Agreement. If PUBLISHER does not accept for publication this additional WORK within 60 days of submission, it will be considered refused and the AUTHOR will be free to market rights to the new WORK without encumbrance.
Better yet, I’d like to see the first refusal option waived as Carina Press is doing.
There are other points to be discussed and debated, but this blog has run long as it is. I hope all this information will prove useful to you.
I should say at this point that while this post has focused inevitably on a lot of negatives and things to be wary of, I personally have very few complaints about almost any publisher I’ve worked with. By en large my publishers are great to deal with and seem to care just as much about the quality of the work as I do. I love my editors and I feel that I have done better working through publishers than I’d have done on my own. I appreciate the fact that my publishers are willing to invest in me and my work, and I like to believe that our relationship has been equally satisfying and rewarding — which is what partnership is all about.
Josh Lanyon’s Contact information