5 things to check before you sign that publishing contract

You pitched an agent or publisher and they want to sign you. Awesome! But are you really getting a good deal? Or are you throwing away all your hard work?

I’m happy self-publishing, but going to some writing conferences this summer I’ve been tempted to pitch my books to agents, just for the experience (and, who knows what could happen?)

However, before I pay to pitch a book, I’ll do a little research. These are the things that jump out at me:

1. Website

Go to the publisher’s website. Is it clean and professional? Well made? Easy to get around? Or does it look like a one person operation?

It’s easy to set yourself up as an ‘agent’ or ‘publisher’ these days – and it can be a really good business. Publish 100 books and you’ll probably be making some money. See how long they’ve been around. See how many books they’ve published. See who else works for them; who does the editing, formatting and book design. Check out how much experience they have. Check if they have an on-staff book marketer or social media strategist. Know who will actually be producing and marketing the book.

2. Covers

Are the covers awesome? I mean, truly amazing? If not, be extremely cautious. If they aren’t using their money to get quality covers (or worse, they don’t know what kind of covers sell books) that doesn’t bode well for your book’s success. Covers matter. Don’t eschew responsibility and assume it will work out.

3. Are their books selling?

This is a big one: check all the books they’ve published on Amazon. Do they have more than 10 reviews? A good sales rank (less than 1 million at least). If not, they may be producing good quality books, but they have no idea how to market them. Maybe you’ve actually gotten a good deal, if they are paying for the editing, formatting and book design (saving you thousands of dollars) but it doesn’t matter much if the book doesn’t sell.

4. Are they “hybrid publishers”?

This term should make you sit up and pay attention. It’s usually used positively, as in “the freedom and control of self-publishing, but the support and knowledge of traditional publishing.”

But here’s the thing:

A) Professional publishers won’t give you rope to hang yourself with. If they let you tell them how to design or format the book, they aren’t really that invested in producing the best quality product, which will hurt sales. Unless you are a professional book designer or marketer, find someone who knows more than you and trust them to be good at their jobs.

B) A traditional publisher makes money from book sales: they don’t charge anything up front. That means they are committed to making the best-quality product possible, because they need to earn their money back. That may be why they don’t give you as much control. But that’s a good thing. “Hybrid publishers” may charge you upfront for services. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad deal: publishing services cost a lot of money. If you pitch in, you mitigate their risks. The higher percentage they take of book sales, the more invested they will be in marketing it. But beware publishers who charge a lot (over $2000ish) for design and formatting… they are making money on the front end and may not care about how well the book actually sells.

5. What else can they do for you?

Traditional publishers can’t get you in bookstores; hybrids can’t either. Your book’s success will mostly depend on online ebook sales and reviews – but the easiest way to get a lot of sales and reviews is to give away the book or charge 99cents. You may feel like that’s an outrage, and you may be happy that your publisher needs to set the price higher so that they can get their cut… but after several months with zero sales and reviews, with your book dead on Amazon, and your publisher already onto new and more promising projects, you may start to rethink your stance.

The truth is there is too much competition, and unless your publisher is doing brilliant content marketing, building a genre specific email list, helping you build your amazing author website and boosting your optin offer, counseling you on social media strategy and long term book sales, you’ve basically signed away a big chunk of your sales in exchange for editing, formatting and design. Which, like I said, may actually have saved you a lot of money… but is also totally worthless if nobody is ever finding or reading the book.

Or should you self-publish?

I’m not saying publishing companies are worthless: they can be extremely helpful. But there’s also a danger in giving responsibility for your book over to someone else. And far, far too often, authors who sign with publishing companies learn years later that they should have paid more attention to their platform, built their own relationships with fans, and learned how to promote their book. I would say traditional publishing is potentially disadvantageous to the majority of authors, and that it is probably disadvantageous to you as well.

But it may be easier, and more comfortable, and it may save a lot of time, money and frustration.

Self-publishing is definitely not the easier choice. There is a lot to learn. There are many risks. You can fail: but at least the failures will be your own to learn from, and you’ll discover things and get better at being a professional author.

If you learn what you’re doing, self-publishing can be far more rewarding.

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