I’m going to do something a little different on this week’s blog about selling books, and give y’all a cautionary tale (and maybe some links to more) and some tips on how to avoid getting ripped off by a crooked publisher, or some signs on how to tell that your publisher is in over their head and you might be in for some problems.
This is spawned by the current arrest and charges filed against the owner of JK Publishing in Colorado. According to this article and others I’ve seen, she is accused of defrauding authors of over $125,000 over two years. She ran a small erotica and romance press, and apparently fudged royalty reports to pocket a greater share of the money, leaving her authors screwed. She’s also accused of lying on her taxes to a degree significantly greater than just the garden-variety lying on taxes.
This gives all of us, authors and publishers, a black eye. It makes the whole business look shady. Just like when an NBA ref got caught shaving points it made all referees for all sports look bad. Anything that touches a situation like this comes away dirty. I hope there is a way that the authors can get what was rightfully theirs, but let’s face it, they’re probably screwed.
So what can you do to keep from getting screwed? After all, it’s not like there’s any licensure required to open a small press. All I had to do was file the LLC paperwork, pay the state a couple hundred bucks to incorporate, and away we went.I didn’t take a class. I didn’t get certified as anyone who was qualified to publish books. I just decided to expand my personal publishing efforts to help other people get published, and hopefully make enough to cover costs along the way.
So you can’t examine someone’s license, but you can examine the person. You can examine the contract they are offering. You can examine their website (which you didn’t want to do for the first several months that Falstaff Books existed, because it was hot garbage. Pure 100% dumpster fire. But now we have a wonderful web guru Erin, and she makes us look good.). You can examine the covers on the books they produce. You can look at their sales ranking on Amazon and see if they’re moving any books. You can read reviews of books they publish to see if they are full of typos.
You can also check places like Preditors & Editors and Absolute Write. These are peer-review sites of the most grass-roots. They’re message boards, and places for people to air grievances, but in the case of a very small press, they might not be very useful. So you need to contact a human.
Here’s a case in point. When I signed Michael G. Williams to a couple of contracts, he sent them out to be reviewed by third parties. Michael and I are friends, and have been for several years, and that has nothing to do with the fact that he was 100% right to get the contracts looked at. Darin Kennedy is one of my best friends, and we revised his contract several times before we were both happy with it. It’s not personal, it’s business.
That doesn’t mean be an asshole to your friends because you don’t like the contract, but it also doesn’t mean you should sign a bad contract just because your friend is offering it to you. Or because it’s a friend of a friend. Or whatever. Every contract is a negotiation. Both parties want different things, and the whole point of the contract is to outline everyone’s expectations and get them down on paper, so you can still be friends after you’re finished doing business. So be pleasant, but be firm.
What are some warning signs in contracts?
Well – the contract needs to be very specific about what rights it is asking for. Our contract at Falstaff is for ebook, print, and audio rights. We don’t ask for graphic novel rights, because I don’t have a way to sell them. We only ask for English language rights, but we do ask for worldwide English language rights. I can’t get stuff translated, but we can sell all over the world through the distribution channels we use. We don’t do film or TV rights, because I can’t sell them. If an author sells them, good on them. Hopefully it will sell a lot more books, and we’ll both get paid that way. Other publishers may have better ways to sell those things, so they may ask for those rights. If you don’t want to give them up, negotiate. But it needs to be clear.
When you get paid needs to be very clear. And the first time a publisher is late with a payment, you need to be concerned. We pay quarterly, but I give myself 60 days after the end of the quarter to pay. That means that I’ve paid First Quarter royalties, and we’ll pay Second Quarter royalties sometime in August. I definitely want to get those sent out before Dragon Con, so they money will likely go out mid-month instead of taking the full 60 days to pay people. That also gives me a buffer in case anything gets goofy with the mail or PayPal.
Rights reversion is a big thing, and you want a contract to define what is “out of print.” Technically, ebooks don’t ever go out of print, so you want a rights reversion clause based on sales built into the contract. We didn’t have this in the first Falstaff contract, but our newest version does. We’re learning. As more authors negotiated with us, we realized that it should just go in the contract.
But vetting a small press can be tough, A lot of it eventually is going to come down to trust. Meet people. Talk to people. I prefer to do business with people I know, because I’m old-fashioned and would rather operate on a handshake. I won’t, because I don’t live in that world, but I still like to know the people I work with. You should too. If you want to publish with someone, ask around about them. Dig a little. Somebody knows these people. And it’s entirely possible that the publisher has been great, but shit fell apart and they stole from the business to get themselves by. When that happens, you can’t predict it. But you can be vigilant about it. If you have two years of royalties at one level, then there’s a significant dip the next, ask why. If you’ve released a book that appears to be doing well, but your royalties haven’t increased, ask why.
And if your publisher doesn’t respond, that’s when it’s time to get pushy. I don’t mean respond within an hour, because people do have lives, and there are times you just don’t have reception (like most of last Sunday for me). But within a couple days, certainly. If you ask a money question, and haven’t gotten an answer in a timely fashion, there might be something wrong. People don’t like to talk about money, and they certainly don’t want to talk about bad things having to do with money, but you must keep a handle on your money, because it is your livelihood.
So get your work out there, but don’t get screwed. And it’s a lot harder to screw over somebody once you’ve looked them in the eye than it is someone that you’ve never met or even spoken with before. So meet people, Skype with people, talk to them on the phone. Humanize them, and become a human to them. It’s a strong negotiating method.