It was bound to happen. With the boom of self-publishing and half of America convinced they're the literary genius of our times, scams become plentiful. Most writers have been trained to see these coming a mile away, but a new crop of "publishers" is making it more difficult for writers to sort out legitimate from leery.
It used to be the warning signs were obvious. Publishers asking authors to pay for their own editing, share in the publication costs, and charging them for everything from printing to postage. There are still folks out there writing these bad deals and you should still stay away from them. But there are some new terms of contract popping up you need to also look out for.
Here's my new list of warning signs.
1. Freelancer beware
Watch out for any contract that suggests your work is done as a freelance writer or work for hire. Read the contract carefully to make sure the publisher isn't trying to "buy" your work and pay you a set fee. This would basically terminate any rights you have to the work and would exclude you from selling any sub-rights or earning additional royalties. Never a good situation.
2. Long term contracts
First, make sure your contract has a time limit. Then make sure it isn't excessive. If a publisher owns the right to your work for the next 50 years, your hands are tied. This means even if they decide to take it out of print, you can't do anything with it. If your contract has a long term, make sure that there is an escape clause that grants rights back to you if the book goes out of print or sells very few copies.
3. Uneven payment scheme
Advances still happen these days, but they aren't as common as they used to be. The consolation prize of no advance should be higher royalties. Watch out for a contract that doesn't offer an advance, but still forces you to accept a lower royalties (generally below 10%).
4. The rights grab
A publisher asking for sub-rights isn't a bad thing in itself. For example, a publisher with a history of finding homes for audio, translations, film, tv, etc. may be the perfect way for you to maximize your books reach (and revenue). But keep an eye out for a publisher that is just blindly asking for everything with no plan. For example, there is no reason why an ebook only publisher needs your print rights. No Reason. They don't print. If you aren't sure if letting a publisher keep your rights is the right move, add in limits to the contract that protects you if those rights aren't utilized.
5. Hidden costs
It used to be that earning royalties on net was a sure sign that your publisher was a dirty rotten scoundrel, but this is becoming more common. And with the right stipulations, it can be fine. What you want is a clear definition of Net. You need to be certain that Net is limited to what the publisher receives from sales (minus returns). If you don't have this language, the publisher is able to add in any number of other expenses that can be deducted from the revenue before they calculate your royalties. When your payment statement shows up, there might not be enough money left over to send you a check.
These are just a few signs, but contracts have so many intricacies it would be impossible to list them all. Not to toot my professional horn, but this is why you need an agent. And if you decide to accept a contract without going the agent route, make sure you hire an experienced literary contracts lawyer to help you understand all the aspects of the contract. Even one poorly worded line can have a big impact on you and your novel.
Now it's your turn. Have you seen any rotten contract terms or warning signs you wish everyone could see. Share them below and help a writer out.