I’ve been at this publishing game for a while now—twenty years, seventeen books, six different publishers. From a writer’s perspective, it’s a complicated business. You may think your contract spells out everything related to your book deal, when in fact many details that can make or break your publishing experience won’t be covered in your contract at all.
That means you need to ask questions—lots of them, through your agent, if you have one, or directly if you don’t. Among the most crucial:
As an author, do you have to pay for anything? With the advent of digital publishing and print-on-demand (POD) technologies, publishers are springing up everywhere. They may vet submissions, but if they charge authors any fees at all, they are “author services” publishers who have little more clout in the marketplace than you would have on your own if you self-published. Weigh all factors carefully, especially your budget, before signing on with an author services publisher. Don’t overestimate sales—competition in the book market is fierce.
What will the cover price be? If your book is overpriced for the competition, it won’t sell as it should. A publisher can’t nail down an exact price until the details of the book are firm, but you should at least be able to agree on a range.
What services (editorial, design, publicity) are outsourced vs. provided in-house? There’s nothing inherently wrong with outsourcing, but you’re more likely to get an inferior editor, proofreader, designer, or indexer if the work is outsourced.
What’s the anticipated market for this book—and how does the publisher intend to reach it? You may assume your book will be sold in bookstores and purchased by libraries when in fact the publisher has no means of procuring shelf space or library sales. “Available” in bookstores only means that it will be in a digital catalog from which bookstores may or may not choose to order it.
Will the book be printed and warehoused, or will it be printed as copies are ordered, using print-on-demand (POD) technology? If a book is published using print-on-demand (POD) technology, Barnes and Noble won’t order for store pick-up—the title has to be shipped directly to the consumer. On the other hand, a POD book can be printed and delivered in minutes at Powell’s and other bookseller who’ve invested in the proper equipment.
What sort of marketing budget can I expect? As with the cover price, these details won’t be firmed up until the book goes into production, and they’ll shift as the market responds favorably (additional marketing money will appear in the budget) or with less enthusiasm (marketing will slow or cease). But based on your advance, the publisher has a rough idea of how much will be allocated to marketing—in general, the more that’s invested up front (your advance), the more the publisher is likely to invest in making sure it succeeds.
What types of contacts will the publicist/marketing specialist have? Publishing is a relationship business, and if your prospective publisher doesn’t employ a publicist with a broad reach, your book may be all but invisible in the marketplace. Believe it or not, I’ve run into marketing personnel who admitted to having no relationships with bookstore owners in a major market.
Who will distribute the book? How many sales reps? Publishers who aren’t signed on with major distributors will have a hard time getting your book into bookstores. Even if there is a distributor, you need to know how many sales reps will be out there promoting your book to retailers in the markets where it’s most likely to sell.
In what formats will the book be available—and when? Your contract will cover all rights—print, digital, audio, foreign—as well as rights to formats that have yet to be invented. But that doesn’t mean the publisher is going to make use of those rights. Ask about their plans for digital, audio, and foreign. If they’re sketchy, you might want to keep those rights for yourself, provided you know what to do with them.
For which awards will the book be submitted? The publisher will hedge on this question, deferring the answer to post-publication, when it’s clear how the book is being received. Nonetheless, you should have some assurance that award submissions will happen.
How financially stable is the company? Authors who published with the now-defunct Alaska Northwest Publishing know the importance of assessing a publisher’s financial stability before signing on.
How long is the book likely to stay in print with active distribution? Larger publishers will say this depends on how the book sells. Smaller presses keep their backlist in print for a long time, and they’ll often continue to distribute actively, which means you get more royalties—and more readers—over the long haul.
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon, between Astoria and Seaside.