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Hindsight is always 20-20. At the time we were confident we would sell fairly easily. We would have made a loss by accepting that initial offer, so we chose not to sign the contract.
In the end, we lost even more money.
This was a pretty clear case of "should've accepted that contract."
It led me to ponder another time when I turned down a contract - this time, for a novel.
I'd written my first book, a Young Adult fantasy. After studying Sally Stuart's Christian Writers Market guide, I formed a plan of attack. My first strategy was to use a paid service called "The Writers' Edge". Their editors functioned as a bit of a screening service in lieu of an agent. They read the synopsis and first couple of chapters, and if they thought the book and writing were saleable, they compiled a digest of successful submissions with a short blurb of each book and mailed it out to all the major and minor publishing houses in the CBA.
I had one request from a well-respected house as a result of this, but the house ended up passing on the book. Then, a couple of months later, just as I was getting ready to move onto Step B (find an agent), I received an email from another editor requesting the full manuscript. I sent it off, and within a few weeks, their response landed in my inbox. They loved the book! They wanted to offer me a contract!
I think I may have screamed. I was giddy with excitement. This was it! The moment I'd dreamed of since I was a kid! I was going to be a published author. This offer was everything I'd ever wanted.
Or was it?
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What's more, as I scrolled through their stable of authors, I saw the book covers were too. They had the clumsy and unprofessional feel that so often screams "self-published!" - no design finesse whatsoever.
Red flags started to go up. Clearly this publishing house didn't have much of a budget behind it, or perhaps they just didn't have the marketing experience to realise that their cost-cutting covers would be an instant turn-off to a large portion of their consumers.
As I dug a bit further, I learned the house was a fairly recent start-up, and while it was a "traditional" house in the sense that they did pay their authors royalties (and didn't charge the author any money, like a vanity publisher would) they were operating under what was at the time a relatively new model, Print on Demand.
I didn't know anything about how this worked, so I told the editor I'd have to think about his offer, and began asking questions. In the meantime I booked in to my first overseas writing conference (Mt Hermon Christian writers) where I picked the brains of as many smart people as I could find - and being a writing conference, there were smart people everywhere. I talked to Sally Stuart in the flesh, as well as some highly respected agents and editors, asking them all what they thought of the Print on Demand model. Here's what I learned:
- Print on Demand allows publishers to remove the risk from publishing. They sell the book first (on Amazon or other online stores), THEN print a copy of the book and ship it. This allows them to totally side-step the huge financial outlay of a large print run that may or may not sell.
- Implication: because the risk to the publisher is virtually non-existent, POD publishers will accept books that other publishers wouldn't look twice at. This is great news for authors of speculative or experimental fiction who might struggle to find a publishing home elsewhere. However, traditional publishers are very good gatekeepers - their money is on the line, so they'll only publish a book if they think it has an excellent chance of success. This carefully curated standard of quality builds trust with readers. In the POD marketplace, the bar is set a lot lower, and trust is unproven.
- POD is a more expensive mode of printing, so retail prices are correspondingly higher. Many POD books price themselves out of the market.
- Traditional bricks-and-mortar bookstores won't stock POD books. Sales are online only - and with the flood of self-published titles, this is a saturated market for a new author to break into.
- Small budgets mean less professional covers. How do you get a shoddy-looking cover on an overpriced book to stand out online amid a sea of quality offerings from mainstream publishers?
- Marketing is on a similar cost-cutting scale - i.e., virtually non-existent. All in all, it's a recipe for very low sales. Publishers make up for this by acquiring large quantities of books, in order to make a little money on a lot of books, instead of a lot of money on a few. This only compounds the issue of quality.
A caveat: POD can be done well, in its way. Marcher Lord Press is one house that has risen above some of these issues. Their cover art is typically of a much higher standard than other POD houses. Their books have garnered a series of respected awards in the industry. MLP was established to fill a niche - Christian speculative fiction. They've succeeded in their mission to bring new speculative voices to the market, and in so doing have helped many genuinely talented authors get their books into the hands of readers. On the downside, sales are predictably low. They are upfront about this. On their website we read: "Marcher Lord Press titles will probably not sell in high numbers. A traditional Christian publishing company might sell 5,000 units of a novel and call it an abject failure. Marcher Lord Press might sell 300 units of a novel and call it a bestseller." (You can read more about their publishing model here.)
For the record, MLP is NOT the house that offered me the contract, nor have I ever pitched to them.
As I gathered information from various sources, however, the picture became increasingly clear to me. I was fortunate enough to gain agent representation as a result of attending that first conference, and my agent thought my book had a good chance of success with mainstream publishers. She advised me to turn down the Print-on-Demand contract. I knew that, for me, this was the right decision.
So... have I ever regretted that call?
That novel remains unpublished to this day. I could have been a published author many years ago had I accepted that first contract offer.
For me, though, that wasn't the point.
I'm not in this for the "status" of a published book under my belt. I'm trying to build a long-term career. That one published book, done badly and with poor sales to show for it, could have done far more damage to my career than remaining unpublished for a longer time.
On the flip-side, the process of shopping my novel - while ultimately unsuccessful - led me to create some good rapport with editors who went into bat for my book and want to see more of my writing in future. That's an invaluable opportunity.
Everyone's goals in publishing are different. For some, it's enough simply to be in print. For those people, Print on Demand may be a perfect fit. Similarly, if what you're writing is edgy or experimental, and marketing departments throw up their hands in dismay at the very thought of trying to classify it, POD may be your big chance to break in and find your readership where the door would otherwise remain tightly closed to you.
For me, though, POD was just not a good fit with my long-term goals.
Here are some other reasons you might look twice at a publishing contract:
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- The editor wants you to change aspects of your book that you feel strongly are crucial to the novel's integrity
- The house publishes material such as occult or erotica that conflicts with your worldview
- The publisher is a very small press with a track record of poor sales, and little to no budget for cover art or marketing
- The house is well established in other genres, but has no proven track record in your genre and is taking a gamble on their ability to promote your book successfully to a new demographic.
Some of these may be important to you, others less so. To some degree it's all relative to how much of a chance you believe you have with a bigger press or a different house.
It's never easy to say "no" to a contract - believe me, I sweated bullets over it. When you say no, there's no guarantee that another offer will ever eventuate. I'd held the dream in my hands and I was choosing - CHOOSING - to let it go.
But once it was done, I felt nothing but relief.
Turning down a contract on our house may have been the wrong decision, but I've never regretted my decision to turn down that book contract.
Your say. Would you have taken that contract, or turned it down? What are you looking for in a publishing house that might influence your decision to say yes or no?
A publisher has offered you a book contract. Here's some good reasons to say no: Click to tweet
There are good reasons for turning down a publishing contract. Find out what they are: Click to tweet
This author turned down a book contract she'd waited her whole life for. Was it the right call? You decide! Click to tweet
Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after three small children, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website and Twitter.