My Publishing Nightmare – the story of a book deal gone bad (Part 1)

This is the story of how bad things happened to an author. Me, as it happens. I was naive, disorganised, and arguably lazy with how I sought to get my novel published, but ultimately I don’t think that excuses the bad things.

The short version is that I got stuck with a publisher who wasted my book’s chances of success but refused to release the rights back to me, became rude and aggressive, breached the (badly written) contract repeatedly, and eventually I had to take costly legal action to recover the rights.

All this does mean that other writers can avoid my fate. I owe it to fellow writers, in particular those who want to be published, to tell the story.

So, if you want to skim, as this is quite long (and part one of three) things I did wrong are in block capitals, and advice/lessons from my experience are bulleted.

I actually wrote the first part of this sorry tale as a blogpost a couple of years ago, and since so much time has passed, and the site on which it was published now closed, I’ll reproduce most of the original article here, with a bit (OK, a lot) more detail on the background.

It begins back in 2011, when I saw an article in a newspaper about National Novel Writing Month. As it happened, a few days before I had stumbled across an idea that I thought would make a great novel. I had attempted to write a novel a few times before, but each attempt had ground to a halt before I had got far. NaNoWriMo at least seemed worth a try. I threw out the approach I had intended, of deep and meticulous research into the events that inspired the novel, and decided to just write it, based on what I already knew and could research in the time. It was a liberating decision. A month later I had just over 50,000 words. A few months after that it was up to 75,000 and a completed first draft. I sought out beta readers, mostly from a forum I’d found that was devoted to the genre.

(In fact, the book was really straddling two genres, slightly uncomfortably, and this would remain a problem for it. One of many things I should have got on top of but didn’t).

…The readers gave useful feedback and I rewrote the text, ending up with 82,000 words of what I considered to be a final draft. It was around 7-8 months since I’d started work on it. I thought the time had come to try and get the thing published.

I’ll leave a space here for the intakes of breath and the laughter. Yes, it was ridiculously naive. But I had mostly been writing alone until this point and didn’t really know the right questions to ask, let alone who to address them to. I didn’t really know what literary agents were for, the difference between indie and trad publishers… I had no community of other writers to unpick all this with. (A bit later I discovered the Word Cloud, sadly now defunct, but more than adequately replaced by the new Den of Writers –, an online writing community. This plugged me into a network with all the knowledge and experience about the writing craft and getting published that I could have hoped for, but it came too late for me).

  • You needn’t do this alone. There are communities of writers out there, formal and informal, who are only too pleased to help you get your writing to a publishable state and then give advice on, and support you through, the next steps. There are courses like the Self Edit Your Novel course run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

In short, I had no idea what I was doing. Any publisher is good, right? Any ‘being published’ is better than ‘unpublished’, right?

Reader – I didn’t do any of the things that you’re recommended to do before submitting your book.

Through the genre forum mentioned above, I had discovered a small publisher in another country that specialised in that genre. I read a couple of their books and liked what I saw. They seemed passionate and professional. My first thought was that if they didn’t want to publish my book, no-one would. Equally, if they couldn’t sell my book to readers, no-one could. So I sent it to them. I did this rather than study the market, learn about different kinds of publisher, weigh up the pros and cons of trying to engage an agent rather than going to a publisher directly, or looking in detail at the record and reputation of this particular publisher.

In fairness, I was still vaguely expecting to do all that. It’s just that I thought the publisher was such a perfect fit that sending straight to them would circumvent all the usual hard work. And even then, what I found out about the publisher seemed good. They made claims for their association with major book retailers. They had helped one of their authors out of an unsuccessful deal and republished their book, for example. I wasn’t to know, but the publisher was about to change hands, and the founder, who had done so much to make a success of it, would no longer be running the show.

The first warning sign, albeit tiny and hardly unusual, came when the six-week response period came and went without any word. Ah well, I thought. It was worth a try. And here, a second mistake compounded the first. I came across another publisher that I thought might be a good fit. This was actually a non-fiction publisher I had some familiarity with, that was going into fiction publishing. Once again without doing any real research, I sent in three chapters. They quickly asked to see the full manuscript. I hadn’t heard anything from the first publisher, but as I hadn’t had an actual rejection, I thought I would at least send them a note saying that another publisher was interested. It’s only courteous, after all.

The first publisher immediately replied and said they would like to offer me a contract.

Wow, right?

They sent over the contract, which they informed me was ‘pretty standard’. It included material around traditional publishing, but was basically for print-on-demand and ebook publishing.

I didn’t do any of the things that you’re recommended to do before signing a contract.

Didn’t join the Society of Authors, didn’t get any independent advice. I read it in detail. It looked OK. I signed.

  • Here’s the thing. Of course you should have the contract checked out. It’s not rude or self-important to do that. Ask other writers you know who’ve been offered contracts, discreetly if necessary. Read up about it. If the publisher is in another country, this is a huge deal. Conventions around contracts differ wildly between different legal jurisdictions. Things are phrased differently, and the same phrase can mean two different things in two different countries. Organisations like the Society of Authors can tell you what to look for. Ultimately they won’t say ‘this is a bad contract, walk away’ but they will highlight areas of concern, areas where you might have trouble later on. If you get a contract through the post giving you a date by which you must return it, or insisting you send it back, signed, by return of post, DO NOT DO THIS. Take the time to do it properly. If you lose the deal through taking a couple of weeks to sign, then you have had a lucky escape.

Of course, if you have an agent, then you have someone in your corner working to make sure all these things are in your interest, but having an agent isn’t essential to getting a decent contract.

Please, please do your homework. And if a publisher acts sloppily or unprofessionally in their very first contact with you (e.g. if they say they will tell you yes/no within six weeks and don’t), it’s OK to ask if they are the right people to handle your precious book.

The problem is that little voice. The one that says this is an opportunity to be published. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? How bad can it be? They want the same things as you, right? To sell squillions of copies and rake in the cash when Hollywood comes calling?

Thereafter, there were a few things I wasn’t happy with. After a fair bit of early communication with the editor, where I was asked for my input on lots of things such as the cover design, and whether there was another author who I’d like to provide a cover quote, communication dried up. Months went by. All my emails went unanswered. I phoned the editor in the other country to ask why. What emails? was the response. This should have set alarm bells ringing, but by then I was not in a position to walk away, and people are busy, right?

There was a lot of waiting around. This isn’t unusual in publishing, and I wasn’t unduly worried. I sent the manuscript to an author who I’d admired for many years, and he read the book, offered some comments, some pretty tough but useful crit (oh goodness, was the book even finished? What was I thinking sending it in to a publisher in that state?) – and, most importantly, a cover quote. I eagerly sent this to the publisher, and heard nothing.

But the waiting, and the lack of communication, went on. In fact, it was starting to get around to the time when rights would automatically revert to me if the book was not published. I started to believe that the book would not come out. But at least I would get my rights back.

  • There is inevitably a lot of waiting around at this stage, but your publisher should still be in touch with you. If you start to feel you’re being ghosted, something is wrong. It isn’t rude to pester. If there are things you want to know or comments you want to make, don’t leave it until it’s too late.

And then, virtually out of the blue, by this stage, I was sent a proof of the text, and an instruction to check and return it as soon as possible. I can’t remember the time I was given, but I think it was 48 hours. I dropped everything and studied the text, now so overcome with excitement that I ignored all my previous concerns. Given my previous experiences, I didn’t know whether this meant publication was imminent or if radio silence would resume. My experience of non-fiction publishing suggested that there were a couple of months to go. A bit of time to prepare, then.

Then a couple of weeks later, I got an email from the editor saying ‘your book is out’.

What? Just like that? OK, it was one thing that there was no fanfare, but there was no time to do any preparatory marketing, no time to create any interest, to send advance review copies out, no time to line up blogposts or interviews. I understand that getting relatively little warning isn’t all that unusual for a small press, but to get no notification of the publication date at all?

The cover design was poor. To be fair, most of the people I’ve spoken to about it didn’t think it was that bad, as people generally only glance at book covers. It was dull in terms of colour and interest, and on closer inspection, involved a photoshop job so clunky that anyone with even moderate skills could have done better in ten minutes. It was not the kind of thing that would appeal to anyone really, but particularly not fans of the main genre, or those of the genre the book slightly crossed into.

I was quietly horrified.

  • If cover design is important to you, make sure you research the covers of prospective publishers first before signing. If any of them look bad or amateurish to you, you have to assume that yours will. I later found out that one of the better covers from that publisher had been commissioned and paid for privately by the author because they weren’t happy with the one the publisher had provided. I wasn’t even given that choice, but no author who isn’t self-publishing should have to pay for their own cover.

The cover quote from the established author I had successfully obtained was nowhere, not on the book itself nor the publicity materials (which consisted of a design for an A5 flyer, a postcard and a bookmark). I was upset about this as it put me in a bad place with the author, and missed a big opportunity to lend his name to the marketing. As well as this author being well known in the genre, he was very well known in the area I grew up, and I was told by one bookshop there that they would have undoubtedly sold a lot more copies if it had had the quote on the cover.

I wasn’t ready to start marketing my book. I didn’t know how, or where to start to find out how. I was shutting the stable door when the horse was a tiny, receding dot on the horizon

The publisher didn’t do a great deal to market it. Not nothing, but not much. My book didn’t even go onto the front page of their website when it launched, because it was being published under a new imprint and was tucked away in a subsidiary part of the site. (The publisher soon lost interest in that imprint, and didn’t really seem to know how to market the books published under it.)

I asked them to send some review copies out, but didn’t really know where to send them. I hadn’t done much research into this, and by now it was too late to do very much. Most review sites want copies before the book comes out, and if you only start sending out review copies on publication, they will come out in dribs and drabs and create no ‘critical mass’ of information in the eyes of potential readers.

  • Even with larger publishers, a big chunk of the marketing activity will fall to the author. This means you have to be ready when the book is published. Obviously the publisher should give you help and guidance, but it doesn’t hurt not to rely on them. Find marketing tutorials online, maybe a course, and start identifying the bloggers and review sites you would like to review your book. If you start when the book comes out, it will be too late.

The main genre society received theirs, and produced a reasonably good online review (website only, not in their magazine, unfortunately) but another site with a potentially big audience didn’t receive their copy. I chased this up with the publisher, who said they would not send another copy (ebook) as each one cost them money. I contacted a number of shops with a connection to the subject matter and persuaded them to stock some copies, only to be told by the publisher that they wouldn’t distribute them – if I wanted the books in those shops, I’d have to buy them at cost price. I couldn’t really afford to, but could I afford not to? I bought the books, and sent them to the shops on a sale-or-return basis.

  • Again, do your homework. Check how many review copies the publisher sends out (some will have a fixed number they will send out for free, and you have to pay for any copies above that number). If a small publisher claims to have distribution deals with bookstores, ask them how many copies of each book they distribute this way. Ask other authors already published if you can. Promises like this can sound good, but they might not be worth much.

Still, there were a couple of people at the publisher who were enthusiastic and pitched in when I tried to market the book. They gave me a few bits and pieces of advice that would have been most useful much earlier (telling an author they need a presence on Goodreads when their book is already out is not much help), but they were trying. A couple of months after the launch, the anniversary of the event that inspired the book came around, so I marked this with a series of blogposts and a push on social media. The publisher’s web editor helped boost the signal, but that was all we could do. It felt good to be doing something. We talked vaguely about a competition or a giveaway, but nothing happened. Their attention petered out – naturally, as other books were coming through. I did what I could, with little help, and not knowing enough to separate the useful actions from the useless.

This was a tough lesson that when you launch a book with a small/indie publisher, you will end up doing most of the marketing yourself.

At least if you know that beforehand, you’ll have a chance. But I felt really thrown in at the deep end, and keeping your head just above water is not the stuff of which bestsellers are made.

This is an aside to the main story really, but a huge lesson from this experience is that it is fiendishly hard for a book to find its audience. However good a book is, however much it is enjoyed by those who actually read it, it takes a lot of work, knowhow and a measure of luck to let all the readers who might enjoy it know that it exists. Never mind persuading them to part with their hard-earned cash. I found myself faced with a choice of spending a huge amount of time (and not a little money) trying to promote my book, or giving myself some time to write the next one.

  • Some of the problems I faced were common to many or most small publishers – others were specific to mine. You won’t know which problems you might face unless you do your research.

Anyway, the assistance from the publisher petered out. The royalty cheques, never very big, became derisory. (Even the first cheque, which was never equalled, was mostly swallowed by bank charges for converting the currency). As I’d already found out, the relationship with major retailers turned out to be nothing more than an account with a distributor. And just because a publisher can get your books into Waterstones, it doesn’t mean they will. Waterstones stocked a grand total of one copy of my book. (It did sell a couple via Barnes and Noble in the US, but these were online sales).

Then, after the book had been on sale for a couple of years, all authors received a letter from the editor. He wasn’t happy at the publisher, didn’t feel they were doing the best for authors, and was leaving to set up a new outfit. Other staff all left too, and it seemed only the owner remained – I don’t know if this was actually the case, but it felt that way. The owner contacted all writers giving their side of the story, and insisting that the publisher was not on the brink of collapse (until that point, nobody had suggested it was, to me at any rate).

At this point, I decided to have a look at the contract again, just to see how the land lay. If there was a chance the publisher did fail, I wanted to know what would happen to my book. Also, I had joined the Society of Authors (SoA) in the meantime, and as a result of advice they had published, a few clauses in my contract now started to concern me mildly. The rights were supposed to revert to me if the book was out of print for two years, for example, but there was no indication of how the book might be considered ‘out of print’. It was simply not defined. Obviously in a traditional publishing deal, it’s obvious when a book is in print or out of print, but with ebooks and print-on-demand, it isn’t. Contracts for this style of publishing are supposed to include a definition – for example, the SoA suggests that the book is considered out of print when sales fall below a certain per year in all formats. (By the measure they suggest, my book had never been in print):

“We feel strongly that you should be entitled to terminate the contract if, after an agreed limited period, the work becomes available only as print-on-demand/ebook, i.e. when the publisher is no long making any investment in the work and sales are desultory, but it is holding on to control and its share of what modest income there is.”

Even so, though I was not especially happy with the publisher, I was not thinking of trying to get my rights back at this stage. That boat seemed to have sailed. But I wanted to see how secure the contract was, what I could expect in future, and if and when I might reasonably expect the rights to revert to me.

I emailed the publisher, asking for clarification on some of these issues. To my surprise, I received a brusque reply not addressing any of my queries, and simply asking if what I really wanted was to leave the publisher. I was slightly shocked. This seemed unprofessional, and not a sign that everything was going well as the publisher’s communications suggested. The answer to the question ‘do you actually want to leave’ was therefore ‘I do, now’. In the meantime, I had heard some disquieting things that, together with my experiences, led me to consider that I would rather recover my rights and take my book elsewhere if I could. It wasn’t as if it was earning more than pocket money.

And here my problems really started. Or rather, the problems that had been hiding since I signed that contract came out to bite.

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here

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