Why I rejected my publisher

My heart-wrenching tale of THISCLOSE

If you’ve poked around my site or been a subscriber for a while, you might remember that in November 2011, I received an offer of publication from a regional publisher, with a 2013 anticipated release. (If you happen to remember the name of my publisher, please refrain from naming names. I’ll do the same.*) Like any publishing offer, it was a long time coming.

Three years and two weeks after I started the novel. Two years after I submitted it to the same publishing house the first time (obviously they rejected it, and with good reason). Eighteen months after an editor at the publishing company told me not to bother resubmitting the revised, newly-award-winning manuscript. Almost nine months after I went ahead and did it anyway.

I got the good news at a writers’ retreat and I was so excited to share with my friends there. After seeing other friends have contracts fall through, I’d always vowed that I wouldn’t make any announcements until after the contract was signed. But the contract would be months in coming—in one author’s experience, they had printed books waiting to be distributed before they got the contract signed.

CONTRACT

I went ahead and made the announcement. So many wonderful friends celebrated with me. It was great. (I finished the manuscript I’d just started when I got the good news.)

While we waited on that contract, they assigned me an editor, who happened to be someone I’ve wanted to work with for a long time. They asked me for the “final” submitted version of my manuscript (although editing was at least a year away). They requested an author photo, then a release from my amazing photographer. They needed tax documents. I got it all turned in.

Finally, the contract came in the mail. I held my breath as I opened that big white envelope and read through those pages with my publisher’s name and mine. And I cried.

But they weren’t tears of joy.

(I wrote another novel.) With a friend’s recommendation, I consulted with a lawyer who specializes in contract disputes and intellectual property law. He spent looong billable hours reading the contract and writing me an extremely thorough analysis. And, yeah, it was as bad as I feared.

Worse.

The deal breaker

In the olden days (ten years ago), a book had a fairly short lifespan: a few months to make or break its print run, languish on the shelves a few more months, then the bargain bin, then it went out of print. After a certain period of time “out of print,” the rights to the book reverted to the author. Hundreds of authors who had trade published books revert to them now have those same books for sale forever as ebooks.

Naturally, I was very worried about the possibility of a book never being declared “out of print” because the publisher had an ebook version on the “shelves.” I might never get the rights to my backlist back unless the publisher was feeling very generous. (We actually did reach a minor compromise on this issue, for shared rights.)

But my lawyer was more concerned with another issue, one that I was anticipating, but didn’t think it would be as bad as the reality. The contract demanded the right of first refusal on basically everything I might write for the next 21 years. If I submitted any work anywhere else, it would be deemed accepted by this publisher, and contractually obligated to them first. There was no timeline in the original contract, meaning they could spend three years sitting on my manuscript, before granting me one year to try to find someone else to take it (after which the time frame and rejection process would start over).

/disapprove

In my opinion, the legal term for that clause would be “unconscionable.” For comparison, SFWA president John Scalzi publicly ripped apart a different trade publishing contract with less restrictive clauses (see his points 0, 1, 4, 5, and 6, but STRONG LANGUAGE). Even within the publishing world, these clauses are beyond the pale.

After consulting with my lawyer on how best to proceed with negotiations, I did what I could. I didn’t ask for a single cent more, no advance, no more royalties. I didn’t ask for my audio, film or foreign rights. I didn’t ask for the right to create my own subsidiary works. I pointed out I had four manuscripts all ready to submit to them. I offered options, options I knew other authors had gotten added to their contracts with this company, and options I knew other publishers used. I gave some, and they gave a little.

Ultimately, however, they wouldn’t budge on the most important issue. They did tell me that if I had a book under contract with another publishing house, they’d revise that ROFR clause (of necessity). I didn’t. My contract with this publisher went on hold while I pursued publication for another book. My editor left publishing for law school. I took my publication year, 2013, off my blog and social media profiles. Then the publisher’s name.

The emotional side

Yes, I did cry when I read the contract the first time. But when it came down to it, this was a business decision. There was no way I could sign over control of my entire career for more than two decades. Even if this was to be my one and only chance, if it came down to a choice between never, ever publishing a book, or taking that contract as it stood, I would rather never publish.

(I also wrote another book. I wrote the first draft of this post. Then I wrote a novella.)

The end

I spent literally years holding out for a better contract. I self-published that second novel I wrote since receiving the offer and the novella and a sequel to each. Both novels were named finalists for the most prestigious award in that regional market (being 2 out of 5 of the finalists). Even after all that, I sent a final message to the publisher. I told them I didn’t want to burn any bridges, but I would need to see changes to these clauses of the contract.

They said no.

So I said no.

I did the unthinkable: I walked away from a publishing contract. I rejected my publisher and published myself. I didn’t (and don’t) need a publisher to turn out top caliber books or even get them to bookstores. I didn’t have to sacrifice my control over my career, my vision for my books or my artistic integrity. It was nice to have the external validation of a publishing offer, but in the end, I didn’t need them to share my stories, and the costs of using their services instead of contracting my own far exceeded the benefits, especially when it came to my career. Shockingly, I’ve made almost as much as I would have anticipated making from going with them, and I still have all my rights and control of these books—and my career.

What do you think? What would it take for you to walk away from a publishing contract?

ADDENDUM: I’m not naming the publisher because the principle I’m hoping to get across—that authors need to be careful of contracts and guard their rights, and be willing to walk away from a publisher who won’t do that—is more important than punishing the publisher. 90% of my audience isn’t going to submit to this small press anyway.

Due to an influx of spam, I’ve had to close comments on this post.

Photo credits: CONTRACT—Steve Snodgrass; thumbs down—Striatic, via Flickr/CC

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60 thoughts on “Why I rejected my publisher”

  1. I have a feeling I know which regional publisher you’re talking about! I’ve heard some serious horror stories. It’s frustrating that there are so few presses within the LDS market, and it’s almost like you have to choose between an inferior house or one that will require your firstborn child. Way to go for having the courage to make your own way!

    1. Thanks, Cindy! You probably know which one it is. Then again, maybe not, since several of them have had pretty evil contracts through the years.

    1. Thanks, Deb! It did hurt at first, but by the time I finally walked, it was almost like ignoring an editing suggestion that would’ve hijacked and ruined my story.

  2. These days I really wonder. Why does anyone wait around for any publisher? Why waste the emotional energy that could better be spent writing books? It’s the quality of the story that readers care about. Then they know you as a storyteller. Then they buy books from you. They don’t care about, nor do they have allegiance to a publisher. Thanks for sharing what I have seen repeatedly in the author-and-contract world. I hope more authors wake up and look at their contracts like you did.

    1. On the plus side, I’ve now suffered for my art. That makes me legit, right? πŸ˜‰

      Thanks, Bruce! That was my intent in sharing my story.

      1. Yes, it definitely can. I’m hoping to help people avoid learning this one the hard way. Thanks for your comment πŸ™‚

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience, Jordan. What a tough decision to make! I’ve agonized over submitting to a regional publisher because some parts of their contract really worry me. I want to share my book with readers so much, but not at the cost of my career. This is very eye pining and at the same time encouraging.

    1. Thanks, Yamile (and now I know how to say your name RIGHT)! I’m especially glad to hear you found it encouraging. Hope it’s helpful to you!

  4. Fantastic post, Jordan! I knew some of this, but I appreciate you sharing your insights with everyone. I 100% support you and your choices. πŸ™‚

  5. The LDS Story Makers have recently drafted a letter to send to LDS publishers about predatory contracts. It is their hope to open up a dialogue to begin to make some changes so we don’t lose all the good wroters that have gotten discouraged like you and turned away. I have my own sad story with one of those publishers but since I am technically under contract still (#%*€) I won’t mention names!

    1. Thank you, Carole! Sorry to hear you’re in that boat. I’m actually part of Storymakers (because of my Whitney finalists), so I participated in the vote on that letter/committee, but I appreciate you bringing it up here.

    2. Thank you, Carole, for this timely piece of info. And of course, to Jordan for the post. This is me currently. I requested several changes to the contract I was sent (including rates) and am waiting to hear back from them. Maybe the timing of such discussions will improve the situation for me. Maybe not. I just might be seeking the next Indie conference to learn all that stuff I hoped I didn’t have to worry about. In the end it might be for the best. I do agree I can’t sign it as it is. I have had several people point out things to me lately that are crucial for my current decisions and I appreciate hearing from you both and all the comments made thus far. Thank you, thank you!

  6. Thanks for writing this and being so candid, Jordan. You’re right, the publisher’s identity doesn’t matter, they are not the only ones who offer restrictive contracts. I certainly can appreciate the intense emotional side to making a decision like this, and I salute you for approaching it so soberly.

    Publishers are in this game to make money and they won’t amend their contracts out of niceness, but necessity, yes, and so we have to make decisions that favor our careers, both in the short term and for the future. I don’t hate publishers, I understand where they are coming from–not that I agree with their decisions to date as I think it’s shortsighted–but we live in a publishing landscape where we have more options. We have a choice now.

    Again, thanks for this lovely post.

  7. When you’re my age you don’t want the glacial pace of traditional publishing. I decided early on to self-publish and three books on with sales going well I would probably say no to a deal because I want to make my own decisions and take a proper return for my work. Yes you need to invest in high quality, but it’s about backing yourself. You can see the publishers circling the wagons against up starts like me, but the kind of behaviour you experienced will hasten their demise. Good luck.

  8. Hi, Jordan,
    I think you dodged a bullet! Not just the 21 years of the RFR clause, but also what I suspect wouldn’t have been a very good arrangement for you and the work you want to write. You’re smart and savvy and are an excellent indie publisher. The small regional publisher wasn’t going to give you any extra special cachet, and they were going to FUBAR your career. I salute you for making the hard choice.

    I’m currenlty reading Johnny Truant and Sean Platt’s nonfiction book, WRITE. PUBLISH. REPEAT. Sounds like you’re an author right up their alley. You’ve been tremendously prolific during the time where you waited for this press to draaaaaaaag this whole thing out. I mean, really! They couldn’t have changed the RFR timeline to, say, three years??? Why? I’m so glad you’re not chained to a hopeless situation with a backwards publisher. I bet in the long run you will look back and say, “WOW! I *did* dodge a bullet!”

    Best wishes with all your hard work. Keep on writing!
    πŸ˜‰ Lori

    1. I already think I dodged a bullet, but it’s nice to hear someone else say that, too!

      It’s funny, when I read the sample of WRITE. PUBLISH. REPEAT., I didn’t think was being nearly prolific enough! (I have the book, just need to make time to read the rest.) So thank you!

      Thanks very much, Lori! Good luck to you too!

  9. The more I hear horror stories like yours, the more I’m convinced that self-publishing is the way for me to go. I’m 66 and I can no longer wait those months, years for a rejection or a revise and resubmit.

    Best of luck, Jordan. You earned it.

    1. Thanks, Mitzi! I agree, this experience makes it harder for me to think about working with a publisher in the future. Good luck to you, too!

  10. Thanks so much for sharing your story!

    I’ve been sitting on this particular fence for lo, the last several months. Trying to decide whether to position myself as an indie writer (share work early on Wattpad etc) or shoot for a contract (pull all work off website, not share on Wattpad.) All things said, like most writers I’d rather work with a publisher — but not as an indentured servant. Crikey, but that RFR clause is eeeeeviiilllll! Your story is one more pebble tipping the scales toward self publishing.

    I have this image of a bunch of writers banding together to take out a page in the NYTimes with “An Open Letter to Publishers.” And then list grievances like this RFR clause. And the economic reasons why it makes more sense to indie pub, ala ‘Author Earnings’. Then make a list of the things publishers need to change in order to win back authors.

    It would be the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” At least the publishing world.

    Needs to happen. Time for writers to rise up and stop supporting an industry that fails to reciprocate.

  11. I think you made the right decision. I wonder when the day is going to come when publishers realize they need writers more than writers need them.

    Probably the same day writers come to this realization as well.

    1. Thank you! And I agree, it will probably take writers taking the lead and standing up for themselves to effect change.

  12. I think it was pretty brave of you to walk away, but it was totally the right thing to do. Sadly I’m sure some other authors out there don’t do the same, and pay for it.

    I’m very glad you decided as you did! And this post will surely help other aspiring authors (including me) think long and hard about any contract they might receive in future, before signing.

  13. We heard about some of these nightmares in the Rights Management class I took as part of my publishing program. I truly do think that every author out there, when considering publication, needs to take a course like this. It can only help us to understand what we’re getting ourselves into. Knowledge is power.

    And good for you for walking away. I know that it might be hard, but preserving your integrity and the integrity of your work is more important in the end. And it looks like you didn’t need them anyway. Which is an inspiration to all.

    1. I agree; authors need to be more aware of their rights! I’m hoping this helps get the word out at least a little.

      Thanks very much!

  14. And there’s a lot more pride in being indie, right? πŸ˜‰

    ‘Cause writing and publishing your own books, with your own vision and standards (with help from a few pros of your choosing) feels hella good. πŸ™‚

  15. Jordan said: …I did what I could. I didn’t ask for a single cent more, no advance, no more royalties. I didn’t ask for my audio, film or foreign rights. I didn’t ask for the right to create my own subsidiary works….

    So, as if the RFR clause wasn’t egregious enough, this publisher was also demanding all of your subsidiary rights as well? head-shaking Glad you walked away!

    1. Yeah, there was something fairly egregious there, but I can’t remember the exact terms (and I don’t have time to dig out the contract this week), so I didn’t want to specify.

      Thanks, I’m glad too!

  16. This is a terrible story. I’m so pleased you didn’t take their dreadful offer but I wonder how many writers have?

    1. More than I’d like. (Because even one is more than I’d like.) Thanks for your comment!

    1. Thanks, Deb. I hope you don’t ever have to worry about such a contract. Good luck on whatever publishing path you choose!

  17. Well, I needed to read this today! I was never looking for a contract and was content to just self-publish, having had some success with that. But then I was approached recently by an agent who got me all excited and I told her I would sign with her (but I have still not actually signed the contract). In the back of my mind (especially after hearing stories like this) I never felt good about signing with a publisher. I hate the thought of having something I’ve created, out of my full control. So unless an offer I can’t refuse comes along, I will stick with what I am doing. Thanks for this!

  18. I did self publish πŸ™‚ And proud of it. Its just that marketing is taking too much of my time πŸ™‚ I think you’ve made the right decision πŸ™‚

    1. Yes, there are drawbacks to both paths. Marketing takes a lot of time no matter how you publish. And thank you!

  19. You made the right decision. But some commenters seem to be thinking that this one experience is a reason to self publish, which I’m sure was not your point.

    People should know that not every publisher has clauses this bad. I have self published some books, and I’m happy with that decision. I have also published with major publishers, and made far more than I have (so far) made with the self published work. Not all contracts are the same. It has to be a business decision in every case, balancing the amount of the advance, the reach of the publisher’s distribution, and the specific contract terms against the realities of self-publishing.

    Publishers are also going to have to make changes, if they want to keep writers. Small publishers, especially, have to recognize that if they’re not paying a large advance, they need to have better contracts. Some do. I’ve heard of small digital publishers that only have the rights to the book (the one you sell them, not an option on other books) for five years, and offer 40% or 50% royalties.

    However you publish, it’s important to understand contract terms, and what you might be giving up.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    1. Good point. The most important point I’m trying to make is to be aware of your rights and options. Right now seems to be a pivotal time in the industry. It may take a preponderance of authors choosing to either not publish at all or publish themselves before positive changes become widespreadβ€”but that may not be the case long-term.

      Thanks for your insights!

  20. Good for you! I feel for all those moments of anguish but gotta tell you, I learn something very valuable from each of these situations. Thank goodness we all have the ability to efficiently share information and hopefully protect each other’s work. Best wishes on your writing.

  21. Earlier this week, I turned down a publisher, too. (not the same one you did) Not only didn’t I like some of the unreasonable clauses, but another author’s name was at the bottom of the contract. I have a friend who is signed with them, it was her first contract. It won’t be released until December, but this past month they put her book cover up on their website. I was very disappointed in it. Her story is a clean romance, yet you wouldn’t know that from the suggestive cover. I love your I, Spy books! I’m so glad you went the route you did.

  22. I’ve had a similar experience, but with a three year FIRST RIGHT OF REFUSAL clause on ALL my writing. When I asked for the clause to be removed or limited to a FROR to sequels only, the publisher rescinded the offer. I was heartbroken and sure I’d lost my only chance at a print publication. Luckily, that book did land in the hands of another reputable small press. Since then, I’ve worked hard to advance my career. I can’t imagine how far behind I’d be if I’d signed the contract with the FROR clause. Lesson learned. If you’re unagented, always have an attorney explain the contract. I’m glad I did!

  23. I just did exactly the same thing, and the contract was actually very author friendly and the publisher quite a good one. Ten years instead of a lifetime plus seventy. But the deal breaker for me was their ebook royalty structure. They wouldn’t budge. I wouldn’t budge. We kissed and said farewell.

  24. I recently had to fight with my former publisher to get the rights to two of my books back after they started doing things I could no longer trust.

    I discovered there that five years is too much time to entrust my books to someone else (especially if they prove themselves untrustworthy down the line) and am now determined to at least go it alone for now.

  25. Hi, I’m River, I dropped in via debi o’neile who dropped in on my blog.
    Interesting warnings about dodgy contracts.
    I haven’t written a book, not sure I ever will, but I have several ideas that are moving along quite nicely, although slowly.
    If I ever get to book stage, how does one go about self-publishing?

  26. Jordan, thanks for sharing the process around making such a brave and painful decision.
    I’m so glad your sales and royalties have rewarded you.
    What always amazes me is why publishers still try to force authors into unfair contracts, when there are so many other options these days. Back when it was a contract with a publisher or spend a small fortune and end up with 2000 books stacked in your lounge room, it was more understandable.
    I’m not anti-publisher, I have revised full with an editor for a big traditional publisher right now. But I’m also planning to self-publish. It’s wonderful that we have choices. Choices empower us to say “No” to bad deals.

  27. Jordan, thanks for sharing the process around making such a brave and painful decision.
    I’m so glad your sales and royalties have rewarded you.
    What always amazes me is why publishers still try to force authors into unfair contracts, when there are so many other options these days. Back when it was a contract with a publisher or spend a small fortune and end up with 2000 books stacked in your lounge room, it was more understandable.
    I’m not anti-publisher, I have a revised full with an editor for a big traditional publisher right now. But I’m also planning to self-publish. It’s wonderful that we have choices. Choices empower us to say “No” to bad deals.

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