Beware of the Contract that Keeps on Giving…to the Publisher by Sally J. Ling

Sally J. Ling, Florida’s History Detective, is an author, speaker, and historian. She writes historical fiction and nonfiction and specializes in little known stories of Florida history. As a special correspondent, Sally wrote for the Sun Sentinel newspaper for four years and was a contributing journalist for Boca Raton, Gold Coast, Delray Beach, Boca Life, Jupiterand Palm Beacher magazines.

Based upon excerpts from her book Run the Rum In, Sally appeared in two TV documentaries– “Gangsters” – the National Geographic Channel, and “Prohibition and the South Florida Connection” – WLRN, Miami. She served as associate producer on the latter production. She has been a guest on South Florida PBS TV and radio stations, guest presenter at the Lifelong Learning Society at Florida Atlantic University and Future Authors of America, and guest speaker at numerous historical societies, libraries, organizations, and schools.  Sally lives with her husband, Chuck, and her cat, Kitty, and splits her time between Deerfield Beach, Florida, and Wolf Laurel, North Carolina.

Beware of the contract that keeps on giving . . . to the publisher, that is

The challenge author’s face in deciding whether to sign with a traditional publisher or self-publish remains a prime issue as the e-book market starts to mature and gain ever-increasing ground over the print market.  As an author who has publishing experience in both traditional and self-publishing, with both print and e-books, I offer a cautionary message to those who are examining a traditional e-book publishing contract. Yes, it would be fantastic to have a publisher take on some of the marketing of your book so you can spend more time writing, but what are the hidden costs?
Two traditional publishers picked up several of my books in 2005. Initial contracts with both publishers included print rights only, since, at the time, digital books (e-books) were just getting off the ground and e-readers were barely peeking over the horizon. At the end of a five-year period, the copyright would revert back to me, the author, so long as the publisher sold all my books and opted not to pick up a second printing.
One publisher sold all copies of the first run of my book Small Town, Big Secrets (around 1,500 copies) and decided not to reprint. The copyright reverted back to me in 2010. I revised the book by including additional photos and stories, and self-published a second print edition with Amazon’s Createspace (by the way, they are still selling).  My other books remained with the initial publishers.
Enter e-books.
With the introduction of the Kindle in 2007, e-books began their climb in popularity. Today’s statistics on Amazon put e-books outselling hardbacks and making a full run at paperbacks, though print books (happily) will probably never go away. Sales figures show 2012 e-book sales tripling over those of 2011, and my own sales figures reveal e-books outselling the same book in paperback 8 to 1.
So why the warning?
Because things have changed in the world of publishing, and authors need to know how to protect their copyright, especially when publishing an e-book with a traditional publisher.
In 2012 and 2013, I received contracts from the two different publishers wanting to publish my existing paperback books as e-books. I turned them down. Here’s why.
First, they offered the same royalties on the digital books as my print books. In my opinion, that was ridiculous. Print books obviously cost more to print and warehouse, therefore higher upfront costs are understandable. Digital books, however, take up minute space on a server and are delivered via the Internet. The cost here is minimal.
Second, there was no provision in the contract for the copyright to revert back to me as there was in my previous contracts for print books. That meant the publisher could keep the digital book on their server indefinitely, giving them unending access to my copyright.
Third, royalties on print books are typically paid every six to nine months. This is because publishers allow returns on print books and typically take those returns off sales before paying royalties to the author. Since e-books are not physical, returns are practically non-existent; therefore, the author should get royalties on these at a faster pace, but no provision was made in the contract for this.
So . . . beware of the contract that keeps on giving . . . to the publisher, that is.
Signing with a traditional publisher to convert a formerly published print book or release a new one as an e-book, is very exciting. To make sure you are protected, consider the following before you sign:
  • Make sure there is a time limit on the contract—say three to five years. That way, both the author and publisher can see what kind of sales are being generated and renegotiate terms in a reasonable time frame if they desire.
  • Negotiate the royalty amount. Because production and distribution costs are much lower on e-books, authors should receive a higher royalty on digital books. (One publisher was willing to negotiate once I pointed this out, but I was a bit miffed that they didn’t offer a higher royalty upfront. This led me to believe they didn’t recognize authors as savvy business people who now have other options available.)
  • Negotiate the frequency of the royalty payment. Amazon pays royalties every 30 days, with the initial payment after 60 days. Try to get your publisher to pay in this manner, or at least much more frequently than the time frame for print books. (This might be a sticking point with publishers since they like to pay royalties at specified times, but it’s worth a try.)
Publishers are in business to make money. That’s not a bad thing, but they need to be aware of the fact that authors now have options. And, authors, especially first time authors, need to be aware of how the industry works so they can negotiate a fair and reasonable contract.