How to spot a rotten publishing deal
Buckle up, because in today's post we're going to cover a ton of ground. We will look at the red flags (and, keeping with a US Women's Soccer team theme: Yellow flags) to watch out for when signing a deal with a publisher. We'll talk about traditional publishers. Hybrid publishers. And services that assist with self-publishing. We'll stay high level on a few things, but also get into the nitty gritty too. By the end, you will have some really helpful and tangible guidelines to use as you find the right home for your book.
You should NOT be required to buy copies of your book
Not 1,000 copies. Not 100. Not even one copy. There is no reason a publisher should make you purchase copies as part of the contract.
Here's why: If they're using a print on demand service like Amazon KDP, Ingram Spark, or Lulu, those services are built to be exactly that: on demand. Your customers can buy online so you don't have to play the role of distributor. It's really a great setup. There aren't hundreds of copies of your book sitting in a warehouse. They're printed on an as-needed basis.
For example, as an author, I can go on Amazon.com right now and buy one copy of my paperback book Meet the Godfreys for $4.38 (not including taxes or shipping). There's no red text that pops up saying: Minimum Order X copies. If I wanted to, I could keep doing that over and over again. Someone's interested in buying my book for $15. Order a copy. $4.38 + shipping. Keep the rest as profit.
Even if the publisher is working with a smaller local printer, a lot of those shops are also print on demand. These types of places are printing off hundreds, sometimes low thousands of books a day. It might not be at that massive Amazon level where you can literally order one book at a time, but the minimum print total should still be something like 20-30. If it's higher than that, I think you should shop around because the costs are probably way too high since they are doing less volume or might not even be an on demand service (unless you've found a place in like Florence, Italy who is handcrafting every single book. In that case, if you can afford it, that'd be an amazing option).
But even with a 20-30 copy requirement, you can still work backwards and ask around friends + family, pitch to bookstores, build a list of 20-30 customers first. That way when you pay the $200-400 to purchase the copies, you know you're turning around and selling it for $400-700. You're not taking on a loss.
If they call themselves traditional, you have every right to say, "Show me the money!"
We wrote about this more in our "Traditional Publishing Pros and Cons" post, but the basics are this: a traditional publisher pays you an advance. You do not pay for cover design. You do not pay for editing help.
Downsides: You will likely lose 10-15% to a literary agent and the publisher will have a bigger percentage of the royalties than you would receive via self-publishing or using a hybrid model.
So if you're working with a traditional publisher who offers you a $1,000 advance but then says, "We do need you to pay for editing as an up charge and also pay for our marketing services," I'd be hesitant. To me that feels very nickle and dimey. Very bait and switch. I was about to say you should be getting clear estimates of their costs up front, but that's not even the case here. A traditional publisher should have no costs besides your time and the percentage on royalties later on.
There's nothing wrong with "pay-to-play" as long as...
As you'll see in this post and so many others on the blog, we love the hybrid publisher. We think it's an awesome innovation in the publishing space and I wouldn't be surprised to see 100 more high quality hybrid publishers pop up in the next five years. It is, in a lot of ways, the future of the industry.
So we are not at all against the idea of paying to be published as long as the majority of the payment is related to editing services.
And here's where we take a deep dive into the nitty gritty details. I want to give really clear numbers on what to expect with editing costs and self-publishing assistance.
How much would it cost to just do it myself?
Here's the good news - I'm speaking from experience on this point, not abstract theories. I did the self-publishing route with my first novel, Meet the Godfreys. For revisions and editing, I had friends help with the review process and then did all the editing myself (+ Grammarly) simply because I couldn't afford professional help given the size of the book. By the time my manuscript was done, the costs looked like this:
Format the book for Kindle and Paperback on Amazon KDP - $150 via Fiverr.com
Cover design - $300 through a friend (the quality he provided really should have been $500 but I got lucky because 1) I know him 2) really nice guy)
Grammarly - $140 annual subscription
My publishing approach with that book was about as bare-bones as it gets while still maintaining a professional looking product at the end. And STILL I spent right around $600. (Should've been $800 if I didn't know the cover artist.)
So, if you're working with a publisher or service that does all of that for you, it's not crazy to be quoted a price between $1,000 and $2,500. They can't quote you much lower than $800, because it's not a viable business model. Even if it's just a one-person show, there's not enough margin for them to stay afloat.
But on the flip side of that, if all they are doing is taking the manuscript that you already have, double-checking it for typos via Grammarly, formatting it into the right layout for print and ebook, and designing a cover, if that adds up to be $3,000+ I'm throwing a red flag.
It's like an oil change, I'm happy to pay someone $25-40 rather than trying to do it myself, but if they're charging north of $50, and definitely if it's north of $90, I'm finding somebody else.
Ok, but then what about editing prices?
This is a little harder to put a number on, because the editor for Harry Potter is going to be a much different rate than the person who just got their MFA and is really really good, but is just starting out with no projects to their name.
But that's not to say we can't put some ballpark numbers to this. Blake Atwood did a great job and provided a lot of the heavy lifting in his article on The Write Life. Let's take a look.
For comparison purposes, let’s look at the editing rates and use an average page-per-hour and an average hourly rate. For instance, the EFA lists basic copyediting of 5–10 pages per hour at a cost of $30–$40 per hour, so I’ve assumed 7.5 pages per hour at a cost of $35 per hour. The other total calculations also use their respective average rates.
For a 70,000-word book, your editing costs could be:
Developmental editing: $.08 per word, or $5,600 total
Basic copy editing: $.018 per word, or $1,260 total
Proofreading: $.0113, or $791 total
It’s easy to extrapolate from this what your total expected editing cost could be. Fantasy, sci-fi, and epic novel writers should be forewarned.
For a 120,000-word book, your editing costs could be:
Developmental editing: $.08 per word, or $9,600 total
Basic copy editing: $.018 per word, or $2,160 total
Proofreading: $.0113, or $1,356 total
Remember when I said I couldn't afford to do this for Meet the Godfreys? The total word count between Part 1 and Part 2 of my book was north of 100,000 words. Professional editing just wasn't in the budget for me at that point in time.
Not listed above, and I do want to mention this real quick, from my own research the average price for good writing coaching seems to be about $60 an hour.
One more resource to share, a hybrid publisher that I really like out of northern Michigan called Mission Point Press, breaks their prices down like this:
Evaluation - $300
Coaching - $200 per 10k words
Copy editing - $250 - $350 per 10k words
Line editing - $350 - $500 per 10k words
Proofing - $200 per 10k words
So, looks like a little bit more expensive than Example 1, but they are also a really high quality place. Goes back to the idea of Harry Potter editor vs. new MFA graduate.
And when you look at Mission Point Press or a place like She Writes Press (named #1 Independent Publisher in 2019) which may be more expensive for their editing help, you can quickly see just from looking at their websites that it's justified. You see examples of the other titles they've done. She Writes Press you see all of their accolades and customer testimonials. For Mission Point Press, just look at all the bookstores in Michigan their books are in, 40 different locations.
The old adage "you get what you pay for" is so true in the publishing space.
But, to be fair, there was a point in time when Mission Point Press was new. There was a point when She Writes Press was looking for their first book to publish. I don't want to shortchange the MFA student in our example either.
In those cases, 1) take a look at the person's background. Are they a writer? Check out any of their books or blogs. Are they an editor? See if they'll do a page or three pages for free so you can get a feel for what they provide (and also a feel for how fast they respond to emails. Good sign for future customer service).
What about rights to the book and rights if someone wants to turn it into a movie or TV show?
This is where I need to stay high level. I'd love to have a more detailed future post from an attorney in this space, but here's a couple of things to consider from a non-expert.
If you're signing with a traditional publisher, especially if it's one of the Big 5, that means you are likely getting a pretty decent sized advance. And there is potential, especially in today's race for content production landscape, that your book may be adapted for film or TV.
Given all of that, I think it's wise to use some of your advance money to pay for legal help. And, unfortunately, that might be $200 or $300 an hour. But a $500-1,000 investment to do this part right could save you thousands (if not millions) later on. And if you have a literary agent, this should be in their wheelhouse, attorneys on staff to handle this free of charge. Part of why you're giving up 10-20% to them and the value they provide.
Because here's what I'm thinking, and yes, genre makes a difference, throw in a one-size-does-not-fit-all disclaimer, but if a Big 5 publisher wants to buy your book, then they believe it's almost guaranteed to sell 500 copies and, optimistically, they think they can sell over 10,000. If their proposed contract sucks, you will have other options. Both traditional and hybrid. So have them compete against each other. Sign on your terms. And, if all else fails, self-publish your book with the confidence that these major publishers believe there is a market out there for your book.
This may be overly Midwestern and idealistic of me, but I believe the publisher--given all of the choices out there in 2019--should feel privileged and lucky to partner with you on your book. So things like, "What if Netflix wants to buy this? What if Steven Spielberg calls?" the publisher (or literary agent too) should be thinking, "How do I make my author the most possible money here?" They shouldn't be weird or shady about it. Writers should always come first. Because it is your work after all...
Whew. I know that was a lot to digest. If you ever have specific questions, even if you're thinking, "Hey, I'm considering this publisher. What have you heard about them?" send them our way at firstname.lastname@example.org