Look BEFORE you send off your query letter

Dear Miss Snark:

I got a contract offer from a small print publisher the other day. I should be thrilled right? I was for a day or two. Then I got the contract in the mail. Is it crazy to not accept a contract from a publisher just because

1. they only publish 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 size books? They sell for a much higher price than "normal" paperbacks.

2. The publisher sells the books through Amazon, and B&N online, but they are not in the brick and mortar stores yet. This doesn't sit will with me. It just makes me nervous. They recently hired a distributor though.

I sent my manuscript because a friend of mine was accepted by them, and she was raving about how nice they were and how much they do for their authors. Then I started doing a bit of research and found out they haven't been in business very long. My friend's cover is beautiful. The quality of the book is fine. Am I being silly?

It depends on what you want to accomplish. If you want a lovely book with a lovely cover, go for it. If you want people who are "nice to you", go for it. If you want to have your books in bookstores, you'll need to rethink this.

There are LOTS of reasons you can have a very successful published book without being in a bricks and mortar store. Specialty sales, back of the room sales, very niche markets sales...all those kinds of books can do well without being stocked in the corner Bookasaurus.

If you write fiction, none of that applies.

And I'm a great believer in a low price point for first time novelists. The easier it is to get books into the hands of future fans the better. A high price on a book is the kiss of death, and, more than "not in stores", that makes me wonder if these guys know what they're doing.

And the trim size sounds like a trade paperback. You can actually see trim size for books at Amazon, and I looked up two that are here on my desk and that size looks right to me.

And publishers don't "hire distributors" anymore than you "hire an agent". Distributors are very selective about who they take on, so it's a good sign for this publisher that a distributor wanted them.

And why did you query a publisher you didn't know much about?


Anonymous said...

Because I'm stupid and my friend got published and I didn't. Okay. I'm over it now.

Kit Whitfield said...

Be careful. This could be an author mill. If you're not familiar with the term, try

for a definition, and, if you feel like reading my opinion, an essay on my blog (praised by Teresa Neilsen Hayden of Making Light, if that makes it sound any more trustworthy...)


It doesn't sound like a good deal to me. As a reader, would you buy a book that was unusually expensive that you couldn't pick up in a bookstore and read a bit of, to see if you liked it? I wouldn't. Reviewers are highly unlikely to take an interest in books that are only sold online either, so you won't have reviews pointing people towards your book. This publishers, I suspect, is not going to have very high sales on any of its books.

I'm also a bit suspicious that they accepted both your friend's book and yours. Quite possibly you're both extremely talented writers - but to both be accepted by the same publisher? It seems a bit of a coincidence. If your books and your friend's are very similar, mightn't they have said to you, 'Thanks, but we've got one just like this?', having just accepted your friend's? And if they're different, mightn't they have said, 'Thanks, but it's not really to our taste?' This doesn't prove anything definite, I know, but considering how many rejections most published writers go through, it just seems a bit too obliging of them to publish both you and your friend. Statistics and probability tend to favour two writers who know each other being accepted by different publishers.

Which raises the question: do they turn anyone down? If they accept more people than they reject, then you're definitely looking at an author mill - they will make their money by publishing lots of people and selling a few books (mostly to family and friends) from each, recouping the cost by pricing the books high.

Be a bit cautious with these publishers. I may be accusing them unjustly, but I can hear alarm bells ringing faintly in the distance.

Dick Margulis said...

You LOOKED UP ON AMAZON the trim size of two books that are sitting on your desk?!??! Did KY run away with your ruler? Were you unable to locate a piece of 8.5 x 11 paper and fold it in half?!?!?

amy said...

Anonymous, your answer made me laugh out loud.

Don't worry, we've all been there.

Anonymous said...

Sure sounds like Publish America or daughter company of the same, to me.

Heidi the Hick said...

Hey anonymous, I don't think you're stupid, just eager and wanting to get published!!! Twice, I've ALMOST gotten snagged by a scam publisher. It takes time to get smart to this stuff.

You know the old "don't judge a book by it's cover" thing? I do. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I've looked at websites, decided I didn't like the way the books turned out and looked elsewhere. Likewise, if I can't find an agent on the web I don't query. I don't like sending a letter to someone I can't get any information on.

And when I finally land an agent, I'll let you know how my approach works!

Anonymous said...

A good rule of thumb if you're not willing to do your homework: if you don't immediately recognize the publisher's name, such as Random House, St. Martin's, Harper Collins, Warner, Penguin, Dutton, Norton, etc., don't submit.
Know that you're heading into an unknown area. What makes you think you, or your recently published friend, is an expert?
There's a reason these companies don't take unagented material. They deal with enough crap. But query letters addressed to a specific editor with an SASE usually gets a response. Maybe not the one you want, but a response.
Who knows? If you write a good enough query letter, you might be invited to submit.

Anonymous said...

Have you checked out this publisher on Preditors & Editors? Have you done a search under "Bewares & Background Checks" on AbsoluteWrite?

Have you tried to get an agent?

Have you approached other small but legitimate presses?

Anonymous said...

The words "brick and mortar" sent my alarm bells off. Sounds like you're talking about PubliSHAMerica. If so, run away!

Anonymous said...

Just curious. What is the genre of your book and that of your friend? How many pages? Is the press asking for money?

There are MANY excellent small presses out there. Just invest the time it takes to discover them.

Anonymous said...

I read Kit Whitfield's essay, which was excellent.

Another clue that should send you running for the exit: what does the publisher's contract say about the rights you'll hand over?

I came across one publisher's standard contract which begins with the primary and secondary rights that the publisher wants from the writer.

That publisher wants worldwide rights.

And for how long? For the full term of copyright available in each country included within the "Territory." Since the territory is the world, that means for the longest copyright term anywhere on the face of the earth. The US term is the writer's life plus something like seventy years.

And what does this publisher--run, no doubt, by people who seem to be very nice--want in terms of rights?

Trade Edition Rights
Mass Market Reprint Rights
Book Club Rights
General Publication Rights (abridgments, selections n anthologies, newspapers, magazines, etc.)
Electronic Rights (all methods, whether now known or hereafter invented)
Direct Mail Rights
Periodical Rights
Dramatic Rights
Motion Picture Rights
Television and Radio Rights
Videocassette and Audiocassette Rights
Commercial Rights (exclusive rights to manufacture and sell products, services, etc. etc.,)
Translation Rights
Photocopying Rights
Other Rights (just in case they forgot anything, or, again, anything new gets invented: "in any means of communication now in existence or hereafter devised")
British Commonwealth Rights.

The section on rights wraps up by saying that any rights not granted to the publisher are reserved by the writer. I'm sure that this was a bitter pill for the publisher: what if somehow they overlooked some corner of rights and the writer actually gets to keep something?

And what about the possibility that the rights will revert to the writer if the book goes out of print? The contract says that the book isn't out of print as long as it is available through print-on-demand.

Now, the publisher has said that this is the "standard contract" it starts with, but that it is willing to negotiate terms of the contract with writers.

Perhaps many, or even all, of the writers negotiated much better terms--like a term shorter than a century, or a territory smaller than earth, or a scope limited to, say, books.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, any writer who is still willing to consider a publisher that has a "standard contract" of this ilk is foolish. No matter how nice the publisher seems--this contract tells me that this is a bad company to do business with.

Anonymous said...

" Nevertheless, in my opinion, any writer who is still willing to consider a publisher that has a "standard contract" of this ilk is foolish. No matter how nice the publisher seems--this contract tells me that this is a bad company to do business with. "

One of the reasons there are such onerous boilerplate contracts out there is because authors will sign them. They will do *anything* to get published. And if this is a royalty-paying house (theoretically), it's not a vanity deal.
About eight years ago one publisher started buying manuscripts on basically a "work for hire" basis. RWA members got their bowels in an uproar. How unfair. How wrong. But the writers lined up to become published authors. At the time, the advance sucked. Now, by comparison to other first book advances, it looks generous.
Publishers know writers want to be published, whatever the personal cost.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous commented--
They will do *anything* to get published. And if this is a royalty-paying house (theoretically), it's not a vanity deal.

As Kit's essay, and the wikipedia entry she mentions, the infinitely creative minds of those who want to exploit desperate writers will find a way to do so. Hence the author mills.

And, yes, you are right that many writers are desperate to get published, even if it means signing a deal in which they give up all their rights to their own book--and in exchange for a piddling amount of royalties.

I think it makes more sense to just honestly self-publish with a company that prints the books than to get into bed with people who are looking to profit from exploiting the desperation of writers.

About eight years ago one publisher started buying manuscripts on basically a "work for hire" basis. RWA members got their bowels in an uproar. How unfair. How wrong. But the writers lined up to become published authors.

I'm not familiar with that particular work for hire program. Obviously, many, many writers are in the "work for hire" category as they are paid a fee or a salary for writing. Technical writers, for example. As long as they know what they're signing on for, I don't see a problem with that.

Publishers know writers want to be published, whatever the personal cost.

It isn't just personal cost, though--the cost can be to person's entire career as a writer. This particular contract that I saw not only called for the writer to give up all of his or her rights in the book for more than a century, but also gave the publisher the option to publish the next three books by the writer on the same terms.

If a writer falls for a publisher's inflated claims about being a very respectable and legitimate publisher, when in fact it is, say, just a couple of clueless guys in a home office in the garage, what happens to the writer's career when he or she "publishes" not just one, but four, books with them?

Aubadicus said...

When you talk about a larger-than-"normal" paperback, you're talking about what's known as a "trade" paperback - 5.5 x 8.5 is a very normal size for a paperback book. Probably, in fact, the most common size. I'm assuming you're thinking of a "normal" paperback as what's known in the trade as a "mass market" paperback - 4.25 x 7.25 inches - the size that John Grisham and Nora Roberts' books are published in. Not too many first time authors's books are published immediately in the mass market size (because there's generally not a mass market for them - mmpb's are sized for airport racks and newsstands).

At first blush, I wouldn't immediately freak out and assume the press is a scam. It really behooves you to do your homework on them, though.

Twill said...

Well, if the publisher has an option on your next three books, and you determine that the publisher is a scam artist, it is easy enough to pull an "artist formerly known as Prince" dodge.

It would take me less than a week to produce three crappy books. It might even be fun!

Let me see, several pages could be in a secret code that, once decoded, spells out "Publisher X sucks". Others could have mysterious diagrams and pictures of obscene squirrels. You could describe in loving detail all the things that are normally left out of novels. Bathroom breaks, nose picking, auto maintenance, the paperwork at your job. Entire chapters could consist of characters watching television and flipping channels - including actual random dialog from real shows.

Any other ideas?

Deb said...

Please do not make the mistake of assuming all small presses are scams. There is a continuum of these presses, ranging from pretty good to must-to-avoid, and only doing homework will differentiate them. A legit non-scam small press that doesn't have a good distribution system, that treats the authors poorly, that puts out expensive trade PBs with lame covers...these houses will NOT make it to Preditors & Editors, because they are not scam pubs. A poor business model does not a scam make.


Anonymous said...

I'm going to try to answer some of the questions asked.
1. No, it's not Publish America. I'm not that supid.
2. Yes, I've checked them out on Preditors and Editors. I was told they were too new to be on the list.
3. Hell, yes, I tried to get an agent. God, did I try.
4. No, the publisher did not ask for money. Again, I know better. They also do not charge any kind of fees. They do not charge for copies or postage either.
5. They want all rights for three years at which time all right revert to writer.
6. No options on next book(s) offered or implied.

Marion Gropen said...

There are a very large number of embryonic presses out there. Some are going to do a good job, but some will not.

Fiction that isn't in the bookstores isn't going to be all that successful. BUT if they have a new distributor, that's different kettle of fish. This is especially true if the distributor is Independent Publishers' Group (IPG), National Book Network (NBN), Consortium, or a large publisher such as Random or HC.

Second tier, but still reputable distributors, such as Midpoint Trade can also do a decent job.

Questions to ask: how fast will the book be published? (If it's less than a year, this is not a good sign. You need that time for things like galleys to the big pre-pub reviewers, and getting the sell sheets ready.)

How many ARCs or galleys do they usually do?

What kind of publicity do they usually do, and what kind of input and assistance will they want or allow from you?

If this small press is really going to get out and fight for sales, then you could have found a gem. If not, your book may well sink without trace.

And, let us not forget, all the big houses were also small once. Everyone starts somewhere.

[I should disclose that I am a consultant to small presses, and may be biased in their favor by that.]

Anonymous said...

Be careful. This really sounds like an author mill. Also, make sure you check out the fact of them having a distributor to make sure it is true. If they are indeed a scam company and claim they've recently gotten a distributor, they might actually mean something else - that a distributor has shown interest in them, for example.

Anonymous said...

I have a question for the author of this Snark question--

Is it Triskelon?

Anonymous said...

No, it's not Triskelon. Triskelon is RWA approved. I'd not worry about signing with them.

Anonymous said...

Twill commented: "It would take me less than a week to produce three crappy books. It might even be fun!"

I am confident you can. However, the publisher with the contract clause about options on the next three books is still ahead of you. That contract says that the publisher can make whatever changes in the manuscript it cares to, and that it has no obligation to send galleys to the writer before publication, or to get the writer's approval for changes in the manuscript.

Thus, if the publisher suspects that the writer has become snippy and wants to escape from the contract through a loophole, it can publish those three books written in one week, with whatever changes it cares to make. In an author mill system, there isn't much upfront cost to the publisher for each book released.

Now, the writer can certainly write under another name when the time comes to find a real publisher, and hope like hell that nobody ever connects him or her with the first book plus the three duds that the publisher has used to wreak vengeance on the writer. It will be especially unpleasant for the writer if he or she used the real name on the first one, and that name also appears on the three novels-in-a-week.

Anonymous said...

5. They want all rights for three years at which time all right revert to writer.

If this is a publisher which is both new and small, I'd be wondering what experience they have that makes them competent to handle the sub-licensing of rights beyond book publishing. Surely they have enough on their plate to publish and market books? If the people who run this business have no experience with marketing with respect to films, video games, toys, magazines, and so on, what's the point of entrusting the sub-licensing of those rights to them? (I'm assuming that you as the writer would get revenue from the sale.)

Many people who start up a home business as "book publishers" have good intentions. They don't set out to scam people. But you know about roads and good intentions. If the owners of the company lack experience, the business can go belly-up. What happens to your rights as the writer then? What does the contract provide with respect to your rights if the company must, or wants to, assign the rights to your book to some other company? Three years will seem like a mighty long time if your rights are assigned by the receiver, or the original publisher, to somebody you don't want to work with--and you can't start over with your book until the term is finished.

Anonymous, do see a lawyer who has expertise with intellectual property before making the big decision. Sometimes writers show their contracts to Preditors and Editors before signing.

Simon Haynes said...

"The words "brick and mortar" sent my alarm bells off."

Resonated, you might say.