Always Read the Contract (Know When to Say “No”)

writing tips

There is nothing more exciting and fulfilling than to be an author without an agent who receives that coveted email or letter from a publisher saying that they want to publish your book.

It truly is incredible. It’s like a complete state of euphoria.

And it should be.  You worked hard, and your novel got picked up.  Time to celebrate!

But once you’ve finished celebrating, you have to let that excitement go and look at the deal objectively, because not everyone has your best interests at heart.

It can be hard when you worked a long time, queried a lot of people, to not just sign the contract and move on with your journey towards being a published author. It’s very tempting, but don’t sell yourself short.

What follows is a case study in two different offers I received for my novel. I’ll present them side by side so you can see the contrast.  To protect anonymity, I’ll call the two publishers, “Publisher #1” and “Publisher #2*.”

The Initial Offer Email

Publisher #1:  A form letter to “Frank L” from Query Manager letting me know that I’m I’ve been offered a contract and instructing me to click on the link to find the contract to fill it out and sign to move forward.  The email also gave me a contact email if I have questions.

Publisher #2:  A personal email to “Mx. Tybush” from the acquiring editor letting me know that I’ve been offered a contract (which was attached).  The editor gave me 60 days to think over the deal but encouraged me to reach out to all of their authors to find out their experiences.  The editor even provided a means to contact them.  They went on to offer me a free copy of one of their books so I can evaluate their work.  They let me know that if I have any questions or concerns about the contract to reach out to them.

The Contract

Publisher #1:  Lots of confusing “legalese” with statements that seemed contradictory.  There were grammatical errors.  When I showed this contract to two separate legal consultants, they both came back with pages of notes and questions and suggestions for changes.  I expressed all these concerns to the publisher.

I also expressed that I wanted to be a part of the marketing and graphic design process (the contract said it was out of my hands entirely, and I had to use the materials they created).  I shared my experience in this field because it’s literally my day job.

Publisher #2:  The contract was very straight-forward.  While written in legal terms, there wasn’t any of the legalese double-speak and contradictory statements.  There was one missing apostrophe, and I had a few small questions, and one requested change.

While the contract was less forceful on marketing and graphic design, it did state that they had a department that did the cover art and some of the marketing.  I also expressed that I wanted to be a part of this and shared my credentials in this field.

The Reply

Publisher #1:  In the email, they assured me that my concerns weren’t founded and went to great lengths to explain why they wouldn’t do any of the things that the contract said they could do.  They swore up and down they had my best interest in mind, but in the end, they said they physically couldn’t change the contract, and I had to sign it as is or not at all.  They also stated that the grammatical errors were correct per their style guide.

[Quick break in the format for some notes on this.  I went back to my legal consultants, one of which writes contracts for large companies and has extensive amounts of experience.  They regularly handle contracts for million-dollar deals.  They told me that not once in their experience have they come across a legal style guide that said that grammatical errors were correct.  They said in the rule of law that grammar always takes precedence over style.  He also said that he’s never heard of a trustworthy company that wouldn’t negotiate at all with a potential client.]

The publisher also said that when it came to graphic design and marketing that they were the professionals, and while I could make suggestions, they had the experience where I did not.  I would have to use what they created and only what they created.

Publisher #2:  In the email, they answered all the questions and agreed to not only fix the missing punctuation but to adjust the contract to address my concerns.  (They sent the modified contract over within ten minutes of that email).  They also invited me to their weekly team meeting so I could meet everyone.  They said whether I sign the contract before the meeting or not, they were open to me joining so I could get a feel of how they work and ask any questions.

With the graphic design and cover art, they said they were open to having me help and participating as much as I’d like to.  They stated that their design team loves to collaborate and that my experience would be valuable.

The Verdict

[One more quick break for another note, I got the contract for Publisher #1 almost a month before I got the contract for Publisher #2.  When I made this decision, I wasn’t choosing between two.  For all I knew, the contract Publisher #1 offered could have been the only contract I was ever offered.]

Publisher #1:  I ultimately decided that I couldn’t trust over five years of blood, sweat, and tears I put into my book to a company that seemed to care very little about my concerns.  In a last-ditch effort to see if they would change the contract, I replied that I felt that if they couldn’t make the requested changes that I would have to turn them down.

I never got a reply back.

Publisher #2:  I signed with them, and it’s been the best decision of my writing life.


Writing is hard (I’ll resist the urge to insert a Supernatural gif here). 

It is frightening every time you put a query out there.  That being said, if one publisher offers you a contract, there is a good chance another one will too. Don’t let a company take advantage of you “just to get published.” 

There are oodles of stories of companies taking advantage of artists. Don’t become one of those horror stories.

Read the contract, and please, know that it is okay to say “no.”


*Though to be honest, Publisher #2 won’t be hard to figure out, since they are publishing my book.

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