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Top Six Things to Ask a Publishing Company Before You Sign a Contract

Where are you, as a writer, supposed to submit your work? How are you to know where you will get the best results for the best price? How can you avoid being ripped off by a publishing house that leaves you disappointed and in debt with only a poor-quality book and no help with marketing strategies?

Most people dream of publishing with a major traditional publisher. That would seem ideal. They would cover the cost of printing and have a number of marketing resources. Unfortunately, according to, there are only six large publishing companies in the U.S. Imagine the millions of manuscripts they must receive every year. If you have an established writer's platform with thousands of followers, and your well-written manuscript has celebrity endorsement, your well-connected agent might be able to get your manuscript into the acquisitions editor's hands. Then, you have to wait and see if the acquisitions editor believes your manuscript can make them a profit. If not...

If striking a deal with a major publishing house seems a bit unlikely, you have other options. Some of your many choices are: self-publishing, vanity publishing, cooperative publishing, and collaborative publishing. And that's only to name a few.

With so many options available, it can be overwhelming. To make matters worse, many companies won't tell you where they stand until after they hook you. They figure that if they can get you communicating with them before you realize the high price of their services or the low quality and/or royalties they offer, they can still convince you to sign their contract. After all, the difficult thing is getting you in the door. Once you're there, they will attack like sharks who've scented blood.

So, what can you do? How do you weed through all the double talk and bypass all the manipulation techniques to find the best publishing company for your needs? Simple. Before you do anything else, ask them these six questions. If they dance around your questions or try to get you to do anything before they give you a clear answer, run for the hills.

Here's what you should ask:

1. What will I be responsible for financially in the publishing process, and what will it cost me?

You need to know up front if you're going to have to pay for cover art, editing, formatting, ISBNs, printing, copyrights, etc. But make sure you also ask how much it will cost. The standard price for a cover artist can range anywhere from $250 to $350. You will find some that charge more, but you can get a good quality cover for around those prices. If they quote you a price much greater than that, you might want to look around at other companies.

If they claim to be a traditional publishing company, their answer to this question should be $0.

2. Do you use stock photos for the cover art of your books, or do artists draw unique covers for each one?

There is nothing wrong with using stock photos for book covers if the cover is professionally designed and put together. If it is not professionally done, your book will scream "self-published and poor quality," and that will seriously hurt your chances of having good sales.

The main reason you need to know if they use stock photos is because it will affect the price. If they charge you $300 for a book cover and then use stock photos instead of hiring an artist, they're ripping you off.

3. What royalties will I receive?

If you sign with a traditional publishing company, you can expect to receive around 10% to 30% royalties. That means, you will have to sell a whole bunch of books to make much profit. If you self-publish, you can retain 100% of the royalties. Vanity publishers, cooperative publishers, and collaborative publishers can offer royalties anywhere in between.

The reason for this imbalance relates to who is taking the risk. Traditional publishing companies cover all the expenses, so they are taking the risk that your book will sell. They need to earn back as much of their investment as they can as soon as possible. If you self-publish, you cover the cost for everything; you take all the risk. The risk is varied for other publishing categories. You need to make sure you understand where they stand.

4. Who will hold the copyright for my book?

This is where some publishing companies will get you. They want you to pay most or all of the cost of publishing, but they want to hold the copyright for your book, just in case it takes off and becomes a best seller. If Hollywood wants to make a movie about it, the publishing company is the one who will profit the most.

Another thing to consider is what if you're unsatisfied with the quality of the publishing company’s work and want to move your book to another publishing house? What if you decide to make changes to the book? Not owning the copyright could mean that you're forbidden to do anything without a lengthy legal battle or an expensive or time-consuming agreement. You need to decide if you are willing to risk letting someone else forever own your words.

5. Will I have any say in setting the price for my book or in choosing the cover art?

This might not seem like a big deal, but it really is. The wrong price listed on your book can stop sales dead in their tracks. Your book's price should be similar to the market standard for your genre. Many times, I've seen vanity publishing companies or self-published authors price their books at $10, $15, or, once, even $20 higher than other books in their genre. Most well-known authors spend years building their platforms. They each have a ready audience that is willing to pay more for their books. When you find yourself in this situation, you will have more flexibility with your pricing. However, until thousands of fans are prepared to pre-order your book, the price needs to be low enough for a reader to gamble on whether or not they will like your writing.

You do have to consider the cost of printing and the percentage that will be taken out by distributors, (if you choose to go that route), so it's good to listen to advice from your publisher, but it's your book. You are the one who's paying for it. You are the one who will be selling it. You should have a say in the price.

You also want to have a say in what design is on your book cover. You wrote the book. You know what it's about. If your publishing company assigns the book cover to someone who doesn't bother to read it first, there's no telling what they will come up with for the cover.

I would also strongly suggest that you look at other books they've published. Are their covers eye-catching? Are they professional? All of them? An amateurish book cover is a dangerous sign. They might create a similar cover for you. It's your money, but you might want to move on to another publisher.

6. Do you offer any marketing training or assistance with setting up a writer's platform?

When I first got into the publishing business, I ended up investing way more than I should have. How hard can it be? I thought. I just have to find someone to do the cover, someone to edit the manuscript, and figure out how to format it. It can't be too difficult to get a copyright. I don't really need a real one anyway, right? For marketing, I'll just start a Facebook page and post pictures of my book, maybe get a book trailer done. Easy, right?

I started my book marketing by setting up Facebook, blog, Google+, and Twitter accounts. Eventually, I was spending more time updating my marketing sites than I was writing. Then I began looking into all sorts of expensive advertising. I tried many of them with little results. After a while, I realized that I had been spending all kinds of money and time advertising on media sites that my target audience rarely used. For example, I ended up paying around $3,500 for one marketing tool that I later discovered shouldn't have cost me anywhere near that much. I eventually found someone who would do a much better job for $600. What I'm saying is yes, you can do it yourself, but without guidance from someone who knows, you'll most likely end up spending an unnecessarily large amount of time and money when, with a little assistance, you could be much more successful with a much smaller investment.


Self-publishing can be a good way to go if you know what you're doing. And, no, just talking to any friend who's self-published before does not mean you know what you're doing. Before you take their advice, you might want to find out how much money they've put into publishing their books, how many books they've published, and how many copies they've sold. If they've managed to turn out high-selling, good-quality books for a low price, then by all means, talk to them. If they haven't... Well, not all advice is good advice. It is far from easy for writers who are new to the market to find professionals in the writing field who can help them get their books looking good enough to be competitive. Having a book look self-published is a death knell for your writing career.

What do you do then? Research publishing companies. Since it is next to impossible for new writers to get the attention of traditional publishers, the next best bet is to find a cooperative or collaborative publisher. Just make sure that they are what they say they are. And ask questions!

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