A is for author: 2 things that authors need to know before signing with a publisher

Updated: Aug 24

Carrying on from our previous article, A is for Author: what publishers need to know, we’re going to tell you what authors need to know before signing with a publisher! We’ve had a few people ask us ‘why are you going to give authors all this information? Doesn’t that put you at a disadvantage?’


No, it doesn’t. Informed authors make everyone’s lives easier. They’re aware of what contracts should look like and how they should be treated. Informed authors can demand fair royalties and make informed decisions. Whilst this does sound like it puts publishers and agents at a disadvantage, we have to remember that, in the publishing world, the publisher has the advantage.

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Authors having a slight advantage in knowledge and research still does not jeopardise our positions as industry experts. It simply means that they can advocate for fair contracts and terms for themselves, which in return means a better relationship with their publishers. We have to work together for months, sometimes years at a time, and it’s important to start that relationship on a positive note.

We’re going to take you through two key points:

  • What authors need to know before signing with a publisher

  • What authors can expect from their publisher


What authors need to know before signing with a publisher:


If the house represents the author's genre
  • This is a pretty basic one, but you need to know if the publishing house/agent actually represents your genre or is it something they’re branching out to? There’s nothing wrong with branching out, but you need to be assured that they have the expertise to do so.

Contract terms that will catch you out
  • We’ll be going over this in more detail when we make our way down the list, but you need to thoroughly read and understand your contract! As soon as you sign it, you’re locked in, so you need to make sure that you understand every clause. There are lawyers out there that specialise in publishing law, but I know this isn’t a viable choice for everyone. The basics you need to make sure are:

  • That they’re only contracting you for the one book series. You need to watch out for terms like ‘all works written by…’. This means that they could claim that every work you’re written/participated in is theirs. You’ll want to make sure that the contract specifically states what book or if it’s a series, and how many of the books in the series.


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  • A clause that releases you from the contract if they don’t publish your book by a certain time. We have a 2-3 year timeline to get a book published at SmashBear. If we haven’t published the book in that time, then we either renegotiate the contract with the author or wait until the time runs out and we go our separate ways. We haven’t had to do this yet, but it’s there to protect the authors. Many authors get tied up in contracts like this, which prevents them from putting their work out. If you find a contract with the above two clauses in, and you sign it, you will lose any right to publish your book with anyone else or on your own.

Industry-standard royalties
  • You need to know what to expect. Royalties are all about negotiation. The publisher will aim low as the less money we have to give to the author, the more money we get to keep. The author wants to go high because that’s how they make money from their books.

  • It varies from publisher to publisher. There may also be mitigating factors such as advances, subsidiary rights, a series deal etc., which will affect what royalties are offered.


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Communication is two way
  • This advice actually came from our own authors, Courtney Pollman-Turner and John Ortega. You need to know how much you’ll be communicating with your editing team and on what. We use Slack which is an instant messaging service, meaning our authors have access to their editing teams throughout all hours working hours of the day.

  • Some publishers may communicate via email, notes on documents etc. However they communicate, you need to be ready to communicate your own needs. You need to be able to tell your editing team if there’s something vital to the story that you’d rather keep, if you need to take a break etc.

  • You do lose a certain amount of creative control to the publisher, but as the author, your job is to keep the essence of the story alive in the midst of edits.

What your hard limits are when it comes to editing
  • At SmashBear, we will give you a plan of what we are going to edit before we sign the contract. This gives both parties time to consider the direction the book will go, how long it will take etc. Some authors have dropped out at this stage because they either didn’t think their book required the edits, or they were unwilling to do them for their own reasons. This is something that we actually encourage!

  • There’s no point in playing the martyr and ‘sacrificing’ your book to the industry for the sake of saying you’re a published author. If you don’t want to edit certain aspects of your book, you need to communicate that with your team before contracts are signed. This may result in your deal being dropped because publishers do need to make sure that the books we’re taking on will generate profit, but you may find another house that agrees with you. Or you may find self-publishing to be the best option for you.

  • Just keep in mind that nothing will be published by a house until it has been edited. Even if it’s just so that the manuscript matches the house style guide.

That you will lose creative control over title, blurb, cover etc, in favour of market viability
  • You need to be prepared for this.

  • No, we’re not going to use your friend's illustrations

You will need to do your own marketing
  • Your team will do all they can to market your book. However, consumers don’t tend to buy from businesses. They want to buy from authors. You need to be generating your own audience/following. It’s a vital part of publishing that a lot of people gloss over. Look at any major author, and you’ll see all of the marketing they do. Unless they’re millionaires, odds are that it isn’t a team behind them. It’s that author doing their own marketing.


What authors can expect from their publisher

Bare minimum:
  • Constant contact and communication about the project

  • Provide the book cover, title, and blurb

  • Market your book

  • Edit the book to match the house style guide

  • Consult with you on any changes to be made to the story/characters

Hey, they’re pretty good:
  • Let you have input on the cover, title, blurb and won’t proceed without your approval

  • Market your book and give you some input on how to run your own marketing. E.g. social media, getting on talk shows, blogs etc.

  • Give you at least one full copy edit before publication

Wow, they’re awesome:
  • Wants your full input, inspiration and ideas for the cover, title, and blurb

  • Will teach you how to market your book

  • Fully edit the book with you

  • Give you a certain amount of free copies

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