Monday, March 24, 2008

Ten Questions to Ask

Before I even sat down to address this morning's post, Dear Author announced two more e-publishers are in trouble here.

According to DA's Jane, Shadowrose Press is not responding to author questions and Dark Eden Press is closing due to owner illness.

While I cannot comment on the Shadowrose Press situation, the misfortune at Dark Eden highlights one of the risks writers take when signing up with a small e-publishing operation dependent upon a "key" person. That's how "key man" insurance came into being (see here).

Life happens. People get sick, get married, have babies and move. Your job as a professional writer is to ensure that the publishers you work with will continue to do business no matter what life throws at its employees.

I promised to list questions I would ask before signing with an e-publisher. Here are some of the things I would want to know--and I would verify the answers I got directly from the e-publisher with other knowledgeable writers.


1) How is the publisher set up? Is it a sole proprietorship, a limited partnership or a corporation? How long have they been in business? While not deal breakers in and of themselves, I think these questions can be helpful when considered in the context of all the other questions you will ask.

To highlight why the number of years in business should not be the sole criteria on which you make a decision, let me tell a personal story. Before Samhain went into operation, Crissy Brashear invited me to send a manuscript to her. Because it would have been my very first published novel and because Samhain was an unproven entity, I declined. She was very gracious in response and, of course, Samhain has gone on to success. Even though, at that point, Samhain had not yet started, Crissy herself had e-publishing experience already (at Ellora's Cave). I wonder how I would have responded if NCP had asked me to submit a manuscript at that time? They've been in business since 1996.

2) Who are the owners? Are they published writers? If so, are they publishing their work alongside their authors' works? This would raise huge conflict-of-interest red flags for me. I want my publisher focused on the profitability of the operation, not on his or her own sales.

Let me add: There are cases where writers have successfully owned an e-publishing operation (Ellora's Cave and Loose Id spring to mind); however, in both those cases, there appear to be arms-length relationships and additional executive staff besides the writer owners.

3) I would want to know that the owner/publisher had separated his/her personal accounts/expenses from the operation's accounts/expenses. (As an aside, I'd probably want this addressed in my publishing contract even if the e-publisher's boilerplate did not include that language).

4) I'd be asking about the size of the operation. Caveat: I actually know one e-publisher who simply takes pseudonyms depending on whether she is acting as publisher, editor or customer service department. I'd try ordering books from that e-publisher at different times of the day and on the weekends to see how the links worked and what happened when I tried to contact Customer Service.

5) I'd check the reputation of the e-publisher online and among writers. I want to do business with professionals.

One of the things that struck me in the recent New Concepts Publishing mess was how often the company's response got personal--either in the excuses made by the author liaison or in the reported posts/emails by the owner. Most recently, the NCP owner reportedly issued a post, asking writers to give her the names of Canadian attorneys so she can sue for "defamation." (see Ellen Ashe's blog here).

6) I'd ask the name of the editor I could expect to be assigned to. Then I'd try to find someone who knew that editor.

7) I'd ask about foreign rights, specifically rights associated with languages beyond English. If the e-publisher does not have a sub-rights operation, I'd want to make sure the contract only specified "exclusive worldwide English language rights."

Since I've wandered into contract territory, here are some more contract issues:

8) Sandra Ferguson raised an excellent point yesterday in the comments to my post. I'd alluded to the subject previously in my post about contracts here under the "royalty" heading. Any clause relating to royalty should specify how that royalty is calculated, not simply a percentage number.

9) Most contracts will specify in great detail what is expected from the author in the way of performance. It is the author's job to specify what is expected from the e-publisher. Among performance items I'd want would be a date range for expected publication of the work in question and the consequence to the publisher for failing to publish within that period of time.

10) I would pay particular attention to what constitutes grounds for reversion of rights to the author. I personally would prefer not to have a number of years determine when my right revert. I'd probably seek to negotiate specific performance thresholds such as if the book is removed from the website and/or if the book fails to meet a minimum threshold of sales during a certain period of time.

I'm sure others can think of other pitfalls to avoid. These are just the ones that sprang to my mind when I mentioned the subject yesterday.

No comments: