20 March 2009

Publisher Blues-How To Choose

It has come to my attention that the links for my articles on how to choose an indie publisher, specifically one that does e-books (either exclusively or in conjunction with print books), have somehow been scratched from the ERWA archives. While my marketing articles are still there, there seems to have been a partial loss of old information. Since it's unlikely I'll lose the links on this blog, I'm reposting the articles here!

Publisher Blues: How to Choose
Part 1
by Brenna Lyons
Which publisher/s should I submit to? or... What is/are the best, stable market/s for my work? This is one of the most important questions an author will ever ask, whether he/she is going to publish electronically or not. In many ways, the important factors remain the same: a fair contract, quality product, reliability of royalty payments, distribution channels, and so on. But, finding an indie/e publisher is not the same as finding a NY conglomerate publisher.
For one thing, according to Para Publishing, there are six recognized conglomerate publishers in the US, four of whom are not US-owned. Some other sources include a seventh. Those would include: Random House/Bertelsmann Group, Holtzbrinck/Macmillan, Harper Morrow/Harper Collins, CBS/Simon and Schuster, Groupe Lagardere/Time Warner, Pearson/Penguin Putnam, and Reed Elsevier/Harcort and Holt.
At the same time...and from the same source of Para Publishing, there are more than 86,000 small and self-publishers in the US alone and between 300 and 400 medium-sized publishers in the US alone. The US alone...and no single entity tracks all publishers. Now, that's not saying that all small or medium-sized publishers do e-books, and I can name a few that don't, but with that staggering number, it's easy to see why you will never find a comprehensive list of e-publishers, as you do for NY conglomerates and their associated lines.
So, where do you start? How do you find the needle in the proverbial haystack? There are several good ways to set out to find an indie/e publisher for your books.
The first way is to start making a list of indie/es that put out the type of book you have written. As I've told authors looking for a print publisher to scan their bookshelves or browse the bookstore to find publishers that put out their type of books, e-authors can do the same. Start with the e-books/trade paperbacks you read. Even if you don't, go browsing.
Fictionwise is currently the largest reseller of e-books; imagine Barnes and Noble for e-books or whatever the largest chain bookstore is, in your corner of the world. You can start by browsing the genre pages to the left of the screen and making a list of publishers in your genre. Then go to Fictionwise's publisher page. Clicking on a publisher name from your list will take you to the books they have listed on Fictionwise. Each publisher page comes complete with a link to the publisher's home site, where you can learn more about them and purchase more of their books. At the time of this article (early 2008), there are only 684 publishers listed on the Fictionwise site. As I said, even the largest reseller only tracks a drop in the bucket of available publishers, and you'll notice that the NY conglomerate e-books are listed with the indie/e-books on FW, which means not all of the 684 are indie publishers. Fictionwise has recently purchased eReader.com from Palm, so I won't tell you to check out eReader, as I would have even a few months ago.UPDATE TO THE ARTICLE: Please note that B&N has recently purchased FW and is currently adding the FW databases of e-books to the B&N site.
If you write romance or erotic romance, you might also want to check out ARe. AllRomanceeBooks.com is one of the larger resellers, but it focuses only on the romance sub-genres.
Now that you've finished browsing through virtual bestsellers, you might want to see who the award-winners are. Sadly, there is no central list of what e-books have finaled or won in every major book award in existence, and since many print books are available in e-book and vice versa, sorting it out would be a mess.
At the same time, there are two awards that are only open to e-books: the EPPIE and the Dream Realm Award. The EPPIE is the longest-standing (at 10 years) and most-inclusive (at 30 categories of fiction and non-fiction). The Dream Realm Award is a close second at 8 years and 7 categories of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, as well as YA, romance and erotic cross-genres thereof. Browsing the former winners will give you an idea of what companies compete best. Granted, like any professionally-judged award, only those who enter are competing for said awards. That a given, the EPPIE has had entrants from NY publishers, like Kensington and Harlequin, as well as former NY Times bestsellers, like Robert Adams and Piers Anthony.
In addition, awards like the IPPY, open only to small independent presses and self-publishers, may add some companies you might like to investigate to your list.
But not all indie/e publishers list with one of the larger resellers. Not all of them will show on the bestseller lists that the resellers post or on the yearly one that IDPF posts, which is cobbled together from a scant handful of the possible sources for sales data on e-publishing. Not all of them have won awards or even entered for them, especially newer publishers.
You might wonder why anyone would go with a publisher that is not established yet, and that will be covered in next month's column. One reason is that, just as editors and agents leave one NY publishing venture and start their own literary agencies, established publishers from one indie may choose to leave the nest and start their own publishing ventures, bringing all of their amassed knowledge and business contacts/networking with them. In just such a way, Crissy Bashear of Samhain was once a part of Ellora's Cave. In short, Samhain started life with a professional bearing, feet on the track and running. That is just one of the many variables that will take you forward from this point. This early in the selection process, even new publishers should be considered viable choices.
Back to the subject of making that list of prospective publishers for your work, you can ask for which publishers other authors would recommend or not, based on their experiences, and what publishers readers prefer to purchase from in your genre. Writer's lists, like ERA-Writers, FictionThat Sells, MikesWritingWorkshop, BroadUniverse and PNWriters, are a good place to start. Yahoogroups also has a wide array of genre lists for authors and for readers. While readers will share their favorites...and sometimes the ones that aren't favorites on list, many authors prefer to share their poor experiences off open lists and only list their good experiences in the thread. Remember to invite them to contact you off list.
Now you have a personalized list of potential markets to submit your work to.
As I said, there is no single list of all indie/e publishers in existence. With the number that come and go from the market every year, such a thing would be impossible to keep current. Like any other business venture, there is a steep rate of attrition on new publishers. Most small businesses fail ultimately, and 85% of those that fail do so within the first five years. For that reason, next month, we'll be looking at risk management and finding the stable indie/e publishers.

Part 2
Last month, I walked you through preparing a list of potential indie/e markets. But, that's only half the journey to choosing a publisher. This month, I'll be discussing how to whittle that list down to those you intend to submit your work to.
Take a close look at the publisher sites. It's a guarantee that indie/e publishers will have a home site, no matter what distribution they have for their books elsewhere. It's the showcase not only for their works but also for their company policies and submissions guidelines.
Sometimes, the publisher site will out them as unprofessional. I don't just mean how user-friendly the site is, though that is certainly important for sell-through. If the reader can't easily find and purchase your book, it's a strike against the publisher, from the start.
On the contrary, I'm referring to red flags on the site.
Are essential pages down/unavailable? Poor site maintenance is not a good sign.
Do pages contradict each other? Does one page, for example, quote a 35% royalty rate and another 40%?
Are industry terms misused? For instance, one site I evaluated misused "erotica" to mean BDSM only, as if there was no other form of erotica around.
Do they make claims that are not consistent with the industry? A publisher that claims a 35% royalty rate on e-books is "among the highest in the industry" doesn't know the industry, and that's a major red flag. Royalty rates of 30-40% on e-books sold from the home site are the minimum expected in indie/e, and authors with a proven record often hold out for between 40 and 50%. Of course, distribution to third party resellers cuts that take in half, but that's to be expected.
Are there unusual or unworkable requests for submissions? By this, I refer to asking for a novella or three full chapters of a novel, submitted in the body of an e-mail. I'll get into submissions next month, but trust me that this is an unconscionable thing to demand of an author. Is the publisher asking for the submission in PDF? The standard file types are DOC or RTF, for cross-platform issues (Mac to Windows to Linux) and simple manipulation of the file. Not only does PDF not carry freedom from viral infection, but it cannot be as easily manipulated as a DOC or RTF can.
Are there major typos and other editing errors on the web page? Editors and agents often state that they trash any query that has such errors, because it shows sloppy professional bearing and alludes to similar problems in the manuscript. I will turn this back to the author. If the site is so riddled with errors, what are the chances you're going to get a decent edit and presentation for your book?
Now, start looking for the pertinent details you need to make an informed decision on the viability of the publisher. Read the FAQs and other author-related pages.
With the rise of electronic publishing and internet usage, it is not uncommon to end up with a publisher that is outside your country of residence. Though many countries have adopted reciprocal copyright laws, there are still concerns you need to address.
How will you be paid? Some Canadian publishers pay only in Canadian dollars and only by check, leaving a US author the huge losses of bank fees to collect their royalties. With a publisher outside your country, PayPal is a good way to receive payment, and PayPal, despite the problems of a few years back, is still a viable way to pass royalty money.
Even if your publisher is in the same country you are, there are choices in how you may be paid. In addition to check and PayPal, some publishers have arranged for direct deposit of author royalties. This is actually very beneficial to authors.
Others have pay vendors other than PayPal, like Paystone (now defunct, I believe). Though these vendors may work for the publisher, they may not work for authors in every country. Check the pay vendor carefully and be sure it's viable for you, as an author.
Does the publisher send review copies out? If so, to how many places? One publisher I evaluated crowed about sending out ARCs to three sites, as if that's doing a major service to the author. While I agree that a few solid reviews are better than five dozen review copies sent out, this is a chance at exposure for your book. Readers who use reviews in the purchase process tend to stick to a few core sites and not search for reviews all over the web. A company sending to the top six or eight is highly preferable to one that sends only to two or three. Note that this may not be covered in the FAQ. If so, you'll have to check this in a later step of the process of weeding out the publishers.
Is there a contract on the site? If so, read it carefully. Indie/e contracts are typically written in plain English. If there's anything you don't understand, it would be in your best interests to get it explained (both by the publisher and another author not with that publisher) before signing. If you sign a bad contract, you have only yourself to blame for it.
You'd do well to check the EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection) model contract at http://epicorg.com/documents/for-authors/9-model-contract.htmland the red flags at http://epicorg.com/documents/for-authors/10-epics-red-flagyellow-flag-list.html This contract and the flags were created by one of EPIC's member-attorneys, Elise Dee Beraru. It's since been adopted into the law course at several law schools.
I've added a few red flags since then (in my own list of them), just based on personal experience and contracts people have sent me to ask if I saw any red flags in them.

If there is no mention of what the author can do with the cover art to promote...either in the contract or as a rider, upon asking, this is a red flag for the author. Being in a situation where you cannot use your own cover art on a t-shirt (not to sell but to wear personally) or other "billboard marketing approaches" (as covered in my marketing articles) strains the author's ability to market effectively. Being limited to using the art on a web site and bookmarks or postcards is too narrow for effective marketing.
If there is no mention of "reasonable edits," of edits that must be approved by the author, or a time period during which edits must be completed, it is a red flag for the author. The last thing you want to do is give a publisher the right to make major changes to your work without your approval. While I firmly agree that a publisher has final say over the quality of book that is put out and simple punctuation and grammar edits should be within their control, changes that affect continuity, plotline and character should have a final call by the author.
Note that this does not apply to works written to the publisher's world Bible for a continuity series. In that case, the publisher has full say over character, plot and continuity.
If the author is not in such a situation, and they cannot come to an agreement on major edits, the contract should be nullified. It is not an asset to a publisher to have an unreasonable author on board...or one that puts the publisher at risk of IP cases by refusing to bow to trademark and copyright concerns. It is not helping either the author or the publisher to release a substandard book. Neither is it an asset to the author to lose editorial say in the book; publishers have abused this, in the past.
If there is a length of copyright clause for the term of contract, without any out-clause for the author, based on sales or other factors, it is a major red flag for the author. This one is fairly self-explanatory. Why lock yourself into a lifetime plus contract, when the standard in indie/e is somewhere between two and five years, without any hope of demanding release from the contract, at some point in the future?In NY, it might be more likely to see out clauses that include the book being unavailable for sale for more than a certain time period, lack of sales recorded for a particular period, and/or lack of new releases of the title.
If there is no mention of when royalties will be paid, it is a red flag. I don't just mean a notation that royalties will be paid quarterly. A proper phrasing should include some time frame from the end of quarter/month (i.e. will be paid within 30/45/60/etc. days of end of quarter), to include all moneys collected from site sales and third party vendors, during that period. Keep that in mind... Moneys collected/received. If a reseller, for instance, pays 45 days after end of quarter, payment to the author will likely not be on the first royalty cycle after the end of that quarter but rather on the cycle following that, when the money is in the publisher's account.
If there is no mention of what to do in case of a publisher breach of contract, it is a red flag for the author. Ideally, it should state a course of action to be taken by each party. In some cases, that course is that the author will send a certified letter to the publisher, detailing the breach and demanding return of rights, unless the breach is handled to satisfaction. The publisher will have a specified period of time from date of notice (date that the publisher received the letter...not when it was mailed, hence the certified letter) to correct the breach (usually 30 to 90 days). If the breach is not resolved, the contract would be null and void and the rights would return to the author. This is just an example of what should be present in a contract.
If there is no mention of assignability of rights, in short the fact that the rights should be unassignable by the publisher in case of dissolution or bankruptcy, and a bankruptcy release clause, the author should request that these things be added to the contract. Though they can be disregarded by a bankruptcy court, they show an effort to proactively protect author rights, in advance of any problems. Though it may seem a publisher discussing dissolution of the company or bankruptcy at the start should concern an author, it is better that they are covered, up front.
A blanket first right of refusal clause is not only a bad idea for an author but may be non-enforceable, based on other contracts already in motion. Even a first right of refusal on the same series should be carefully spelled out. What constitutes the same series? Are related series or spin-offs with a different timeline and/or characters considered part of the original? How much mention of the original binds the new works? The same world? The same characters? Mention of them? Even meeting old characters or new people from world A on world B? What happens if they refuse a piece of the world? Does it release any further works in that world or just that one work? Do you have the right to do what you want with the one they've refused? Can you offer free reads in the series as marketing? This is something you want to have clearly defined.
Of course, the old caveats apply. An author should never let the publisher "own" a pen name, a world (unless the author is writing from a continuity series Bible that the publisher provided), etc.
So, the publisher has made it past the web page inspection and the contract concerns...if you can see an advance copy of the contract, and you can't always do that. You're ready to submit, right? Not yet.
Some things you can't even see on the web page. What else do you have to do? Check hipiers.com and P&E/Writer's Beware, but take the lists with a grain of salt. I've seen them used to correctly identify a publisher's problems, and I've seen them abused by disgruntled people with chips on their shoulders to malign a publisher. It's a good place to start, but it's not the end of your journey.
Your next step is to talk to authors with the publishers left on your list (both authors with one book and those with several signed to the publisher)...and those formerly with the publisher to find out:
Who's running the show?
What backgrounds in the industry and in business, in general, do these people have?
What name/reputation do they carry in the business?
What's the business plan and is it any good?
What's the distribution like?
Are there places you'd like to see them expand to?
Are they planning to go those routes or not? Better to know up front, if you can.
What types of books do they offer? e-Book only, print only, or both?
If both, do they offer e-Book first and then print? In which case, what bar do you have to reach to get print? How is it handled? Does everyone that makes the bar get print? Don't assume they do.
Do they do e-Book and print together, a simultaneous release of the two? That will likely extend your time to release, but if you want both e-book and print, it's a guaranteed way to both.
If they do e-book only or print only, do you retain your rights to the other to take them elsewhere? Don't give that up. If they don't do both, don't give them both. For that matter, if they don't intend to use both, don't give them both.
How long has the publisher been in business, and how stable do authors consider them to be, at this time? In this young industry, a publisher that's five years old is considered established, and one that has reached a decade is an old guard publisher.
There are pros and cons to signing with a start-up publisher, one that is less than a year old. Though being a new publisher is inherently a higher risk than an established publisher, a new publisher run by established industry professionals and with established authors can be a plus to your career. It allows you to come in on the ground floor, surrounded by relative giants, and build a fan base with cross-readership from established names. It may even allow you to forge new genres within the company and be the cornerstone for those lines.

There are ups and downs in any small business, but serious internal structure problems should never be ignored.
Are royalties paid on time and according to contract?
Are royalty reports provided promptly and in a readable format?
Do the authors get a royalty statement that covers the basics of what books sell, how many copies and where?
Are the authors happy with their earnings? Do they earn much more or less with that publisher than other publishers they are with? You don't want to ask for precise figures, because many authors won't give them, but they will give comparisons.
How user-friendly is the site?
How easy is it to search for authors, individual titles and genres?
How complete are book listings, and how professional a presentation?
How easy is it to purchase books?
How are they delivered?
Are there customer service complaints?
What formats do they offer?
A user-friendly site that still has lousy sales is a bad thing. A user-unfriendly site is also a bad thing.
If it's not already on the site, what's the contract?
What concerns do the authors with them have about the contract? I've had authors tell me not to sign the contract without consulting a lawyer, with some publishers. That's a bad sign. It means they feel they were treated unfairly in contract...or could easily be with the boilerplate contract.
What concerns do you have? Try to negotiate. If they won't budge, do not sign something not in your best interests!
Is the publisher willing to negotiate a contract and make changes that are favorable to the author?
Are there any hidden fees, like paying for your own setup on print books? You may not mind it, but look for it. If you sign and do mind, it's too late.
How are communication and interpersonal relations? No publisher wants to work with a prima donna. No author wants to work with a megalomaniac. No author wants to deal with an unresponsive publisher, and no publisher wants to be saddled with a worrying author. There is a fine balance, and though this is business, you don't want to bind yourself in contract to people you cannot work professionally with. It's all give and take.
Does the publisher do any appreciable amount of promotion for the line, new releases, bestsellers?
Does the publisher encourage authors to work together to promote and facilitate opportunities for it?
Does the publisher encourage mentoring of new authors, so they can learn from the established authors and/or publisher staff?
If it's not covered on the site, does the publisher send out to review sites? If so, how many and which ones?
Does the publisher do anything that limits your own marketing plan?
Do they fail to give the high res art to do promo with...or fail to give you permission to use it?
Do they have unreasonable rules, like a publisher that used to refuse to link to author sites that listed more than just the books with that publisher, forcing authors to split their promo budgets?
How many copies does the publisher give you, in print and in e-book, for your own use?
Are there limitations on what they allow you to do with your author copies?
Does the publisher offer reduced price for an author to purchase more copies?
Does the publisher limit what you can do with them? For instance, does the publisher state you cannot resell your author copies (your free copies or purchased copies) at events?
Does the publisher force authors to purchase copies of the books or a minimum number of copies, when the author purchases?
You get the idea. Note that this is the short version of what you might be asking. There's much more, but these are the core questions.
Are you done yet? Not quite yet. Buy a few of the books from the publishers left on your list. (Don't forget that these purchases are tax deductible as a business expense of writing on US taxes, since they are part of choosing markets.) Read them with an eye to the quality of the story, the formatting and the edits. Is this a company you want to hang your hat with? If you find spotty or poor quality, don't trust that your book will be handled any better.
Choosing a publisher is risk management, at its finest. As you look over the answers to your queries, you'll want to start weighing the pros and cons of the publishers in question. Very quickly, you'll start seeing patterns that will separate them into low-risk choices, moderate-risk choices and high-risk choices. Like any other investment (and this is an investment not only of your potential income but also of your creative endeavors, your legal rights and your career), you want to live to a few simple investing rules.
Vary your investments of books into low-risk and moderate- to high-risk...or stick with low-risk exclusively.
Minimize your high-risk choices.
Don't place all your eggs in a single basket, even a low-risk one, unless you don't have many eggs to work with.
But, don't spread your writing portfolio too thin, either; you want to try for at least three investments in each company you sign with, more if it's working out and is relatively low-risk. At the same time, if a company is not working out, don't place more of your work with them...unless you've already locked yourself into it with a contract and you have no recourse to ask for release from the contract.


Quillan said...

Paypal claim that they only hold their limited account user monies for 6 months to make sure that all payments are cleared from fraudulant activities. http://www.infyecommercesolution.com/

BrennaLyons said...

Having run afoul of PayPal freezing a company's funds for 6 months on claims that they were investigating complaints that the publisher was selling items against the eBay/PayPal TOS (erotic content)...I disagree with their claims. Six MONTHS is too long to hold up anyone's money that way. They're just skimming interest. Nothing more.

Bonus plan on the whole subject? The publisher in question wasn't using PayPal for SALES, at all, because of their TOS. In fact, the publisher could prove that to PayPal and did attempt to do so. They were using PayPal ONLY for delivery of royalties to authors, editors and cover artists. The sales were handled through a cart service, who deposited money that the publisher then paid out via PayPal to the authors.

Go figure.