When Not to Sign

Most writers would like to be published. Even some of those who do not readily aspire to, and write mostly for amusement or self-gratification, would likely consider it should they have the opportunity. For writers who range from those who would like to be published or are desperate to see their name in print there are still times when it’s better to shake one’s head and walk away. After all, there are opportunities for self-publication these days and for some that option will be better than signing dubious contracts or supporting vanity press.

To clarify, vanity press is NOT self-publishing. A vanity press praises the writer, tells them their book will be a best seller and for X amount of money they can make that dream come true. These ‘services’ minimise their costs, often use Print on Demand technology (although bona fide markets use POD too), and then leave all the marketing to the author, whilst they take a percentage of the profits. True, many mainstream publishers also leave all or most of the marketing to the author these days (which is why many authors at least consider self-publishing), but vanity definitely will. Either they’ve already taken a fee and/or they simply sit back to rake in profits from the hard work put in by the author. What they count on is having many hopeful writers on board who will all have at least a few family members and friends who will want copies of the ‘published’ book. The author may sell only what they can flog to acquaintances, but if the vanity press has many people doing this those many small payments all add up to a large profit, while the writer may receive almost nothing and not even recoup costs. In short, they are crooks out to scam you. Please avoid.

Even if the writer can manage the marketing to become a success, then he or she would have done better to self-publish and keep a much larger percentage. There are self-publishing services that are not vanity, although they do charge, but they give a genuine service and distribution. They are not to be confused with vanity publishing although the difference can be difficult to spot. Go with a recognised firm and do your research. Currently, well-known companies are those like Amazon and Lulu to name two. Be aware that there will be much more work required in going it alone, although even those with a publishing house usually need to do a great deal of marketing. If the author will undertake this side of things completely alone, then they can become their own business.

Remember: Money always goes TO the author, not the other way around. The only time this isn’t the case is if one goes the self-publishing route and purchases publishing/distribution services.

Avoid anyone asking for lifetime rights/life of the copyright. There are exceptions and some have no problem with it, but for me to even consider this it would have to be a HUGE deal with a mainstream publisher. In the UK/US at present copyright lasts the life of the writer plus 70 years, during which profits from the writer’s work would go to any remaining family, charity, or whatever the author had stipulated in their will (such as with Peter Pan and Great Ormond Street). If no such stipulation exists for what happens at the end of copyright that work then becomes ‘public domain’. If an author signs ‘life of copyright’ over to a publisher, he or she is essentially giving the work away, and depending on the rest of the wording one might not get out of this even if the publisher folds or removes the work from the market. It’s what many refer to as a ‘rights grab’ and IMHO is criminal. I would never become involved with a publisher (exceptional circumstances are this can be a money-grab for ‘throwaway’ work) who put this in their contracts even if they claimed it was negotiable because I do not feel I should condone poor practices.

World rights may or may not be beneficial depending on the terms. The same goes for Foreign Rights. I would not sign a contract that allowed a publisher to seek publication for my works in foreign markets without my final refusal. I once came up against such an offer, but the contract would have given the publisher full leeway to negotiate the terms on my behalf with no final agreement from me, and I could not allow that. Ideally, that is something an agent should do for the writer, and even then the writer needs to maintain control.

First Refusal Clauses can be a pain but are standard—these usually list the right of ‘first refusal’ on works in a series, featuring same characters or worlds previously brought out by the publisher. Few publishers list the right of first refusal on ALL future works, and again, if they do, I recommend avoiding. If the writer no longer wished to work with a publisher, but had signed this condition, then he or she could not send ‘any’ work elsewhere, stuck signed into one publisher because of this clause.

There are likely many pitfalls, but I’ve listed only a few here as an example of what to look for and are best avoided. If in doubt, research, and do not sign until happy. Any publisher wanting the writer to sign without some ‘grace’ to read the contract and/or consult a legal source is questionable. That doesn’t mean you can think about it for months, but days or weeks is not unreasonable, particularly if the justification is one of seeking legal advice.

And, although I’ve never seen this, never sign a contract where the publisher states the terms may be updated. Future contracts for newer works may change but terms of existing contracts should not. Banks among other ‘services’ catch customers with this clause—it wouldn’t surprise me that someone in the publishing industry will have thought of this.

Also, be aware that many publishers will ask for all kinds of rights on a work including print, digital, audio, film, and merchandise. Things to consider are how successful the work may or may not be, and what terms of payment the publisher is offering on these other stipulations. Make sure there is at least a negotiated payment for all forms. Imagine what would have happened if J.K. had signed away the merchandising rights to a certain wizard and the fortune she would have lost. Although it’s unlikely, such successes happen and could be disastrous.

Another warning, although I’ve only come across one case of this: avoid publishers who insist they own all ‘edits’. A publisher contracts a work, assigns an editor, publishes said work for the agreed number of years, and when it comes out of contract, the story publishing ‘rights’ revert to the author (the author ALWAYS retains copyright). There should be no exception. For a publisher to state they own the edits is as good as saying the writer never owns the finished product. I don’t see how a publisher can justify this when the writer has as much input in the editing process as the editor and certainly should be the one adding any sentences or passages. The ownership of ‘edits’ means that the writer would own no changes to the story after it entered the editing process even if those suggestions came from the author. This is petty at best, possibly criminal. Do not sign.

For all new and even existing writers, please check what you are doing before subbing work or entering competitions. I again stress do NOT send your work to anyone requesting ALL RIGHTS or WORLD RIGHTS, and do not sign any contracts that include a non-specified time limit for the publisher to publish; without a timeframe, the publisher could hold onto the work and never publish. In all these cases, you are essentially handing away the rights to your work indefinitely.

Last, this post on the EREC blog is from 2011 but the advice remains good today, where they detailed a perfect example of a contest taking advantage of hopeful writers, and charged them a whopping amount for the privilege of relieving authors of the right to their work. Read HERE.

Always think before signing. Always be aware of what rights you are giving away. Sleep on the decision overnight. Seek advice where necessary; there are plenty of authors out there who will help if you’ve no other resource.

Edits Happen

Edits happen. However, they occur to different degrees. I’ve submitted work that has needed no editing, not a single word, simply because the editor has announced it as perfect. Other times both sides have maintained a polite exterior while secretly tying on the fisticuffs.

There are various takes on this depending whom one speaks to. I’ve had one writer/editor say to me she’s had work appear under her name that little resembled the work she had created, but she sees this as the price to pay to get her name in print.

Let me introduce an adage: write what sells and maybe one day you’ll get to write what you want. This applies equally to editing as it does to finding a suitable market. How those edits happen can shock.

Having no edits can be as bad as too many. Edits include a thing known as ‘house-style’. Most publishers have one and they can affect sentence structure as much as punctuation, etc. It gives work by that publisher a ‘uniformed’ appearance. This makes sense to a degree. I’ve read some anthologies which left the writers’ individuality so open there was no coherent feeling to the publication. No matter how excellent the stories, the overall feeling can be shabby. Some writers have no grasp of punctuation or grammar; just because their work shines, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to learn, or shouldn’t have their work edited.

The problem with house-style is that if it’s too rigid, it can mean the publisher writes to formula, and the books it puts out risk all read like cloned copies of one another. It’s also frustrating for the writer to adhere to an unbending set of rules.

The biggest problem is many publishers will send out a contract, and the writer signs in all haste, delighted… until the edits arrive. Yes, MANY publishers will accept work without initially detailing required edits, and sometimes those edits can be extreme. They may want the writer to cut entire chapters or even remove a character or add another. I’ve nothing but respect for those publishers who detail these changes in a cover letter prior to the writer signing on the dotted line. Yes, they take a slight risk the writer will implement those changes and take the work elsewhere, but in reality the chances are if the writer decides not to sign it’s because they’ve disagreed completely; they will never use the suggestions made by the publisher.

Which is better? The risk the publisher might have improved a work that will be an immense success elsewhere, or they sign on a writer who decides they cannot work with the publisher ever again? Even if stuck in a contract, the writer may quietly or not so quietly give the publisher a bad name and still take back their work at the agreement’s end. Surely it’s preferable to be on good terms?

I’ve equally heard cases where a publisher negotiated with the writer over what they were ‘allowed’ to do in the editing process. I can’t speak for the whole publishing industry but in my experience I’ve discovered that many British publishers and/or smaller magazines don’t take stories and books with a view of putting them under a vast editing process. They either like a story and take ‘as is’ or they don’t take it. As small press is the starting background of many authors, a larger publisher dissecting their work can be a shock. Alas, the writer feels conned, and the publisher mistakenly believes the writer is arrogant. Neither is necessarily the case — it’s simply a lack of understanding and miscommunication. A writer wants to create. The publisher wants to sell. The publisher expects one thing, the writer another, and both can make many assumptions.

The editor should point out plot holes and weak areas, tidy punctuation and grammar. If the publisher is large enough, the work would finally go to line-editors and/or proof-readers who will more closely check for typos and similar errors. I believe it is preferable for both parties if they discuss any changes larger than these from the outset, but be aware this isn’t often the case.

Women’s magazines can be notorious for completely changing a story. They’ll take a work but the story that appears may differ in content, structure and style than the one the writer sent in. They regard this work as more commercial. The writer gets paid by accepting they are selling an idea more than their writing style.

Some publishers write to formula. This is especially prevalent in the romance industry. One well-known romance publisher I won’t name here would reportedly dictate which page the first kiss was to happen on. They, rightly or wrongly, believe they’ve worked out a pattern that sells and they stick to it. If it’s an erotic romance publisher, they may want a sex scene so many pages in. Some readers want more sex; some will want less. Whatever the genre, majority sells and, therefore, dictates.

Presentation Part Two

Always submit your work according to the agent’s, or publisher’s guidelines. If the guidelines do not state a preferred layout, then submit the manuscript as close to Standard Manuscript Format as you can. Most agents and publishers will specify what portion of your work they wish to see. Don’t send more than they ask for.

If they say they’ll accept email submissions (more common these days than when I first wrote anything), present it neatly according to their specifications if they have listed them, and pay attention to whether they want the story or excerpt in the email or as an attachment, and if so, what format.

If posting the manuscript, make sure you keep a copy. Although less common these days in a digital world, there are still instances where people either send their only copy or don’t back up the one they have and lose their work entirely. If posting a printed copy, make it clear whether the agent/publisher should return the MS and enclose sufficient postage and packaging. This can prove expensive, and not all publishers will have a return service. It’s often easier and cheaper to state they may destroy the submission. In either case (digital or hard copy), most will initially only want the complete work if it is a short story. For a novella or novel, they are more likely to request an excerpt and will specify what portions they wish to see. It’s easier just to reprint this for another publisher, with the bonus that each recipient sees a fresh copy, rather than something that grows ever more tatty as it goes back and forth in the postal system.

Take care with the choice of packaging. Don’t make it difficult to open. Take care of your presentation, and I don’t simply mean the submission layout but everything related to the work. Some writers believe that if their work is good enough, they can get away with anything, but this simply isn’t the case. Badly presented work often gets deleted or sent on its way to the shredder and/or recycling plant without so much as a glance. Work as hard on your blurb, synopsis, and cover letter as you would a story. Keep the cover letter concise. Perfect it. I’m not going into detail here (and I’m still constantly learning how to work on pitches), but look up the term ‘elevator pitch’ to help in constructing these things. Don’t submit before you are sure the work is ready. Don’t think any editing details don’t matter because you and an editor can work on any errors later. You’ll be lucky to send in work without at least an occasional typo, but pay attention to things like story structure, spelling, punctuation. Recheck your first page. Does your opening sentence grab attention? Do the first three pages hook you into reading more? Check the ending. Even at this late stage, it’s not too late to double check. If you’ve taken a break from the story, even it was only to work on the submission format and cover letter, etc., you’ll likely look at your work with a fresh eye.

Though I’ve said previously to go to some pains to address to an editor (at a push Dear Editor is fine, though it’s preferable to address the work personally), there’s a good chance an editor is not the first person who will see your submission. It will go to a slush reader. According to the dictionary, a slush pile is a set of unsolicited queries or manuscripts sent to publishers or by authors or representative agents who are unfamiliar to the publisher. It is these readers’ responsibilities to sifting through these submissions. They will select those worthy of further consideration and often have to summarise the story in two or three sentences. Try to do everything to make this easy for them.

Presentation Part One

Standard Manuscript Format. Yes, there’s a layout for the industry. I won’t go into the specifics here. Do a search and the details will readily appear. If the publisher’s guidelines don’t specify, it’s easy to find the format. Roughly, it’s one-inch margins, double-lined spacing, although there’s more to consider, such as what goes on the front page. I’m not talking about a cover letter, but the layout of the manuscript (MS) itself. Name, contact details, word count, title, what publication rights are on offered, and the MS may require page numbering and other information in the header and footer. Check Standard Manuscript Formatting alongside the publication’s guidelines, and if in doubt, keep it basic.

Forget fancy fonts—again, a publisher may specify but otherwise choose something simple such as Courier or Times New Roman. Forget fancy graphics. Forget all the computer programmes that create beautiful layouts. Publishers aren’t interested. They want to see and read the MS clearly.

I’ve heard horror stories of poorly laid out work. I recall one where an editor wrote an article about one particular MS she received in the post. It arrived in one of those padded envelopes that have fluff in the lining. As she struggled to open it, some of this ‘fluff’ went all over her desk. When she pulled the MS out, it stank of cigarettes and the pages had coffee cup ring stains. Result: Binned—not so much as a glance at it and no reply to the writer. Why? Simple. The editor rightly felt the writer had shown her no respect—hadn’t even shown his own work respect—and had therefore revealed himself to be someone she wouldn’t be able to publish, no matter how good the story might have been.

The MS is a writer’s product, work, even ‘baby’. Why not give it the best chance it could have? This starts with how one presents the work, whether sending it in the post or via email. It’s amazing how many writers never even think to look into how they should present a story. I’ve had editors thank me for my presentation, so what does that say?

If including a cover letter, then consider writing it as when applying for a job… which, in an actual sense, a writer does every time they submit a story. I’ve read an article about a teacher who had criticised a student for writing a covering letter to a publisher for ‘sounding as if trying to sell something’. At the risk of repetition I stress, publishing is a business. Writing is an art form—a craft—but beyond that, it is also a business, and the writer has to sell an idea and convince others it is worthy. This is the purpose of a cover letter and synopsis before one even comes to the MS. Try to find the name of the current editor and address it personally. It does not matter if a reader is the one who sees it first (yes, editorial departments have ‘readers’ and these people are the first line of defence a writer has to pass). Just as a personnel department may first see a resume before the manager, still, finding the name of the person in charge shows effort and research capabilities.

The publisher wants to know what any employer wants to know—what this person is capable of. Writing the letter is as important as the MS. Detailing achievements, experience etc., is important, but shouldn’t come across as boasting. Could be the writer has had nothing published and won’t have very much to say, but the way they wrote the letter reflects the writer and the work. Make it sound as if the story is the best the world will ever see, and needs no editing, and the publisher will think this isn’t a person he or she can work with. Sound arrogant, and the MS may go in the trash pile as swiftly as the editor reads the first paragraph of the cover letter.

It is, in reality, easier to explain what ‘not’ to do in a cover letter than how to write a good one. I’ve mentioned a synopsis and I’ll cover what that is separately sometime, but some may ask why they need to write both. Sometimes it’s unnecessary. Some publishers will specify for the writer *not* to put in a cover letter—another good reason to pay attention to guidelines—but most don’t say or ask. Information required in the cover letter can also vary according to project. The problem of writing a letter increases when considering a short story—shorter work can mean even less to say and a cover letter/and or synopsis may both have to be concise, precise, and dynamic.

The letter needs to introduce the writer; it may be an opportunity to draw attention to a few writing credits, but if the writer has none, it would be pointless to harp on about it. Some publications are looking for unpublished writers but going overboard and complaining how, despite sending work out for ten years, no one has yet seen the genius in the style and stories, will not sing a writer’s praises or make an editor take pity. One thing no editor does is publish out of pity. Equally, never state the opinion of friends and family. No publisher cares that a writer’s grandmother’s uncle’s second cousin adores the story. I’ve yet to meet a writer who has sold an editor on their work by protesting how good others consider the work to be. Unless that opinion is an endorsement by someone in a noteworthy and relevant field, it’s nothing but an obstacle.

Use a cover letter as an introduction—to the writer, to the work. Make it sound calm, crisp, friendly, optimistic, and the MS something that the publisher may be interested in looking at. Most publishers will deign to read letters and synopsis at the very least. Forgive the cliche, but this is the first hurdle—don’t fall over it.

Guidelines 2

Check an agent or publisher’s guidelines. It sounds simple enough, but it’s an important detail so many wannabe writers miss. Most have them, and many are readily available either on request or if you have internet access on their website. Also, check that the guidelines are up to date. There’s no point in looking at what a publisher wanted ten years ago, or even ten months ago. Their requirements may have changed only last week.

Use the guidelines as any writing tool. It’s important that the writer check they are sending the right piece of work to the right publisher. It may be difficult to believe, but it’s amazing how many people still send a romance book to a horror publisher, or vice versa, but it happens. Some writers seem to think a publisher is a publisher, and it doesn’t matter, or that their work is so brilliant the agent or publisher will still help them even if they don’t deal with that type of literature. This is not the case. If a writer sends a romance to a horror publisher that publisher is going to put the manuscript in the bin the moment they realise its contents. The chances are they won’t even reply, or they’ll dispatch a terse note advising the writer to ‘check our guidelines’. Save them and yourself a lot of time, money and aggravation, by doing this prior to sending out anything.

As well as advising on content, guidelines may also provide further information such as formatting requirements. Most publishers want standard manuscript formatting, but this can vary a little. If it states a certain layout, then follow it. If not, set your work out in standard manuscript formatting. Another thing to be aware of are submission calls and deadlines. There’s no point sending in an unsuitable story, or even a suitable one, after a deadline has passed. On that note, when answering submission calls, I’ve seen it suggested sooner rather than later is preferable. Many publishers wheedle through that pile right away, throwing out rejections, placing others in a possible pile, a few in another in case they’re left with a space to fill. A few wait until the deadline passes, but not all. If there’s a minimum and maximum word count, some publishers will say it may increase your chances to write closer to the minimum count. Longer stories fill an anthology length, and too many of those leaves less space for the number of stories the publisher wishes to include. Therefore, they’re more likely to take more of shorter lengths. Always research individual requirements of each publication.

How it all began…

Some posts like memories are worth keeping. Looking back, it’s hard to believe my social media journey started way back in October 2006 with Myspace, a site many writers (including me) have left in the dust since its focus now seems to be music.

Still, it’s the time I’m thinking of here. It’s difficult to believe it’s been that long because that also means that my first book came out fifteen years ago. Where has the time gone?

I can still remember in 2004, I wondered ‘when’ would I have a larger writing credit out there. Up to that point, my credits had been for poetry, essays, and (mostly) short stories.

Though I rarely read such books, I was in the middle of a decent self-help book. Like many similar volumes, the information told me nothing new, though it’s nice having beliefs and feelings confirmed. One particular chapter talked about not sitting around waiting for things to happen but ‘making’ them happen. Not surprising, but that day, forced to face reality, was the kick I needed.

I knew with writing there were two ways to go. You write what you like and hope to find a publisher or you look for a market, and write for it. Most writers have more success that way, and I’d done pretty well dabbling with both options. For a novel, I chose Loose-Id as a market and wrote a story for them… which flopped, big time. They totally rejected it for three reasons, two of which I agreed with and one which I did not… but that’s neither here nor there, and I’m unsure I can even remember those details now. The strange thing is, I was wholly grateful for that rejection for two reasons. Most important: I learned a lot from their comments.

Determined, I studied what was selling and return to the ‘drawing board’. Second, I was trying to write for a genre I’d never attempted before and the likelihood of my story being snapped up first try would have been extraordinary. With so many vanity and unscrupulous press out there, if Loose-Id had snapped up my first book, I think I wouldn’t have trusted them nearly so much and therefore believed their good comments on my second submission attempt.

So, I wrote for Loose-Id. Why? This is a special question because my heart most lies in dark fiction, although I read all genres including an occasional romance. It’s no lie when I say I like to write as I read, and my library is eclectic. Mostly, I wrote a romance because the first stirrings of a story came to life. I chose Loose-Id because I liked the concept. They published erotic romance, and many of their books were authentic stories, not just a poorly disguised series of events loosely linking a load of sexual content. I had to get over the embarrassment of writing such scenes, but told myself I would worry about what my friends and family would think when I came to it. Before that, I had to come up with a plot so concentrated on a story I believed they couldn’t reject.

I formed my idea in June 2005. In fact, I still have all my hand-scribbled notes, not only for that first book but for books two and three of the trilogy. Looking at them now always provides me with a few moments of smiling. These notes on their own make no sense and some last scenes differ from those first images that flashed into my head, but in that large envelope of messy, nonsensical notes I have my story. But all stories begin in the mind.

As long as there are writers there will always be readers who will ask, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ The answer is everywhere. Life. Playing the ‘What if’ game. Putting two seemingly disconnected events together. That first book I entitled Uly’s Comet, and it began when I pictured a man sitting on a bench in open parkland and a thief about to steal his money. I did not know who the man was or why he sat there. I did not know the identity of the thief. Later, I came across a name: Shavar, ‘Comet’ and suddenly I had the answers. This story nagged for me to write it. I loved the world, characters, and story I created and lucky for me, so did the publisher…

Sadly, as many of you may know, Loose-Id closed recently enough for it still to sting. A fine business and group of people which did amazingly well and should have lasted even longer, and while I have republished some tales I wrote while with them, I have yet to revisit the world of my comet. I’ve also gone on to write other things, and here’s the point of this blog. Had I not tracked down a publisher, chosen to write something good enough to submit to them, and worked hard at it, achieved my goal, started with social media, I wouldn’t have networked. I wouldn’t have made other contacts, or written for other publishers, and series, including several novels in the Lethbridge-Stewart world (The Brigadier of Doctor Who fame), or even, by recommendation, my short eleventh Doctor audio story for Big Finish. All because one day I decided it was time I achieved a larger writing credit… and took the next necessary steps, refusing rejection.

Submission Guidelines

All publishers have them, and most are online nowadays, so make a note, pay attention, and follow the guide. The instructions will often explain not only how to present work but also what type of stories the publisher is looking for. This may be for general publication or a specific submission call, such as a magazine putting out a themed issue.

PAY ATTENTION. Seriously. Occasionally, writers have cause to moan about the publishing industry, but we can say equally the same in reverse. I’ve witnessed a publisher’s submission call receive hundreds of questions, the answers to which were in the call itself. Some publishers will display immense patience. Others, especially those inundated with submissions, will dismiss work from those individuals they view as acting less than professionally. Before the writer queries, best to make sure they’ve not provided the answer, so read the guide more than once.

Another good reason to read guidelines is it’s amazing how many writers waste their time and that of agents and publishers by submitting the wrong thing to the wrong market. I’m not talking about not *quite understanding* what an editor is looking for—sometimes this is hit and miss at best—but it’s pointless to send a romance title to a horror market or vice versa, and yet it continues to happen. Result: Binned. The writer may receive guidelines in reply or hear nothing.

Study the market. Make sure the right story goes to the right publication or as close as is possible so it has a genuine chance. Also buy and read at least one copy of any magazine or a book from a publisher when considering the market. Not only does the purchase help keep these markets going, it gives the writer an insight to what the publisher requires. Reading is really the only way to tell whether a work fits and whether the author even wishes to consider a specific publisher. Send out work randomly and it wastes everyone’s time.