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Friday, October 04, 2013

When turning DOWN a Book Contract is the Best Choice

by Edie Melson

I know that for a lot of us, getting a book contract is a dream come true. This is true for first-time authors  and just as true for those of us who are multi-published. So the thought of turning DOWN a contract may not have even seemed like an option.

So is there a time when turning down a book contract is the best choice?


Not only is it an option—it can sometimes be the BEST career decision you can make.

Today I want to share some good reasons to walk away from a book deal.

1. When a publisher claims to be a ‘traditional’ publisher, but requires ANY KIND of financial investment. This is a big red flag. Traditional publishing NEVER requires an author to participate financially in the publication of a book. This even includes a stipulation that the author must buy a certain number of books.

I’m not talking about a publisher charging you a discounted price to buy books. All publishers do that. I’m referring to a clause in the contract that stipulates the author must buy, in advance, a certain number of books. Essentially, the publisher is using this money as capital to cover at least part of the invest for publishing. Any time an author contributes financially to the publication of the book, it’s a version of self publishing

SPECIAL NOTE: I am not saying self-publishing is bad. Far from it! But why, if you’re going to invest financially in publishing your book, why would you be willing to give away the majority of the profits and settle for just royalties? Not to mention giving away the copyright to your material.

2. When the covers produced by the publisher are poor quality. A book cover doesn’t have to be stellar to increase sales, but it DOES have to be good. And beyond that, it should NOT look like a self-published book. Again, do your homework.

3. When the list price of your book is significantly higher than comparable titles. A publisher can set the price of your book at any price. BUT the price can affect your sales. This is especially true with ebooks and with buying books online. Some publishers will inflate the price of a book for a lot of different reasons—ranging from ignorance to trying to make more profit. Do your homework and investigate the list prices for books offered by a potential publisher.

4. When you haven’t even tried the bigger publishers. A BIG publisher is one who can get your books in bookstores, like Barnes and Noble, LifeWay, and others. Lots of independent publishers have good distribution channels, but the bookstores still have to ‘discover’ your book. These smaller publishers doesn’t have the sales and marketing force to get your book shipped to all the stores out there. Some of the big name publishers even have trouble with that.

5. When the contract takes you in a different direction than where you want to go. Okay, I have to admit I'm personally struggling with this one. I want, more than anything, to write fiction. But I'm also drawn to certain non-fiction subjects—specifically those relating to military families. With the fact that I have several non-fiction books, I've had other opportunities to write non-fiction books that aren't related to my passion. It's hard for me to turn these down. But the truth is, I have a finite amount of time. I need to focus on the direction God has for my writing, not just chase book contracts. 

This is where a good agent comes in. My agent, Jessica Kirkland, with the BlytheDaniel Agency has been a godsend. She helps me take a step back and evaluate the path before me.

Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t go with an independent press I did and I LOVED my experience with Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and I’d choose them again in a skinny minute! But it requires a lot more work on marketing and connecting with your audience. If you’re not willing to put in the work, wait until you can get a contract with a bigger publisher.

SPECIAL NOTE: Going with a larger publisher won’t get you out of marketing your book. Ultimately, how well your book does rests heavily on what you’re willing to do to promote it. But with a bigger publisher, there are usually more resources available.

I know that getting a book contract, especially that FIRST contract, seems like the most important step in an author's career. But truthfully, if the contract isn't a good one or even the right one for you, it may be the worst step you could take. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Would you ever turn down a contract? If so, when? 

Edie Melson is the author of four books, as well as a freelance editor with years of experience in the publishing industry. Her popular blog, The Write Conversation, reaches thousands of writers each month, and she’s the co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Her bestselling ebook on social media has just been updated and re-released as Connections: Social Media & Networking Techniques for Writers. She’s the Social Media Mentor at My Book Therapy and the social media director for Southern Writers Magazine. You can connect with Edie through Twitter and Facebook.


  1. I'd turn down any contract that gave me zero input on the cover, or that prevented me from self-publishing other work. That pretty much rules out publishing contracts, unless I have a huge runaway success that would let me write my own ticket.

  2. I too turned down a contract. But my reason, while partially covered here, was mainly because those 2 books were a different genre than where I want to write. It would have been a bad career choice. My wonderful agent, Sandra Bishop of MacGregor Literary, hated to rain on my parade but her advice saved me from making a wrong decision for me.

  3. My first contract was for a YA novel from a large family-friendly publisher that I felt pretty good about. Halfway through the publishing process, however, they sold out to a company that not only had lower standards, but set the retail price at eighteen dollars (before tax) during a time when the majority of children's and YA books were selling for between five and eight dollars. At which point I had to decline.

    As a writer, I was devastated. And had it been an adult novel, I might have been tempted to let things ride. But the deciding factor was my own immediate response AS A PARENT when I first heard the price, and pictured one of my own kids bringing that book to me at the local bookstore. Without a doubt, I knew my answer would be, "I don't care if it's got the secret to the Holy Grail in there, go back and pick out something we can afford."

    Which was about the best object lesson I could have had for not being able to reach a desired audience without first getting by the "gatekeepers." But what a shock to recognize MYSELF as one of them!

    So, did I make the right decision for my career? Definitely. Did I survive all the emotional turmoil? Barely. But the revelation was priceless because it was exactly what I needed for the next leg of this incredible writing journey. Now that I was in the "land of OZ" I was going to have to be able to look closer at every contract in order to answer that all-important question: "Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?"

    Great topic, Edie... and so important!

  4. Even though I'd be tempted to take any contract, I know there's a time to say "no." This is a good guideline, Edie.

  5. This is tough-love reality that writers need to hear, Edie. I turned down my first contract -- one of the toughest things I've ever done. But though they insisted they weren't a vanity publisher, they still charged writers a fee. So, I asked a writer/editor acquaintance for advice.

    She, in turn, went to an industry insider and passed her response on to me. I learned this was not a reputable publisher. In fact, they would publish anyone who paid the fee. And when I talked with writers who'd gone through this publisher, they would tell me how disappointed they were.

    Still, it was a sad day when I realized this was not my dream-come-true book contract. I would have to wait another four or five years for that. But it's been worth it!

  6. I chose to self-publish after being hooked into one of 'those' scam publishers. I have never regretted that decision. Anytime you are even thinking about a contract it is wise to check out that publisher on Preditors and Editors. They make it their business to get the scoop on them so you can make the best decision.

  7. I actually had to "pull" a contract. It broke my heart, but after I got out of it I was so relieved. You see, it was my fault. I missed a fine print sentence. When I started struggling with the publisher on other issues, she became angry. I know she didn't feel good, but neither did I. She started telling me to "get ready" to announce, set up some book signings, etc. I did and then was embarrassed to death on a couple of occasions when she would push it forward for smaller pieces and holiday work. She was building me up and tearing me down with critisim. One day I was a great author, on another, I was the worst writer she had ever met. I was ill too and the stress was unimaginable. So, I took the contract to an attorney
    who told me the smartest thing to do was break the contract. He interpreted the fine print that I had missed as a person who cared more about the book than the author. My voice is back! :) know what? I learned through it all and am now praising the Lord that this happened. It means I'm a better author in many ways and I can help others. Hugs to all you who struggle may you all have a good day.

  8. I declined a contract on my third book for many of the reasons listed above. Now waiting, hoping, and praying for another offer. But continuing to write while I wait. :)


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