Bad publishers. They’re everywhere, waiting to lure unsuspecting newbie authors. We’ve talked about pop-up small presses here… And, read an awesome checklist to help avoid them here… We know how to avoid them and how to tell them apart from their reputable small publisher counterparts. But, what if you already signed with a bad publisher? Or if your publisher started out with good intentions, but got lost somewhere along the way? What now?
First things first. If your publisher is honest and is interested in making things right in order to salvage his reputation and yours, he will negotiate with you. An honest, reputable publisher will NOT want to hold on to an author against their will. Why would a publisher want to work with an angry, or even hostile author? An honest publisher will try to negotiate to keep you, and if that doesn’t work, they will negotiate to release you from your contract. An honest (but incompetent) publisher will let you out of the contract while the scammer publisher will turn vindictive and will do anything to hold on to you.
If you think you might have sold your creative mojo to a Publisher from Hell, here are a few things you can do:
- Get a lawyer. I know not everyone can afford to do this, but many lawyers offer a free consultation and can at least tell you what your options are. For a small fee, some lawyers will send the publisher a letter, and in many cases a letter from a lawyer is enough to make the publisher sit up and take notice. A reasonable, rational publisher won’t want to spend months embroiled in a legal dispute. They’ll want to either negotiate and make things right, or they’ll cut you lose. But, if you can’t afford a lawyer, read on…
- Write a letter. Ask to be released from the contract. I can’t promise this will work. It might not. But, then again it might. Writing a respectful, professional letter that lists your problems and your desire to sever the relationship might be all it takes to get out of your contract. You won’t know unless you try. I have a couple of friends who were able to break free of a notoriously bad publisher by letter writing and persistence.
- Save all correspondence. You should have been doing this from that very first query letter. Save every email. Make sure all correspondence is in writing. If you haven’t saved every email, don’t panic. If you have a Yahoo account, sent emails are stored in the ‘Sent’ folder for years unless you manually clear them. Gmail saves all your mail for about a month. Salvage what you can. I save all my emails as a PDF just in case Yahoo crashes and I save an extra copy on a flash drive. If you and your publisher from hell end up in court, these emails could be invaluable. It can create a papertrail of broken promises and blatant lies.
- Be professional. This goes back to the saving of correspondence. If you’re saving emails, your publisher might be doing the same. Don’t threaten or curse at your publisher. When you email the publisher, always think, “How will this piece of correspondence be perceived in a court of law? Will this letter damage my credibility?”
- Document everything. We’ve already talked about the importance of saving our emails. You’ll also want to scan and save your contract just in case something happens to the original. I highly recommend taking screenshots of your publisher’s website. Why? Did your publisher make promises on his website that were contributing factors in your decision to sign with him? Did he delete these promises later on, or even remove entire pages? Did your publisher list staff members and editors on his original website who seem to have disappeared (or perhaps never existed)? These misrepresentations will be taken into consideration if you end up in court. If you haven’t been taking screenshots all along, fear not. You can retrieve cached copies of the site by visiting Wayback. I was able to find copies of my publisher’s site from over a year ago. You can too! If there’s a problem with formatting on your Kindle or Nook versions and your publisher has failed to fix it, take a screenshot of it on Amazon, or take a picture of your Kindle screen. Does your publisher have complaints against him on Absolute Write or P&E? Screenshot this too just in case the thread disappears. Make sure everything is dated. And, save everything in duplicate in case your computer crashes. You can never be too careful.
- Read your contract. Of course you read your contract when you signed it, but have you read it since? Read your contract. Know it inside and out. If your publisher is in breach on contract, you have an obligation to point this out to him. He signed the contract too. He has an obligation to stick to the terms of it–he wrote it, so there’s no excuse for him to be out of compliance. Ever. Even if you’re frustrated and angry and have lost all hope, continue to point out these breaches of contract on a regular basis because when you go to court, he won’t be able to say, “I didn’t realize I forgot to update the website for seven months.” Or, “Sorry I didn’t send you your author copies. I forgot and you didn’t remind me.” If your publisher is asking you to perform or pay for services he is contractually obligated to provide, you have the right to refuse. If your publisher is hounding you to market your book, but there is no mention in the contract that either of you are obligated to market, then he is out of line. If the publisher if obligated to provide review copies for reviewers, but refuses to do so, this is another breach of contract.
- Speak out. If you have a confidentiality clause in your contract, this might be hard to do. A bad publisher doesn’t want you to talk to anyone and might threaten to sue you for libel. But remember: it isn’t libel if it’s true. Your publisher can’t sue you for libel if you don’t mention him by name. You have a right to talk about your personal experience. I’m not telling anyone to rent a billboard warning passing motorists about the dangers of signing with your publisher. Use common sense and caution. But, talk to your family and friends because it really does help to share your burden. Blog about your experience if you feel comfortable doing so. Report your publisher to P&E. And, if a friend asks you if he should consider submitting a manuscript to your publisher, by all means speak out! You don’t want someone else to experience what you’ve experienced, do you?
I know every contract is different and every case is not the same. There might be extenuating circumstances that prevent you from doing any of the things I’ve listed above. If this is the case, let me know and I’ll send lots of good thoughts and sympathy your way. After all, no one deserves to be stuck with a publisher from hell. We’re all in this together.
*Disclaimer: This article is NOT a substitute for legal advice. I’m not a lawyer. This article is not necessarily referring to any particular publisher. Most small presses are NOT publishers from hell–there are some really, really good ones out there. If this article offended you in any way, please feel free to leave a comment below, or you can email me at email@example.com. If you are a publisher from hell and were offended by this article, I would LOVE to hear from you and so would my readers. *