Letting Go: What It Means To Sign A Publishing Contract

You just received that coveted publishing contract and are doing the happy dance all over the place. Nothing can stop you now. You will rule the publishing world.

Excited, you scan the document, your eyes moving over those clauses that say, “must have information provided in a certain amount of time” and “publisher retains the right of final approval for manuscript or cover art.” No one will tell you to do with your book. They don’t have that right. Why, you can get that taken care of, no matter what you have to do.

As you’re staring at that document, your joy rising to new heights, you get a burst of inspiration. There are several scenes and a couple of new chapters you’d like to add to your book. Well, this publisher did say they would give you 30 days to send them the book, and you’re going to take every one of those days to fix what you now see as fatal flaws.

Of course, you have the perfect artist in mind to design the book’s cover. Nothing but the best for your first book, and you will do whatever it takes to make that happen. You are the queen, the top of the heap. Your book will skyrocket to the top of the charts within minutes of being released. Soon, your publisher will be wining and dining you at the best restaurants. Oprah and Ellen will fawn over your every word on their shows. The world is yours, and nothing will stop you.

Next step is sending back the contract. At the same time, you inform your new editor in chief that you will have the revised book to them in a month, at which point you will discuss the next step, the promotion of your perfect tome.

The response confuses you. This person has sent you a list of instructions of what they expect you to do instead of fixing what you see as fatal flaws in your book. You have to fill out a cover art form for their artist to create cover, and they want you to give them all this information you have no time to put together. That won’t do at all. Oh no, this person will learn very fast that they work for you, and they will go according to your timetable.

To get these pesky tasks out of the way, you dash off your idea of the perfect cover art, going so far as to include the name and email of your artist, who is breathlessly standing by to photograph the model you promised her big break for your cover. Each is awaiting word that you’ve scored a contract, so you must let them know to start work now. That little problem of not having the money to pay for their time is no problem at all. You blithely tell the photographer and model both to bill the publisher. This faceless person on a website won’t mind at all paying their fees for such an important book.

You cobble together all the requested information and email that back with their silly form, forgetting to tell your editor in chief that an unknown photographer and model will soon be sending them invoices. Then it’s time to get to work on those changes you just have to do to make your book better than any other book in the universe. Days go by. You fail to show up at your day job. No worries. You won’t need that loser position anymore. Your book is going to be a major success.

A week later, you’re finally satisfied with your book. During this time, you’ve had several emails from your publisher. Something about here is the cover art for your book. Another one about an editor who will soon be in contact with you regarding the first round of edits. A third requesting that you provide your social media links.

“Piffle! “ you exclaim. “None of this junk is important.”

You do, however, notice that the editor has already emailed you, saying they’ll have your first round of edits ready in a couple of days. Deciding to ignore the editor in chief, you send the revised book to the editor and tell this person that their boss is well aware of this and to move forward. There might be a comma or two that needs to be adjusted, but otherwise the book is perfect as is. No need to waste their time, when they could working with some idiot that can’t spell.

Your feet propped on your desk, you cup your hands behind your neck and stare at the ceiling, grinning. You are more than ready to start on the next earth shaking novel. That is, until a series of thing occur at almost the same moment.

Your boss calls to say that since you couldn’t bother to show up for work, they no longer need your rather pathetic services.

The editor in chief emails you, telling you in no uncertain terms that you will never pull such a stunt ever again. You gave them the book when you submitted it. That your unilateral decision to do serious revisions wasn’t approved by them first, and that you are already in violation of your contract. There’s another note at the bottom of that scorching email, something about cover art attached.

You open the attachment and your jaw hits the floor. This isn’t the cover you commissioned from a very reputable photographer. That silhouette staring at the sky is a blog, not the model you promised would have her big break by being on your book. What is going here?

You are about to send off a scathing email of your own when you notice one from that person calling themself your editor. They’ve sent you the first round of edits. First round, you think. My book doesn’t need more than a cursory look over. Not a first round. What is this fool trying to do? Are they trying to steal money from my publisher that belongs to me?

That’s when you notice another email from your publisher. This one is from a person saying they’re the chief operating officer. First, they received an invoice from a photographer and model, who are under the mistaken impression that you had the right to engage their services to create your cover art. That simply isn’t the case. You read each word of the explanation, your fury rising to explosion levels.

Email after email pours in. Each slaps down your preconceived notions of what a publisher can do for you. Reality begins to set in. You may have overestimated a few things.

You decide you better get to work, so you can pay the photographer and model, and a few important things like rent, food, utilities, etc. Then you remember your boss fired you. Just when you think things can’t get worse, you open the attachment from your editor and see all of this red everywhere. You have to approve these edits and get them back within a week.

There are two ways you can go at this point. Humbly accept that you overestimated the power of your first book and move forward, or decide to maintain your attitude and “force” everyone to do things your way. The first action might not get your job back, but it will appease your publisher’s staff. The second will bury you deeper than the quicksand you’ve jumped into is dragging you under.

Publishing in the twenty-first century has changed a lot. First of all, indie publishers of the type where you’ve signed a contract, don’t operate like the major publishers. Even the major publishers don’t act like you’re dreaming of. It’s a streamlined publishing world out there. No longer do publishers offer massive advances that might or might not sell enough books to recover. Indie publishers don’t wine and dine their authors, they don’t arrange huge book tours from town to town, with stops on major television shows to tout their genius.

Be ready for several things as an author in the twenty-first century. You must cooperate with these streamlined operations. You will do the bulk of your promotion, with costs coming out of your own pocked, so keep the day job. And you will be expected to cooperate with the publisher’s staff and abide by the terms of the legal contract you signed.


Remember this as you take that step into becoming a published author—very few people skyrockets to the top with their first novel. Not even their second or third novel. If you want to become an author,  you will have to work hard, and not just writing your book.

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