Red Flags in Small Press Publishing Contracts

Today’s guest post is coming from Megan Shunmugam! It delves into the firsthand experience of dealing with a shady small press and is something every writer in the writing community should keep alert of. Take it away, Meg!

Post by Megan Shunmugam

When I first started the querying process, I queried widely. To agents and small publishers alike. When I received an offerfrom an independent, small press publisher, I was ecstatic. But there were a few red flags I should have observed better.

The contract seemed fairly straightforward and contained the basic essentials, such as royalty payments and retention of the copyright to my work. I was assured that the book would be available at book retailers and, after receiving an offer merely five days after submitting the full manuscript, I grabbed it with both hands, truly believing that an opportunity like that would never come along again.

At the time, I didn’t understand the concept of “print-on-demand” publishing or even the function of an independent publisher. I just thought that I have this great chance to finally get my book in some of the biggest book retailers and that the small press would help me achieve my dreams.

Looking back on the experience, my biggest enemy was my naiveté. I say this because I did not ask the questions I should have. I quickly came to realise that the small press publisher did not have a printing facility whereby they would print hundreds of copies of my manuscript for sale to book retailers, there was not even an indication that they had even read my manuscript!

The marketing of my manuscript fell solely on me and the small press did not even manage to secure a single review of my manuscript on the various online platforms in which they uploaded my manuscript. Under the pretence of the publisher wanting to “involve me in the process” I wrote my blurb and even picked out the cover design myself. At the time, I thought I was really lucky to be involved that heavily in the process.

Now, I realise exactly what happened. “Green publishing” and “print-on-demand” was used as fancy terms to gloss over the fact that my manuscript would be uploaded onto Amazon, online websites, and the website of one book retailer, and that once ordered by someone, the book would be printed by Amazon and shipped out. In essence, the small press publisher did exactly what I could have done myself – they self-published my manuscript, but had the gall to take a chunk of my royalties with them!

Although I felt deceived, it’s really no one’s fault but my own. The small press publisher answered all questions I had. I just wasn’t asking the right ones. And, largely, I think I might have been too scared of the answers. Scared that if I knew what the deal really was, I would lose out on a great opportunity. But now that I think of it, it was an opportunity that never existed. 

To sum it up, ask questions. Even the hard ones. Especiallythe hard ones. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase that “no agent is better than a bad agent”. The same thing goes with small presses! It’s better to find out all the red flags before you sign a deal and end up regretting it! Don’t get swept away with the excitement that someone is interested in your work. You wrote a wonderful story and you deserve to have someone champion it. Don’t settle for less!

The following is a list of red flags to look out for in contracts:

  • No termination clause or a vague termination clause.
  • Assignment of copyright of your work to the publisher.
  • Excessively one-sided obligations on your part, like marketing. Whilst it is completely normal and expected of an author to market their work, your publisher should be as excited about marketing your work as you are!
  • Payment of ANYTHING. All expenses should be borne by your publisher.
  • Print-on-demand and exclusive e-book publishing without a roll-out of a few books to retailers, unless this is something you really want!

Megan Shunmugam is an attorney, currently working and residing in Johannesburg, South Africa. When she is not writing, she can be found reading or spending time outdoors. Her favorite novels include The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger and Vicious by VE Schwab.

Published by path2pub

From The Trenches To The Shelves

10 thoughts on “Red Flags in Small Press Publishing Contracts

  1. More great advice from Path2pub! I think this ties in very well with the first Don’t Sign Contracts post. So sorry you had to have this experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Savanna. It’s an experience that has truly made me stronger. I’m glad I went through it so I can help others spot the pitfalls and dangers in working with small press pubs!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you Savanna! I am grateful to have gone through the experience as it taught me so much about the pitfalls of working with small press pubs and I hope others can learn from my experience too!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sarah!

      It truly is so devastating going through something like this. You are so brave to have rejected the offer – it honestly takes so much courage but it’s definitely a better decision in the long run!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never knew what Print-on-demand meant, it makes so much sense now, and actually sucks. This is an eye-opener, thank you for sharing your story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lena!

      I never understood the concept before, either! I am so glad that, if anything, my experience will help others understand the pitfalls and dangers in working with small press pubs!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such an insightful post. I got two likes from 2 small publishers in a Twitter Event, and as ecstatic as I was I stopped myself and actually read all the credentials.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Alex!

      Honestly the hardest thing is not getting swept up in all the excitement! Pausing and looking at the credentials (even the amount of followers they have!) is so important. Devastating as it may be it saves us all heartache in the future!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow it’s so sad that people just want to take advantage in one way or another! I really wish you all the best Megan.


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