Would You Ever Turn Down a Contract?

by Jami Gold on March 31, 2011

in Writing Stuff

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The comments for my last post were fantastic—thank you!  The range of opinions really got me to think deeper about the traditional vs. self publishing issue.

Many people wrote in with circumstances for when self publishing works (and possibly works “better”).  Others noted situations where traditional publishing is the only way to go, one being category romances (where the readers do buy based off the publisher or imprint) and the other being literary novels (where it’s harder to find and connect to readers).

Tom Honea wondered in the comments of the last post:

[I] can’t imagine that a writer who has the choice will go the self-publication route…

I understand his point.  If we really love writing, why would we take on the designing, promoting, and distributing that would negatively affect our writing time?  This was the main reason Amanda Hocking cited for her choice to pursue a contract.  But then you have Barry Eisler’s choice…

Can you hear the wheels turning in my head?  I love when comments force me to think, so thank you, Tom!

Would You Ever Turn Down a Contract?

Let’s say you were offered a contract with a traditional NY publisher.  What would make you choose not to sign that contract?

  • Mid-list Author

In the last post’s comments, Laura Pauling said her takeaway from Nathan Bransford’s analysis was “[I]f you’re writing a midlist book … you’ll do better profit wise by self publishing. That’s huge.”

She’s right, that is huge.  This one probably depends on the imprint.  Some imprints are almost all mid-list releases, so they’ve learned how to promote and distribute those better than an individual author could do.  I’ve already mentioned the Harlequin situation, and I think MacMillan is trying to promote more as well, with genre-specific blogs, etc.

But if you’re looking at a contract with a publisher/imprint that doesn’t promote their mid-list authors at all, would you consider turning them down?  What if you knew there was a good chance they’d cancel your contract early (which happens with mid-list authors who don’t meet sales goals)?

  • Series Authors

I mentioned this situation in my reply to Laura.  If you had a series planned for a certain number of books, would you look at the contract in a different way to ensure the series wasn’t left in limbo?

Maybe you’d look more carefully at a contract for less than the full number of planned books.  Maybe you’d ask around to see how often they canceled contracts.  Maybe you’d double check that nothing in the contract would prevent you from continuing the series on your own.  Or maybe you’d want rights reverted to you within a certain time period if the contract was canceled to make sure the full series would always be available for new readers to catch up.

  • Money

You knew this reason had to be listed somewhere.  *smile*  Would you ever turn down a contract because of the low advance?  What about lower-than-industry-standard royalties?  Or maybe the contract requires you to pay back part of the advance under some circumstances.

  • Contract Clauses

This one is becoming more of an issue with the now-common non-compete clause, as discussed by Rachelle Gardner.  Someone who has multiple series and genres might find their hands tied for years while waiting for their debut publication to release and produce sales figures before the publisher decides whether to exercise their right of first refusal.

Or maybe the deadlines for the rest of the books under contract would be impossible for you.  Or maybe the rights clauses were out-of-line (like with James Frey’s publishing company).  I’m sure there are plenty of nasty contract clauses out there.

  • Bad Reputation

A publisher might get a bad reputation because of canceling contracts, paying late, bad editing, bad covers, etc.

  • Editorial Difference of Opinion

Victoria Mixon had an article a few days ago about agents who might ask an author to “dumb down” a story, but the same thing could happen with a publisher’s editor.  Or maybe an editor wants to change too much of the story’s theme or emotional heart so the essence of the story would be lost.  We trust editors to help us make our stories better, and maybe the changes would make it more marketable, but what if you didn’t like the direction the changes were taking your story?

  • Too Risky

Usually self publishing is thought of as riskier, but what if you suspected the publisher was the next Dorchester?

Know What Your Goals Are So You’ll Know If the Contract Meets Them

Just as we should know what will make us happy if we ever want be happy, we should know our goals.  Someone who had a goal to have a bestseller would evaluate a contract differently than someone who had a goal to see their book in a book store.

If a contract doesn’t meet our goals, we might choose to turn it down even though many others would think us crazy.  And that’s okay.  We all have different goals.

Some would keep looking for a different NY publisher and hope for a better contract.  Some would go the self-publishing route.  Some might choose to go with a smaller/independent publisher instead.  Some might re-evaluate their goals.  Some might sign the contract anyway.

The important thing is that if we know our goals, we’ll understand the choices we make.  We shouldn’t sign a contract against our better judgment out of fear.  We need to choose what will be best for us, our stories, and our career.

Can you think of other reasons you’d turn down a contract?  Do any of the examples above resonate with you?  What would make you turn down a contract?

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41 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Susan Bischoff March 31, 2011 at 6:31 am

The series reason has always been the biggest deal–or deal-breaker–for me. The idea of getting started on this series, selling part of it, and then going through that numbers game in which so many series are canceled and the author is told to wrap it up at book 3…!!!

Sure, I could get myself a start there and then continue independently after the series was canceled. Assuming my contract didn’t give them the rights to my series world and characters, right? Does that happen? And assuming I could work some magic to tie things up for the publisher at book 3 and then somehow continue the series in book 4. (Because wasn’t season 4 of Buffy just the best? Oh wait, no it wasn’t.)

But then the publisher still owns 1-3. They’re not going to reprint it. And while I can’t reprint it, they’re probably pulping a whole mess of those returns that got me canceled when I was just getting started. So now I can’t offer readers the beginning of the series until I get my rights back. And yay ebooks! But…when I was getting my head around all this, I wasn’t able to find all the books I wanted to read in e-format. It wasn’t clear if there were always going to be ebook versions available of every book either. So there was the fear of losing availability of the beginning of the series until I could get the rights back.

This and a few other things were so ACK! for me that I just put the series aside and quit writing when legacy publishing was the only thing out there. I didn’t start writing again until I found out there was another way. So the comment

[I] can’t imagine that a writer who has the choice will go the self-publication route…

is just totally strange to me. Not offensive, but just so outside the way I think that I’m like, really?

Would I take a contract? Sure, I’d look at a contract, but for a series, it would take more than money (unless it was, like, crazy money) to get me to sign. I’d need to feel some assurance that I wasn’t risking a 2-3 book premature death to my story.

Maybe that makes me immature or something, but it’s not just a job. If I wanted just a job, I could do other stuff. Easier stuff.

Another nice post, Jami, and I really appreciate you taking the time to set out those reasons why some of us who have never queried just choose this as Plan A.


Jami Gold March 31, 2011 at 8:30 am

Hi Susan,

Well, I didn’t do this for you or any other self-published author. 🙂 I did this post because I really do think we should take the time to figure out our goals so we’ll know which issues to look at when evaluating a contract. I can look at that list and see some things I wouldn’t care about and some things that would be deal breakers. *ahem* So I did this for me and just figured I’d share. 🙂

And to answer your question, yes, I’m not sure how common it is, but I know it has happened that authors lost the rights to their series and characters (which is why I mentioned that authors might want to ensure they can continue the series on their own).

I don’t think your opinion makes you immature. We might understand the factors that went into a publisher’s business decision to end a series early, but it wouldn’t mean that we’d all be happy about deconstructing our carefully built world to make it fit a contract. Thanks for the comment!


Carradee March 31, 2011 at 6:44 am

I suspect I could’ve gotten a traditional agent and contract, but I didn’t even try. Why not?

The first kicker for me were e-book royalties. The current standard rate is unacceptable. Why seek a traditional contract when I know I won’t accept it?

I also have some in-progress novels that will be unconventional series. (For example, a YA UF series with a drama book 1, mystery book 2, romance book 3, and so forth.) I didn’t want to mess with what a contract would have to be to fit that.

I’m also a freelancer, so the workload associated with self-pubbing doesn’t seem all that intimidating to me. I’m doing a lot of that already. The added things, I’m perfectly capable of either doing myself or already know enough about to be able to find a good employee if I need to. (But God’s blessed me with a lot of friends who are excellent editors and artists.)

Call me strange, but I even find cover and layout tweaking sorta enjoyable. I say this despite spending the last few evenings (and mornings) doing final layout for the novel I’m releasing tomorrow.

It’s actually the publicity stuff that I’d need to do anyway that makes me cringe.


Jami Gold March 31, 2011 at 8:36 am

Hi Carradee,

Yes, that variable series concept could definitely be a factor. I can think of a few series that started off more paranormal romance and has headed more toward urban fantasy as they continued, and many fans haven’t been happy. 🙂

And no, I don’t think you’re strange for enjoying the cover and layout work. Again, not only do we all come to these decisions with different goals, but we also have different strengths and weaknesses. This is why I said in my last post that we shouldn’t judge each other’s decisions. Thanks for the comment!


Shain Brown March 31, 2011 at 6:44 am

You pointed out so many reasons why I wouldn’t want to turn down a contract, but again we have to keep our goals in mind. Personally, I don’t want to spend my time in publishing, PR, Scheduling, and everything else required or evolved in making a book happen; for me I want to tell a story and share it with others.

I actual put up a short video of Amanda Hocking a did some reading from one of her books. I have my own opinions, goals, and plan. Thanks for one more angle in all of this.


Jami Gold March 31, 2011 at 8:38 am

Hi Shain,

Don’t worry. There’s no right or wrong answer here. 🙂 The important thing is that you thought about your goals and made your decision with those in mind. Thanks for the comment!


Piper Bayard March 31, 2011 at 6:47 am

For myself, I certainly intend to seek a publisher rather than self-publish because I would rather turn that business end over to business professionals and just write. However, I put a great deal of hard work and integrity into my work product. If a publisher did not share my dedication to quality and substance, I would rather go it alone than compromise on those points. Thanks for yet another great post.


Jami Gold March 31, 2011 at 8:39 am

Hi Piper,

Yes, some people would look at this decision from more of a business standpoint, others would look at it from an artistic angle. We all have different priorities. Thanks for the comment!


Sonia M. March 31, 2011 at 7:01 am

Such good points. I never thought about rejecting a contract, but I can see how some clauses might not fit my goals. I’m still working on the first draft of my novel but I plan for it to be a trilogy (though I want each book to be able to stand alone…I kind of hate when things are left hanging too much between books in a series). Self-publishing still seems a little scary to me. Seems like it requires a heck of a lot more organization than I naturally posess…then again, I have begun to adapt to social media (another thing I thought I wouldn’t be up to). So, I guess I could learn if I needed to. I think my first choice would be traditional publishing but I may evaluate things differently once I have a final draft of my MIP in hand.


Jami Gold March 31, 2011 at 8:44 am


Yay! I made you think. 🙂 (You know I had an evil laugh as I was scheduling this post last night. Hee.)

It’s exactly your thought about self publishing seeming scary that I wanted to get past. As I mentioned in one of my replies of the last post, I’d hate for someone to make a bad decision for them just because of fear. And if we’re conscious of our goals, it’s easier to logically evaluate something and get beyond that fear. Thanks for the comment!


Daisy Harris March 31, 2011 at 1:25 pm

I don’t think I’d ever self-pub because I’m not really a multi-tasker and I HATE managing people. I outsource what I can, and focus on what I’m good at…which is *focus.* I write fast and well. Editing? Design? Dealing with editors and designers? Aw. Hell. No.

That said- there are plenty of reasons I’d turn down a contract, the chief among them being something few authors consider: relationship.

Sure, there are financial and distribution issues and we all want to make good money and have our books read. However, I think too few authors spend time considering how they fell about the various publishing houses. How do you feel about your interactions with the house? The people you’ve met? (Virtually or in person.) Do you like the other authors? Do you like how they handle customer service? Their website?

Good communication presupposes that two parties feel good about their relationship. If one or the other party feel uncomfortable, communication becomes stilted, awkward, and ripe for misunderstanding and eventual fallings out.

So yeah, I’d turn down any contract from a company I felt luke-warm about. And sometimes I might not know I felt awkward until I got close enough to start contract negotiations.

It’s not all about the numbers. Because if you can’t get behind working with a company (like, there are barriers to clear communication) I imagine you’re sales could easily suffer.



Jami Gold March 31, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Hi Daisy,

Thanks for adding to the list! 🙂 You’re right that the general relationship with the people at the publishing house can be a big factor in someone’s decision.

And this isn’t meant to make people think that self publishing is their only option if they turn down a contract. Far from it. 🙂 As I mentioned in the third-to-last paragraph, everyone might choose a different path if they’re faced with this issue. I think it’s great that you know your strengths and weaknesses so well to know how you’d handle the question. Thanks for the comment!


Jamie DeBree March 31, 2011 at 1:30 pm

At this point, having a taste of what it’s like to control and really “own” the work I’m putting out, it would have to be one heck of a contract/advance for me to sign it. And even then, a non-compete clause would be a deal-breaker for me no matter what the advance – that would effectively hobble my career. I write too fast to agree to something like that.

I like having complete control, for better or worse, of the books that have my name(s) on them. I’m also pretty convinced that I’ll make more in the long run doing it myself…but of course I can’t say that with certainty yet. Time will tell…but since I don’t count on my writing for my main income (day-job pays the bills nicely), I can afford to do things my way, without the advance a lot of writers need to continue writing.

I’ve never sent out a query, and don’t plan to. I have nothing against trad. publishing and I doubt it’s going to disappear, but for my personality and career goals, self-pub is the better choice. Obviously that won’t be the case for everyone.


Jami Gold March 31, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Hi Jamie,

Yes, I didn’t specifically list the lack of control because that’s something inherent in working with any partner. No contract (unless maybe you’re James Patterson) will let us keep 100% control over everything. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Jeremy Duley March 31, 2011 at 5:53 pm

If I were offered a book deal tomorrow, I’d be VERY suspicious! Mainly because I don’t have a book written yet, so that’d be a huge red flag that this publisher wasn’t legit. So for me I’d say the reputation of the publisher would be a major factor for me.


Jami Gold March 31, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Hi Jeremy,

LOL! Yes, that would be a bit suspicious. Thanks for the comment!


Corey J. Popp March 31, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Having never been published, it’s hard to imagine turning down any reasonable contract secured through an agent. But isn’t that what agents are for? To help us determine what is, and what isn’t, a good offer?

Regarding midlist authors, I think it makes sense to still go with traditional publishing if given the opportunity. I would much rather tell future publishers and agents that I’m a midlist author instead of a self-published author.

If I can’t land an agent or publisher, I’ll self-publish an ebook, more or less as a last resort. Either it sits in my desk unread, or it sits on kdp unread. At least on kdp, someone has chance to read it.


Jami Gold March 31, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Hi Corey,

Yes, excellent point about how agents should be able to help us through the process. Ideally, we’d have a strong enough relationship with our agent that they’d know our goals and keep them in mind with their evaluation. Thanks for the comment!


Laura Pauling April 1, 2011 at 3:49 am

I’ve been thinking a lot about this too. I have no idea what I’ll do in the future. I’m really thinking about the whole thing though. And it’ll be interested to see where it all goes!


Jami Gold April 1, 2011 at 8:22 am

Hi Laura,

Yes, I have no idea what the future will hold for me either. 🙂 But I think there’s a good reason none of us should say “never” to any of the options out there. Thanks for the comment!


Elizabeth Boskey April 1, 2011 at 8:25 am

I’ve turned down contracts for non-fiction work, because they didn’t pay me enough to make doing the work worthwhile. For fiction… I’ve actually signed contracts I wish I’d turned down, but not to self publish. I wish I’d turned them down to negotiate them into better contracts.

I can’t see self publishing my fiction. I love editing. I want to wrap my editors in blankets and feed them cookies and do little dances about how much better they make my work. If I self publish I don’t get that, and I can see the lack (when I publish with people who aren’t great editors.)


Jami Gold April 1, 2011 at 8:52 am

Hi Elizabeth,

Very interesting! Yes, I’d imagine with non-fiction proposals, where you have an idea of how much time and research would be involved, you’d have completely different things to consider with a contract. And that’s a great point about the possibility of negotiating for a better contract too. Thanks for the insightful comment!


Tahlia Newland April 1, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Yes, I would. I will check a contract carefully and consider every point. I’ll be very careful with ebook rights and would like to retain control of them or at least have them return to me fairly quickly.


Jami Gold April 1, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Hi Tahlia,

Yes, authors will be looking at those clauses about digital rights in contracts very closely, especially with the high royalty rates for the self-published ebooks. Thanks for the comment!


Krista D. Ball April 1, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Of course I’d turn down a contract that was unfair to my rights or made no business sense. I would attempt to negotiated the contract to my favour before a full rejection of it, however. Also, I think people need to understand what is standard, good, and bad. Some folks think they can just outsource that to an agent…but you still need to understand what is standards/good/bad for when hiring an agent! Either way, writers need to understand the business to ensure the best decisions are being made for them.

I’ve turned down job offers in my life that, once I say the contract, would be nightmare jobs. Why wouldn’t it be any different for writing (my career)?


Jami Gold April 1, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Hi Krista,

Yes, I think of it the same way in comparing it to turning down job offers. Some people are more comfortable being assertive in negotiating for what they want than others. And while agents represent us, there’s a limit to what they can do or how much they can read our mind about what’s important. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Stacy S. Jensen April 2, 2011 at 6:25 am

This is a great conversation on this topic. Lots to think about on this issue.


Jami Gold April 2, 2011 at 8:10 am

Hi Stacy,

Yes, I’m evil. I was out to make people think. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


M.E. Anders April 3, 2011 at 1:31 pm

At this stage in my career, I believe it unwise to turn down a contract with a respected publisher. As long as my agent and I were clear on the reasonable terms of the agreement, I believe a contract could only boost my fledgling career.


Jami Gold April 3, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Hi M.E.,

Yes, one contract (even if it’s less than ideal) often leads to more in the long term. Good observation and thanks for the comment!


Todd Moody April 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Great post Jami! I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject too. Susan is not alone in her concern over control for series. I’ve heard that a lot by even established authors. I am still likely going to try to get an agent and see what happens, but i will be very picky with the contract language and if it doesn’t suit self-publishing is right there as a fantastic option.

I missed your posts! Great to see you posting again!


Jami Gold April 4, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Hi Todd,

LOL! Geeze, there were only two repeat posts during my deadline month. I’m happy to know you look forward to the new stuff though. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Rachel Firasek April 4, 2011 at 4:45 pm

A year ago, I’d have said, Heck NO! But, now after pitching, having different publishers and working with different editors, I know I’ll be more selective in my contracts and with the word YES. Authors have to keep their best interest at heart even when it’s their heart that is screaming yes. That is when the emotion must be overruled by the brain. Great post!


Jami Gold April 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Hi Rachel,

Great point about how our brain and our heart might not always agree! I think we’d need to understand why our heart wanted something to know if that was an important step to reach our goals or not. Thanks for the comment!


Pete Tarkulich April 5, 2011 at 11:18 am

I’ve been a webcomic artist for the past five years, and the webcomic model is very closely tied to the self-publishing model (which I’m also venturing down). I’m one of those people that would turn a contract down because I’ve learned to love being in control of everything, from the writing to the designs to the merchandise and on and on. Yes, it’s a lot more work, but it’s for something that I love to do. Sure, it would be nice to write and not worry about everything else, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my intellectual property rights and control to do it. Call me OCD or call me stubborn… I’m probably both.


Jami Gold April 5, 2011 at 11:26 am

Hi Pete,

LOL! As a perfectionist with a control streak, I can relate. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Patty Jansen April 9, 2011 at 5:37 am

I have turned down a contract, because of the publisher’s inflexibility, because they asked me to sign away rights they weren’t going to use, and because they were being d*cks about it. Also. I checked their marketing, and was less-than-impressed.

I’ve self-published and sold to publishers (short stories and novellas) and will gladly sign a contract that either leaves me some freedom, or that goes with a guarantee that the publisher will do some decent marketing.


Jami Gold April 9, 2011 at 8:21 am

Hi Patty,

Thanks for sharing your experience. Yes, I’ve heard of publishers pushing for various rights, like foreign rights, and then never doing anything with them. Those are potentially lost sales to the author if their agent had the ability to negotiate them separately. Thanks for the comment!


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