5 Questions to Ask Before You Sign a Publishing Contract

Claire Handscombe


There are more options than ever before for publishing a book. The dream, for many, is still the traditional route: an agent, an offer from an editor at one of the Big Five publishers, a hefty advance, a book tour. But there’s also lot to be said for self-publishing: complete control over your own book, the ability to quickly respond to — ahem — unforeseen circumstances.

And then there’s also a murky territory in between: small presses; brand new imprints; publishers that use crowdfunding to cover their costs but otherwise act as more-or-less traditional publishers; hybrid publishers who, for a cost, will “help” you self-publish and sometimes promise to help with marketing and getting your book into shops.

But not everything is always as it seems, especially with this murky middle ground. So it’s wise to ask some questions before you make any final decisions or launch a crowdfunding campaign.

Why are you excited about my book?

It doesn’t, in some ways, matter what their answer is, but you do want to make sure they are specific: it’s nice to hear that “your writing is great” or “I love the character development”, and it can feel awkward to ask for more details — which character do you mean, specifically? Can you give me an example of where my writing worked well? — but it’s vital if you want to make sure that, quite honestly, they’ve read your book at all, let alone are excited about it. If the only answer is, “we think you can crowdfund this successfully”, I suggest you run for the hills.

In traditional publishing, nobody takes on your book unless at least somebody — and usually a whole team of somebodies — is thrilled to be representing it. That matters, because these are your cheerleaders.

They’re the people who’ll go into bookshops to convince booksellers to read advance copies and be ready on publication day to press the book into customers’ hands.

They’re the people who’ll be enthusiastically recommending to publishers overseas that they buy foreign rights, which means more readers and more money for you.

They’re the people who’ll be tweeting about your book to build buzz, and sending copies to bookstagrammers for maximum visibility. Who’ll be seeking to build chatter among the reviewers at newpapers and magazines who can help your book stand out in a crowded field.

If your book is just a number to them, they won’t be doing that — or, at best, they’ll be doing it half-heartedly, which essentially amounts to the same thing.

Where do you see my book fitting on your list?

Many publishers have multiple lists or imprints, and the books are treated very differently according to which list they sit on. And sometimes, nobody tells you about this upfront.

Maybe your publisher is known to produce quality books, even best-sellers, and to play alongside the traditional market.

But maybe that publisher also has a digital-first list, and when they make you an offer, they call it their “paperback list”, and you don’t have any idea that means that your book will essentially be let out into the world with none of the help from them that you would expect from a more traditional model.

If your dream has always been for your book to be in shops or reviewed in a popular women’s magazine, you don’t want to sign with a “digital first” imprint, for example. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with these, but you want your expectations to be aligned with what will actually happen.

Ask which imprint or list your book is on, and ask for specific details of how that imprint or list is different from any others they might have.

Pro tip: watch for the use of the passive voice. “It shouldn’t be too hard to get your book into shops” does not mean “We will work to get it accepted there.”

What is the marketing plan for my book?

There are some very basic things that every traditional publisher does, and every new or hybrid or crowdfunding or indie publisher should do too, if they care about your book’s visibility in the world.

In the UK, for example, this includes sending an advance copy and information sheet to the trade magazine The Bookseller six months before it comes out, so that there’s a chance it can be featured in the section of previewed books. That’s a section used by bookshops, podcasters, book reviewers, and more, to be on top of what’s coming out and be ready to talk about it in advance of when it drops. It does not cost very much to do this, but it’s vital.

If your UK-based publisher isn’t even doing this, you must seriously question if they are interested in your book selling at all, or if they don’t really mind as long as their costs are covered. The equivalent in the US is Publishers Weekly, where deals are announced.

Your publisher should be putting out a catalogue of upcoming releases, which they will sometimes send and sometimes hand deliver to bookshops and book reviewers. Ask when your book will be included in the catalogue; if it won’t be until after its publication, this is a giant red flag. For better and often worse, publishing is a forward-looking industry, and by the time your book appears in the catalogue six months after its publication, everyone has moved onto the shiny new thing that’s out that week. And ask, too, if books from the imprint or list that your book will be on gets as much space as the others, or is relegated to its own afterthought section in the back.

There are other things, too: at least three and preferably six months ahead of publication, your book should be on Netgalley, which provides electronic advance review copies to the bookselling and publishing world.

And there are other nice-to-haves: physical advance review copies sent to shops, attempts to book you on radio shows, inclusion in things like Pigeonhole, which sends out serialised versions of novels. It’s great if those can be included, but without the standard things — the trade magazine, the publisher’s catalogue — those won’t do much at all, because the radio shows and booksellers won’t have heard of the book, and so they won’t pay much attention to pitches.

How far ahead of publication will my book be ready?

By now, you’ll have noticed that quite a few things need to be in place at least three and usually six months before publication date — and if it can be even longer, that’s even better. (I know we’re all anxious to get our books out into the world, but the longer and more productive the gestation period, the more people will notice its arrival.)

If your publisher cannot commit — in non-pandemic times — to announcing a publishing date at least nine months in advance, and does not have a timeline to show you which includes a cover and the bulk of the editing done at least six months before publication date, run.

Could you put me in touch with a few of your authors?

Ask to contact at least three authors who’ve had a book published recently and on the same list as your book. Don’t just ask for one — or you might get the one success story that’s always held up as an example, but in fact is very much an outlier. This person will be thrilled with their experience and, understandably, filled with nothing but praise for the publisher. You’re probably onto a winner — as long as they’ve been published recently, since publishers are always adjusting their marketing models. But do your own research too, in Facebook groups for writers, for example.

It can be so tempting, when you finally, finally, get that offer, to jump right in with both feet. But it’s much better to slow down and make absolutely sure this is the right decision before you invest your time, your money, and entrust a stranger with your hard work and dreams.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

Comments / 0

Published by

Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

More from Claire Handscombe

Comments / 0