Contracts, Publicity, and Everything Else You Want to Know About Small Publishers

I asked Vana Roth, author of A Nation of Expendables, about her experiences with her publisher, if she had much communication with them, if she had to sign a complicated publishing contract, and how much publicity and promotion she had to do. She very generously responded:

Hi, Pat.

Experience with a Small Publisher 

The following is based on personal opinion of working with a small publisher. Since this is my first book, I have nothing else to compare it to. Therefore, in answer to your questions, my experience with a small publisher has been very positive. Other than the original book release being pushed back a few months, everything has gone really well. Whether publishing with a large or small imprint, release dates tend to fluctuate and it’s a matter of being patient. Regardless of what happens when, the contract states the length of time the publisher has to get the book from contract award to print. It can take eighteen months or longer depending on the length of the book. Eighteen months may sound like a long time but it really isn’t when considering how long it can take to get a manuscript through edit, copy-editing, and artwork. A whole lot of coordinating goes on in the background and timing depends on the publishers schedule as well as those chosen to perform other services. If the publisher fails to publish in the specified amount of time, all assigned rights revert to the author. The author is free to pursue another publisher with none of the original publisher costs charged back to the author. A Nation of Expendables took fourteen months from contract award to print. 


It’s my understanding; publishers may assign the first read of a manuscript to an editor or editors. After reading, the editor makes a recommendation to the publisher as to whether the manuscript is viable. Based on editor recommendations, genre, topic and reader interests the publisher makes the final decision about offering a contract. The editor assigned to my book was the first to inform me of the contract award. A couple days later, the publisher followed up with a personal phone call for introductions. A few days later, I received the contract in the mail for review. All-important communications have been handled through email or regular mail, which I prefer since it gives me a ready reference for anything I might forget and a legal copy of what’s been discussed and agreed to beyond the original contract. I’ve talked several times with everyone who’s worked on my book. Communication is essential especially when you think about the importance of the final product. Once the book goes to print, it’s extremely costly to make changes; it has to be right the first time. I haven’t any negative things to say about the experience thus far. I suppose it has to do with my publisher and the professionals she contracted to handle my book. I had about a thousand questions and they were all answered in a timely manner. Everyone was very friendly, accessible and professional. Other authors under the publishers imprint have been very helpful in offering support and advice. It’s been a huge learning curve for me but since everyone’s been so helpful to the Newbie, it’s been a real pleasure. 

Publishing Contract 

Immediately after submitting a synopsis to agents and publishers, I started researching traditional publishing contracts to find out what’s standard, what to watch out for, what areas could and should be re-negotiated and what legally needs to be present by federal law. There are tons of great sources on the internet to research publishing contracts. If you’re ever in doubt, you can have an attorney who specializes in publishing contracts and copyright law review a contract.  

I was originally offered (3) contracts for A Nation of Expendables. One I rejected because the publisher wanted a re-write with more graphic detail of the blood and guts. The second was a one-page contract from an attorney turned publisher. He sent a one-page contract; I sent back a seven-page amendment, needless to say, the relationship deteriorated from there. Although royalties would have been paid at 50% on print copies, the contract was exclusive and for an indefinite period (pretty much forever). Standard contracts run from three to five years. The publisher also wanted 100% of the subsidiary rights with no provision for royalties or payment for these rights. Subsidiary rights are but not limited to, foreign language translations, film options, TV options, brail editions and other formats such as ebooks and audio CD’s. The contract was also missing the actual publishing date required by federal law. The publisher has to specify when the book will be in actual print and available for purchase. It’s my understanding the federal ruling came about since some publishers would enter into contracts with authors with no intention of ever publishing their books. They would tie up the rights for as long as possible to keep certain books from competing with books on similar subjects they wanted to put money into promoting. The only rights assigned to my publisher are English language rights in print and English language ebooks. I retained all other rights but have an option to assign these rights to my current publisher for a percentage if I so choose and if opportunity presents itself. The three-year contract I received was very fair and in my mind as close to perfect as one gets. There were only a couple, minor areas needing negotiation.  

Negotiating a Contract 

If you’re negotiating a contract without an agent as a middleman, you have to remember all publishers expect to make a profit, which is normal. They will keep a larger percentage if you allow them. If you’re uncomfortable with the percentage offered, there’s nothing stopping you from asking for more. The worse that will happen is the counter offer may be rejected. From what I’ve read, royalties on print copies range from 5% to 15% and 10% to 50% on electronic formats depending on the publisher. When you get a contract, pay close attention to the percentage of royalties on ebooks. Established publishers could go up to 50% split since there’s little cost involved once the book’s been formatted and put on a server for download.  

In my opinion, a good traditional contract from a small publisher to an unproven author offers royalties on a graduated scale based on sales volume: 10% on the first 5,000 copies, 12% on the next 5,000 and 15% on anything after in print form with a minimum of 20-25% on all ebooks. If you can get more, which is difficult…great…but if you can’t, in my opinion the graduated scale is very good. If a publisher offers 50% on all print copies, you may need to pay special attention to what’s missing in the contract. You may be signing control of your book away for life and/or your subsidiary rights without any financial benefit. There are a number of other issues addressed in the contract such as copyright ownership, first right of refusal on sequels, book character ownership, etc. A contract from a reputable publisher will put everything up front and in writing. If these issues aren’t addressed in the contract, I’d have serious doubts about the publishers’ integrity. 

You probably already know this but under a traditional contract there’s never a charge to the author for any publishing services. Never pay for artwork, edit, copy-edit or printing. A reputable traditional publisher will assume all up front costs. Some small publishers may or may not offer an advance. Mine did not and I didn’t have a problem with it. I think the hardest thing for an author to decide is whether to accept a contract or hold out for one they think may better. 

About Agents 

Since I haven’t an agent and negotiated the contract myself, I don’t have to pay anyone 15% off the top of my earnings. If this book does well, it will be easier to find an agent and/or if necessary, another publisher for the next book. I’m still not sure at this point if there’s a benefit to having an agent unless an author’s only interested in publishing with a large imprint since it’s almost impossible to get their attention without one. Unless you have multiple manuscripts the agent agrees to represent, once a publisher’s found and the contract is signed, there’s very little left for them to do. Personally, I’d rather pay a good publicist the 15%. 

Publicity and Promotion 

Publicity and promotion is a tough one, my publisher has a very active publicist. It’s still early for my book and there may be more requirements. So far, the only things I’ve been asked to provide is a short bio, applicable website addresses, and blurbs about the book that my editors helped write. The publicist takes this information and copies of the book to conventions to generate interest. She also presents the book to a variety of chain stores. The goal is to get the chain store to put the book on their approved purchase list and to stock it. The publicist also helps set up book signings and interviews. No matter what type of publisher is sought, all authors nowadays are required to promote their own work so unless you have $25-50,000 for a personal publicist and unlimited funds for marketing, you’ll be required to do a fair amount of promoting yourself. 


I consider myself very lucky when it comes to being published. There are close to 1,756,000 fiction and non-fiction manuscripts submitted to publishers (big or small) each year. Between 3-5% of those ever get published. These figures do not include books from self-published authors or technical manuals (medical, technological or mechanical). This is why I chose to go with a small publisher with good distribution. The odds of being noticed by one of the larger imprints were very low. In addition, smaller houses can keep books active longer. If a book doesn’t generate immediate interest, a large publisher may only keep a book active for six weeks. My publisher will keep the book active for eighteen months unless we agree to another contract at the end of this one keeping it active longer. At some point since small publishers don’t have millions of dollars behind them for promotion, they’ll ask you to submit a promotional business plan. What they’re looking for are the methods (email, direct mail, web site, phone calls, newspapers, etc.) you intend to use to help promote your work. 

Other than that, I can’t think of anything else to tell you. If you have any other questions…please feel free to ask! 

Always a pleasure, take care,

Vana Roth 

For more about A Nation of Expendables see:

6 Responses to “Contracts, Publicity, and Everything Else You Want to Know About Small Publishers”

  1. Peter Quinn Says:

    Hi. I am a long time reader. I wanted to say that I like your blog and the layout.

    Peter Quinn

  2. DJ Ledford Says:

    This is a fascinating article, Vana. You covered each element concisely and mentioned what we should look out for and ask of the publisher. I truly appreciate you offering this information to those of us approaching the publishing stage of our work. Thank you so much.

  3. Vana Roth Says:

    Thank you to Pat Bertram for finding the article of interest and posting on her blog.

    I hope this encourages others to explore the option of utilizing smaller publishers as a means of getting their work to the public. There are so many wonderful author’s whose work exceeds or at the very least, are at par with those already being published with larger imprints. It would be a shame if the world never had the privilege of reading and enjoying their works due to limitations of being accepted by the large publishers.

    I’m familiar with Pat and D.J. Ledford’s work. They both in my opinion are exceptional writers worthy of being in print. I wish them all the best and hope to see their work soon in glossy covers at book stores.

  4. Jean Says:

    Vana, I was approached by a publisher to author a textbook, and plan to have contributing authors. What determines whether someone is credited as the author of a book or an editor? Is there some percentage of the book that must be written to be considered an author? I have seen some books where the author is not listed as an editor but that include several guest authored chapters.

  5. Vana Roth Says:

    Hello Jean,

    Wow, you ask a great question. I wish I had a solid answer but I haven’t any experience in this area. I’m not sure if there are any hard and fast rules that apply. Most of the textbooks I have don’t credit an editor.

    “Basic Statistics – Tools for Continuous Improvement” is one of my favorites…I know…its sounds kind of corny…lol…but the majority of the book was written by three authors whose names are predominate on the cover, with twenty others listed in smaller font as contributors. Inside, the three are credited as authors and the contributors are recognized as contributors within the acknowledgments. There’s credit given to the cover designer and the production/graphics company but none to an editor. A while ago, I read “THRILLER: Stories To Keep You Up All Night”. The book contained the individual works of 32 authors and was edited by James Patterson. He’s credited as the editor on the cover even though he wrote a nice introduction for each author and their work.

    You said you were approached to author the textbook; this leads me to believe you’ll do most of the writing and be credited as such. I’m assuming your responsibility is to turn the book into a single, comprehensive, cohesive piece of work rather than a representation of several similar but separate pieces.

    Your best bet is to ask the publisher how you’ll be credited for your contribution, who’ll be responsible for checking the accuracy of the contributor’s work and if they intend to use an editor.

    Sorry, I wish I could be more help but when in doubt, always ask the publisher.

  6. ri Says:

    Thanks for sharing your personal contractual information. It always seems it’s a little uncomfy to ask “So, what did your publisher give you?”.

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