The Year I Turned Down a Publishing Contract

I was offered a contract for my first novel back in 1993 and refused to sign, effectively killing that sale.  Crazy?  No.

I was following all the rules back then and submitting to one publisher at a time with thoughtful query letters and sample chapters.  It took a year to slog through five New York publishers at that rate, so I checked out my heavy copy of the 1993 Writers Marketplace and discovered Northwest Publishing of Salt Lake City, Utah.

I know, I know.  Utah is not the center of the publishing industry, but as a newbie I decided I had to start somewhere small and earn the acceptance of the big publishers and big agents.

So when I got a message from Northwest to call them because they’d like to offer me a contract, I just about jumped out of my work boots and ran for the nearest phone.

Sure enough, after asking me what I did for a living, the gentleman from Utah said, “Well Mike, we’re impressed with your novel and we’re going to offer you a contract.”

Stratospheric!  I’d done it!  I could forget the construction industry, where I was working while waiting for the film industry to take off.  My friends from university who had complained that I was wasting my degree would have to eat their words.  I had made it.

Then the gentleman from Utah proved he possessed the ethics of a great white shark.  Actually, a shark is more ethical because it never pretends to be anything other than a shark.

“So Mike,” he said, still all chummy and familiar.  “Every year millions of novels are submitted for publication but only a very few make it to print.”

I was falling and I had no parachute.  I know a sales pitch when I hear one.  Even before he got to price I knew I’d been stung by a vanity press.  Price tag to get published: $9000.  This, according to the shark from Utah, was only one quarter of the publishing cost.  They were graciously going to cover the other three quarters.  Yeah, right!

I turned them down, even as I prepared for a long stay in the film industry.

I actually don’t have a problem with self-publishing, or indie-publishing as one writer I know calls it, as long as the publisher/printer makes it clear that they’re not a traditional publisher, not even close.  If a writer wants to make a go of it on their own in the indie scene–or just wants a nicely package book that they can hand out to their friends and family–then a self-publisher can be a great service.

But unfortunately most of them are sharks, using euphoria to make you vulnerable and compliant.

Northwest Publishing was even worse.  I assumed that if I’d said yes I’d at least get those vanity copies, those boxes of books that I’d have to sell door to door.  Thanks to SFWA, I later found out just how lucky I was that I’d said no to the contract.  Near the end Northwest was still taking authors’ money but stopped even printing the books.  They had gone from unethical business practices to just plain thievery.

The good news out of this sordid little tale is that the owner got a long prison sentence.  The bad news is that there are smarter sharks out there, ones that know they can get away with unethical behavior as long as they’re careful with the wording of their contracts so that they’re not actually criminal.

Perhaps I should start a list.  Here’s one I’ve been warned about by several authors.

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