Questions to Ask Your Publisher Before You Sign the Contract

Over the weekend, you might have seen a writing-and-money topic trending on Twitter, #PublishingPaidMe, where authors started publicly sharing their advances. Such transparency is long overdue and—in this particular case—is meant to reveal stark differences between what Black and non-Black authors get paid.

Amidst these tweets, I saw a repeated call to action for Black authors: Before you agree to a deal, ask your publisher about their marketing and promotion plans for your book. Ask how they plan to support you. Ask, ask, ask. (Because their support falls short of where it needs to be, and publishers have to be pushed.)

To assist with that call to action, I’ve collected and expanded information from my past books and articles to help authors ask questions of their potential or existing publisher. I’ve tried to also include indicators that will help you notice and challenge unhelpful answers. If you have an agent, start by asking them these questions or having them assist you with this conversation.

While this is a long article, it’s still not an exhaustive list of questions, and it so far remains a general list that could be used by any author. I welcome advice and insights from BIPOC to help me improve this; moreover, I grant permission to anyone who would like to build on it, revise it, and republish it elsewhere with their additions and experiences.

As with most things I write about the business, I must offer a critical caveat: This industry can be like a dozen industries all smushed together. Small or independent publishers might have little or nothing in common with the Big Five houses in terms of marketing muscle. Their support may look very different than a corporate publisher, but it doesn’t mean that support isn’t valuable or meaningful. A small press may offer more personalized attention and enthusiasm that lasts long beyond the book launch window. They can be more nimble and also laser focused on what marketing leads to profitable sales—because they have to be, or they’ll go out of business. Respect that every publisher has unique strengths (and, certainly, weaknesses).

The responsibilities of traditional publishers

To greatly simplify matters, a traditional publisher has four overarching duties:

  1. Producing the best-quality book, regardless of format. This includes editorial, design, packaging and production.
  2. Selling the book into accounts, such as bookstores, wholesalers, all types of retailers, and libraries—basically, any place books are sold or available.
  3. Marketing and publicizing the book to the trade, such as booksellers, librarians, and trade book review outlets (e.g., Publishers Weekly or Library Journal).
  4. Marketing and publicizing the book to readers, whether that’s through consumer marketing (email and social media, for example) or through traditional media and publicity (newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and so on).

You’ll want to ask questions regarding each of these four areas.

1. Producing the best-quality book

  • Who will your editor be? Is it the same person acquiring or making the offer on your work, or will it be someone else? Will you be working with people who are in-house or freelancers? How are those freelancers selected?
  • Look at the publisher’s recent cover designs. If you can’t easily view the past season or two of titles at their website, check out the publisher’s catalog at Edelweiss—free to sign up. What story do these designs tell? What audiences are being spoken to? Would you be comfortable with your cover looking like what you see represented? Compare the covers for white authors and BIPOC authors. Have a discussion with the acquiring editor if what you see concerns you.
  • What formats does the publisher plan to release and when? This will depend on the type of publisher you’re working with—and their plans may change—but a Big Five publisher contract usually includes rights to publish in all formats, including audio. They tend to release A-list fiction titles—the ones they really get behind—in hardcover, ebook, and audio to begin, then they’ll wait 1-2 years to release the paperback. Or the publisher may release a trade paperback instead of a hardcover. For some genres, like romance, a mass-market format might also be in the mix. All of these formats get priced differently and the royalties vary for each. So figure out what’s standard or expected for your publisher. You can usually tell from the catalog of new releases—and your agent should know, too.

2. Selling the book into accounts

Part of the value a traditional publisher is the ability to sell your work into bricks-and-mortar bookstores, wholesalers, library distributors, and so on. Your book gets pitched, even if it’s just for seven seconds, to accounts like Barnes & Noble. Most traditional publishers still work according to seasons, meaning they have a fall list and a spring list—so there are fall sales meetings and spring sales meetings to determine what books will get placement.

  • Does the publisher have its own sales team? If not, do they work through a distributor (or a larger publisher) to pitch your book to accounts? Ask your agent or editor about this, or you can figure it out from visiting your publisher’s website. The sales team carries a lot of responsibility for how your book gets pitched and they’re the ones on the hook for securing orders and placement. They communicate to the accounts and can be responsible for building enthusiasm. You want to know who’s going to be making the case for your book, and if your editor has a direct line to these people. If your editor doesn’t, then who does? Can you be at the sales presentations? Can you make your case to them in person or virtually? Press for it if possible. Worst case, make a video that can be shared with sales, as Amy Stewart discusses here.
  • What’s the planned release date? Does it make sense to you? Publishers often put their “big” books in the fall, but not always. Beach reads might release in the summer. Books that tie into New Year’s resolutions will launch in time for January publicity. Ask your agent or editor what they think about the release timing and why a particular month was chosen.
  • Read recent book descriptions at the publisher’s website and at online retail sites. What audience is implied in the marketing copy for their titles? What does the publisher emphasize? How is the book being positioned? How does the publisher expect to position your book?

Important: Your editor is largely responsible for distributing early versions of your work to the in-house sales and marketing staff to drum up enthusiasm and support. The editor will also pitch your work during a season sales meeting, and make suggestions for how the book can be best positioned in the market. Important decisions are made while you are still writing or revising the book, and you might not realize it. Stay in close touch with your editor and ask about those sales meetings and marketing plans!

Around six to twelve months before your book is released, once your book has a relatively final cover and title, the publisher’s sales process will begin. This tends to coincide with the release of the publisher’s seasonal catalogue of titles. Get a copy of this catalogue by asking your editor. Turn to the page that lists your title. How is it positioned? If it has a full-page listing near the beginning, that indicates A-list treatment and support. If it’s buried, not so much. What does the catalogue say about the publisher’s marketing plan for your book? If you’ve been communicating well with your editor or publisher, nothing you see in the catalogue will come as a surprise. (More on this below.)

By the time the sales calls are made, the publisher has already determined and budgeted for the most important marketing initiatives for each book. Advance praise will often be secured, large-scale advertising campaigns will be on the calendar, and forthcoming media commitments—such as an excerpt set to run in a magazine—may be touted as a reason to commit to a strong sales number. 

3. Marketing and publicizing the book to the trade

“Trade” is defined as publishing industry insiders, or: booksellers, librarians and reviewers who are typically first in line to make your book known and visible to readers. A publisher is quite unlikely to have a full marketing plan at the time of contract signing, so you may not get clear or straight answers on these issues until later in the process. But you can get a general idea of their strategy or thinking—and the size of the advance is likely to indicate their seriousness.

  • Will your publisher invest in advance review copies (ARCs)? Publishers often produce advance review copies of your book about four to six months prior to release, and send them out to whomever they think will most likely offer placement, reviews, or coverage. ARCS are sent as print copies through the mail and/or digitally through services like NetGalley. Ask your publisher who they expect to target with ARCs. They might focus on independent booksellers, certain types of libraries, influencers such as Bookstagrammers, book clubs, or a combination of communities, but ideally you’re looking for a plan that is specific, realistic, and tangible. Note that some small presses can’t play the ARC game anywhere near like the Big Five—it can be time consuming, expensive and frustrating. This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker; just get clarity on what they plan to do instead.
  • Will your publisher help you meet booksellers, librarians, or others prior to the book release? Assuming there’s not a pandemic going on, publishers’ sales and marketing teams will attend bookseller and librarian conventions, and other industry-facing events, to market upcoming books. Select authors get invited to these events, too. And editors are often asked to select one or two titles they’re most excited about from each season’s list (such as the “buzz” books at BookExpo). When you sign your contract, it may be too early for the publisher say where your book is positioned in the season, and if you’ll be one of these select authors, but the quicker you can find out, the better.
  • Will you go on tour? Publishers aren’t as gung-ho about funding tours as they used to be, but regional tours or targeted city tours still happen, especially when there’s a heavy emphasis on appealing to independent bookstores and libraries.
  • Where will the publisher advertise? Some publishers advertise new releases in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Shelf Awareness, book club sites, and more. One outlet is not necessarily better than another; it depends on the sales and marketing strategy.
  • Does the publisher plan to push for recognition—such as book awards, club selections, etc? There are all kinds of book club picks, literary awards, and special types of recognition a book can receive. Does your publisher think your title is right for such exposure? Why or why not?

Publishers may attempt to secure promotional display for your book at a major retailer. Such displays are always paid for, and the retailer (not the publisher) makes the final call on what gets display space. It’s unlikely for a publisher to secure such placement until after they pitch the book to their accounts, so display confirmation may not happen until close to the release date.

4. Marketing and publicizing the book to readers

Some publishers can do a tremendous job of producing a quality book, selling a book into accounts, and getting books on shelves throughout the country … but then no one shows up to buy those books. These days, it’s necessary to evaluate a publisher’s ability to reach readers directly.

  • Does the publisher have a publicity staff? Will you be working with a publicist? Are they in-house or freelance? Once you’re put in touch with a publicist, you’ll want to ask about their strategy. A general, mass outreach plan is rarely to your benefit, especially if it can’t be measured; a specific plan of attack (“Let’s make sure everyone who loves XYZ knows about this book”) can be measured and more effective.
  • Will there be a pre-order campaign? A pre-order campaign by the publisher might try to drive advance buzz about the book, particularly through digital channels. Some publishers will advertise pre-orders on social media and use that information to help inform the overall marketing campaign—perhaps even tweaking the title and cover design if they believe the positioning is off.
  • Similar to the previous: Will there be an early review or influencer buzz campaign prior to release? Publishers might invest in giving away ARCs on Goodreads, NetGalley, or over social. This is typically done in two waves: several months prior to release, then just preceding the release. This helps build visibility and reviews on Goodreads and other media outlets. (Note that Amazon doesn’t allow for customer reviews prior to the release date.)
  • Does the publisher have an email newsletter list, social media accounts, or other places where it discusses new releases? Figure out all the assets of your publisher so you can ensure they’re promoting your book through all their owned media.
  • Where will the publisher advertise? Warning: People inside the industry often say advertising in places like the New York Times doesn’t sell books and is done only to satisfy an author’s ego. Whatever you think about this, it is true that an ad that runs in a special-interest publication or in a niche email newsletter may be far more effective in driving sales than mass-market advertising. Much depends on the book and the overall nature of the campaign.
  • Study recent titles from the publisher at their website or an online retailer—what’s the review activity like? Are there editorial (professional) reviews listed that indicate someone avidly reached out to the media? Follow the publicity breadcrumb trail for recent titles. You want evidence that the publisher submits the book to appropriate media outlets for coverage.
  • Ask for the author questionnaire. Most publishers will ask you to complete an author questionnaire. This document asks about every facet of your network and platform, including names and contact information for important relationships or professional connections, information about your local and regional media, and much more. The more the publisher knows about your resources and potential networking opportunities, the more they can potentially support your book. They’ll want to build on your existing assets. After you submit this questionnaire, follow up about it. Ask what the marketers or publicist will do with the information. Ensure it gets used.

It’s well known and even acknowledged by publishers that not all books are adequately or equitably marketed and promoted. Partly this is because publishers sign more books than they can sufficiently support with existing staff, plus they’re likely to throw their weight behind a handful of titles each season (the ones that received the largest advances, usually).

Promotional opportunities for books can be competitive given the limited (and sometimes shrinking) number of book review outlets and other coverage opportunities. Publishers are also guilty of not thinking creatively about how, when, and where books can be reviewed or talked about. The end result is that publishers can rely on hope alone that a book finds its audience.

It’s important to realize that, once your book releases, most of the publisher’s sales and marketing work is—in their eyes—already finished. Much of the media coverage that happens will have been seeded weeks or months earlier. If nothing happens to help the book gain sales momentum in its first three months or so, the publisher will turn its attention to the next season of books. If the book doesn’t sell in sufficient quantities in its first six months on the shelf, it will be returned and not restocked, to make way for next season’s titles.

If your launch ends up being a disappointment, and it was a hardcover release, there is still hope. It may find a new life as a paperback release and have a second shot at bestseller lists as well as editorial coverage. Or, if your book scores a major award or media attention after its release, that may give the publisher a way to re-sell or re-pitch the book to accounts, to argue for a bigger buy. 

What a cookie-cutter marketing plan looks like

I’ve seen a good number of book marketing plans from publishers that are terribly generic and could be applied to nearly any title they release. Here’s a stripped down version of how they look. Notice there are no specifics—no specific people, publications, or communities mentioned. No specific retailers or libraries or reviewers mentioned. No specific bookstores mentioned. This is simply a boilerplate, a starting point, without much value to anyone in its current form.

Pre-Publication

  • ARC mailings to sales reps and accounts, librarians, booksellers, reviewers
  • Publisher’s catalog sent to media, libraries, booksellers

During Publication

  • Secure review and feature coverage with print, online, and radio
  • Pursue targeted outreach to blogs
  • Pitch bookstore and library events in the author’s region

Digital Marketing

  • Post on publisher’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts
  • Tie into currently trending topics

Bookstores

  • Featured title at publisher’s booth at ABA Winter Institute and BookExpo

Awards

  • Mailings for state awards
  • Mailings for book industry awards

Retail placement

  • Pitch for merchandising at accounts

Your turn

If you’re a published author, what did you ask your publisher about their marketing plan? What sort of answers did you receive (or not)? What do you wish you had asked your publisher?

For authors currently struggling with whether to accept an offer, I hope that your agent can adequately guide you. If you don’t have an agent, you’re welcome to reach out to me with questions using my contact page. However, I’m not an agent, and I’m not a lawyer, and sometimes the best next step is finding one to assist you. I can send suggestions if you reach out.

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Posted in Business for Writers.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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