You’ve worked really hard to find an agent or a publisher who loves your book. Maybe it’s taken a year — or years! It’s so great that the big day has finally come, BUT before you sign anything, you want to make sure that YOU love this publisher just as much as they love your book!
It’s not that different than trying to find your dream job. You’re interviewing that potential company to make sure they’re a good fit for you just as much as they’re interviewing you. Don’t forget that YOUR book is making that publisher money! If it’s going to be a great relationship, it’s important to make sure that they’re going to champion you and your book into the world.
With all that being said, I’ve worked with a lot of authors who have unrealistic expectations about what a small publisher or a smaller imprint at a larger press can accomplish. Remember that most small presses are just barely getting by (especially post-Covid). Know what’s important to you and try to get to know the people you’d be working with at the press — those relationships are what can make your book shine on the shelf.
Maybe the first and most important question that all authors should ask is about marketing. You’ve hopefully already written a kick-ass book marketing plan that this potential publisher is in possession of, but it’s important to know how much, if any, marketing they’ll be doing on their side. It differs from press to press so it’s an important conversation to have. Some presses are so small that they have an editor and that’s about it — they just don’t have the capacity to keep a marketing person on staff. Others do have a marketing professional, but they might wear many other hats too. It’s not necessarily a deal breaker if a press doesn’t have the capacity to do any marketing for you, it just means you might need to be prepared to do all of it on your own.
So many authors think that marketing and publicity are the same, but they’re really their own individual skills. Ask your potential publisher if they have a publicity budget for your book? Are they able to set up events for you, or is that up to you? What types of publicity have they done in the past with other authors?
Galleys or Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) of books can be an author’s (and publisher’s) best friend when it comes to getting the word out before a pub date. Ask your potential publisher 1) If they plan to print galleys? 2) If so, how many? 3) Do they have a list of people that they send to? And have they gotten traction in the past from trade publications like Forward Magazine or Publisher’s Weekly?
Another great question to ask that helps you keep expectations in check is how many other books they’re publishing in that season. If yours is one of 3 other books, GREAT! Hopefully it’ll get a lot of their attention? Or is it one of 15 other titles? Even if it is, is it a frontlist title?
As a cover designer and writer, one of the most important questions I’d want to ask is about cover design. How much input will you be able to give to the cover design? If you already have an artist in mind for the cover, would that publisher be willing to contact and pay them? What happens if they mock up a few covers and you don’t like any of them?
Talking about money is uncomfortable, but it’s so important to get in front of it before signing a contract. Likely this will be outlined in your contract but make sure that you understand whether or not you’re getting an advance and what percentage your royalties will be.
Oftentimes we hear these dream stories about authors getting 3 book contracts from publishers. This means a couple of things:
The author is probably on a deadline for each of those books. So, if one of the three is written, that means you’re expected to finish two books likely in a short span of time.
If you didn’t love working with the publisher for the first book, you might not be able to get out of your contract for the other two. It’s often helpful to ask what the guidelines are for that type of thing before signing a multiple book contract.
Are they planning on marketing all the books the same way?
What happens if you miss a deadline?
Not a terribly pressing question, but usually publishers give their authors a number of free copies of their books. Ask how many you get and if you get a discount after you use them up in case people want to buy directly from you.
Ebooks and audiobooks are bigger than ever because of their convenience. Ask the potential publisher if they plan on putting out an audiobook or an ebook. If they are going to, will your royalties on those digital copies be different than on physical copies?
Finally, I think it’s always a good idea to ask the publisher what their expectations of you are! Communication between publishers and authors is what helps things run smoothly and hopefully gets your book out to lots of people.