7 questions to ask when considering a publisher

It’s a gray, rainy day here today, and it feels so nice. I especially love riding the train up to New York when it’s foggy and gray like this—if you’ve ever seen some of those Northeast corridor water views and murky woods, you know exactly what I mean.

cookbook publishing blog

We had a blast this past weekend doing things like eating too much at The Dabney and Whaley’s and making Mary Randolph’s chicken croquettes.

I was looking through one of our smaller memory boxes the other day, and I found my old business cards from when I worked as an editor at a smaller publisher. I loved working there, but it also reminded me how different the book process is from house to house. And just as importantly, how hard it is for anyone on the outside—especially writers and bloggers new to the publishing world—to figure out what kind of publisher might be right for them and their book idea.

Which, of course, launched me into a loooooong article about the differences between larger and smaller publishing houses. Phew, this one’s a doozy! But that’s because there’s just so, so much to say. There’s more diversity in the industry than most people can imagine, and even among the Big 5 publishers or the smallest of the small presses, there’s no one set way of doing certain things.

So, I thought it would be helpful to share a few key questions that you should ask when considering what kind of publisher is right for you or when negotiating a book contract, especially if you’ve been approached by a publisher already. I also tried to provide the broadest of benchmarks to help you have some context if you do already have an offer in hand and you now want to negotiate for standard book royalties or an advance. Of course, I have to insert one million caveats about how every house is unique—I promise this is not a cop-out; it’s the honest-to-goodness truth—and how every publishing contract can be its own universe of non-standard and standard terms.

But this at least should provide a starting point for anyone who has an offer in hand and isn’t sure whether they should accept, negotiate, look for a literary agent, or walk away.

A real-life case study

That exact scenario happened to one of my authors—she had been approached by a smaller publisher who wanted a certain kind of book from her. She asked around to a few author friends and other bloggers, not sure what she should do. Her asking around led to a referral to me, and we chatted about her existing offer and about what her goals and hopes were for a book.

I love the idea for her book; I thought her platform was ready; and most importantly, I loved her sweet personality and thought we’d have fun working together. We turned down the existing offer, spent 6 months refining her book concept and working on the proposal, shopped it around, and ultimately found her a fabulous publishing home, as well as an advance that was 8x more than what she’d originally been offered.

That is the kind of success story I love—seeing my authors end up with book deals that put them in the best possible scenario for a successful launch, and hopefully, a long career as an author.

We see stories like this all the time, especially in the nonfiction world: a publisher approaches an author; the author gets a literary agent; the literary agent finds or negotiates a far better offer for the author; the author becomes an evangelist for using an agent. I won’t toot the lit-agent horn too much, but I do strongly encourage anyone considering a publishing offer to get a second opinion. You only get one debut book, so it’s worth doing the research to explore any and all options that might be right for you!

Now, let me step off my soapbox (ha!), and let’s talk about the initial questions you should ask when considering a publisher. 

7 questions to ask when considering a publisher

negotiating a book publishing contract

1. Are you being asked to pay them for production costs, or are they offering to pay you an advance?

Most commonly, publishing contracts fall into one of four categories:

  • A traditional contract, where the publisher covers all costs and offers an advance and royalties
  • A hybrid or digital-first contract, where the publisher covers all costs but offers higher royalties instead of an advance
  • A work-for-hire contract, where the publisher covers all costs, but the author is selling her writing services to the publisher for a flat fee and is relinquishing copyright
  • A publishing services contract (these publishers are often called vanity publishers), where the author is covering all costs and essentially paying to have a book printed but will receive little, if any, distribution, marketing, or publicity support

For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to talk mostly about those first two types of contracts, since they’re the two arrangements that authors most often pursue and need help navigating.

2. Now let’s get the big question out of the way: how much of an advance are you being offered? And most importantly, are you comfortable with that amount?

Just like in any industry, the larger a business, the more resources it will have at its disposal. So generally, smaller publishers tend to pay more modest advances, while larger publishers can offer a broader range of advances. An offer from a small publisher can range from a no-advance offer to $1,000 to $5,000 to $10,000 or more. An offer from a large publisher, such as one of the Big 5 publishers, can also start at no advance (most often for digital-only imprints) but range as high as the $65 million the Obamas just received for their two books.

Of course, what matters most is whether that advance it right for you. Some books, like cookbooks and other heavily photographed books, require upfront capital to pay a photographer, or to cover ingredient and travel costs, and so an author may be looking for an advance that will cover both his costs and the value of his time. For fiction, the manuscript is usually completed at the time of sale, and so an advance could be used to pay back an author’s time, to cover the value of her time during the promotion phase, or to re-invest in her author brand.

It’s also worth finding out whether you’ve received a fair offer–as in, an offer that’s on par with other comparable authors in your genre or category. For this, it’s helpful look for a literary agent who has experience in your category or genre.

However! It’s extremely important to note that the advance itself isn’t nearly the whole picture. Typically, the advance is directly correlated to the back-end numbers that can most influence the success of your book—numbers like how many books they’ll print and how much money they’ll put into marketing and publicity.

Wait, so the advance isn’t the most important number?

Yes and no. The dollar amount of the advance matters in that it allows you to invest in your business and in the success of your book. But the symbolic meaning of the advance—the level of investment a publisher is making in you, and the print run and marketing/publicity budgets that come with it—matter just as much.

Essentially, advances are more modest at smaller publishers because the print runs are typically smaller. Rather than a print run of, say, 5,000, 10,000 or 20,000 copies, a smaller publisher may project a printing of 1,000 or 2,500 copies. At smaller publishers, their profit projections (the P&L) are often run using only the small initial print run, because there’s no guarantee there will be a second print run if the first doesn’t sell. (All this can be true at larger houses, too.) Therefore, a lower initial print run will always result in a lower advance. This allows the publisher to test out the market for a book in a less risky way, before deciding whether they’ll go back for additional print runs. However, this also means that your book may only have a few thousand copies printed, and that if those move slowly, that initial print run may be the entire lifespan of your book.

By contrast, if a publisher is able to project a larger total printing—and have the confidence that they can sell those copies—then the P&L will allow for a larger advance, as well as more copies of your book in existence.

Generally, a publisher won’t share the details of their P&Ls, as each house has a proprietary calculation, so you may not know what the projected print run is. But again, the size of the advance and the context that an agent can provide can help you make a good guess.

3. What kind of royalties are being offered?

Royalties can vary drastically from publisher to publisher and project to project, and so I can’t give a very accurate range and fair range here. This is another place where working with a literary agent can be very helpful, as she should be able to tell you what’s standard across the industry, what’s standard in your category or genre, and what’s standard from that particular publisher, as well as be able to negotiate the best possible rate for you.

But, what you can determine is whether the royalties you’re being offered are being paid on the retail list price of the book or on net (i.e. the author receives a percentage of the net revenue). Of course, the definition of “net revenue” or “net amount received” can vary by publisher, as can the actual percentages offered, and what is standard can also vary drastically from publisher to publisher, as well as from genre to genre. And 7.5% of list price is very different from 10% of net!

Be mindful of this difference, and in particular, look to see if there’s a clear definition (one you actually understand!) of either list price or net in the contract, depending on which is offered. If not, this could be a red flag.

4. How long will you have to write the book?

Again, the timeline for manuscript delivery varies so drastically from publisher to publisher and book to book. But very generally, smaller publishers work on more accelerated timelines, which allows them to move more quickly to get trend-driven or timely books into the marketplace. This is great if you’re not too excited about waiting 18 to 24 months between contract signing and publication, which is the timeline at many medium and large publishers.

When I worked at a smaller publisher, we often asked authors to deliver manuscripts in 2-4 months, and we were able to go from idea to finished book in anywhere from 6 months to 12 months. And while crash schedules can definitely be done at the Big 5 publishers (I did one crash-schedule book last year!), they largely look for an author to tell them how much time they need, rather than pushing for a quick turnaround.

The important thing here is to figure out what’s right for you. You want to make sure that you’re giving yourself enough time to write a book that you’re truly proud of. I’ve seen book contracts where the author is given 4 weeks to turn in a manuscript—and that was for a manuscript they hadn’t even started yet! This means that the author had to set aside nearly everything else in her life to work full-speed on the book for a month. And some authors love this! It’s entirely about knowing yourself and how you work best.

But typically, unless an author tells me they like to work on a condensed schedule or we have a strategic reason for rushing the book into the marketplace, I recommend authors take between 6 – 12 months to write their book. That’s because I don’t want my authors to lose their minds during the process and to be so burned out on writing the book that they have no energy to promote it.

It’s important to remember that everything else that makes up your daily work—the platform-building, the business-running, the speaking, the social media—is also laying the groundwork for the success of your book. If all of that comes to a screeching halt as you write the book, your platform will be weakened when you most need it. Also, your family will miss you a lot.

Luckily both small and large publishers may be open to negotiating the timeline, so don’t immediately take their proposed date as the final word.

5. What will the publisher do for publicity and marketing?

Many authors don’t realize it, but the publicity and marketing budget for a book is typically integrated into its P&L. It’s helpful to think like a publisher (or any other business owner) when trying to understand the way publishers make bets on books. If you spend a greater amount of money acquiring project, then naturally, you’re going to spend more money promoting the project so that you can recoup your investment.

A great advantage to working with a traditional publisher of any size is that your book will be assigned to an in-house publicist, who will write a press release, send review copies of your book, and do everything in her power to get press for the book.

But small differences may exist in the process, depending on the publisher and the publicist herself. Some campaigns may include a mailing of finished printed copies; others may only send digital copies of the book in order to cut costs. Some publicists have personal connections with magazine and online editors and producers; others may be cold-pitching. Either way, this is essentially free publicity for you and your book, and it can go a long way in helping you grow your business.

The same principle applies to marketing: campaigns will differ, but generally, the bigger the budget, the more they can do to spread the word about your book. Smaller publishers may only do limited campaigns with standard practices like SEO-optimizing the online retailer metadata and including the book in the publisher’s catalog. Other publishers may buy space at tables at bookstores, run multi-platform ad campaigns, or create landing pages and shareable assets. While a publisher likely won’t tell you exactly how much they’ve budgeted for marketing and publicity, they should share the details of their campaigns and how you can support them.

The most important thing to remember is that you can, and should, take the lead on the marketing and publicity for your book. The publisher’s role is to support your efforts and share best practices, but it’s ultimately the author who should be the driving force for brainstorming ideas and executing them. After all, publishing a book is a masterclass in learning how to convert fans into customers, so don’t miss any opportunities to experiment and learn about what works for your particular audience.

6. Where will the book likely be distributed? Where will it be pitched?

This is another extremely important point to discuss with a potential publishing partner: where will the book be distributed? As I mentioned, some book deals are for digital-only editions, or they’re for digital-first. Make sure you understand both where the book will be distributed digitally, and if there’s potential for a print edition later on, which metrics will be used to determine whether your book will be published in print.

If your book will be published in both print and digital, ask the publisher which accounts they almost always distribute to and which they will try for, but can’t guarantee. Most publishers can get most books into the main bookselling outlets, such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million.

Most publishers will also pitch the books that they think are a fit to the non-bookstore outlets, which can include the mass merchandisers (Wal-Mart, Target, etc.), the warehouse stores (Costco, Sam’s Club, etc.), the specialty retailers (Anthropologie, Williams Sonoma, Whole Foods, etc.), but there’s never any guarantee that an account will take them. The same is true of independent bookstores—because they’re typically smaller stores, it’s much more difficult to have a book picked up by an indie bookseller.

Of course, the stronger of a track record a publisher has with a particular account, the higher the likelihood they’ll keep ordering new books from that publisher. If seeing your book in a particular store is very important to you, I highly recommend visiting a few of the stores in that chain and seeing which publishers are represented there. As always, the more research you can do on the market, the better you can craft your own book to succeed in that space!

7. How much creative control will you have over the look of the book?

This is so important. It’s one of the key concerns writers and bloggers have when I talk to them, and I totally understand why. There’s nothing worse than pouring your heart and soul into a book only to have the final package leave you feeling deflated.

Unfortunately, this is also the area that can be most difficult to navigate without an agent. But a good place to start is to look at the existing books on the publisher’s list and determine if you like those. Are there any you don’t like? Any you do? Try to engage the publisher in a conversation about how much creative control you’ll be given.

Yet, even in cases where there are specific creative-control clauses in a contract, it can be helpful to have the leverage of an agency behind you when discussing the tricky matter of design. We can step in and make sure the author’s feedback is taken seriously. While no publisher wants to print a book the author hates, it can sometimes be helpful to have a little extra nudging for one more round of revisions or a few more tweaks that the author might want.

But the most common scenario I see is authors who don’t love the design of their book, but they’re not sure why. That’s where we can also step in and help them pinpoint what they like and don’t like, as well as translate those feelings into the kind of design terms that designers can best act on.


While I don’t want to portray that this is a comprehensive list of everything you should discuss with a potential publisher, I do hope it’s a good starting point for thinking through your goals and priorities. And as you can see by how incredibly long this piece is, this stuff is complex! But that’s why I love what I do–it feels good to help authors have the best possible shot for making a difference in the world with their books.

What I’m Reading

How to Smartly Evaluate a Small Publisher (Jane Friedman): To tie in to our conversation about comparing different kinds of publishers, here’s a fantastic run-through by Jane Friedman of how to evaluate a small publisher. Definitely read this piece if you’re considering an offer but want more insight and another perspective!

Publishing a Cookbook: How We Got Started (Thriving Home): And in one more tie-in, here are my authors Polly and Rachel sharing a bit about what it was like being approached by a smaller publisher and how we ended up working together.

How to Land an Agent for a Self-Published Book (Jane Friedman): This is a must-read if you’ve self-published, but you’re also interested in working with a traditional publisher. Every last bit of advice is spot-on!

5 Ways to Expand Your Platform for a Book Deal (Nicole Gulotta on DianneJacob.com): Stonesong author Nicole Gulotta shares fantastic advice for growing your platform so you can get a book deal. And take a look at her book, Eat This Poem! It is so, so lovely.

Richard Bolles Dies at 90; Wrote ‘What Color Is Your Parachute?’ (Paul Vitello for the New York Times): I was sad to see that beloved self-help author Richard Bolles passed away this week. If you’re looking for a self-publishing success story, here’s one for the record books: “Mr. Bolles (pronounced bowls) originally self-published his manual in 1970 as a photocopied how-to booklet for unemployed Protestant ministers. In 1972, he recast it to appeal to a wider audience and found an independent publisher in Berkeley, Calif., willing to print small batches so that it could be frequently updated. Since then, “Parachute” has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and has never been out of print.”

What We’re Eating This Week

Travel, travel, busy, busy, what’s a gal to eat? Well, here’s the real and true story of a cookbook agent eating not much of anything worth reporting. Ha!

Monday: So tired, so Monday! I added more butter (hahaha, oh yes I did!) to Mary Randolph’s tomato sauce and tossed it over some spaghetti, with some sautéed green beans on the side. It was simple; it was easy; it was all the things you want on a Monday.

Tuesday: Dinner at my Yaya’s, aka, How Much Rice and Beans Can One Human Eat in One Sitting: A Novel.

Wednesday: Eating out, or takeout, or desk dinner, or another form of #survivalfood.

Thursday: If I’m lucky, soup from my favorite soup spot in the Garment District. If I’m not lucky, something vile from the Amtrak Café Car.

Friday: I don’t know! But it’s Friday, so mealtime angst can be easily cured by a gin and tonic or twelve.


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