Warning Signs for New and Independent Authors

A #Balticon55 panel. You can find the panel, in full, on the BaltimoreSciFi youtube channel.

The panelists were D.H. Aire, Alex Shvartsman, Anna Kashina, and Angela Yuriko Smith, with Joshua Bilmes as moderator. The description of the panel was as follows:

It’s a jungle out there for new writers. Do you know the difference between a real publisher and a vanity press? What kind of scams are currently circulating? What rights are you giving away when you sign that contract… or even enter that contest? Panelists will give advice on how to navigate these and other pitfalls and give information on resources and communities that can help you out.

Things To Watch Out For

  1. Calls for submissions where the “publisher” exists to make money from the hopeful author
    • Submission fees (sometimes legitimate in literary fiction, never in sff)
    • Marketing kick ins from the author for anthologies
    • Fees in general
  2. Contracts where the rights don’t revert back
  3. Contracts that try to claim all rights — even for formats the publisher doesn’t do (other languages, audio, film, etc)
  4. Contracts that claim rights to all the characters — unless the story is set in someone else’s world
  5. Publishing houses that offer under pro-rates — it’s good for your ego, but will do nothing for your career

Anecdotally, a contract lawyer, unfamiliar with the fiction market, is often the worst offender — trying to gobble up all potential rights. Especially for a short story, where the payout is usually under $400, you can find them asking for far more than they should.

What Should Be In a Short Story Contract

While agents are very helpful for novelists and are most helpful when dealing with publishers, short stories authors don’t usually need one. Unlike novel or series contracts that can be upwards of 20,000 words, a short story contract is typically only 2-3 pages.

As a note, the current pro-rate for science fiction and fantasy stories is $0.08 per word.

  1. 1st rights (or reprint rights)
  2. Usually exclusive for 1 year (maybe up to 2) before reverting back
  3. Only claiming rights in formats the story will be published (i.e. English, print, maybe audio?)
  4. A reversion clause if the piece ends up not being published

Horror Stories & Near Misses

While some publishers can be malicious, many are either using boilerplate contracts they found online, or figure they can’t get rights they don’t ask for — so may ask for more than they need.

The good thing is, most legitimate markets won’t object if you push back — and if they do? They’re either frauds, in the first place, and/or you’ve got a lovely story that many publishers in the market would enjoy.

D.H. Aire had a small anthology try to have him sign away his rights for his characters — in perpetuity! He struck out the line and sent it back. The publisher protested it was a boilerplate contract… and then responded again an hour later. All but two of the authors had withdrawn from the anthology. The publisher apologized, and sent out a reworded contract — without the offending clause.

Angela Yuriko Smith had a publisher that she never gave her a cent, and then they went out of business. A year later, she found them selling their left over merchandise at a fair, without even pretending to give her a cut. When pointed out, they let the rights revert without an argument.

Anna Kashina had a predatory agent find out she had a publisher and represented her… and later tried to publish some of her work with his name on it.

One panelist’s writer friend sold a trilogy, and never saw a cent! The small publisher charged every convention hotel room, meal, and travel charge against her royalties. When the rights reverted, another publisher snatched up the well-selling story, and she saw her first royalty check within a month.

Angela Yuriko Smith has a photographer friend who had ‘being published’ as a photographer on her bucket list, so signed a contract that had no royalties the first year, and kept all rights to photography in the geographic region by that photographer — the region in which she lived! Her friend shrugged at the restrictions, cause it was ‘only one book’. Three books (with that same publisher later), Angela Yuriko Smith can just shake her head.

Another writer friend of the panelists sold a short story to a Star Wars anthology. The contract stated that all of the writer’s characters were property of Lucas Films — and didn’t bother to limit that restriction to characters in that story. When the friend pushed back, the publisher said that George insisted the clause be in there, but not that the authors had to sign it — just to cross out that line and the contract would be accepted. So, they did.

Closing thoughts and References

Some handy websites for finding markets and researching their legitimacy are:

Don’t fear rejection letters — publishers have limited print space, certain themes and expectations. A rejection is not necessarily a statement on the quality of your work.

If you have an issue with a contract — ask twice. Some publishers will try to brush aside a token protest, but will acquiesce on a second request. A third ask, though, requires a lot of justification.

Don’t undersell yourself. The offer of publication can be enticing, but don’t give up your rights for anything less than a fair deal.


  1. Everyone reading this, if you didn’t know it, PAY ATTENTION. None of the above are exaggerations.

    I was at a presentation by Joshua Bilmas, the panel moderator. who runs one of the largest and most well-respected agencies that handle SF&F. He said, at one point, that a standard boilerplate contract from a major publisher may only have 50 things he had to push back on, but most had 75-80 items that he had to argue about, including things like foreign language rights.

    If you are offered a contract from a publisher, run it by an agent. Many, esp. if it’s a major publisher, will happily represent you – it may not make you more money, since they do get a cut for doing so, but in the long run, it’s well worth the cost.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One more note: when I got my contract for my first novel sale, I tried talking to a friend who is an IP (intellectual property) lawyer… and she did not know the ins and outs of publishing IP law. It’s a whole separate game, like the difference between corporate law and tax law. A real, legit agent will have the experience, and possibly a publishing IP lawyer, and they can deal with it.

    Liked by 1 person

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