What to Look for in a Self-Publishing Contract – Pitfalls and Promises

Jan 1, 2011 | Contracts & copyright, News & Articles

[This article first appeared in Australian Writers’ Marketplace 2011 – 2012. © Alex Adsett, 2010]

You’ve written your book (and edited, revised and rewritten) and now you‘re looking to be published. If you have already patiently submitted your manuscript to every available commercial publisher but not had any luck, then perhaps you are beginning to look at self-publishing as an alternative.

Self-publishing can work well for some people, but it is not for everyone. There are potential pitfalls along the way, and a handful of companies who will happily take your money and give you very little in return. But, be aware of the dangers, pay attention, do your research and ask questions, and you can make self-publishing work for you.


Traditional commercial publishing is how the majority of books in Australia are currently sold. Traditional publishers will take on all the financial risks to publish your book, including editing, cover design, printing, marketing and distribution.

Self-publishing is where the author pays all of the set-up costs to produce the published version of their manuscript. This means taking on all the risks (and rewards) that would normally be undertaken by a traditional publisher. It can be a time consuming and confusing process, but means your book will be in print on your own terms.

Due to the problems with marketing and distribution for self-publishing titles, it is generally more suited to small print runs intended for private distribution only (eg, a family history prepared to be sold at a family reunion) or for non-fiction titles where the author has access to a ready market for their book at seminars and workshops.

Vanity presses (also known as subsidiary, joint venture, or co-operative publishing) charge fees to authors for publication. This can either be an upfront fee for printing, additional fees for editing, cover design, typesetting etc, or a requirement that the author pre-buy copies of their book.

In some cases, the editorial and cover design services offered by vanity press can be cursory, and most will not have a dedicated marketing team or distribution network – which are imperative for your book to succeed.

A company that makes its income from fees charged to authors, does not necessarily have to sell books to stay in business. Before proceeding down this path, you need to be very clear what you are paying for and what you get in return:

i)                      Do your research! Pop into your local bookstores and ask if they stock any books published by the company you are considering signing with. If not, have they ever stocked any books by that company?

ii)              If you can find copies of books published by the company, consider the quality of the cover design, paper, binding and typesetting. Would you be happy with this standard for your own book?

iii)            Get references from other authors who have signed with the company and ask them if they were happy with the service they received.

iv)            Make sure you have a contract and that it includes everything that has been promised you.

v)             Do you have a chance to approve the finished product before you pay?

vi)            How many copies of your book do you get at the end of it? (Note: You do not want to have thousands of copies sitting in your garage if you can’t sell them, but equally, you do not want to pay all this money and not receive more than 15 samples.)

vii)          Does the company have a reputable, nationwide distribution network?


One of the biggest hurdles with self-publishing is distribution. How will you get your book into shops all around Australia or throughout the world?

If self-publishing, you will need to hit the footpath and sell yourself and your book to every bookseller you can get to listen. Do not expect your printer/vanity press to do this for you. You need to market yourself, or find someone to do it for you. Make sure you have the facility – either through your own website, a third party, your printer or vanity press – to sell books directly to the public.

There are a few distribution companies in Australia that agree to represent self published authors, and have the sales force to properly represent you to bookshops around Australia. Expect a distributor to retain up to 70% of the RRP of the book for their services. It is expensive, but still the best way to get your book selling.

The contract

The line between traditional publishers, vanity press and self-publishing is becoming more and more blurred, and it can sometimes be hard to spot a legitimate publishing offer. Some vanity presses offer a legitimate service to help authors self-publish, while some traditional publishers have started asking the author to pre-buy a certain amount of the print run, to make the costings work. In any case, legitimate or not, the minute a publisher asks you for money for any aspect of the publishing process, start to be wary.

No matter how you want to publish, get all deals in writing. From hiring an editor, to printing, distributing or a publishing deal, if it’s not in writing you have far less chance of protecting your interests.

1.       It sounds basic, but make sure you read and understand every clause of the contract. If you are confused about the legal wording, you’re not alone. Ask the contracting company what something means, or get professional advice.

2.       Make sure that the details in the contract are correct. If the terms do not match what you have previously agreed, ask why and get the terms amended.

3.       Just as important as what is in the contract, is what is not in the contract. If the publisher wrote the contract, then the chances are pretty good that it covers what you have to do for them (deliver, fee etc). You need to make sure that the contract also covers what they have said they will do for you, eg editing, typesetting, number of copies of the book (both printed by them, and delivered to you), distribution and marketing spend.

A self publishing contract should always include:

(i)             The names of the people or companies who are entering into the agreement;

(ii)           The details of the book – what is being delivered (ie title, subject, word length, illustrations if any) and when;

(iii)          Services being offered (is the company editing, printing, typesetting, marketing and distributing? If so, these need to be specified);

(iv)         The right of approval over the final cover and design. If possible, get a sample copy before paying.

(v)           Copyright ownership and acknowledgment in your name;

(vi)         The terms of the license – is it exclusive or non-exclusive? Is it for Australia only, or worldwide? Is it for print only, or electronic and audio too? Does it include subsidiary rights such as film and television and CAL income?

(vii)        Warranties and indemnities – make sure you can fulfil everything you are asked to warrant and that the indemnity is limited to the warranties only;

(viii)      Advance and royalties. Royalties should be paid biannually, and watch out for the distinction between royalties based on net receipts and recommended retail price (RRP). Standard publishing royalty is 10% of RRP, with discounts offered to booksellers and distributors, this equates to approximately 15-25% net receipts).  If there is a reduced royalty for high discounts, this should not be applicable until at least discounts of 51% or more;

(ix)         The cost to you to buy additional copies of the book  or issue a new print run;

(x)           Termination. You should be able to walk away (with print ready files) if you are not satisfied with the service. If in doubt, ask for the files up front, while the relationship is still amicable;

(xi)         Reversion.  Rights should revert to you if the company has sold less than 50 copies of your book in a 12 month period, but you might want to be able to walk away sooner than this.

(xii)        Finally, the contract should be a reflection of what you agreed with the company. Make sure everything that was promised to you is included in writing.


Copy edit (basic grammar, spelling, continuity errors) $30 – $75 per hour (10-20 pages an hour depending on complexity)
Structural edit (structural and conceptual edit) $50 – $100 per hour
Proofreading (last stage to check for final errors) $20 – $50 per hour (very rough estimate of $500)
Typesetting $500- 1200
Cover design $150 -$500+
Cover illustration commissioned by an artist $1000-$2000
Printing $3-$20 copy (depending on type and quantity of print)
Distribution 70% RRP retained


Note that to have your manuscript structurally edited and proofread (roughly $1,500), a cover designed ($200) and typeset ($500 or do yourself) costs $2,200. This is still substantially cheaper than some vanity press who will charge you more than $4,000 to provide you with 15 ‘free’ copies and a promise of high royalties if copies of your book sell.

On the upside, there are many genuine vanity presses that will help you self-publish at reasonable costs. If you want the convenience of one company helping you navigate the self-publishing process, it is important to shop around, get quotes and know the value of what you are getting. Self-publishing is hard work, and finishing your manuscript is only the first step. While it is not for everyone, if you are aware of the pitfalls and get the promises in writing, you could become a published author on your own terms.


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