There’s probably not a happier moment for a writer than the moment an email or letter comes in saying you’ve been accepted. (Excluding major life events such as your wedding or the birth of a child, of course.) Nonetheless, that excitement can quickly change to concern or even disappointment when the acceptance is for a book manuscript. Choosing a publisher is a big undertaking, and I’ve been writing and publishing poetry long enough to know that every acceptance is not equal, nor is every publisher acceptable. You do your due diligence before you submit to find out what you can, but everything becomes more real once a decision has to be made.
That was the case for me recently, when my fourth book manuscript was accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press. It was a nice surprise when the email came through Submittable that they wanted to publish. Then I began to wonder, since they didn’t immediately spell out their terms. The email said another email would come within a month with those details. Fortunately, it came a day later, so I wasn’t in limbo for long. This did give me time to do a little more research, however, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when the terms were less than satisfactory.
Finishing Line Press appears to be legitimate. There is no indication on their website that they are anything other than the small poetry publisher they claim to be. Still, I might have been tipped off by the number of recent books they list in their online bookstore (though that could also be a good sign). They do publish chapbooks and full-length collections, and they have a couple of prizes. But many of their books appear to come from their general submissions, and they don’t charge a big reading fee to review a manuscript. Online submissions are a $3 fee, which is reasonable on Submittable; paper manuscripts can be sent by mail for free in November and would probably cost you more than $3 to print and mail. The other thing on the website that could be a tip-off is that there’s no mention of a book distributor, and they appear to be primarily focused on selling books online.
Book distribution is important to me, since I intend to schedule appearances at bookstores and book festivals, where books will be sold through the publisher. If I intended to sell most of my books myself at local events, then I wouldn’t be as concerned about it. Finishing Line says their books are available through Ingram, and they may well be, but searching around, I could find their titles at Amazon, but didn’t find them in local bookstores. That was one of the things I learned after the acceptance email that had me worried.
Then their email with the terms of their contracts came in, and I knew this press wasn’t for me. The deal breaker? Finishing Line said they do not pay royalties. I should qualify this. They say they won’t pay royalites unless pre-sales reach 500 copies. Only then, would you be considered for a royalty contract. Prior to this, your “payment” is in copies. Prepublication sales are the only factor in this. For the book to go to press, the author must pre-sell at least 75 copies. For 75-104 copies, the press run is 300 copies and the author receives 30 as payment. Pre-sales of 105-154, and the press run is 500 copies with 50 to the author. etc. Pre-sales of over 500 seems highly unlikely for a book of poems, so I suspect payment in copies is the only form of payment they do.
I’ve heard that pre-sales have become more and more important in the publishing industry and that they can influence the initial press run and even how much effort the publisher puts into marketing a book. So on one level, I get it. This doesn’t look all that unusual. The parts that I don’t get are that there are no royalties on any sales and that the publisher will accept a manuscript without committing to an initial press run regardless of prepublication sales.
Let’s think about that for a moment. The publisher is asking the author to go out and market the book before it’s published and before they have made a real investment. You’re expected to sell at least 75 copies, for which you receive no royalties. This gives you the right to sell 30 more copies and pocket the cash. If you sell them at the list price, you might earn close to $600. That sounds better than royalties, but let’s not forget that most book contracts include at least 20 author copies plus royalties, and often there is a provision to buy more copies before publication for a deep discount (and no royalties on these sales) or to buy additional copies at an author discount. Review copies or other complimentary copies could eat into that total, and most publishers will send out review copies at their cost, not yours.
I haven’t seen the actual contract, but the terms I was sent make no mention of an author discount. So the author has to hit up all of their friends and acquaintances to sell 105- 150 copies in order to guarantee a decent print run of 500 copies (this is poetry we’re talking about, so that amount is probably reasonable for a first run). By this point, the publisher has already gotten all the easy sales. At readings, if you work hard to line those up and pay your own transportation and lodging as needed, you might sell more copies, but you would only earn a profit if you sell the copies you were ‘paid.’ Bookstore sales would go to the publisher, and you would earn nothing for your efforts, not to mention the work put into your writing.
From what I’ve seen, it is unclear what, if any, discount the author receives when buying books after their initial ‘payment.’ But if there is not a significant discount for authors, you would be paying the publisher for your book, and it would be hard to earn a profit without charging more than the list price.
Then there is the question of customer service. I found several complaints by authors that those who preordered books did not receive them and had to complain to the publisher before they finally received books long after they were available online. To their credit, perhaps, Finishing Line has left these complaints on their Facebook page. Still, this does not bespeak a company that is committed to selling books.
On the other hand, the books they publish don’t look bad, judging by the covers. For a poet who thinks they can generate significant pre-sales and then still sell their ‘payment’ copies, it could be a good deal, though I would still argue that you should earn a royalty on every copy sold. I’m realistic. I know royalties from poetry will never be huge amounts. Nonetheless, that’s no reason to give up the royalties you deserve. Any publisher who doesn’t offer a standard royalty ought to be suspect. To me, it seems like they are trying to make money off the backs of poets who already face a difficult market. By basing their business model on pre-sales and no royalties, they encourage poets with acceptance, then get them to guarantee advance sales, but pay very little in return. I know there are much better options available, and I’m willing too keep looking.