Why I Bailed on a Book Deal

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.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

30 thoughts on “Why I Bailed on a Book Deal

  1. I agree with you about Finishing Line, Kendall. Even without royalties, they demand too much. Authors go begging to sell invisible books in order to see publication.

    Another shoestring publishing model that I’ve seen publishes a first-run of 50-100 (fiction) books which the author sells and returns 75% of the title price to the publisher who then (fast turnaround with a good, local printer) has more copies printed. The author, for a $12 title, keeps $3 per copy, which is better than most royalty deals. The publisher makes about $3-$4 per book; the rest goes to printing costs. If the author immediately wants more copies, before the first-run has sold, she can buy them outright at 75% of title price and nothing thereafter goes back to the publisher. It’s not perfect, but certainly more of a partnership than Finishing Line offers. The publisher assumes more initial fiscal risk on the first printing, and the author has a decent fiscal incentive to promote the books. The books are juried, edited, and the covers are attractive—so it’s not an Xlibris or CreateSpace situation, but it’s not traditional, either.

      1. Are you asking about the publishers Susan described, who publish a small run that the author sells for 25% (75% split to the publisher)? I’m not sure which publisher she had in mind, but I’ll see what I can find out.

      2. Here’s what I learned from Susan:
        That press is now defunct, at a heavy cost to its authors. Not because of the publishing model at all, but because the publisher skipped town. It’s a lesson in “make sure your contract has a termination clause that allows you to take back your printing rights if necessary” (out of print; dead press). It was also terrible because the publisher was a hardworking (overworked, since she had a printing press and did her own printing, with the covers printed professionally, which she then glued onto the books she bound), sweet person who was friends with many of her authors. No one has heard from her in years; her sister supposedly took over the press, but has also gone silent. I still think it’s a workable model, and the publisher as well as the author made money, but I don’t know of another such press.

      3. The reply above gives another reason why you have to be careful about accepting a publisher’s offer. Even with someone you admire or trust, things can happen beyond your control. My first book was with a very small press (maybe I’ll write about it another post some day), and the publisher died while my book was in production. The poeple who took over the press did honor our deal and basically did what had been promised, but not with the same level of enthusiasm, as you might imagine. Take a long, hard look at any contract before you sign. Some issues you may think you’ll never have to worry about, but you’ll be glad you did it now if it ever turns out that situation arises. This is true for small publishers, big publishers, and self-publishing firms. It pays to know what you’re getting into and to be willing to walk away if the terms don’t meet your needs.

  2. Their web site accepted a book order and charged my credit card on 25 July. They never responded to my inquires about my order for two books. I never got a confirmation of my order. A post above said on 20 July they were defunct and skipped town. it is probably too late to cancel my credit card payment to them. Can they be reported to police authorities?

    1. It shouldn’t be too late to contact your credit card agency and cancel payment on the order. If you never received the item, you can contest that payment. Usually you have at least 60 days, possilby longer. That would be my first step, and you can probably resolve the issue through the credit card agency more easily. If there’s a criminal issue (not just negligence), the bank can pursue that more effectively than you can or they will advise you to contact law enforcement. But if they did go defunct, it may not be a crime. It may be related to bankruptcy or something and your credit card agency will know how to handle it. Here’s a link to some info https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0205-using-credit-card#refunds

    2. By the way, I looked at the comment you referred to about a defunct press: that was not Finishing Line Press. That was another publishing company. If you have contacted Finishing Line about the undelivered book shipment and can’t get a response, then you should contact your card agency to get help resolving the issue.

  3. Hi, Kendall–Many thanks for this thread about FLP. I received an acceptance today, and you have given me guidance about what I’ll do when the second email comes. Paul

  4. Thank you thank you thank you! I, too, just received an acceptance today from FLP, and since I’m a newbie, I had no idea what to look for in a contract. This was extremely helpful.

    1. I see poets who publish with them, so I wouldn’t rule it out completely, but I think it’s worth it to know what you’re getting into. From my perspective, they seem more like co-op publishing than traditional publishing, and that’s not a path I wanted to go down.

      1. A) Congratulations!
        B) If you feel overwhelmed looking at a contract and deciding if it’s right for you, there are resources that can help. The Author’s Guild will review contracts for members and as I recall has some good basic information available about contract language, rights, etc. I’m not a member or an advocate, but I do know they helped one of my students out in a similar situation with an agent whose contract seemed overly restrictive. You might start here: https://www.authorsguild.org/where-we-stand/fair-contracts/

  5. I also turned down an offer from FLP. They are a vanity press. And I’m very pleased to say the same manuscript went on to win a contest elsewhere. Stay away from the FLP creeps if you value your work.

  6. Well, I’m going to step in here and defend FLP. I have a chapbook and a full-length collection with them, and many of their writers are quite prestigious. They are not a vanity press. Vanity presses don’t vet their submissions. They’ll just publish whoever pays, even if it’s crap. Buy any FLP book and you will see they only publish quality writing. What they are, and how they’ve stayed in business for so long, is smart. No, you don’t get royalties or discount copies during the prepublication period, but you DO get them after. I was only able to meet the lowest requirement, so I will only be getting 8% of ALL sales. But I think that’s fair. The prepublication period is a temperature check; will this book sell? If it doesn’t, why should they invest in an automatic 500 press run? My book is on Amazon, B&N, Target, and my local bookstore. They have a WIDE distribution. My chapbook didn’t meet the minimum prepublication sales, and they offered me a smaller press run. I have never had any problems communicating with them, and I recommend them all the time. They’re not a publisher for someone who wants to sit back and get paid; but if you do your promo and make those sales, they are a legitimate way to make a good name for yourself.

    1. Thanks so much for this…I’m just now sussing out what to do w publishing offer received today from FLP. To continue circulating the MSS to contests/other readers would be time consuming/expensive, and I got hood comments (for a price) from FLP reader…so, while still a bit on the fence, I’m leaning towards going forward with them, while forging ahead w second MSS. Anyway good to hear a positive comment among the negatives.

    2. Thanks for sharing your experience with FLP. I’m wondering, are your books physically being sold at places like B &N, Target, and local bookstores, or only on their websites? Also, did you have to approach your local bookstores/Target/B & N to sell your book, or are they sold there automatically? Thank you, and congratulations-

  7. This is all rather eye-opening to a poet whois just assembling their first chapbook to submit to comps and small presses! Thanks everyone for sharing their experiences. I had Finishing Line Press on my list to submit to and their fee-free submissions close on November 30. I wanted to ask: on the matter of submitting, and receiving an offer. Are you able to say “thanks, but no thanks” with no consequences? Even if my M/S received an offer, that would be an affirmation of sorts. Though I agreee with Kendall – there are better deals out there for competition winners.

    1. Adrea,
      There shouldn’t be any negative consequences to saying no to a book deal. A contract is an agreement that both parties need to agree to, so if it isn’t to your liking, you should be able to walk away. That said, if you know before you submit, you can save yourself time and effort by targeting your submissions to places you think you want your work to be associated with. There’s not much advantage to submitting if you’re pretty sure you won’t want to take the offer. But that’s a decision you should make for yourself. Find out as much as you can from as many sources as you can, and then decide what kind of publisher you’re willing to work with.

    1. A good resource for poets that I recommend is this Poetry Resources list by Emily Stoddard. It lists a lot of publishers, deadlines, and prizes. https://emilystoddard.com/poetry-publishing-2022
      You can also search the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses database of publishers. https://www.clmp.org/readers/directory-of-publishers/ CLMP membership is a good sign, but as with any contract, you want to look at the fine print and know what you’re comfortable with.
      I was recently at a publisher’s website who made an impassioned case for why they don’t pay royalties on online sales. I can see their point, but I haven’t quite decided that I buy it. There’s an argument for royalties even if they aren’t going to amount to a lot of cash (and usually a check isn’t written if it’s under a certain amount). Paying royalties is an incentive for publishers to sell books to bookstores (it seems to me), and it gives the author an incentive to sell books through stores and through the publisher. This model seemed set up to encourage authors to buy copies from the publisher up front (at a good discount) and then sell books on their own. If that’s the model you want to work with, then that would be a great publisher for you. I won’t mention their name, but they laid this out prominently on their website, which at least speaks to transparency and I applaud that.

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