Cancelling Contracts and Norms in Publishing

How common are sudden contract cancellations? How serious are they?

Today I’m taking a break answering questions because I want to talk about norms, professionalism, and treatment of authors.

Publishing is a hard business, and it’s even harder to know when we’re supposed to suck up and deal versus what’s considered not-okay / norm breaking / something we should speak up about. And we’ve had a recent example in publishing that I want to use to springboard off here and help newer writers in setting their norms and expectations.

The story:

A few weeks ago, a fairly well-known small press publisher cancelled five novella contracts out of the blue.

None of the authors were told why, offered an apology, or given the context that they weren’t the only one this had happened to. An industry watchdog publication broke the story, and several of the authors spoke out publicly.

After that, the publisher released a short statement defending the decision, and then, after a firestorm of backlash, a longer explanation and apology. There’s been continued discussion in the industry about their behavior and just how badly they’ve breached trust and professionalism with the community.

This column isn’t going to be specifically about that publisher, but I want to talk about contract killing in general.

Because I’ve actually had a novella cancelled myself, by a different publisher. When my novella was cancelled, however, the publisher treated it like the big deal it was, and made sure to communicate with me respectfully and transparently and meet any needs of mine they could. The cancellation was extremely disappointing, but everyone involved treated me as well as humanly possible throughout, and I’m still on excellent terms with them.

So let’s talk about norms here. How common is it for book contracts to be killed out of the blue like this? When is it a disappointment to be endured versus something much more serious?

(Note: In this column I’m talking specifically about book deals that are killed for reasons unrelated to the book or the author in question, and rather for external factors like publisher health considerations.)

The basics:

Let’s zoom out and talk about publishing as a whole.

It’s pretty well-known that s&%t happens in publishing. If you’re in publishing long enough, s&%t will happen to you, and that’s unfortunate but true.

And yes, contract cancellations happen. Novels and novellas do get killed.

But the sudden and unexpected cancellation of a book contract is a big deal. A really big deal. It isn’t something like timeline slip, which is an unfortunate but extremely common thing authors deal with. It’s not something authors should reasonably expect will happen to them without cause. A book getting killed after contracting is a pretty shocking and crushing thing.

Here’s Writer Beware weighing in about how uncommon multiple simultaneous cancellations are.

What makes cancellations worse:

There are two interrelated problems when a publisher has to suddenly cancel multiple contracts. The first is biting off more than they could chew as a press, which obviously isn’t ideal and can be a worrying comment on the state of their business, but it can happen without ill intent. But the second is how the publisher handles it.

Here are some things that can escalate a cancellation from unfortunate to disturbingly unprofessional:

  1. Lack of communication — or unprofessional communication. Affected authors should always, as a starting point, be given transparency and context to a decision like this. They should be told why — if it’s because the publisher is folding, if it’s because the publisher was bought out or is changing direction, etc. If the author is in no way to blame, they should never be left to wonder whether they are. The tone of the communication should also deeply acknowledge how extreme an action like this is.

  2. Treating an extreme step as the first step. Most often, small press book cancellations happen when a publisher is folding, and are an action of last resort. If, instead, a press is still publishing robustly, there are usually many intermediate steps that can be explored, such as communicating with the authors about whether they’d accept a longer timeline or exploring further fundraising. Though book cancellations happen, it’s almost never treated as a cavalier solution.

  3. Making excuses, being dismissive, lack of apology, or otherwise not taking responsibility for the full weight of a thing that’s a very serious occurrence in publishing. It’s not that apologies can put the book deal back together, but expressing regret in line with the impact of such a decision respects the dignity of the authors.

  4. Silence or bad faith pre-cancellation. It speaks much better of a publisher if they clearly made a good-faith investment in a book, such as beginning cover art, marketing plans, edits, etc, and regularly updating the author, rather than sitting on rights for a lengthy period before cancellation. Investment also serves as a financial incentive to the publisher, especially in the absence of a kill fee.

  5. A pattern of behavior. Does the publisher learn from this, or is there evidence they’re doing it repeatedly? If the latter, that’s a really, really bad sign.

  6. Anything less than a clear and immediate rights reversion. This would seem like the most obvious item on the list, but I’ve heard of cases where a publisher was folding without clearly reverting all rights once they cancelled the books.

In other words, there’s a huge spectrum of behavior here that can make a cancellation range from a severe disappointment all the way up to unethical mistreatment. The presence of any of these factors start to make this much more than one of those deep disappointments we just have to shake off.

What a publisher should do in a situation like this:

Clarity. Communication. Transparency. Exploring any possible avenues before taking a route so extreme. If there are no other options, then: Apology, honest dialogue, taking responsibility, an immediate reversion of rights, an admission of the disservice they’ve done to the authors.

Ideally, a kill fee would be offered.

S&%t happens in publishing. How we treat people when it does is important. And yes, this is a business — but businesses have ethics, and norms, and professionalism. Contracts should be treated as if they mean something.

What authors can do in these situations:

If you find yourself in a situation where you’re worried your publisher is mistreating you or crossing lines, here are some things you can do:

  1. Talk to other people in your writing communities. This can not only help you validate your experience if you’re questioning yourself, but can help you get a more complete picture if any other authors have had similar things happen.

  2. Contact organizations like Writer Beware.

  3. Contact the part of your professional organization that advocates for authors in these situations — in SFWA this would be GriefCom.

  4. Talk to your agent, if you have one. Your agent’s job is to stand up for you, and many agents are more than ready to do a good table flip on behalf of their clients.

  5. If you’re up for it, talking publicly can help other authors. I don’t believe any author is required to — there can be professional risk in speaking up, and I don’t want to minimize that. But mistreatment thrives on lack of information, so anything we feel comfortable sharing with each other helps us all.

Most of all, remember that you are entitled to expect to be treated professionally and responsibly by the people you’re in business with. When publishers break contracts and professional norms, that’s not okay. And it’s not something your own professionalism as an author requires you to swallow or dismiss as “just part of the industry.”

We make this industry better when we reinforce those norms and reaffirm that authors don’t need to feel it’s okay when a publisher steps outside them.

Cancellations happen. Mistreatment doesn’t have to.