Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 30

by Laura Anne Gilman

Last week, we discussed how to know when it’s time to end a relationship with your agent.  That – although emotionally wrenching – was the easy part.  When it comes time to part ways with your publisher, things get more complicated.

But wait, I hear some of you saying.  Isn’t it usually the publisher who – for whatever reason – dumps the writer?  Yes… and no.

Yes, usually a writer stays with one publisher for as long as the publisher wants them to keep publishing there – after all, why abandon someone who likes (and pays) you, for the Great Unknown.

But sometimes… writers walk.  Or, as I call it, take The Long Goodbye.

Occasionally, they’ve been wooed away by another house, either by a larger advance or what could be called ‘additional inducements’ – better royalties, marketing, or some sort of control on the writer’s end not granted at the other house.  Sometimes, it’s because a beloved editor has changed houses, and the new publisher wants their list as well as their skills.

Those are the good leavetakings (well, good for us-the-author, anyway).

Sometimes, just as with an agent, it’s because the relationship that started so well has gone sour.  Publishers change, editors leave, contract boilerplates become unacceptable…

Most of the time, we suck it up and make the best of the situation.  Being orphaned – having your editor leave, and being assigned to someone who may or may not love your work – happens to just about everyone at some point in their career. Publishers come and go, marketing plans rise and fall, imprints change personalities and all the countless ailments this industry is prone to can change the relationships as well.

You don’t leave your publisher on a whim, or because of a snit. Making this move may not involve the same emotional pain as ending an agency agreement, but it’s never done lightly, either. There’s money involved, and you’re the one who will lose, if you walk away.

I’m not talking about the advances, either.   Over the years, you’ve allowed –encouraged! – a hundred strings tying you to your publisher, because it was in your best interest as well.   The two most important, when leaving, are called Option and Backlist.

An option clause means that your publisher has right of first refusal on your next work (a good agent can get the option material narrowed down – never promise them an undefined “next project).  That means that, depending on the specific wording, while you’re planning your exit strategy, you’re not allowed to show your work to any other editor.  So much for having that backup contract on-hand when you walked, huh?  So if you’re going to walk, either have another source of income (don’t give up that soul-killing corporate job!) or have something else –different enough to not trigger the option clause – already on the rounds.  Or, third, be prepared to walk away if your publisher makes an offer, and hope that someone else bites.

And Backlist.  Oh, backlist, those titles published a year, two years, twenty years ago.  In good times, it’s the source of joy and royalty income.  In bad times… well, less so. And when you leave a publisher…

Your backlist doesn’t come with you.  They are, by contract, so long as they are in print (for however your contract defines ‘in print) ‘owned’ by the publisher.  The publisher decides what happens to them.

Now, most publishers have one thing and only one thing on their mind: money.  If they think your backlist will bring in enough cash to cover the cost of keeping it in print, they WILL.  They don’t care how you behaved (seriously – no publisher ever said ‘screw the money we could make, Joe Writer is a turncoat and we won’t sell his books.”  In fact, if you leave and Make Good at another publisher, your old publisher will gleefully jump on the bandwagon with your backlist, selling as many copies as they can crank out.

[this is what is known as “Letting Publisher B Do All The Work”]

And if you don’t do well?  The backlist will languish, not selling gangbusters but probably not ever formally going OOP, either.  And once it does… well, then it’s another waiting period while you jump through the hoops to get a reversion of rights.

Either way, you aren’t going to control your backlist destiny for years.  And – just as with an agency breakup – you’re not going to be able to walk away clean.

The lesson in all this?  No, it’s not “stay, no matter how bad it gets.”  It’s not even “don’t burn bridges.”

It’s “play the long game.”

And that’s the topic for next week.


Coming up in Week 30:  playing the long game vs book-by-book

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future, was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 30 — 8 Comments

  1. Defining out of print is becoming a bigger and bigger problem since e-books technically never go out of print, if you define pixels are a form of “in print”. At what point can you and your publisher mutually agree that the book has languished long enough even though there are a few physical copies in the warehouse and the only sales are in e-formats. How few is few enough for the publisher to relinquish even those few pennies a year in sales?

  2. Reversion of rights — how icky, now that they don’t need the expense of physical books to claim it’s in print.

    I have heard of agents insisting on clauses where they must sell a certain level of books to qualify as in print, but it’s not a standard part of the contract.

  3. Mary – my agency has a set “this many copies and this much money combined in a reporting period” clause that’s become agency standard. We walk if the publisher won’t agree. But it’s still a relatively low-enough amount that the publisher would have to abandon the book entirely to fail-to-maintain.

    It’s certainly less than I could make if I took the rights back and republished them as ebooks directly. This is a problem that doesn’t have a solution…yet.

  4. What counts as “in print” has changed ever since Print On Demand became a realistic option – the rise in ebook sales have just made it that much more obvious. Another background change that makes it easier for a publisher to hang onto an older, slow-selling title is the move from printed, mailed out publisher catalogs (I used to get one roughly quarterly from each major publisher) to online catalogs.
    Moving towards an industry standard that requires minimum income levels is a great way to address the problem. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of quit-claim arrangement proposed as well.

  5. Write more, write faster, write better-selling: seems to be the publishers’ mantra these days. How back writing slower, writing better quality, and giving books time to find their audience? I’m so old-fashioned…

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