Finding the Courage to Walk Away

"Sometimes, the thing you most wish for is not to be touched." 

The quote above comes from the musical Into the Woods and offers a caution that doesn't apply only to fairy tales . . . it's important advice for publishing too.

It took me ten years, and five full-length manuscripts, to find an agent (and get my first publishing deal). During that time, I received a great deal of important advice and information and learned as much as I could about writing, the publishing industry, and the various choices available to me as an author. I wrote, I read, and I dreamed . . . and I hoped, above all, that one day those dreams would become a reality, in the form of published books with my name on the cover.

That dream had been with me since childhood. It burned in my heart like nothing else and remains a burning drive to this day. I love to tell stories. I love writing books. It's who I am at my core - and that means it also makes me vulnerable.

If you're reading this, you're probably vulnerable that way, too.

I often start my workshops on the legal aspects of the publishing industry by saying "charlatans and scammers flourish at the intersection of art and dreams" - and that statement is true. However, something else flourishes at that intersection too ...

... bad deals, inappropriate deals, and deals that an author will later regret.

In some ways, these are even more dangerous than the charlatans, because sometimes there's nothing obviously wrong with the deal . . . it's just not right for the author (or the work) at the time.

Writing is a critical skill for anyone who wants to be an author, as is good business sense, but the third thing an author needs to succeed in the publishing world is the ability to say NO when the deal isn't right.

When people find out you're an author, everyone from your mother to your plumber will be glad to tell you exactly how to run your publishing career. Advice is everywhere, some of it even worth remembering. The problem is, only you can decide when an offer is worth accepting--and you have the right to accept or refuse any offer, even if people around you--including people you trust--think you should make a different decision.

But how do you recognize a deal you should refuse?

The honest answer is a lot like the famous Supreme Court definition of obscenity: you know it when you see it.

On a slightly more practical level, here are some situations when authors should seriously consider walking away from a publishing deal:

1. The deal is really a scam. Do not fall for publishing scams. Learn to avoid them and walk away.

2. The publisher isn't offering industry-standard terms. Traditional publishing and self/author/indie publishing both have standards--the usual, expected terms and conditions authors have a right to expect. If anyone offers you less, remind yourself that you and your work deserve the industry standards at a minimum, and be willing to walk away.

3. The publisher acts like a bully even before you sign the deal. This happens. For real. In business, as on the playground, you have the right to a life free from bullying. If someone tries to make you feel badly about yourself or your work, walk away and hold out for someone who treats you right.

4. The deal doesn't fit your plans (for the work or for your career). Many authors seem to believe that they have to compromise "to get started" or "to get a foot in the door." NOPE. It helps to be realistic. For example, most first-time authors don't get million dollar deals (though it does happen occasionally). That said, if you're willing to write as many books as it takes and you want to hold out for the giant advance, you have the right to do that, and you should never let anyone tell you otherwise, if that's your vision.

5. You don't want to sign. Listen to your instincts. They are generally wise. If something feels "wrong" about a deal--whether it's with an agent, a publishing house, or the printer you want to hire to print your author-published books--have the courage to think the matter through carefully, evaluate the facts, and walk away if you still think the deal is wrong for you.

6. Any other reason you want to say no. It's important for authors to remember: you, and only you, are in control of your publishing career. No matter what you hear, read, or are told by others, at the end of the day, your books and your publishing career belong to you. You get to make the decisions (and live with the consequences). YOU get to say yes or no.

Walking away from a publishing deal may be the hardest thing you ever do in your publishing career. But if the deal isn't right for you, or your work, it's also the best and the wisest thing you can do. The tricky part is: only you can make the decision whether to sign or to walk away, and you'll have to make those decisions one at a time, as the deals come.

Never forget: it's better to have no deal at all than to have a deal you regret, and today's hard "No" leaves you and your work available for tomorrow's better opportunity.

Susan Spann

Susan Spann is a California publishing attorney and the author of the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, released on July 14, 2015. Susan is honored to be the 2015 RMFW Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.


10 thoughts on “Finding the Courage to Walk Away

  1. Thank you for all you do to help us, Susan — it’s hard to be creative *and* realistic, although that’s just what we need when the words before us are legal words, not story words.

  2. You’re a true friend to RMFW and its members, Susan! Your expertise and advice has helped so many of us. Thanks for this reminder that we need to be careful, investigate, and think before we sign.

  3. This is so important and true. I didn’t say “no” when all my instincts screamed I should, and not only did my decision derail my career (and practically ruin it), it caused me enormous pain and affected my creative process for years. Nothing is worth going through that kind of suffering. Not money, or a “great career opportunity”. Nothing. Thanks for some fabulous advice, Susan.

  4. Susan — Great advice! As someone who’s walked away from deals when my instincts told me they weren’t the right ones for me, I applaud you for encouraging everyone to listen to their instincts.

  5. Oh so true, and painful when opportunities slip away because of those few uncomfortable clauses. One thing helps. If a publisher really wants your book you have some power in negotiations.

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