How to Break a Publishing Contract With a Traditional Book Publisher

Posted on Mar 21, 2018

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Written by Scott Allan

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This is an incredibly unfortunate (but common) position to be in—taking steps to break a publishing contract with a traditional book publisher because, among other reasons, your hard work and dreams of book publishing aren’t going as expected.

Maybe you’re unhappy with the publisher or maybe you decided to pursue self-publishing your book because you learned of its vast benefits.

Either way, you’re in great company!

Many authors embark on this mission to break their contract in an effort to take more control and see more success through self-publishing or through new opportunities.

Today, we’ll take a look at what it takes to break a publishing contract with a traditional book publisher, as well as the advantage to pursuing your writing career with self-publishing.

Which Is Better For You Based On YOUR Author Goals?

ANALYSIS: Self Publishing vs Traditional

Get a full, deep-dive self-publishing vs traditional publishing analysis including royalty rates, book sales, marketing details, and more! Make an informed decision and set yourself up for success with your book.

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(Note: Before we dive in, let’s make something clear: We are not lawyers and so, any information you find here is to be taken by suggestion only. Every publishing contract has its own stipulations, clauses and restrictions based on an agreement between the publisher and author. It is therefore recommended you always read your contract carefully and adhere to the binding agreement. We also strongly suggest you become familiar with the US Copyright laws.)

Depending on where you are in the process—you may be exploring what it would take to break a publishing contract before you’ve even signed, or you may be beginning to initiate the “break up”—use the links below to jump around sections of this post… though we’d like to think the whole thing is worth reading :).

Here’s what we cover for how to break a publishing contract:

  1. Finding a Good Book Publisher
  2. Pitfalls to Publishing Contracts: What to Know Before You Sign
  3. How to Avoid Signing a Bad Publishing Contract
  4. Making The Decision to Break a Contract With a Traditional Book Publisher
  5. How to Break a Publishing Contract With a Traditional Book Publisher
  6. Hiring a Literary Lawyer
  7. Breaking a Contract With a Vanity Publisher

Finding A Good Book Publisher

Every writer has a big dream…to become a published author and see their books being displayed in bookstores across the nation. Even if you haven’t envisioned your success to this point, let’s be honest: The thought of it is exciting. So, when it comes to making choices about how to publish your book, it comes down to this: Should I seek out a traditional publisher? Or, take the self-publishing route?

Many authors have chosen the traditional route for publishing their book, only to realize that, after months of frustration and hard work, they have gotten nowhere. What initially looked like a great deal to start with has become your worst nightmare.

Or, maybe this isn’t the case. You could have a good relationship with your publisher but feel that you want to have more control over your books creativity. Whatever reasons, you have decided that you want to break free of your publishing contract, but…you signed a binding agreement

[RELATED: Publishing a Book: Traditional vs. Self-Publishing]

Now what?

Pitfalls to Publishing Contracts: What to Know Before You Sign

First of all, every contract is different, so there isn’t a magic formula for authors to navigate through the various pitfalls and obstacles in contracts. But knowing the basics of what to watch for can help you to make the best decision for your writing career.

TV and Film Rights

Do you hold the rights to your material for film, TV, and any and all media based contracts? Don’t sign over your rights unless you are being paid for it, and paid well. A publisher should not have exclusive rights to all TV and/or film rights. This includes digital media and world rights

Competition Clause

Selling books is just one avenue for authors to build their brand and earn income. There are also [as mentioned above] film rights, online video and/or audio courses, audio books, coaching, or software the author has created to support the material.

If there is a competition clause that prevents you from upselling, this would be a serious hindrance to your growth as an author not to mention income loss. This is one reason many authors are turning to self-publishing. They can do all of these things without any restrictions and receive 100% of the profits.

Break Clause

Books do go out of print or become less popular as time goes on. In this case, if your book actually becomes out of print and the publisher is unwilling to do anything more with the manuscript, a break clause ensures that all rights are reverted back to the author.

You want to make sure that the publisher does not hold your book ‘hostage’ for years after it goes out of print or is remaindered. There should be a time frame here, 3-5 years, and if there isn’t, make sure that they implement this.

Right of First Refusal Clause

If the publisher has a clause stating your next book [and subsequent books] must be submitted to the publisher first before you can submit anywhere else, be sure to check the details carefully.

This is a standard clause but, there needs to be a term specifically stated such as 60 or 90 days. The publisher has until the end of this term to either accept or reject the book. This could work against your favor if your relationship with the publisher has not been good to begin with. Your book is tied up with them until the end term and holds you back from submitting elsewhere.

Early Termination Clause

Let’s take a situation: You have decided to move on from your publisher and separate the ties.

Break Publishing Contract

But, in your contract there is an early termination clause that states you are to pay a specified sum to the publisher in the amount of XXX dollars before in order to terminate the agreement.

Although a publisher may have reasons for placing this in a contract, in most cases it only benefits the publisher to squeeze more income from the author before parting ways.

Now, if your contract does have a termination clause, this doesn’t mean you should walk away. But, be aware that if you do, you’ll have to pay to get out of the club.

Termination fees could range from a hundred dollars to thousands. Check the print. Make sure of what your rights are if the contract is terminated early by either the author or the publisher.

Copyrighting: You or the publisher?

Be sure the book is copyrighted under your name and not that of the publisher. If the publisher copyrights under their name, they own it.

Red flag here. Only legitimate publishers will copyright under the author’s name.

In addition, be sure to register your name with the U.S. Copyright Office even if the publisher doesn’t do this.

[RELATED: How to Copyright a Book]

Termination & Reversion of Rights

To elaborate on what we said above, your contract should have a Termination & Reversion of Rights clause. This is not only for author but protects the publisher as well. In the event that book sales are weak and the publisher desires to terminate the contract, they can do so with full rights reversing back to the author.

In the event of bankruptcy, the rights of publication may revert back to the author after a period has elapsed. Ideally, this is what you want, but be sure to check the print. If you are not sure, consult with a lawyer. You don’t want your book tied up for years if it isn’t selling or has been remaindered.

Non-Negotiable Contracts

Flexibility is an important part of doing business. If the publisher is offering a contract that is non-negotiable, you might want to think twice.

Although you may not agree with everything in the contract, if there is something slight that you want changed and by making this change it has no negative impact on the publisher. but they are unwilling to change it, chances are you’ll have more problems down the road.

Non-negotiable means “take it as it is or walk away”, so, they may not value the relationship with the authors who sign up.

Think Before You Sign

Contracts have many causes but, just because it is there doesn’t mean you need to accept it. Be aware of the red flags and clauses set up that tie you up or force you to pay high fees for breaking a contract. Publishers are not known for being flexible with the contract terms.

So, if there is anything in the contract that you are uncomfortable with, and the publisher is not willing to change the terms you find inappropriate, best to walk away and look for a better deal.

In addition, publishing contracts are not forever. Be aware of contracts that try to tie you up with “Perpetual Renewal” clauses that continue indefinitely. Other factors to consider are:

  • Will you receive any free review copies?
  • Is there a publication date for the book, and is it an accurate date? If you are publishing a book on the best clothing to wear for this winter season, you don’t want it coming out in the beginning of spring.
  • How often are royalties reported?
  • Are there subsidiary rights? If so, what are they and is it written in easy-to-understand text?

How to Avoid Signing a Bad Publishing Contract

While the scope of this post covers how to get out of a publishing agreement, let’s take a look at how we can avoid buying into a bad agreement in the first place. This could also help you if you get out of one contract and are looking into signing on with another publisher.

You might be at the stage right now with an offer from a publisher and you’re not sure if you should sign or not. A bad book deal would be classified as a contract that favors the publisher in most ways. As an author, we have to be aware of the pitfalls that are out there. Before you sign, do the research

Ultimately you, the author, have to decide if it is a good deal or not. You have worked hard on your book, and now it needs to opportunity to be handled carefully.

Here is a list of red flags to watch for and how to avoid buying into a contract that you later regret. Keep in mind every contract has clauses and contract terms. The question is, are these clauses acceptable? Do they favor the publisher and not the author? Are any of the clauses considered red flags [aka danger zones for authors]?

When reading over your contract, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I retain the rights to my book if I terminate this agreement?
  • Is there a termination fee if I try to break this contract?
  • Is the publisher locking me into a long term contract that benefits them financially for years to come?
  • Is breaking this contract going to hurt my career as an author?
  • Is the copyright under my name or the publisher?

If there is anything you are not sure of, ask a literary lawyer to review your contract—we’ll talk about hiring one later in this post.

Take a week to review the contract details and fine print. Do your own research before you sign anything. Even though you are an author and the business side of the publishing industry may be new territory, it is time to think of writing as a business because, for the publishing companies, that is exactly what it is. Business. They are in business to make money from your work, and yes, so are you.

When to Make the Decision to Break a Publishing Contract With a Traditional Book Publisher

The reasons you are considering breaking your publishing contract:

  1. The publisher has not provided the support they said they would.
  2. The author lost control over most of the creative process of the book.
  3. The author still has to market and promote the book with little to no financial backing from the publisher.
  4. The publisher has proven unreliable with communication or working with the author to make the book successful.
  5. The author has decided to sign on with another publisher, or, publish the book themselves.
  6. The author has decided to self-publish instead hoping to have better success.

If you are seriously ready to try and break your contract with a traditional publisher, there are several things you have to consider before taking action. Keep in mind that publishers are in the business of making money from author’s works. This means they are in it to protect their own interests and in most cases, consider the needs of their company before that of the author.

The best scenario you can look for is a publisher interested in forming a working relationship with the author. What this means is, a contract that benefits both sides equally and protects both the author, the works, and the publisher.

There are many authors out there who unknowingly jumped into a contract with a publisher before researching all of the legalities involved. In haste to get a book published and start a new and prosperous career as a writer, you may be in that situation now.

Realizing that the situation isn’t what you had hoped for, you are a crossroads: Stick with the publisher and hope things improve. Or, make an attempt to break the publishing contract.

You could be looking into signing on with a publisher in the future, and have yet to make that big leap. If so, you need to consider carefully the risks as well as the rewards.

The Critical Question

This is the critical question: Is it time to break your contract with your publisher, and the reasons for doing so. Here are several reasons why authors have decided to make the break.

  1. The publisher has stopped investing in the book. It could be that your book is out of print or remaindered and now being squeezed to the back. You feel there is potential here for more growth but the publisher is not willing to invest anymore in the book.
  2. The publisher hasn’t followed through on book marketing or distribution. This is when reading the contract carefully will pay off later. Many publishers will not state specifically what their intentions are for marketing the book. For this reason, authors may find themselves in a situation where they are responsible for handling most of the marketing side.

This could also include paying for it out of their own pockets. In some cases the publisher will allocate an allowance to the author to spend on marketing as they see fit. But without any support from the promotional side of things, the book is really going to struggle to sell.

Be clear on the marketing strategies from the beginning and, it should be in writing. If not, you are leaving yourself vulnerable.

  1. The publisher has proven difficult to work with. Every publisher is different with respect to flexibility and agreeing on terms. Even after the contract is signed, and both parties appear to be satisfied, problems can emerge. The author is dissatisfied with the way the book has been handled. Or, the publisher expected more from the author.

If you feel that an ongoing relationship with the publisher is only going to harm your writing career and bring harm to your book’s success, consider breaking the contract. You can find another publisher or, do what many previous traditionally published authors have done and taken the self-publishing route.

Whether you are considering signing with a book publisher, or you have already done so, you need to know everything in the contract. There are so many minor details written in such a way that you could overlook something that could cost you thousands [or even millions] further down the road.

The bottom line is: Know what you are getting into. To move ahead a step further, if you are already under contract and you want to break the agreement, know what you could be getting into by doing so.

  • Are there any penalty fees?
  • Will this ruin your chances of getting picked up by another publisher?
  • Will your book survive the transition?

There are lots of things to consider, but if you are absolutely certain breaking your contract is the thing to do, the next sections in this post will be immensely helpful.

Which Is Better For You Based On YOUR Author Goals?

ANALYSIS: Self Publishing vs Traditional

Get a full, deep-dive self-publishing vs traditional publishing analysis including royalty rates, book sales, marketing details, and more! Make an informed decision and set yourself up for success with your book.

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Hiring a Literary Lawyer

If you decide to hire a lawyer to look into your case, we would recommend you find someone who specializes in copyright law and matters involving publications works. A lawyer could provide you with another avenue to take and steer you away from potential risk imposed by the publisher.

These specialized lawyers, also known as a literary attorney, can examine the minute details in a contract that an author or an author’s agent are not trained to spot. Bear in mind the publishers have lawyers draw up their contracts and in legal terminology most people are not experienced with. So, it only makes sense you should seriously consider having a lawyer on board as well.

You may be weighing the cost of hiring a literary attorney but consider this: How much would it cost down the road if a misunderstanding occurred between you and the publisher? Suddenly you are facing the publisher and a legal team that could have been avoided if the contract had been understood completely from the beginning. In some cases, while the publisher may be at fault for breaching the conditions, many cases the author was not fully aware of all the minute details and fine print.

Should you decide to break from your publishing company, as we have discussed, you may be in need of a literary attorney to navigate through the legal channels you are not familiar with.

For more information and a contact list, epic fantasy novelist Laura Resnick has compiled a directory of literary lawyers.

Understanding Copyright Laws

It is important that you have a strong grasp on copyright law. The publishing companies do and they may not always share the legalities with you. It is up to each individual author to protect his or her own rights.

Agreement of Termination

If everything goes well, you will have the opportunity to sign an Agreement of Termination. This would effectively end your contract with the publisher and restore your book rights. The publisher would then remove your works from all published platforms, including Amazon, the publisher’s website, or any social media promotion sites.

How to Break a Publishing Contract With a Traditional Book Publisher

Here we are. If you’ve read through the entirety of this post, and have still found yourself wanting to take action to break your contract with your traditional book publisher, this action plan will help you take next steps.

Use this brief action plan to move forward the right way.

(Regardless, if you feel uncomfortable or unsure of the proper actions to take, we recommend consulting with authors who have been through a similar experience and a literary attorney that can provide counsel.)

  1. Understand the terms, clauses and conditions of the contract completely. It is important that you understand everything you have agreed to in the contract. Most contracts have a termination clause. If you are stuck on the legal terminology, get help. Many grievances with publishing houses occur because the author was not fully aware of all the minute details listed.
  2. Termination Clause. If there is a termination clause and you are asked to pay a sum in order to be released, consider paying it if that is what it takes to be released. This could involve paying a termination fee. Depending on how much that fee is, it could be worth it in the long run for your writing career to pay it and get out if you can. If there isn’t a termination clause, you can request to be released. The publisher may grant you this request if they would rather not keep someone under contract who is not happy.
  3. Wait it out. If the contract cannot be terminated, and the publisher is unwilling to let you go, ride it out, keep writing, and focus on moving past this when the term ends. As every contract varies in terms of the clauses and fine details, be aware of what you can and can’t do during the term you are still obliged to stay with the publishing company.
  4. Seek support and feedback. Chances are you know a lot of authors in the business. Ask people for advice and sign up with an organization that can protect you. This is something I encourage all writers to do before they get into trouble. In this post we have listed various groups such as the Authors Guild or Griefcom that authors can contact for legal advice regarding publishing law and ongoing support throughout the grievance process.
  5. Don’t be discouraged from trying again. As a writer, you must find another way to get your story out there. If it didn’t work out with a publishing company, take what you have learned and move forward. If finding a traditional publisher is your thing, now you are better prepared than before. Or, if you want to try self-publishing, many authors today are having great success with this path.

To learn more about copyright laws, you can visit:

Breaking a Publishing Contract With a Vanity Publisher

There is another type of publisher that landed on the scene about a decade ago when writers started to figure out self-publishing was becoming a big thing. Now, these “publishing companies” are often mistaken for traditional book publishers.

Although they do have similarities, many authors have unknowingly fallen under the umbrella of a vanity publisher.

These publishers have one interest only: To take a writer’s money.

They charge exorbitant amounts for editing, cover design, and a book marketing campaign. Worse yet, they lock authors into a long term contract that could last for years. In other words, they hold your book hostage, blocking you out of any decision making. You lose control over most of the rights of your book. You can’t even buy your own author copies unless you pay the full retail price.

If you have found yourself in this situation, with a vanity publisher that is taking more and more, terminating this contract would be in your best interest. Many authors have learned a lesson from this and started successful self-publishing careers where they had full control over their brand and products.

Breaking away from a vanity publisher can have its difficulties just as a real book publisher has. The same rules apply here. Do your homework and know what you are getting into.

If it is the case where you are already signed and ready to break, get legal help if needed and look at your options to terminate. If doing so would cause legal harm or could prove to be costly, your alternative solution would be to abandon the book to its fate while it is under contract.

Remember: it is the book that is under contract, not you. Write another book and take it down a new publishing road. You can self-publish next time. You can find a legitimate publisher that offers up a fair contract deal. They are becoming harder to find, but they are out there.

Consulting Legal Counsel and Support Groups

In some cases seeking legal counsel may be the only solution to breaking your contract. Keep in mind that the majority of cases are rarely won unless the publisher has broken the agreement or failed to deliver on the agreement.

In this case, hiring legal counsel would be a strong option. If you must take this route, be sure to choose a lawyer that is experienced or specializes in copyright law. They can help you to find the loopholes that you missed on your own.

There are several groups that can help authors with support when it comes to dealing with the legalities of the business:

  • The Authors Guild is the oldest and largest professional organization for writers. As a member of the Authors Guild, you’re entitled to legal help, web services, access to all seminars, and member events. This is a great place for support.
  • The National Writers Union handles grievances for writers. The grievance officers have handled grievances against global publishing houses, newsletters and institutional house organs, and local and regional newspapers and magazines. They have also taken on literary agents, subsidy presses (including scam artists), and vanity publishers.
  • The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America [SFWA] is running Griefcom, a service for writers. They can help with onerous contracts and intercede on behalf of the author. As the website states, what they can also do is successfully mediate non-monetary, non-contractual disputes with publishers; get non-publishers in the SF&F world to pay monies legitimately owed to authors; and in short, get people to respect copyrights

Your book is important to you and your readers. Be certain to do everything you can to protect your rights, the copyrights of your works, and avoid signing into a bad situation by hiring the right kind of experienced people who can navigate through the less-obvious pitfalls.

Alliance of Independent Authors. This is a non-profit organization for self-published authors but is a good group for getting alerts on shady promotions and support from the writing community.

The Self-Publishing Route: Is This For You?

After terminating your contract with your book publisher, or making an attempt to, you now have a new path to pursue in building your writing career. Regardless of what happened with the traditional book publishing route, self-publishing could be your thing if you decide to keep on writing and build that platform you have been dreaming of.

Authors have switched over to self-publishing after years as traditionally published authors with great success. If you decide to take this path, self-publishing may work out in your favor if you learn the ropes of how to DIY. I have been self-publishing for several years and I love the creative control I have over my work. Maybe you will, too.

You have no doubt heard of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform and the massive success it has been with authors around the world?

There was a time not too long ago when a writer would have to submit manuscript after manuscript to a traditional publisher. After years of getting rejected by agents and big name publishers many good authors gave up writing or just kept writing without being published.

Well my friends, not anymore.

Now, Amazon has cut out the big gatekeepers and provided authors with massive opportunity to write the books of their dreams. The best part is, an author has control over all of the creative aspects of their books, from the writing to cover design. For many, this is a huge advantage.

With self-publishing, nobody is paying you a huge advance for your book but, for most authors, the dream to be published and hold that book in their hands is the golden ticket. If it goes on to become a big bestseller with millions sold, that is an additional bonus.

The great news for authors is, Amazon has positioned itself as an aggressive player in the publishing industry. Traditional publishers are scared. Writers now have options that didn’t exist before. The big New York publishers held all the cards and called the shots.

There is a long list of self-published authors who have proven that you can make money with your writing without the “big publishers” getting involved. Look at Mark Dawson, the bestselling author of the John Milton action series. Dawson published his first book, The Art of Falling Apart, with a traditional publisher back in 2000.

The book completely bombed. Casting aside the traditional publishing route, he published The Black Mile selling over 50,000 copies after giving it away for free, followed by the John Milton series books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Amanda Hocking, a writer of paranormal fiction, had written 17 novels while working full time only to have them rejected by publishers. Giving up trying to catch the attention of traditional publishers, she self-published on Amazon’s website and has since then become a million copy global bestseller.

So, you can decide to publish with a publishing company, or, take the path of a self-publishing authorpreneur. No matter the journey you take, I am certain you will succeed if you don’t give up.

Are You Ready To Publish?

Now, after reading this post, you may still be on the fence about pursuing a traditional publishing contract, or, trying it out yourself the self-publishing way. The good news is, even if you get rejected a hundred times by agents and publishers, having the door slammed closed too many times, there is one door you can always open and see your dream of publishing a book come to fruition.

Keep in mind that publishing contracts vary so widely that it’s up to each individual author to read the contract terms carefully and, if you are unsure of anything, ask the publisher for better clarification. If you have to seek legal counsel, do that, but don’t sign until you are ready.

All the best with your publishing journey!

Stay Informed

For up-to-date information on author rights and a list of bad publishers to avoid, visit the following sites:

Which Is Better For You Based On YOUR Author Goals?

ANALYSIS: Self Publishing vs Traditional

Get a full, deep-dive self-publishing vs traditional publishing analysis including royalty rates, book sales, marketing details, and more! Make an informed decision and set yourself up for success with your book.

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