Should I stay or should I go?

How to decide whether to break a book contract

Years ago, when my husband and I were house hunting in Arizona, a realtor gave us some advice: Don’t ever threaten to walk away from a contract unless you are prepared to follow through.

The detail are long and boring, but her words saved us from a big mistake.

They saved me again almost 20 years later when I parted ways with my first publisher, a company with which I had a three-book contract. The decision brought me back to square one. I had to start all over to find homes for my books, just like we did with that house hunt when the offer on the place we thought was perfect fell through.

I did not know then that I would sign a contract with Level Best Books just a few weeks later. I did not know that the new book deal would confirm for me what a terrible mess I had been in. I did not know anything at all except that the decision to break my contract, as frightening as it was, made me oddly happy.

It thrilled me despite the unknown consequences because that realtor’s words forced me to ask myself why I was staying in a bad situation, what was keeping me from breaking that contract. They helped me explore and confront my lack of confidence and my fear of failure. I had stayed because I worried that I would never get another chance.

That was a terrible reason.

If I didn’t have confidence in my writing, who would?

The act of breaking the contract was an act of faith in myself.

Since then, I have received several emails from authors who read my blog post about leaving my publisher and have found themselves in similar situations. They have asked for advice, wanting to know how I made my decision and why.

So it here it goes. This is my advice to those who are questioning their contracts and trying to make that big decision: Should I leave? (Disclaimer time: I am not lawyer. I am not an expert. This is simply advice from someone who has been there.)

The first step is to review your contract, point-by-point. Has your publisher actually violated the legal obligations of the contract? If not, it might be harder to succeed in getting released, but it is not impossible. Some publishers are willing to let an unhappy author go simply because it’s best for everyone. If you can afford it, hire a lawyer to review the contract for you and make the argument for your release.

Second, develop a list of reasons to stay and reasons to part ways. Put everything on it, not just the business factors. Write down the emotional factors as well. When you are done, circle the emotional factors and decide whether they should remain on the list. If those emotional factors are not going to change, then they should stay on the list. But you might find, like I did, that you are the problem, that your emotions are holding you back, and that when you delete those factors, the choice is obvious.

Third, comes the series factor. I was fortunate that this did not come into play for me. I had not yet released any books through my first publisher. Some of the authors who contacted me already had two or three books of a series with their current publishers. They knew chances were slim any other publisher would pick up the books mid-series.

What do you in this position?

You have four choices:

  • You can query other publishers in hopes that yours will be the series that beats the odds and becomes the exception. Maybe another publisher will pick it up. You never know. If you plan to follow this route, you must be absolutely certain that your publisher does not have rights to future books involving those same characters and/or settings. This is critical. Failure to explore this could lead to a legal mess.
  • You can self-publish the remainder of the series as long as doing so does not violate the terms of your contract cancellation. The same legal concerns apply as stated above. You must also be careful about cover art. You might be violating copyrights if you use cover art that pulls concepts from your already-published books.
  • You can ditch the series and start anew with a new publisher. That can be a difficult choice. You have a huge investment in these characters and in their future exploits, but you might also find that creating and exploring new characters and motivations invigorates you.
  • You can stay with the current publisher for that particular series and either hire a lawyer to demand your contract terms be met or be your own advocate, pushing your books through on schedule and with the appropriate distribution.
  • Regardless of your decision, review all contracts and make sure the rights to your books revert to you immediately should the publisher go under. Let’s be real. You would probably not be considering parting ways with your publisher if thought your publisher was going to thrive. So this should be high on the list.

Breaking a publishing contract is a huge decision and not one that should be taken lightly. This is why our former realtor’s advice so important. If you have not done the hard work–if you haven’t thoroughly explored your reasons, the options and the consequences–you might find yourself drowning in a pool of regret and self-doubt. That negativity might get in the way of success. Be strong, be confident, be sure. Don’t walk away unless you are prepared to follow through.

5 thoughts on “Should I stay or should I go?

  1. I feel your pain. For over five years I tried to get out of my first publishing contract. Now I’m finally free and with a new publisher. The re-release of that first book happens in a couple of weeks. Feels like I just got out of jail. Best of luck to you!

  2. I had to part ways with an agent of five years because of no sales—and it wasn’t for lack of trying! I really loved my agent, and we still stay in touch, but she just couldn’t sell my work, which even baffled her. So, I put in the legwork and analysis (like you), we “had the conversation,” and we amicably parted ways. Sometime the magic works…and sometimes it don’t

    Wish you all the best, Lori!

    1. Hi Frank! I had the same experience with my last agent. I adored her and she was working hard, but we weren’t getting anywhere after four years. My first agent was another story. A huge mistake. I have been enjoying your blog posts. Happy writing! – Lori

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