A whole series of shoes for J.P., who writes:
If an author gets signed with a publisher for a 5-book novel series, for example, because their first book does well, would there be a chance if say the second and third book don’t do so hot that the publisher could tank the rest of the series? Or is there usually a stipulation in their contract to do the complete series. I’ve always wondered about that. Especially in this economy.
Great question, J.P.! Although there is a couple of different ways to read it. Option #1 — you have a deal with a publisher for a book that does very well, and the publisher wants to do more books in the series, so they offer for a contract for four or five more books. Option #2 — you’re a big enough author already, or your concept is really strong to start with, so they offer you a five-book contract to start.
In either case, sure, say the first book does very well, but subsequent books don’t live up to the hype. Could a publisher dump the books? Well, there’s a couple of different meanings of “dump”. They could say, “look, these books aren’t living up to our expectations, so we’re not going to publish books 4 and 5 in the contract.” In that case, you still get to keep the money they paid for the books already, but won’t get any more money — and if I were your agent, I’d get to work reverting the rights so you could try to sell the books elsewhere.
Another meaning of “dump” — they could still agree to publish the books, but do nothing to support them. Just throw the books out in the marketplace, and see what happens. Kinda like this New Yorker cartoon (via Rachelle Gardner). If that happens, you have to just be the best author/promoter you can be, and make it your job to sell books — which it kinda is anyway, but in this case, you’re doing it without a lot of publisher support.
Which is a better situation? Well, that depends on a lot of different factors. Are you an online juggernaut? In which case, so long as the books are available on Amazon, even if they’re not in brick-and-mortar stores, you could still do well. Or, do you have a great reputation in the industry? If so, maybe you and your agent feel a different publisher might be able to do better with the rest of the series — although in that case, they wouldn’t have the backlist to promote, which may make things difficult, but not impossible.
The fact is, many readers don’t notice who publishes a book, so you might be able to move without it adversely affecting your career. But you may be losing the tight publication schedule you have at one house to go elsewhere — it’s a toss-up. You have to make the choice that’s right for you.
Does that answer your question? The fact is, a publishing contract is exactly that: a contract to publish your books. Any thought of not publishing something that has already been agreed upon is breaking the contract, and most publishing agreements have very specific language regarding termination.