I came across a writer online the other day who asked in a forum if a publisher can cancel a contract or book deal. Luckily (?), I've had a bit of first-hand experience in this area, so here's my response.
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It's nice finally to see the Queen of Wrong get something right for a change—a little—although her definitive answer is anything but.
Yes, a contract can be "canceled" by the author submitting a sub-par quality book to escape from a long-term contract. But that happens rarely, since everyone knows the author's capabilities going into the deal, and getting a contract pulled under those conditions would mark the author as something he'd rather not share with his mom. Also, few publishers would be quick to jump at a chance to cancel an author whose ongoing series (i.e., long-term investment) is still making money. Publishers have editors, too. And they have access to other freelance writers. And they have the legal right to rewrite any or all of a book and deduct the costs of doing so from the author's future earnings if the author refuses or fails to do so himself.
Yes, a change of editors could prompt the cancellation of a contract in its early stages, but it's certainly not likely once the publisher has paid advance money and invested in development costs. In fact, it's highly unlikely.
Yes, a publisher coming under hard times could cancel a contract; but, again, that's unlikely once the publisher has money invested in a book—which would be a sure-fire financial loss. Also, most publishers work (and fund their books) far in advance of publication date; so, unless the publisher is a mom-and-pop venture surviving on a shoestring budget, from month to month, it's not likely to fall victim to hard times that hard.
Far more likely than any of those rarities prompting a publisher to call off a publishing deal or cancel a contract are these:
A publisher, during fact-checking, discovers that an author falsely attributed numerous quotes and other facts in his end notes and citations. Providing accurate citations is a pain in the butt for most nonfiction authors. But, if you're going to talk the talk, you'd better be willing to walk the walk or suffer the balk. Otherwise, your publisher may well walk out of the deal, and you could be legally liable for repaying the publisher any money expended to that point.
A publisher finds the market it had deemed profitable when it originally signed up a book has suddenly withered and died, and the publisher doesn't want to get stuck with an albatross on its hands; so, it cancels the contract.
A publisher gets blowback from pre-publication leaks that a topic it plans to plumb is taboo, and community backlash is already brewing. While a few publishers thrive on producing controversial books, most can't or won't stand for all that negative publicity.
A publisher learns that some of a book has been plagiarized, inviting legal action from the aggrieved original author. If, after approaching the book's author with a request to change or attribute the questionable passages, the author refuses or fails to do the job according to the publisher's legal department's demands, the publisher will cancel the book.
A publisher discovers that a nonfiction author's claim to fame as an expert in his field turns out to be greatly exaggerated or even totally false. Without a solid platform behind a nonfiction author, sales are likely to flag. If the author deliberately misrepresented his qualifications in procuring the publishing contract, the publisher may even pursue legal options to reclaim the advance and production expenses.
A publisher learns that quoted material, specific events, and other items in a nonfiction book are completely fabricated. Does the name Clifford Irving ring a bell? If not, look it up.
There are probably just as many more legitimate, if more obscure, reasons for a publisher to renege on a contract, all of which are certainly more pertinent than those that Queenie stated—to whom, by the way, I commend that famous quote by the Bard: "When you shoot from the lip, you end up in dip."
What? You never read that from the Bard before?
Maybe we're talking about two different bards.
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.com.