Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Indie versus Traditional - Part Two

This should come as no surprise to the people who know me, but I'm a control freak.  I get very uncomfortable when other people make decisions that have more than a fractional impact on my life.  This is probably the main reason I'm leaning towards indie publishing.

The first thing that jumps out is the amount of creative control retained.  In traditional publishing, everyone from an agent to about 10 different editors not only put their hands on your work and suggest changes, but you're pretty much forced to make those changes or your book will languish forever in the "sorry, you'll never get on shelves" pile.  I don't know about you, but when I write something, I write it a certain way for a reason.  When there are suggestions that should be incorporated, those come from beta-readers who have made mostly the same point.  I'll do a post on advice later, but for now just know that multiple people making nearly the same point are to be listened to, but one person doing so is a subjective taste that might take away from the overall intent.

I'm not talking about not getting a professional editor to look over your book, but I like the ability to push back on content suggestions.  A good copy editor is essential, but an indie author can hire a decent one for around $1000(possibly less in some cases...but be wary of going too bargain basement on this one...you want quality in this area).  I think that putting too many editors in the process fouls the water and renders the original project unintelligible.  There are reasons that folks like JK Rowling and Anne Rice have editing control clauses in their contracts.

The next point of creative control comes with the cover...as in with a traditional publisher you have no control over it.  Like I discussed earlier, a good cover can make or break a book, especially for a newbie.  Unfortunately, most authors have little control over their book's presentation in this way.  Sure, you can make suggestions and plead with others in the publishing house, but, in the end, you have to take what you're given.

What could possibly be the reason for giving up control over something so vital to the final product?  As the writer, don't you have a better understanding of the artistic flow of the book?  If so, why surrender this important task to someone who may get the point wrong?  There are plenty of graphic artists and other sites out there who will do a great job and actually collaborate on the cover.  As an added bonus, if you don't like the final product, you aren't forced to use it.

Traditional publishers use their superior bargaining position with newbies to grant themselves rights they won't need unless the work is wildly successful.  Many newbies, desperate to get in bookstores, willingly sign away these rights without fully realizing what they're doing.  One example is the right to the work's copyright.

Most publishing contracts give the publisher the right to your work for the duration of your life plus 75 years.  Hell is easier to escape than these kinds of clauses, and folks don't realize the power they cede.  The biggest one is that if the publisher decides your book isn't worth it and won't print or distribute it any more, there ain't a damn thing you can do about it.  Not only can they ignore your pleas, but you have no legal way to put the book out there on your own.  A few people want to check it out?  Tough.  An old librarian impressed enough to start word of mouth?  Too bad.  You can't print, distribute, or produce your work for anyone else.  I'd have trouble counting the number of writers I've heard bitch about this very thing.  A few spend years in legal fights trying to get these rights back, and even fewer win this fight(usually because a publisher will feel the fight is no longer worth their time, not because the writer won a legal argument).  Think about whether signing over your artistic license for not just your lifetime, but the lifetimes of your children and grandchildren, is worth it.

Further, a lot of publishing houses get writers to sign multi-book deals.  This sounds great to a struggling newbie looking to break in, but it basically means that they own you and your work.  Want to sign another and better deal with someone else?  That sucks.  Can't quite make that deadline for your third book because writer's block won't let you figure out the ending?  They can take away your advance.  Additionally, your advance will be spread out over the books, so that $25,000 pile of cash you were so thrilled with will be spread out amongst the books and nothing further paid until each book earns out its advance.

Then we come to the penultimate piece - money.

Let's get the biggest part out of the way - author royalties suck.  A first time author who has never been published before can expect a royalty of 7.5% to 10%.  Once fame and fortune settles in, that author can expect a whopping 12.5% to 15%...of something they poured their heart and soul into for Lord knows how long.  Tack on the 15% agent fee and the fact that most publishers expect their writers, especially new ones, to use the vast majority of their advance on marketing(yes, you get to pay for the initial marketing in most cases) and that you won't make a dime in royalties until after you sell enough books to cover the advance, and the writer suddenly wonders who's getting all the cash they supposedly earned from their masterpiece.

Further, traditional publishers pay royalties twice a year.  Book pick up steam in the second month of the cycle?  Tough shit - you get to wait five months before seeing a dime.  With indie publishing, there are multiple avenues to making a steadier stream of income.  First, selling through your website nets immediate profit, so long as you set your profit margin correctly.  And when it comes to digital, Amazon pays out its royalties monthly.  That's right - at the end of the month, Amazon looks at how much you've sold, what rate you managed to set, and sends you the amount you're owed.  Plus, if your e-book is priced between $2.99 and $9.99, you can make 70% off of each sale(this price point is set to allow for discounting yet enable a healthy margin for the distributor).

I've spoken to a lot of authors who have to go over their royalty statements with a fine tooth comb because they've discovered that they're short money they were owed.  This is sometimes due to inept accounting on the part of the publisher, and other times it's done through some legalese that shunts more money than it should to the publisher.  However, as an indie, you have greater control over the accounting, and you get paid more often.  I'm sure it's great seeing that bulk check every six months, but I like to be able to afford more than bologna and tap water in the interim(not that there's anything wrong with bologna; it's just that I prefer greater variety in my diet).

Publishers say that the rate of royalty payments is needed to determine sales points, but this is the 21st century.  They really can't devise a more efficient system that pays more often?  This doesn't pass the laugh test and speaks more to an industry that resists change at every opportunity rather than adapting to the modern world.

Okay, I was hoping to get all of this in two posts, but I now see that's not going to happen.  I've blathered on long enough for now, so I will do more at a later time.  Not too long down the road, but I have something cool planned for the Thursday night post. 


  1. I love puppies too! Thanks for an excellent post - sums up neatly all the reasons to go indie. What about the reasons NOT to go indie?
    Because I'm convinced there are some...The worst is that if your book falls flat in the dust and stays there, everyone will know it. You've screwed any chance you might ever have had of "making it".
    Why? Because that's the first thing literary agents and publishers will look at: your numbers on Amazon (and elsewhere). Your actual sales are no longer the secret they used to be in the good old days of traditional publishing...

    1. Claude - I'll do a post on that some day as well. However, in the age of transition we're in, I think the pros outweigh the cons on indie publishing. The biggest con of traditional publishing is the amount of control you cede, and the benefits associated unless you're a bestseller aren't what they used to be.

      It's kind of a catch 22 - if you've got good enough sales that agents and publishders take notice, is their help really worth everything you'd give up?