Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Opportunity Costs

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has quickly become one of my favorite bloggers, and her posts on contracts are both informative and entertaining.  She brings up a lot of good points that newbie writers looking to break into the traditional publishing world need to consider.  It also got me thinking - what would it take to get me into the traditionally published world?

I've made no secret of my movement towards the world of indie publishing.  It used to be that the advantages of going indie were so small that no one who wanted to earn a living dared dream of going indie.  There was a stigma associated with it, and some who've failed to keep up with the times continue to look down their noses at it.

However, in recent years, that stigma has gone way down, and a lot of writers are figuring out that they can earn a much better living by working for themselves rather than forking over their control to a publishing company where they may or may not do well.  The biggest tradeoff is that the writer is now much more involved on the business side of the equation, as opposed to turning over most of those decisions to a publishing house.

Some writers are still like that.  "I went into writing to write, not to be a bookseller," they say.  And those that want to continue to think that way, my glass is raised to you.  For someone like me, though, that simply turns over far too much control that I'm not willing to concede.  At the same time, I can't say I'd absolutely never go into traditional publishing(and I'm sure these posts are doing a bunch to help me gain the admiration of publishers everywhere).  So what would it take to drag me from the indie path and into the traditional realm?

Quite simply - gobs of money.

Look at that claptrap mommy porn phenomenon known as Fifty Shades of Grey.  That began as fan fiction, and then as an indie book.  However, it was soon picked up by Random House and has sold nearly 30 million copies.  The publisher noticed that it was gaining steam, so it decided to offer the author a boatload of money to bring in its imprint, and the rest is history.

If something similar happened with regard to Akeldama or Salvation Day, or any other work I produced, I'd be hard pressed to turn down seven figures just to stay indie for that novel.  Does that make me a potential sell out?  Possibly, but we can't forget that writing is a business as well as an art form.  Most writers I know would throw their own mother off a cliff for that kind of advance(not me, though...you're safe mom!).

It's important to remember, however, the tradeoffs one makes when jumping at the cash, as well as the need to identify a few red lines on what you shouldn't compromise on.  First, you give up control...a lot of it.  You lose final say on the cover, the distribution plan, and even the content when an editor tells you to go make and make changes.  With that kind of money floating around, these edits aren't suggestions.

Second, you lose control over timing.  In indie publishing, you get to decide when a book is available.  When you agree to a traditional contract, they decide when your work gets out to customers.  It usually takes a book a year or so to get through all the wickets and onto shelves.  If the writer is lucky, the digital version will come out at the same time, but it'll be priced way too high since traditional publishers are afraid that ebooks are going to push print out of the mainstream market if they're too cheaply available.

That brings up money.  Your royalty rate, if you're lucky, is 15%.  Let's be fair - that sucks.  You have to sell tens of thousands of copies to make a middle class living from that, and a few million to live large like Rowling or King.  However, if you've been given an enormous advance up front, this becomes less important.

But you'll also have to sign a contract, and this is where a lot of newbie writers, and not a few established ones, lose their damn minds.  Many are so eager to "get signed" that they fail to understand what they're signing.  I know some who think that if they fail to sign a contract or if they demand better terms for themselves, they'll lose the publisher and never get another chance.  They remind me of the girl in high school who sleeps with the captain of the football team because she's afraid of being dumped.  What writers don't realize is that they'll be just as walked on with a publisher as that high school girl if they don't demand better treatment and be willing to go elsewhere to get it.

Here are a few things that you have to carefully consider, and a few that should make you run screaming in the other direction:
1.  Multi-book deals.  Sounds great, doesn't it?  You're being offered the security of selling more work.  There are some pitfalls that the publisher fails to mention.  One is that you aren't free to take a better offer if it comes along.  The second is that it puts you on the publisher's schedule, eliminating the freedom you became a writer to enjoy.  And third, you can get cheated, and cheated badly.


Through a royalty trick called bundling.  Writers don't get paid beyond their advance until their work sells more than the advance.  Suppose you got a $5000 advance for each book in a three book series.  Your first book sells $8000 in copies, your second earns $6000 in copies, and your third is behind the pack and sells only $500 in copies.  Guess how much you make in royalties?  That's right - zero.  You don't earn royalties on the $3000 and $1000 from the first two books because the publishers bundled them together and the royalties count against all three advances, not each book separately.  In other words, insist each book be treated individually and not as a bundle.

2.  Rights of exclusivity.  This harkens back to the first point.  It sounds great up front - a publisher wants to build a relationship and exclusively publish your work.  Unfortunately, exclusivity doesn't mean they have to buy it, or that if they buy it that they have to publish and promote it.  Nope, it just means that you can sell to no one but that publisher.  It's called a non-compete clause, and a large number of publishers are trying to require them.  Should you sign something like this, congratulations - you've just bound your entire career to one publisher.  You are not allowed to sell to anyone else without the publisher's express permission.

If a publisher tries to strong arm you into this, sprint in the other direction and don't look back, no matter how much money they're offering you.

3.  Option clauses.  These can benefit the writer, but only if they're properly drafted.  In theory, they offer a bit of security by saying the publisher gets first crack at your next novel, and you can always go somewhere else if they pass on it.  However, a poorly written option clause gives the publisher an indeterminate amount of time to decide.  It also goes back to giving the publisher the right to your work with no guarantees about promotion or distribution.  If you're going to sign an option clause, make sure it very clearly spells out the timeline and conditions of the option, or else you're hosed.

4.  Digital Rights Management.  This is a sneaky new thing that publishers like Hachette have begun to sneak in.  Long ago, DRM was thought to help with anti-pirating in the digital market.  However, it has just turned into another non-compete clause.  It tries to extend its terms into territories and platforms that aren't a party to the agreement you signed, putting the burden on you and limiting your market.  Beyond that, it's a heavy handed and arrogant attempt to shut others from horning in on its market.

These are but a few things you trade off when you go into the traditional world.  No matter how much money you get offered, you need to have a few red lines that you won't budge on because you know what they'll do to your career.  You can't be pressured into signing something because a publisher might decide you're not worth the effort - you have to decide the publisher isn't worth the effort.  Yes, that means you have to be willing to walk away, and that can be hard to a newbie starting out.

Know what your price is for the control you'll cede in going the traditional route, but don't cry about terms you willingly signed.  If you sign a bad contract that hamstrings your future, the blame is on no one but you.


  1. Wonderful post! Really good advice, and I hope you get that massive advance one day. :)

    1. Thanks, Hugh. Hopefully some folks will listen and know what they're getting into before they sign that contract.

  2. I don't like the attitude of traditional publishers, their greediness, and the control they would have over my book, so even if I was offered a huge advance I would probably stay in the indie world.

    1. Like I said, seven figures would probably entice me(right now), but even then there are a few red lines I'd draw.

      What has been funny about the traditionally published world has been watching their reaction to the current trends. Rather than understand that the market is changing and they need to adapt, they've dug in even harder. As Princess Leia once said, "The more you squeeze Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." :-D