Viability and Fairness

I wanted to write this a few days ago, mainly in response to Jim C. Hines’ post about publishing. The big point he makes, and it’s good one, is about the VS mentality of the publishing industry. He is incredibly correct that there are good and bad people in both and that you shouldn’t listen to only the horror stories or lottery stories, because more than likely neither will apply to you.

I follow a ton of self pub people, I also follow agents and trad industry stuff. You need a rounded viewpoint. As I’ve moved toward self-publishing, I follow less and less the legacy folks, just because they have less to offer (and especially if their blogs are more personal or political in nature, such as Mr. Hines, I don’t read blogs for politics, whether they’re red blue or anything in between).

There are a lot of people who want to make Mr. Hines’ same point, that both are viable, fair options. Chuck Wendig for example. Traditional publishing isn’t evil and self publishing isn’t a road to success. Again, both of these statements are true and if you are rocking a freshly birthed manuscript to your chest, you really do need to keep that in mind. There are no instant wins in writing, and certainly no sure things.

Okay, I laid that out.

Now I’m gonna tell you why traditional publishing still sucks.

One of the reasons that really got me to writing this is Dean Wesley Smith’s excellent Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about reversion clauses. This right here, alone, is enough to say that traditional publishing is a pain in the ass. In case you didn’t click that hyperlink, the trend in traditional publishing is to grab all rights…and keep them.


You think I’m joking about forever? Try life of copyright. That means seventy (70!) years (YEARS!) after you die, your book can be reverted back to you. Now, there are laws to get around this, which means you can get it back in 35 years, but frankly, I have no idea how one would even go about this. Most people don’t. Most people don’t even realize how much of a fucked up proposition this is, let alone how to fix it. Frankly, publishers know that.

Let’s divide this up into business terms real quick. Pretend I’m not talking about Publishers. Pretend I’m just talking about Big Business in general, because that’s really what’s out to get you. If you go hat in hand, to a large company, desperate for validation, willing to accept anything they give you, in an industry were typical wages are hidden and secreted and not regulated at all (which they shouldn’t be, don’t misunderstand), you will get abused. Simple as that.

But I have an agent! Yeah, your agent’s job isn’t to get you as much money as possibl. Sure, they’ll try because they get 15% and they want as much money as possible, but they have a stable of authors of which you are only one. The more established ones, the ones that got published before these contracts became so standard, are making them money from royalties and selling off their other rights as they become bigger. If you’re brand new, you’re lucky to get a sale at all and they know it. Five or ten grand now is better than holding onto you for two years and getting twenty-five grand down the road, maybe.

Also, and I know at this I’m repeating another Dean Wesley Smith principle but it bears being said, you know agents aren’t lawyers, right? So many people act as if this doesn’t matter. I work for a large corporation. I work daily with directors, vps, consultants, advisors, people within and without our employment, making gobs of cash who have tons of business and industry experience. You want to know what they have in common?

They don’t give legal advice.


Unless they have a Juris Doctorate and have passed the bar within the state that the shit is going down in, they are not worth a damn for giving legal advice. If it goes south with a publisher, if they straight up violate the contract, your agent isn’t going to sue them. They’re not going into court. They might hire an attorney if they think the money is worth it (and it will be you who pays for said attorney) but that’s as far as it’ll go and probably is farther than what is really expected.

What do you give up for self-publishing? Exposure. I’m willing to give publishers that, even though they don’t do as much as everyone thinks they do. That small push they give you, the five thousand or so books they print and put in a catalogue for B&N to look at, that is worth something. Because there is a chance, slim as it is, that the month or so you’re given on a shelf might just make you and things will take off. Maybe. And if they have an agenda, if they have a reason for wanting to push you, you will ascend faster than just about anything you could do by yourself.

But you won’t be rich. Let’s be clear on this, because that is a lottery story that traditionally published authors love to forget about when they’re telling you not to believe the hype. Don’t believe that hype either. There are traditionally published authors with multiple books to their name, doing well, earning more contracts, that don’t make enough to quit their day job. Maybe it’s almost enough, but not quite. It really does depend on the contract that was negotiated, and eve then, 12% of the net, of a $7.99 paperback, even if you make 100,000 sales, is not very much. A few midlist books by a traditional publisher aren’t going to mean anything to you and as soon as the last one stops selling, there will not be a next one.

Here’s what I believe. The industry will mitigate the nature of publishers. The longer they take in adapting, the worse they treat authors, the farther they distance themselves from readers, the more they will end up being mitigated. Self publishing gives authors the flexibility to build a career without giving up their assets, without the risk of having to abandon projects. Maybe my book won’t sell as much as it would in a traditional published environment (which is debatable) but I know I’ll control the rights. I can continue to write without non-compete clauses getting in the way. Traditional publishing locks you into a path, self publishing does not. Yeah, you have to do the marketing and promotion with self publishing. Guess what, if you want another deal with your publisher, you’re going to have to do it with them too. Because under the usual contracts they offer, they own your book for the forseeable future. If you have a series planned and the first didn’t sell, better think of a new one.

This is what I can’t help but think when established authors scream out into the ether about fairness, about them both being options. Why is there a vs mentality? Because this is what authors, today, have to go through if they want to get published. This is what they have to give up.


About enathansisk

My name is Nathan Sisk, and I am a writer and aspiring author.
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