Self-Publishing has Changed the Industry—Not Always in a Good Way by Cassiel Knight

Many sing the praises of self-publishing. I’m one of them because I love that authors now have more freedoms and opportunities than before. However, in my role as an editor with several publishing houses and viewing things from that side of the industry, I’ve learned that self-publishing has created unrealistic expectations among authors. It’s been eye-opening, sad and frustrating.

Let me explain.

Self-publishing “gurus” (and you all know who they are) have touted self-publishing as the end of commercial publishing as it has stood for centuries. Um, sorry, not going to happen. More importantly, that attitude is actually proving to be a detriment for some authors.

On a publisher board recently, but not the first time this has come up, publishers were venting about authors who view the house contract as something they can change at their whim just because self-published gurus and author watch-dog forums say so. I’m not talking about changing things like royalty percentages, release dates or unfriendly author clauses which actually make sense to negotiate. I’m talking about things like removing rights of first refusal, the ability to “shop” around the book while it’s at one house (Really?) or any number of nitpicking things.

One can argue in favor of these and my argument against is for another blog post. <grin>

Bottom line is most publishers work hard, and pay for attorney support, to come up with a contract that protects the house and is also good for authors. As such, many are not negotiable and why should they be?

Dear authors, a commercial publishing contract is NOT a self-publishing contract! Trying to squeeze it into one is just plain ridiculous.

The publishing contracts I’ve seen and signed are more than fair. Are they perfect? No. There’s some things I would have liked to change – get more copies, sooner releases, etc. Did I ask for them? No, because overall, the contract was fair and realistic.

Here’s the thing and this may be harsh – don’t like the publishing contract? Don’t submit to a house. It’s a simple as that. Think you can do it better by self-publishing then go, do it. Believe me, there’s enough authors out there who get it – who want to work with a publisher.

What really gets me is that I highly doubt New York is inflicted with this much inflated expectations, dare I say ego?, of the authors seeking publication. Heck, most of those going after a New York contract are happy with 8% and other restrictions. So why should expectation with digital publishers be any different? I propose they aren’t.

Self-publishing isn’t the end of commercial publishing. In too many cases, it has bred authors whose expectations are unrealistic. Very unrealistic.

And here’s something else to think about – the commercial publishers see this. We talk. We listen. We notice who “you” are. Do you really want a reputation of being difficult to work with? Sure, someone may pick you up eventually and maybe you’ll do well there. I suspect the majority don’t get picked up or don’t get picked up a second time. Don’t put yourself in that position. The analogy of catching more flies with sugar is just as appropriate in the publishing industry as elsewhere.

For those of you reading this who “get it”, thank you. I’ve had more pleasurable times over the last year with you than the occasional prima dona author.

Happy Writing!

Posted on September 27, 2012, in General and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Many new authors assume that all editors are more or less alike, and they’re so excited about getting a publishing contract, they don’t think much about who’ll they’ll be working with. That’s what I did when I signed for my first book. My resulting experience was pleasant and satisfying from beginning to end, and I just assumed that that was the natural course of things. Later, when I began talking to other authors and hearing how awful their experiences had been, I realized that I’d won the editor lottery through sheer dumb luck. I now know that that lottery has many losers. You do not want to be one of them. Really, the bad marriage analogy is not that big a stretch.


  2. After years in the fashion and film industries, I learned quickly the advantages of having an agent, and the severe risks of not. Artists have been repping themselves for years and years… Some do extremely well, but I think the vast majority benefit most by having agents.

    Many authors aren’t aware of the intense legal work and protection that comes from having reliable representation. I’m grateful to my literary agent already, and I’ve yet to sign a publishing contract. Thanks for this post!


  3. I believe the publishing world is changing so fast that no one, including NY and small press publishers know where it is going to end up. Just five years ago, I would have never considered an e-first press, yet now I am published by one. Just three years ago, I never would have considered self-publishing, yet now I have a series. This doesn’t mean I’ve given up on NY publishers. However, I no longer believe they are the only game in town. As Jenny said above, there are books that fit traditional publishers really well and I still believe that NY print distribution is better than any I can manage. The question is what is worth fighting for? Higher royalties on print or higher royalties on ebooks? Larger advances or higher royalties? The answers to these questions are different for each author depending on her specific needs and what she believes her book can do in terms of sales.

    I do have one point of disagreement with you, Kim. That is characterizing wanting to negotiate “right of first refusal” as picky. For me, it all depends on how that language is written and where I want my career to go. Is it first refusal on any new book I might write? (that’s the typical boilerplate contract) I wouldn’t sign that because it precludes me working with a different publisher with a different genre or series that may be better suited to my next book. Is it first refusal on the next book in a particular genre, like romance? I still might not sign that. Romance is a big field. If I sold a romantic suspense to the publisher and my next book is a paranormal romance, I may want to shop it. What would make me consider signing it? If the deal included several books and if I was convinced the publisher was willing to make an ongoing commitment to me and my career. If I love my editor and the publisher is doing well by me, I don’t want to change either. Would I sign right of first refusal on the next book in the series that I sold the first book to the publisher? Okay, I can buy into that IF there is a time limit on the language (e.g., publisher must evaluate and refuse within 60 days) and the publisher has a commitment to my entire series. If it’s a four book series, perhaps the publisher is purchasing the first two books now.

    What this new publishing world has done is to make thousands of writers more aware of the business side of publishing, including contracts. In the past, many people signed contracts without thinking about it–simply happy to have one and believing it was not negotiable because a publisher or editor said at a conference “Our contract is not negotiable.” Being the only game in town there was not a choice in the past. Now there is. Though some people still sign contracts without negotiating, I think it is getting less common.

    I believe the more educated authors are about the business side, and specifically contracts, the better off everyone will be. Publisher’s contracts (and this includes self-pub distribution contracts with Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Apple, etc.) are designed to benefit the publisher/distributor. It is in the author’s interest to try to negotiate the contract to better benefit her. All negotiation is compromise. The publisher must decide how much compromise they are willing to make to get this book or author. The author needs to decide how much compromise she is willing to make to have this editor or publisher or distribution channel. Negotiation is always adversarial which is why it is best to have a literary attorney or good agent do this for you–someone who can be unemotional and always professional. If you can’t put your emotions on hold during a negotiation, then don’t do it yourself.

    At the end of negotiation either there is a signed contract or someone has decided to walk away. In my mind, that should be the end of it–no more whining, complaining, posting or emailing your FB friends list. If you signed the contract, then live by it and accept the compromises you made. If you walked away, then live by it and accept that as well. That’s business.


  4. Excellent, balanced perspective. There are pros and cons to both paths. One will be right for a particular book by a particular at a particular time. Some authors will only be happy on one path–thank goodness we now have two. But those who say that traditional publishers don’t edit/don’t market/don’t make successful authors…probably don’t have much experience with traditional publishers, at least not outside their own career.

    Having an alternative doesn’t mean babies should be thrown out with bath water. Traditional publishing has accumulated a lot of wisdom in roughly 100 years, and every writer, indie and trad, can learn from it.


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