Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Except, except, except

Publishers really invest in quality and editing.

Except editors keep getting laid off as a part of cost cuts.

If you want proper marketing for your book you need a publisher.

Except you’re expected to do most of the online marketing yourself, and online is where all the sales are happening.

You need a publisher if you want the book to look good.

Except the books from big publishers often look like crap in digital and utterly mundane in print—no better than a well made self-published book.

At least publishers always provide good covers.

Except the covers so often completely misrepresent the book and whitewash it of all minorities and personality.

Publishers can help you sort out your social media ‘platform’.

Except they increasingly won’t even sign you on unless you already have a platform.

The editor always brings out the best in the text.

Except when the editor simply doesn’t see the world the way you do and buries everything unique and special.

The editor always hones and clarifies what the book has to say.

Except when the editor simply doesn’t get what the book has to say.

At least with a publisher the printed book won’t be Print-On-Demand.

Except it increasingly will be.

Books that haven’t been edited are always crap.

Except when they aren’t. Sometimes the combination of beta readers, volunteer editors, and the right book results in something good.

Books that are edited are always improved by the process.

Except when they aren’t. Sometimes the editor is just a bit of a fool. You rarely get to choose your editor.

Books from big publishers are always edited.

Except when they aren’t and the writer has to bring in a freelance editor if they want any real editing done.

A publishing company is a well-honed machine for creating and releasing books.

Except the next available slot in their publishing schedule is in the autumn, two years from now.

There’s this tendency among advocates to compare the absolute worst of the enemy with the perfect, best case scenario on your own side. The crowd that is hostile to self-publishing often likes to compare the worst dinosaur porn (which still sold, though, and made more money than many other titles) to one of those wonderful, Never-Neverland publishing companies that to this day invests massively in editors, doesn’t use exploitative covers, spends its untold riches on making the book’s typography absolutely perfect, has a workflow that spits out beautiful, error-free ebooks with ease, gives every author a personal PR rep, and has a multi-million dollar marketing budget for every title.

Of course self-publishing looks bad when you compare it with a piece of fiction that’s less realistic than the more deranged parts of Alice in Wonderland.

The reality is that book retail has been steadily deteriorating over the years and publishers themselves have been compromised by decades of cost-cutting. Most book sales are online. Titles today get much less editorial attention than similar titles did years ago. Covers have always been completely disconnected from the book’s actual content.

In terms of marketing, quality, distribution and design the difference between a competently published book and a competently self-published one is now less than you think. Competent self-publishing is getting easier every year as tools and services improve. Publishers offer less and less as they try to stay competitive through cost cuts and ‘optimisations’. Over time publishers seem to be devolving into self-publishing services that offer little but demand everything.

One key difference between self- and traditional publishing that is unlikely to fade in the near future is traditional publishing’s rank disdain for the author.

Rank disdain? Yes, there’s no other way to describe it. The standard contracts offered to most authors are insulting. The contracts are de facto for life and make breaking up with the publisher complex and hard. They frequently feature non-compete clauses that shackle the author’s entire career to the whims of the publisher.

These are terms that would be onerous in an employee contract where the desperate victim can at least expect a salary, if not actual benefits. For publishers to expect an author to swallow them in exchange for the pittance that most books earn is nothing short of insulting.

Pointing at other media industries won’t get you out of this one. Standard contracts in other media industries are also unfair and insulting. There’s a lot of disdain for creators going around.

But, Baldur, haven’t you said that some of the biggest pain points for most publishers today are narcissistic idiot diva authors?


  1. It doesn’t matter if the author is a fool. Those are contractual terms you shouldn’t even offer to fools.

  2. Who do you think you are going to get when you make the demands publishers are increasingly making? Somebody who constantly self-promotes? (I.e. does their own marketing and social media.) Somebody who doesn’t consider the primary reward of publishing to be monetary? (Very few can make a living writing books.) Somebody who is willing to do all of this work for the sole perk of being able to ‘perform’ in public as an author? Narcissistic idiot divas, that’s who you get.

What would a fair contract look like?

Fixed term, for five to seven years. If you want more, you can renew the contract for another five to seven years once the first term is up. Or, you can just pay for the privilege of a longer term. Up front.

Absolutely no non-compete clauses. If you don’t want a writer to publish other writing elsewhere, pay them enough money so they don’t feel the need to. If you can’t afford to pay that much then you have no right to complain let alone to demand non-competition.

No options or rights of first refusal. Stand or fall based on your standard of work and the strength of your relationship to the author.

The copyright always, always, stays with the author.

Both parties should have the right to unilaterally end the contract and all of the obligations it entails should there be a major change in the circumstances of the other party. E.g. the publisher should be able to end the contract if the writer is sectioned or jailed. The author should be able to end the contract if the publisher gets sold or declared bankrupt.

(The bankruptcy bit is a bit complex, admittedly, but having language in the contract that covers the scenario is always going to help the author more than harm.)

A fair publishing contract is one between peers, where the rights of the two parties are in balance.

Even if the naysayers are right and self-published titles are always objectively worse than traditionally published titles, at least with a self-publisher you can count on the publisher treating the author with respect.

What books have always had are small teams. Outside of the people who work for the printer, the number of people who work on a book directly—especially compared to other media industries—is tiny. Maybe a couple of editors, typesetter, cover designer, writer, maybe a couple of office staff—making a book isn’t manpower intensive. You could argue that selling and marketing a book is, however, but that’s also the bit that is being disrupted by the web.

Finding your small team, one you can trust and rely on to help you make your book, is more important than whether you are self-published or not. It’s the team that makes the book, not the publishing model.

The problem for writers seeking to be published is that they usually can’t shop around for a good team. They might be able to shop around for a good editor, but not a team. People within a company inevitably vary and the author is forced to trust that they’ll be lucky with the people assigned.

What the self-publishing model does do is put the author in control over the team instead of the publishing company’s stockholders. If the author wants to spend more on editing because the editor is just so good, they can do that. If the author wants to spend less on editing because they have such a good group of beta readers, they can do that. If they want the cover to actually reflect the book’s story, they can work with a cover designer to make it so. They can assemble a team of freelancers around every book as needed, on an ad hoc basic.

The publishing companies that don’t compromise on the small team and can offer the flexibility to respond to the book’s needs won’t have to worry about self-publishing at all.

Other publishers will have to worry.

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