(Warning!!! I am talking about novels only here, NOT short fiction… The short fiction markets play under other rules and are fine. The top magazines and anthologies don’t buy all rights or hold your rights forever. For example, at Fiction River, we ask for only a two month exclusive from the time of publication. Some of the Dell magazines ask for six months up to a year. All fair. So this discussion is only about novels and traditional novel publishers.)
David Farland did a balanced post on the question of when to be an indie writer or when to sell to traditional publishing. And as usual, I agree with much of what Dave said, although I could quibble on the thrillers. But I don’t feel he went far enough by a long ways. And he didn’t take into account modern publishing contracts for beginning writers. So read his post first and then read on here.
Dave broke apart the idea that some genres are better than others for indie publishing. He’s right, sort of. But the other genres are not bad for it either. I want to make that clear. He sort of left the opinion that indie publishing in some genres is bad. Some genres just have more electronic sales than others is all.
And if you are at the level of David Farland or any of the other writers he mentioned (all friends of mine as well), you have clout to negotiate a novel contract to get out of some of the horrid stuff publishers are putting in smaller-book contracts.
But most writers these days don’t have that kind of clout. I don’t.
And almost no new writer does. So it comes down to a choice of 1) Saying no to a contract with horrid terms or 2) taking a contract and losing all rights to your book forever for $5,000.00 or less. Without clout, you can’t negotiate anything of value.
Just to be clear…
Your clout is basically measured by the desire of the publisher for the project (or you as an author).
If the publisher really wants the project and you have other choices, (either indie or other publishers who want you or the project) you have the “clout” or ability to get terms in contracts changed.
The problem is that for most writers, the myth of being published by a traditional publisher is very strong, and agents are so bad, that a new writer with a first offer will sign just about any contract, giving the publisher basically all rights forever to their work. And worse, the new writer often signs a contract that restricts what they can write going into the future.
I don’t know about Dave, but Kris and I have seen a couple dozen of these horrid, lower-level contracts from our writing friends and students in just the last year or so. And no chance in hell would I have signed a one of them.
So who really understands the choice a writer must make with a contract?
Agents? Not a chance. Agents work for publishers these days (or worse yet, have become publishers themselves) and most agents have no legal training to even understand a modern contract and what it means.
Your Editor? Not a chance. See above.
Your local attorney? Not a chance. A local attorney wouldn’t even understand half of your publishing contract.
Your family or writer’s group? They are the worst, actually. They will push you to sign with all the congratulations, not understanding that you are signing away all your rights to your book and possibly future books. So you will be pressured to sign because you announced the sale before you saw the contract.
Will you have a clear understanding on your own? No. The myths are powerful. Far more than you ever realize until faced with the decision to sign or not sign. The pressure to think you “can live with it” is intense. So without real help, you will sign.
Your only hope for real help in understanding the contract you are offered is a national publishing IP attorney. And then the chances are the myths will overwhelm you anyway. You will think that hiring an attorney is too expensive or even if you did get one, you have no clout to change the terms of the contract. But at least a good publishing IP attorney will help you understand what you are giving away.
Yeah, it really is that ugly.
Young writers going into traditional publishing these days at low levels are screwed, plain and simple. It flat doesn’t matter which genre.
And that’s not even talking about what will happen on the second or third book when the first book doesn’t sell to expectations. That’s another level of ugly.
So in 2013, what is the system around the above “ugliness” if you want to have a book traditionally published?
Do both indie and traditional.
But not like David suggested in his column. I am suggesting you do both for every book in every genre.
Let me say this again. Do both with every book and right from the start.
Read the fine print in David’s column and notice that when one of his friends put up a book indie, traditional publishers came begging.
When a traditional publisher comes to you, hat in hand, begging for your book, you have the clout to get a good contract, good terms, and a good advance.
When you go begging to a publisher, hat in hand, they control because you have no clout and they don’t much care. In 2013, that means you will be screwed. You may not know it for years, but you will be.
When you send a manuscript to an editor or an agent in hopes they will take you on, just imagine yourself standing there at the door, cup in hand, begging. And there is a very old cliche. “Beggars can’t be choosers.” You take what you are given or don’t take it. Ugly.
So my suggestion now, here in 2013, is to stop submitting unpublished novel manuscripts in any form to traditional publishers or agents.
Stop begging, folks. Stop knocking at their doors with your tin cup in hand hoping for someone to notice you.
Gain some pride.
Stop. Simply stop.
(I can hear it now…But…? But…? But…?)
What do I do?
You really want your novel to be published in traditional publishing??? You really think they can push more books for you into stores? You want to use them to increase your indie sales on your other books.
Fine, I’ll go with that. So what do you do?
Stop begging them to help you and gain control of your own career first.
No one respects a beggar, but business people do respect other business people.
So do the following…
1) Keep writing and continuing to learn how to write better stories. Chances are your first or second or third written novel won’t be of any interest to anyone but a few family members and scattered readers. You must first learn how to tell a story at a professional level.
(Yeah, yeah, you worked hard on that first novel, rewrote it a dozen times, it has to be gold. Right? More than likely not. Move on and write the next book after indie publishing the first book. Keep working on learning how to tell a story.)
2) Learn how to indie publish your work. That means these days getting it both into electronic markets around the world and paper markets around the world. There are six billion blogs and articles on this, and I wrote some of them. How to get started is up under the “Think Like a Publisher” tab above.
3) Learn how to recognize or create good, professional covers. Learn how to write professional blurbs for your books. Make sure your books are proofed. And so on.
Yeah, there are learning curves. Get over it and get learning.
4) Keep writing, keep learning, and keep getting more work indie published.
So what about traditional publishing? When can I do that?
You are basically submitting your work for editors to see the moment you indie publish it.
If they are not coming to you, then you don’t have anything they want just yet. (You would have gotten rejected for years in the old system. Making a few bucks every month now is much, much better than those rejections.)
But you are a writer in a hurry. Fine. (I never met one that isn’t in a hurry for some reason.)
So here is what you do to make sure editors know your books exist right now:
1) Make 110% sure that your book is professional-looking. That your blurb and back-cover blurbs are top rate. That your interior layout looks professional.
2) Write a professional cover letter. In the letter you don’t beg, you inform them of the fact that your book is available and that it might fit their line.
3) Send the cover letter, a paper copy of your book, and a #10 SASE for an answer to an editor who edits a line of books similar to what you have published.
4) Keep writing more books.
If they contact you with an offer, take your sales numbers for a year on the book and multiply that by ten years. That should be the minimum advance you would accept. And them remember you don’t need them because your book is already out and selling.
Saying no should be easy under these circumstances. They must bring to the table something that will help you and your publishing business. And they must be willing to negotiate on contract terms.
Will traditional publishers do this? Yes. It’s happening all the time now.
Can they bring value to your publishing work? Sometimes, yes. But it will depend on the project.
Stop sending unsolicited novel manuscripts to book editors or agents. That is so last century.
Indie publish your work first, when it is finished.
Traditional book editors will see your book if it is something they find interesting. If you want an editor or a dozen editors to know about it quickly, send them a copy of the finished paper book. (If you want, put a code to a free electronic copy of the book in the cover letter, but still send the paper copy as well.)
Don’t expect responses, but do send the SASE. The goal of sending the books is to let editors know you are there. If there was anything remotely close in your book that might fit their line, they will watch for future books from you online, through your web site and other sources.
Then, when you have a product (a book) a traditional editor thinks will make them some money and fit their line of books, you have some clout to negotiate a decent contract and some income to understand what the book would make for you if you didn’t sell it to a traditional publisher.
In other words, as I have been talking about for a long time here: You will have choices.
So stop going to agents and editors with your little tin cup in one hand and your unpublished manuscript in the other, begging them toss you a pittance while they rob you blind.
Gain some self-respect.
Take your career into your own hands and come into this new world.
That way, when a traditional publisher wants your work, you will be ready and can be a business partner in the project instead of a beggar at the door looking for crumbs.
Copyright © 2013 Dean Wesley Smith
Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime