Or, Why One Year Later I’m Still Not Interested in a Traditional Publishing Contract
I had the conversation with my husband over drinks a few nights ago about why I feel like self-publishing was the right move for me, and why I have no interest in a traditional publishing contract right now. A bit less than a year ago, I decided to put up a couple novellas as an experiment, to see if I could and to start taking actual steps to make my dream happen–to move it from a dream to a goal I was actively pursuing.
The upshot of the conversation was that I’m happy with my choice, despite having made only about $30 so far, because I would rather give my work away than let someone exploit me.
My issue with traditional publishing is that I think the money-sharing is extremely unequal, with the publisher taking the lion’s share of the profits. It reminds me of Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs have to choose between financing their dream for the price of losing the controlling share of their company, or not securing the money they need to make their dream a reality. That is the deal traditional publishers offer most authors: they’ll pay an advance that is not anywhere approaching the glamourous live-off-one-advance-a-year level most people thing writers get, and that’s the part of the sales you get 50% royalties for. Everything after the advance–AKA, everything after the point where the publisher has made back their money–they offer something more like 17% (because it is 25% of net, AKA cost after distributor takes their cut). While I understand the idea that if the publisher put up the money to put the book together and distribute it to the public, they deserve to make a nice profit, the fact that they would pay LESS on the pure-profit part of the book than on the paying-back-its-expenses part just raises my hackles. That feels predatory, and I do not take attempts to victimize me particularly well.
With ebooks the justification of physical costs is ripped away to expose the predation for what it is. I’ve run the math on what an ebook actually costs a publisher (well, assuming they can function with any modicum of efficiency as a business, which may be assuming way too much, but that it is scarcely my problem if they have a bureaucratic overload of employees and rules). The break-even point is fairly low, and once the advance has earned out (since earning back the advance is generally the only part of sales where an author can get 50% royalty) the publisher doesn’t even have the costs of creating and shipping the physical artifact to obfuscate their greed. Nope, they just sit there literally doing nothing else and getting 75% of the profits?
Not just no, but hell, no.
I really would rather give my work away than let someone else get paid the bulk of the money for my work. It’s what I’m doing right now, practically, with my first two ebooks being priced at 99 cents. I’m okay with it as long as no one else is making the money if I’m not.
I would not be okay with 35 cents for an ebook that was earning a publisher $1.70–almost five times as much for them as for me.
See, for me the issue is really less about money than it is about respect. I don’t feel respected by anyone who buys from me at a pittance and then makes a 500% profit on the venture. I work for a middleman in the real world, and our upcharge is no more than 30% and sometimes less. If a publisher were only going to upcharge 30% AND their expenses had to come out of that…AKA what Amazon KDP offers, and what Smashwords offers…I would be willing to do business with them. I am not saying I would need my publisher to not make any profit on my work; that’s as unrealistic a business arrangement for them as their current terms are for me.
The problem is that I believe in free markets and the idea that capitalism works because it’s not the exploitation of one person for the benefit of another, but rather mutually profitable arrangements that benefit both parties. Right now, with trad-publishing ebook terms being for-life-of-copyright and at less than 50% of cover, publishers do not offer a mutually profitable arrangement; they offer the illusion of one and laugh all the way to the bank. Publishers are literally doing what the anti-free-market types THINK all businesses are in the business of doing!
The businesswoman in me rebels at that. I would rather get all of no profits than a pittance of real profits, especially because right now I am not depending on making money, any money, from my work. I already have a job. I write on the side, because I love to write and feel like I have something to say with my words that other people might enjoy enough to pay for. I’m not going to stop writing just because I’m not making money. The money is a side benefit. But that doesn’t mean I will let anyone else make money in my stead, just because the money isn’t why I’m doing it. No. Either I make money, or no one does, the end.
And God bless Amazon and Smashwords and all the other ebook retailers who have leveled the playing field for self-publishing who have given me an option besides going voiceless or being exploited.