“I’d rather give it away than be exploited”

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.


Filed under Digital Revolution, Publishing

12 responses to ““I’d rather give it away than be exploited”

  1. Well said!

    I read the first few pages of What You Will on Amazon. I liked them and went ahead and did the one-click purchase. I’ll try to get a review up, but it will probably take a while – over a month. My TBR pile is pretty high.

    Congrats on one year of self-publishing!

  2. asraidevin

    If you have the money, you get to make the rules.
    I love watching the Canadian version of Shark Tank called Dragon’s Den (of which Kevin O’Leary and Robert Herjavec are both part of as well. My husband hates it because of the way the deal is skewed to the investors and how much they take.

    I have many thoughts on the state of publishing, but mostly I try to stay out of things and I don’t get excited about pushing marketing with targeted ads etc. I hope to grow a fan base with (progressively getting better, 3 years later I admit my first novel was NOT really ready for the publish button but it does fairly well despite my misgivings) good stories, and enjoyable characters and being engaging on social media.

    • Sadly that old money, rules, adage is too often the case. The best thing about the internet is that it disintermediates. I think if you keep at it long enough and have something that resonates with people, you will be heard. I have the 5-10 year view in mind. If figure…if I double my fan base every year, by the end of 7 or so years I’ve got traditional-published bestseller numbers (which in general are lower than it sounds like) and if I can produce enough content, a living wage from my writing. That would work for me. a 10K advance and nothing else ever for the book(s) would not. 🙂

      Best of luck with your journey! And if you don’t like the marketing stuff, stick to what KKR and DWS recommend–the best advertisement is your next book!

  3. I’m doing the Self-Publishing route as well for many of the reasons you stated in your post. Just thinking about the traditional publishing process gives me a headache. The whole system is not set up to help writers, it’s meant to hinder them. We are not all J.K. Rowlings, and nor do we all want to be. I want to write and hopefully find a base of people who like to read what I write… and someday, when I have enough quality work, maybe make a living off of it.

    Good to know there are others out there! 😀 Good luck with everything!

    • Yay, solidarity! Yeah, I would never have guessed I would take this route 5 years ago, but now I can’t really imagine taking the other. I don’t want to be forced to write to trends, I want to write my stories. If people read them…great. If not I’m weirder than I thought, but if nothing else *I* have my perfect-for-me stories to read, 🙂

      Best of luck to you, as well!

  4. Another soon-to-be-self-published author here. Excellent post! It’s not about the money, so much as the percentage we get for our work. And then of course there’s the issue of retaining one’s intellectual rights, because that’s control and money both.

    Incidentally, the self-publishing dream, for many of us, is a matter of decades. I’m old enough to remember underground newspapers and samizdat both.

    • I think the biggest issue is the life of the digital license right now. If publishers were willing to do, say, 10 years and then rights revert, that might also work for me. That way they have 10 years to make all their money back plus a profit? They gonna hustle a little better than they have a need to right now (all talk about produce model aside, at least).

  5. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do. I agree with you on the one hand, but on the other my heart is wanting that Big Six stamp of approval, so to speak. I’m undecided. Thanks for the food for thought.

    • Astrea, I think every writer will say “what works for you might not work for me and vice versa” not just on writing method but on publishing, as well. I think the more important thing for you as a writer considering traditional publishing is to be very educated about the sneaky rights grabs they will try and be willing to walk away. I’ve heard anecdotally that authors going in with savvy and a willingness to walk can get better terms than the boilerplate contract. If you don’t already follow Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Thursday Business Rusch posts, and the Passive Voice Blog, those are a couple great resources for the problems big publishing contracts can cause and how to avoid those landmines. They are fairly pro-self-publishing, but, the truth is, if I weren’t so OCD about controlling all aspects of my books and able to execute all of them to professional standards, I might feel more like you do regarding a traditional publishing deal.

      Very happy to give you a new perspective, the only real advice I would give is just educate yourself enough so that you don’t sign away more than you intended to if you do get a deal. Also, no agent. Go to editors directly (whatever the publisher’s stated policy is) and hire an IP lawyer if you get an offer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s