Emmylou Harris Appears Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

Saw Lawless the other day. It was fabulous. But the movie is incidental. What struck me during the credits was the line written beneath all the songs on which Emmylou collaborated: “Emmylou Harris appears courtesy of Nonesuch Records.”
What struck me about that line was its similarity to publishing non-compete clauses, especially the type that prevent a writer from publishing anything – even a blog post- without the publisher’s permission. I can almost understand agreeing to the request of a narrow non-compete wherein a writer agrees not to publish a work that could be confused for the one with the publisher for a certain period after publication…almost. But to essentially give someone else control of your working life? To have to answer to someone else if you want to collaborate on a soundtrack or write and shop a new series? No. Oh my god, no.
That kind of contract essentially locks you into writing what someone else wants you to write. Say you have a novel you meant as a standalone. You want to move on but your publisher wants sequels. You signed that clause. They tell you they won’t publish anything but a sequel. Do you write the sequel or start over with a new pen name and lose all the momentum you had as author A?
I would never put myself in that position. Not now. If I had gotten my shit together as a writer 10 years ago, or even 5, maybe I would have put myself in that position because it was the only viable option to publish.
Instead I can write what I want, at the pace I want, and publish it when I want. The counter-argument that a disintermediated writer answers to the market and is therefore not free to write what s/he wants is inaccurate. Incomplete, at least. A writer answers to the market only if they are concerned solely with money, and have empirical evidence that the book they REALLY want to write will not sell. Which there is no way to determine other than to run parallel universe experiments, since as far as I know Schrodinger’s ebook cannot simultaneously exist once it has been observed (i.e., published). And good luck finding a spare alternate universe. If you do, your problems no longer revolve around how to make money off your books.
Even if you wrote both the book you wanted and the one you thought the market wanted and published them on the same day, the very act of publishing two books on the same day invalidates the hypothetical results of publishing one or the other.
This reality (that we can only know results at the point of observation) is what has always made traditional publishing a speculative investment…a form of artistic venture capitalism. Self-publishing still works on speculation…the difference is that it’s the writer taking on the risks and reaping the rewards (or absorbing the costs), versus the publisher taking the financial risk and taking the lion’s share of the profits in return.
The level of faith you as a writer publishing yourself have in your work correlates to the amount of your investment in your book. If you don’t have the money you might pay in opportunity costs – the time it takes to learn how to design a cover or code an ebook is time you could have spent writing (or spending time with family or friends or working at a job that pays you directly). But if your investment pays off, it pays off for you, and you have complete control over your creative and financial decisions.
I understand why some people might prefer the other way, but only in the most abstract of ways…for, surely if I really understood, I would make that choice for myself? But I would not. Not now. From where I stand now, not ever. I’ll write what I want to read, and I will let readers find me. And if it’s a waste of my time, well, it’s my time to waste. Mine, not a publisher’s.


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Filed under Digital Revolution, Rants and Storms

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