Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Danger of Desperation (an Indie Life post)

For those of you who haven't noticed, there's been a big to-do in the publishing world in the last week or so. But, before that...

It can be difficult to be involved in artistic fields. There's so much angst over whether you're good enough, whether people will like your work, whether people will like you. It creates a huge drive for recognition. Confirmation. Validation. The desire for validation can be... distracting. The desire to be validated, to be told, "yes, you are good," can become the goal rather than doing the art. The need for an agent, for a publisher, more important than doing the writing and just making it available.

This need, this desperate grasp for someone unconnected to you to tell you that you're good, that you do good work, that your writing (art, music, whatever) deserves to be seen can make us do, well, stupid things. It can make us agree to things that our sane, rational minds would have us run away from. But, in that moment, that moment of someone saying to you, "we want you," you can forget to look at the situation and, instead, just say "yes! yes! yes!"

I've kind of lost track of the number of authors I've seen that have signed with some small publisher that said "we want you" but, then, left them to do all the work (editing, cover, marketing) only to keep a large part of any money that was made. And all of that with no advance. But the validation has been so important that many of them don't care. Or they do end up caring and regret the decision to go with the small publisher. It's a hard thing to deal with. And many small publishers count on that. Some of them even demand money from you.

But, then, most of us are at least somewhat aware of vanity presses and know to stay away from them, right? Right? Well, let's just be safe: if any publisher ever asks you for money to publish your book, don't just say "no;" run away as fast as you can, too.

Which brings us to the whole "to-do."

Just recently, Random House has established some new digital-only imprints. These imprints have been designed to take advantage of the new digital era but, from all appearances, at the expense of the author. The imprints seem to be specifically targeting new authors and pre-published authors. Authors who don't know their way around the publishing world. See, the big publishers almost never take unsolicited manuscripts; that means you have to have an agent if you want to get published by someone like Random House. But these new imprints? No agent needed. Anyone can submit to them.

And that one thing is going to be a huge draw for unpublished authors -- the chance to be published by one of the "big 6" without the need of an agent.
And Random House is set up to accept as many takers as possible, because, why?, it's digital only, remember?

You know that saying about when something is too good to be true...?
Yes, there is a catch... actually, there are a lot of them. All of them designed to squeeze the unsuspecting author like a grape.

1. No advance.
2. They charge back to the author all of the production costs. No, you don't have to pay anything up front, but all of the costs of editing, cover design, marketing; it all comes out of the pocket of the author.
3. They get to own your soul. Seriously. They own all rights to your work in every possible format in place you can think of. Well, at least, any place on Earth. They own all licensing options. AND they own the crack at any sequel you may ever write.
4. If your book is successful enough that they decide they want to do a print version of it, you get charged for all of that, too.

The whole thing is horrendous. If you really want to know the whole story, I suggest you read the following posts by John Scalzi, who also happens to be the president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America:
1. Hydra
2. Alibi
3. The direction?
4. The Letter
5. The Response
6. Why advance are important
7. You have more power than you think

Look, I understand that it can seem a small thing to take terms that don't include an advance or any of these other things when you're trying to get in the door. After all, you're already not making anything, right? What can it hurt, and, at least, this way you have a chance. Right? And with a big publisher, too! But don't let your desperation lead you down the path of foolishness. Don't feed the big parasitic organism that's seeking to drain you of all of your creativity. In the end, it's just not worth it, no matter how "necessary" it may seem at the time. Desperation... it's a dangerous thing.

I strongly suggest that you go read those posts by Scalzi. Yeah, that's a lot of reading, but you'll be glad you did.

Random House, due to the huge outcry against the terms they were offering through these new imprints, has responded by amending  the terms they're offering in their contracts. What they're offering is still not great, but it's better than it was. You can read about the changes here and Scalzi's thoughts on them here. Again, this is strongly suggested reading.

This post has been brought to you by Indie Life.


  1. The same thing happens in the music industry. Young people sell the rights to their songs and wind up broke, while the suits wind up rich.

    Never work to make a rich man richer.

  2. That's a raw deal. Especially when there are plenty of good small publishers out there who don't do any of that.

  3. Similar thing happened to a friend of mine and her book didn't do well with them anyway, it was a small publisher. She has been on Facebook telling everyone not to use them. She has since done well with an electronic version of her book.

    Publication is vindication, right?


  4. I'm glad you put the update on there. Here's an inside scoop on how it went down: http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2013/03/random-house-announces-new-terms-at.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+AtLastWriterBewareBlogsAcCrispinAndVictoriaStraussRevealAll+%28Writer+Beware+Blogs!%29

  5. This is a topic that comes up a lot in my writers group. They mostly think I'm crazy for wanting to pursue the indie route.

  6. Great post! I've been following this contract mess as well and it's making me feel all kinds of squicky about the trad pubs trying to pull this stuff.

    I argued about it with my dad last night, since he was saying that the profit sharing of cutting profits after costs sounds pretty standard and I was saying that it's still taking advantage of new writers. We decided on two conclusions:

    1. Most of this comes down to: Do you trust the publishing house's accountants to give you your fair cut? Because accountants can play all sorts of games to make "net profit" disappear.

    2. Is your book worth anything anyway? Because if it isn't any good and nobody wants it, then it doesn't really matter that you signed your rights away.

    Anyway, I'm still thinking about publishing with some small presses just because I don't have enough money to self publish everything I would like to.

  7. It's a human characteristic, and not necessarily a bad one, to need validation from others. We are social creatures. But you have to use your reason. There are good places to seek validation from and there are bad places.

    Publishers are a bad source of validation because what you think they're giving you isn't really what they're giving you. You think a publisher's acceptance means that your work must be quality. In fact it only mean that the publisher thinks it has a good chance to be salable. That's all a publisher is really concerned with, saleability. And saleability does not equate to quality.

    For authors, a much better place to seek validation is from readers. After all, the entire purpose of being an author is to share our words with readers. So positive feedback from readers is a good kind of validation. If readers like what we do, that truly means we've succeeded. We just have to keep in mind that the greatest writer in the entire world could never please ALL readers. We're too diverse a species for that. You don't need all readers to like your work to feel validated.

  8. Excellent post. The more I keep looking for self publish information, the more I end up finding the best links here. :)

  9. I read the Scalzi post and another one by James Scott Bell as well. Really dastardly stuff. I feel so bad for anyone who is desperate enough to be published to want to sign one of those contracts. Writer beware.

  10. Anne: Yeah, I know. I'm so glad U2 retained their rights when they signed on with Island. It was kind of a fluke, but it was a good call.

    Alex: That's true, but there are a lot that do exactly this stuff, which is where Random House got the idea, I'm sure.

    JKIR,F!: It is.

    Jo: I suppose it can be.

    PT: Yeah, that link is enclosed in one of the above links. Overall, it's some fascinating reading, especially Random House's initial defense over what they were doing.

    M.J.: Traditional publishing is in such an awkward place right now; it would take an awful lot for me to go that route.

    Jennifer: I don't trust the publishers or the agents, not with all the agent fraud cases in the last many years.
    Self publishing doesn't have to cost much. You just have to be careful and not overpay for anything.

    Sarah: I agree with that, but so many pre-published authors are still stuck in that mind set of not being a "real writer" unless a publisher takes them. It's a hard thing to break away from.

    David: Well, that's cool. Especially since I don't really do a lot of that. I'm glad you've found some useful stuff!

    L.G.: But so many people are that desperate. Scalzi had all kinds of people saying things about how he shouldn't be talking because he was already a big published author and didn't know what it was like yadda yadda yadda.

  11. Digital craziness!! I'm sure you'll advance me money right andrew??? No?

  12. Digital craziness!! I'm sure you'll advance me money right andrew??? No?

  13. Sounds like a pretty bad deal for someone trying to get published.

  14. I wouldn't have thought Random House would stoop to the depth of what amounts to vanity publishing. Naive? Thanks for the eye-opening post!

  15. Tammy: I get to own you for the life of your copyright, right?

    TGE: It is. And it's still being offered, but, at least, now, the author can choose not to take that deal.

    Nick: I think a lot of people were surprised by it, which is why it caused such an uproar. People expect small presses to offer these kinds of deals, but they don't expect it from "reputable" publishers.

  16. I followed the stories pretty closely too. I was happy to see Random House capitulate to the pressure. It was pretty underhanded, and I loved the Scalzi opinion that the author should be paid first... then everyone else. They are the content generators after all.

    And I'm all about validation. But I tend to think people who praise me are lying because they don't want to hurt my feelings and people that criticize me are just trying to squash my dreams... I know logically that probably isn't true... that's just how I tend to feel.

  17. Yes, some of these "author services" are frightening. I'd advise anyone considering publishing to do your research online -- visiting blogs like this one, not companies trying to sell you things -- and also talk to a few other authors before you pay anyone for anything (except a cover artist, and maybe someone to format).

  18. Interesting news, thanks for sharing. With the new ways of going indie, I really don't see why anyone would go with a vanity press these days.

  19. So in reading those terms, I don't see anything that's better than just going through Amazon for free. You still do it yourself, but you retain your rights and it's oh yeah, free.

    When we were going to be signed with Random House, they wanted to do something similar-ish, in that they wanted our book to be a serialized ebook that was released one chapter a month. But then they scrapped it because ebooks were still too "uncertain." So it's kinda funny to see them pull this now.

  20. Nothing is all good or all bad.

    There's been some kerfuffle over this and also over the issue of whether writers should write for free - -even high-end, big name writers.

    EL James (is that her name?) went with Random House even though she was already making tons of money off "50 Shades" and I think that maybe that wasn't a bad thing for her, because Random House could give an indie porn book some legitimacy and get better press coverage, etc., plus get Ryan Gosling or someone in the movie role.

    So even though she'd have made lots of money anyway, Random House's imprimatur made her legit, which is a factor to consider in determining whether you want to go with a publisher.

    There was an article I skimmed the other day on Slate about whether The Beatles got screwed by their first major record deal, and by many standards, they did, except that they did so much better than other bands of that era that it's hard to argue that the deal was a terrible one, relatively speaking.

    So even if the current e-printing claim is that an author would epublish a book and give up all rights forever and pay the costs, it's not that that is necessarily a bad thing. Authors have to start somewhere, and having Random House or someone run the sales of your book might be helpful if it means that Random House will take you more seriously on the next one or the next one or the next one.

    As for the payment of production costs, while I'm no expert, I have it in mind that an advance is an advance against sales and that the sales' royalties to authors are always net, not gross, so the author is always sharing the cost of publishing. That is, if Big Publishing gives you a $100,000 advance, you don't get any more money until your book clears $100,000 in profits -- net profits, not gross, typically. The risk the publisher takes is that you won't even make that money back, so they're out the $100k if your book tanks.

    That's why small advances show a problem: first, it's an indication that the publisher doesn't think the book will sell, but second, it takes away the incentive for the publisher to give your book a push. If Big Publishing gives me $1,000,000 up front and you $10,000 up front, whose book will they make sure is in the front of Barnes & Noble?

    The question, as always, revolves around what your goals are. Are your goals to make money? See your book in "real" print? Have the legitimacy conferred by a Big Publisher? Depending on what you're in it for, this could be a great deal or it could be a terrible deal.

    As for me, I'm not too worried about Big Publishing. I don't submit to them, although I have considered submitting stories to "The New Yorker" because I'd like them to publish one of my stories. If I got struck by lighting and one of my books took off and Big Publishing came calling, a la "50 Shades," I'd probably consider it, though. For me, it's just too much trouble to be submitting chapters and writing query letters and looking up publishers and agents.

    Anyway, a larger point is that most writers, even ones with big publishers, don't make any money. $40,000 a year seems to be about the average, and even then the writer generally needs academia to make ends meet.

  21. Sorry that comment got disjointed. I was reading your post and commenting during my lunch and got interrupted, by my count, THIRTEEN TIMES in the course of writing my comment.

    The point was, this deal seems like it might not be bad, even


    anyway, where was I?

    Might not be bad, even in the first iteration, if it helps lead to publishing on a more regular/lucrative basis.

  22. Rusty: Yeah, the author getting paid first ought to be a given, but, somewhere in there, the author became the employee and just gets paid that way. The idea that the author works for the publisher or the agent or, well, anyone else, is just wrong.

    J.R.: I don't think an author should ever be paying money to any publisher. If an author is paying someone to do a cover, that should be a transaction between the author and the artist, not the author and his publisher, because, then, the artist isn't getting all of that money, either.

    Sean: I'm pretty sure vanity presses, at this point, are all about validation.

    ABftS: No, there's nothing better other than the vague promise of some marketing, that you have to pay for.

    Briane: I don't have time for a long response, right now, but:
    1. Going with a traditional publisher isn't always a bad thing.
    2. But the terms Random House was offering were designed to take advantage of people that don't know enough to say "this bit here isn't okay with me." (Like them owning your work for the life of the copyright.)
    3. And, I have to say, like Scalzi, I agree that no agreement where the author is getting paid last for the content that the author generated is acceptable. The author should always be getting paid first unless the author has some reason to choose otherwise. A better reason than getting in the door, I think. I'm sure not all authors agree with that.

    I would almost agree with your last statement if it was for the fact that, once the deal is taken, they own you until they decide that they don't want you anymore. Even your sequels belong to them.

  23. Wow, interesting post. I know nothing about publishing, so I could see myself falling for something like this..what do you think of things like Kobo ebooks? Seems to me that they'll publish just about anything, but is that, in your opinion, a legitimate way to get started? You're right that we do need validation from someone outside of family and friends. I don't think that's a bad thing. I think most everyone who dabbles in any of the arts would like to know how their creations are perceived by others. I always learn something when I visit your blog!

  24. Eve: I don't really know anything about Kobo, but, from a quick glance, it seems to me to just be a "generic" version of the Kindle. I'm all for the Kindle and what Amazon has done with allowing authors to get their stuff out there. The only issue I can see with Kobo is that, if they are proprietary, it would severely limit your audience. I'll have to look at them more later.