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Fantasy publishers with generous IP policies?

Almyrigan Hero

After much thought, debate of varying emotional pitch and rationality with family members, and banging my head on the desk instead of actually writing, I'm beginning to question whether self-publishing is really for me. At the same time, though, I'm also prepared to stay in it for the long haul, developing a long-running mythos that tackles themes and ideas of my own choosing; and thus, am still ultimately concerned with keeping a grip on the intellectual property itself. So, to all trad/semi-trad/indie-but-not-exactly-self-published authors out there, I pose this question: what's a good pick?

What I'm looking for is essentially just a house that's in the business of doing business, and won't do a load of tampering while my back is turned. I'm fine with the concept of individual books being exclusive (assuming they actually manage to sell them at least,) but am less so down with the notion of being sued for referencing my own characters and settings without written permission.

Are there any places I can go for this kind of service, or is having to do your own marketing simply the inevitable price of possessiveness?


I'm kind of wondering what impression you have about trade publishing right now....because what you're saying doesn't sound like it reflects reality.

A trade publisher is a company that buys your story and publishes it, which includes getting it in the hands of folx like Barnes and Noble and local brick and mortar stores, as well digital storefronts like Amazon, Kobo etc, as well as libraries. Because a publisher is a business, they have a level of quality attached to it, which is why they have professionals design the cover and edit the content within. They don't want to spend a ton of money fixing your story into something that is sellable, which is why it's important that you do as much editing as you can before submitting. It also means that, even if your story is brilliant, if there's no market demand for it, then it's very risky to invest in the story, so they may not buy it. Trade publishers also pay you an advance, which is essentially a loan; the "repayment" is the royalties. If enough copies sell to pay back your advance, then you get additional royalties sent to you, usually quarterly.

When I say a publisher "buys" your story, what they're buying is the rights to publish your story in X format in Y territories. International and audiobook rights, for example, might be nowhere in the contract. It does mean that you can then sell those rights to other publishers or companies if you (or your agent) so choose, but I you perform well enough, then the publisher might choose to go after those, too. This is also where you hear the "and also the film rights were bought" comes in; it just means that a company called dibs for X years and paid you for that. But you, the author, ultimately still own that story. If you want to write a short story and publish it in a magazine using the same characters or world, you're totally allowed to do that. But the contract you sign generally has some sort of clause stating that the publisher gets first dibs at looking at whatever next book you write....this is why you want an agent, because they will make sure it says "next fantasy book," because if your next book happens to be a cookbook, then TOR probably doesn't care about that. Very, VERY few properties get to the point where they are IP where the publisher is making stuff without any sort of regard as to what the author says....like that didn't even happen with Twilight. Unless you count Team Edward/Team Jacob shirts at Hot Topic (which you shouldn't because that's based on the movie, which the studio paid Meyer a buttload of money for to do this).

Nothing is going to be changed "behind your back" in your story. You are given copies of revised manuscripts to see what their in-house editors do. You can argue against changes, and they may listen to you, but you probably won't be able to keep Kobe Bryant as the villain in your story because the lawyers say you can't do that. And they know much more about this than you, and your story is an investment and a risk, and you really don't need to use Kobe Bryant. If you don't like the changes (or you're too much of a pain in the ass to work with), they can end your contract and you're free to go be a pain in the ass with another publisher if you so choose.

The things you're mentioning can ONLY happen if you go to a scuzzy, immoral publisher, which is none of the large trade publishers. These things can only happen if you do not have an agent who looks out for you and knows to look out for these things. You cannot get published with a large trade publisher without an agent, and all the scuzzy, immoral agents do not have contacts with the large trade publishers. So...just get an agent. All your problems are solved.


Myth Weaver
There are some potential traps out there with contracts, but the argument of Trad vs Indie is not so much about not getting screwed by the publisher. Or as Clinton might say, that depends on how you define screwed. One rather successful indie-trad-hybrid, who used to be on these forums, kind of thought of selling his audio rights as “getting screwed”. With his first contract, he calculated how much he lost by selling audio rights and about had a coronary. He wanted to sign a book deal for distribution, but wanted to keep the audio rights to himself. This was a big money issue, 6 figure sort of thing, maybe 7, my memory is fuzzy… I’m going to say it was Orbit (Hachette Imprint) but I could be totally wrong. The publisher, on the other hand, simply did not want to go that way… they wanted the massive profits from audio too. SHOCKING! I never heard what he decided, but at the time he was considering releasing the series indie for the express purpose of retaining audio rights, figuring that would more than cover the benefits of Trad distribution. I’m pretty sure this was a 7 figure deal for a new series.

But as stated above, the publisher doesn’t own any more than you sell them, and you are selling them the story. Right of First Refusal is also referred to, this is where in the contract it stats that the company gets X# of days to decide whether to buy your book before you can shop it to other pubs. Now, there is a potential trap here, but I am failing to remember the details. The technical language of one “standard clause” makes it sound very reasonable for a pub to keep refusing a MS over and over, effectively keeping an author from being able to ever publish the book (and maybe any other book? my memory is weak here) but they will tell you that is never done and if it was done the author would be able to sue the company and win. Which begs the question of why that clause is there then? And of course, suing a major company would be a money pit, so… But, from what I understand, if this clause is caught, it can be negotiated out.

Of course, one of the most famous rights that WASN’T sold was George Lucas as the rights to toys based on Star Wars, LOL. A writer I knew back in the 80’s wrote a Star Trek novel and DID sell the movie rights, which paid pretty well, but that was a calculation that it wouldn’t ever happen. Back in the day, it was much safer to sell movie rights to the pub, but these days, I wouldn’t sell movie rights to the pub unless they were paying big money. Too many producers out there to give up those rights on the cheap.


toujours gai, archie
The haul is going to be long no matter which road you take. In fact, for all but the tiniest handful, the haul is unending. Here's my own experience, but be sure to listen to stories from at least twenty other folks (who have published).

I wrote a book. I wrote a short story or two and those got published in online mags (no pay). In the later stages, I started looking seriously at what I needed to do to get published (both trad and indie). In both I had to find a cover artist, an editor, and I needed some sort of online presence (website). A trad publisher can provide those; for indie I had to find them myself. That's a non-trivial investment of time. I had to research artists, editors, and website designers (or diy tools). And I had to invest the time it took to educate myself in each of those areas. Many, many hours, at the end of which I had impressions but no unambiguous answers.

There's one additional step for trad: I had to find an agent. Very few, nearly zero, traditional publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts, which is another way of saying you need an agent. So you know all those hours invested in artists and editor? Add another chunk for finding agents. That chunk is even bigger because you have to learn to write a query letter (*shudder*).

While there have been the occasional writer who wrote a novel, found an agent right out of the gate, who in turn found a publisher, that isn't typical. More typical is to spend *years* (during which time you write still more novels). And even if you get a publisher, it might be another two years before your book is on any shelves (write another novel). And most publishers will still expect you to do some marketing, but let's call it done here.

I chose the indie route simply because of my age. I was 66 when I published my first book. I have a lot of stories to tell and I simply could not wait years to get found by a publisher. True, my works get almost no notice, but that's true for many an author traditionally published as well.

I do think that if I had been much younger, say in my 40s, I would have made a stronger run at trad publishing. Not because I hold it in higher regard, but because the long-run winner, imo, is to do both. Some authors have had success with publishing indie first, then getting picked up by a traditional publisher (Hugh Howey, famously, but Josiah Bancroft and others). If Orbit or Tor or the like should come knocking tomorrow, I wouldn't turn them away!

Short version of the above: I know of no clear answer. Choose one and go for it, and keep your options open. Some damn fool keeps changing the rules of the game.

Mad Swede

OK, now I'll add my thoughts. All the comments above apply to the English language market. It doesn't always work like that elsewhere. Here in Sweden you don't need an agent, in fact your publisher will usually act as this for you when selling the overseas and film rights to your book. But you do need to write in Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian or Danish.

The key to getting picked up by a publisher, irrespective of whether you go via an agent or direct, is to make sure you have a good draft story. That doesn't mean edited, it means having a good concept and good characterisation which develop through the book. It means good pacing, and good structure. All the basics of good writing. Even here in Sweden it helps if you've had short stories published in the "professional" mags (F&SF, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons etc), because that shows you can develop a concept, a plot, pacing and characterisation in a disciplined manner. If a trad publisher picks you up they'll do the editing, the cover and the marketing - thats what they take their cut for.

Self-publication means you do all the editing, cover design, marketing etc by yourself. And you're up against a perception (often unfair, but not always) that only those who aren't good enough to get picked up by a trad publisher choose to self-publish. It is a lot of work, and very few authors earn enough to write full time in this way.

No matter which route you pick, you as the author always retain the copyright to your own work, including the setting, the characters etc. What you sell are the publishing rights, and these are usually limited in time and in geographical area.


Myth Weaver
Hmm, well, a final edit isn’t necessary, but if you send off an MS in the US (to a major publishing house) it better be pretty damned clean. We’re at the point that the industry is so flooded that they want to put as little work as possible into a book. This is going to vary from agent to agent, but from what I’ve seen from a lot of people who think they have agent ready material… they should hire at least a cheap proofreader. And a “final” edit from a quality editor is going to help. It’s a tough market, a person wants as strong of a first impression as possible.

Mad Swede

Hmm, well, a final edit isn’t necessary, but if you send off an MS in the US (to a major publishing house) it better be pretty damned clean. We’re at the point that the industry is so flooded that they want to put as little work as possible into a book. This is going to vary from agent to agent, but from what I’ve seen from a lot of people who think they have agent ready material… they should hire at least a cheap proofreader. And a “final” edit from a quality editor is going to help. It’s a tough market, a person wants as strong of a first impression as possible.
That was what I meant, even if I didn't express it very well.

There are two kinds of editing, copy editing and developmental editing. Copy editing is mostly about correcting grammar and making minor text changes to improve readability. Developmental editing is about getting the structure, continuity and pacing right, without changing your style of writing.

When you send your manuscript in it shouldn't need a major developmental edit, in fact all it should need is a check for continuity, readability and grammar (I write that as a severely dyslexic author). If you can't get your characteristation, readability, structure and pacing right without help then you're not ready to publish. This is what I mean by the basics of good writing. Some people are born with the ability to write well, but for most it has to be taught - and then you have to practice as well.

Which is where short stories come in. They require real discipline as an author, because you have only a limited number of words in which to develop the story and character arcs, all without losing readability, structure and pace. If you can get it right in a short story you'll be able to do it at novel length.