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Is Traditional Publishing an Increasingly Bad Deal?

Discussion in 'Publishing' started by Steerpike, Jul 16, 2014.

  1. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    As part of the business model, an advance going to an established sure thing almost doesn't count. If it's not a risk, then it's outside of the VC model. It's almost like a side business. Publishers invest in a lot of books so that the winners can fund the losers. They don't make much if any of a profit on most books. They see most of their books as a package deal, and the sure thing by a celebrity or established self-publisher isn't part of that package.

    If you isolate books that are part of the VC model, advances have gone down. The only reason I can see for that is that the sales potential of any given new author has declined. That is, it's harder for a new author to gain traction than it used to be, even after they're traditionally published. Self-publishing has let a lot of new authors into the market. It's helped a lot of new authors to succeed. But it's also made it harder for a good book to gain traction by drowning them out with slush. It's a flaw in the model that needs to be resolved.
     
  2. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I've decided not to argue with you anymore. (I know what will happen if I keep it up, so I'm going to exercise some restraint.) But I would like to address this. There was no intended sarcasm or mockery in my statements. Just honesty. Reading your post, these are my honest impressions of what you have to say. I am not attacking anyone here and I am not treating anyone unfairly. I view the way the traditional industry treats its authors and the reading public as a serious injustice. So yes, I am passionate about this issue and angry at the industry for what they get away with, as we all should be when we perceive injustice. You can argue with me about whether or not there is truly injustice and exploitation going on. But since I do perceive injustice and exploitation, I don't think my response is unwarranted.

    Also, for the record since you seem confused about it, I disagree with you that the self publishing industry is deeply flawed. Certainly not more than any industry is flawed at any given point in time. Nothing is perfect. But from where I'm sitting the self publishing industry is growing and thriving and is helping thousands of authors to stand on their feet as authors and business people. And it's only going to get better from here on. That's what I see.

    But I won't argue further since I do tend to get a bit heated in these discussions. I can't help it. It's because I care about the issue so much. *shrug*
     
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  3. PaulineMRoss

    PaulineMRoss Inkling

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    The typical boiler-plate contract covers all rights everywhere, for up to 70 years after the author's death unless the book goes out of print, which with ebooks is never. A typical advance these days is around $5,000. I would call that piddling, considering the amount of work that goes into a book. Most authors don't earn out, so the advance is all they get. Good luck with getting any changes made to the non-compete clause (ask Michael J Sullivan about that).

    Well, the trickle comment was applied to me. I don't expect to make more than a trickle of money from self-publishing, at least not for several years. But there will be *some* money, and it's a 70% royalty, and for those who can do the editing, cover art, etc themselves, it's clear profit. I'll be spending around $2,000 to get my first book out there, which I don't expect to earn back in the foreseeable future, but I wanted to do this properly ie professionally.

    It's not quite as desperate as that, but the vast majority of writers don't earn a living wage from their efforts, however they publish. As I said, there are advantages and disadvantages with both methods.

    I'd say it's more luck than quality, but you probably need both.
     
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I'm sorry if I overreacted, Mythopoet. Looking outside this conversation, as a whole I've been more than a little positive towards self-publishing as an option for people to pursue. So I found your characterization to be off-putting. But I should have found a better way to address that.


    We've talked about this in the past. Certainly the traditional publishing industry has its flaws, and it's difficult as outsiders to gauge just how prominent those flaws are. The difference here isn't about the existence of the tumor but its size.

    But I think the tumor, to keep the metaphor, is really big with self-publishing as an industry. There's a lot of "little-people" being encouraged to invest a big portion of their time, money and reputation into making and selling a book, only to find out after the investment that there efforts fail, and many times for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their book. At least with traditional publishing, there's some effort to shut it down before they spend a lot of money on editing, cover art, and web design.

    Self-Publishing today is far and away the best option for many people. But I believe you have to keep talking about the challenges - and the hard work involved in solving them - in realistic views in order to help keep things in perspective.


    Passion is a good thing. And I'm certainly no stranger to getting carried away with it. The last thing I would want is to shove anyone out of the conversation, especially when there are still good points to be made all around. Take a moment if you want to, but please don't be afraid to post - I promise I won't bite again.
     
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  5. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

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    Authors I know and communicate with, (via emails and having spoken with them at conventions and conferences and served on panels with them) who earn a living on their writing, don't accept the boilerplate contract terms as handed to them. They tend to have agents. They do not give up all rights for 70 years beyond death, for their works. What defines out of print is negotiated, which takes into account, ebooks. Or they get paid for those rights being granted to the publisher. It depends on what you term or how you define 'no compete' and how it is altered. I guess you could sign a contract that says that any other work you write starting from the time you sign the contract would be considered competing if published elsewhere or self-published, or it could be any fantasy work for two years upon signing the contract or publication, or it could be any works in the same world setting or with the same characters.

    Individually, none of my works published have yet earned $5000, but I am with a small publisher. I am a small common guppy in a very large fish tank with many bigger, fancier fish swimming about. With a larger publisher, earning out past the advance (if it isn't large) and then earning royalties is reasonable, so the $5000 isn't necessarily all that would be earned by the author. Yes, if you wrote a novel and gave up all rights for 70 years past your death and that was all you earned, that could be considered piddling.

    I say 'could be' because I don't see how you're saying getting a $5000 advance is piddling, if you intend to spend $2000 and don't expect to earn that back. That's far worse than earning $5000. However, how you define foreseeable future could mean eventually you might earn $2000 to break even and then reach $7000 to break even with a traditionally published author's advance (although I hope you earn back the investment and more in short order).

    Authors I know do say that negotiating ebooks and clauses that try to encompass possible future electronic versions is difficult and the big publishers are anchored in some areas pretty steadily on ebooks, especially royalty rates. And they say that the past 5 to 7 years have really put a pinch on midlist authors, many who sell steadily and earn out their advances and have a respectable audience (but not on a steep upward trajectory) have had trouble getting equivalent contracts (to previous ones they signed)--and some even struggle getting contracts. Some of those have self-pubbed, or gone hybrid, or tried other publishers once the right of first refusal or whatever the language in the contract read, or began writing under a pen name, or just accepted less attractive contracts, or any combination.

    Is that pretty? No. But there are authors that are making it in traditional publishing, just as there are authors who are making it self-publishing, and just as there are those that are taking both routes. Just as there are authors that can't break into traditional publishing and there are authors who self-publish and never sell more than a handful of copies of their novels.
     
  6. PaulineMRoss

    PaulineMRoss Inkling

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    I'm very pleased and relieved to hear it. Most contracted authors don't talk about these things at all, so all that gets out is the small number of total horror stories and a lot of guesswork. It's good to know that some authors are able to propose changes to the standard contracts without the publisher simply saying, 'Next!' But I have heard many well-documented sources say that they had great difficulty getting changes made. Michael J Sullivan has catalogued some of his experiences in detail, and he's a very successful author, but he had to compromise. Hugh Howey got what he wanted, but it took several attempts.

    You're right, compared to an author with a $5,000 advance, I'm $7,000 down. For me, personally, I'm $2,000 dollars out of pocket, but then I'm not trying to make a living out of this. To me, it's a hobby, but one I want to do to the best of my ability. If I were to take up golf, say, I'd be happy to pay out for clubs and lessons and a golf club membership, for the satisfaction of it. Publishing is the same, right now. I do it for fun, but I want the result to look as good as anything else out there.

    Besides, nobody makes money out of one book. The results come (if they come at all) after 3 or 4 or 10 books. After I publish the first book in September, I have a second that will be ready to go a few months later, and I'm just finishing the first draft of a third. Once that's out - then I might start looking for a return on expenditure (which will be $6,000 by then).

    Or I might take up golf. ;-)

    Absolutely right. But to my mind there is nothing sadder than an author with books languishing in the bottom drawer because they're waiting for their big break with a trad publisher. At least the self-pubbed author has books out there, even if they only sell a handful of copies. Books should be read, not left to gather dust.
     
  7. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    While it is true that most author's don't earn a living wage, I don't think it is unreasonable to expect fair payment for a service that makes publishers and booksellers millions. It is this type of mindset that perpetuates the "starving artist" mindset. Let's look at just my audio sales to date. It has produced $1,200,000 in income and my take was $48,450. Is that fair? My narrator (who does an exceptional job, got paid even less. The people who got the lions share didn't do more than us two, yet we get relative crumbs.

    A lot more than you think. On my highest self-publishing days I was earning $45,000- $55,000 a month and I was on the low side of the "high sellers. H.P. Mallory, David Dalglish, Will Wright, and many more were selling well more than I was.

    You are 100% right. I don't write for the money...but I make a ton of money for others and it's not unreasonable to expect a decent cut.

    They are down, because publisher's are trying to get the most they can for the least amount they can. I earned out a six-figure advance in less than one year for my first series and when I submitted mys second series the offer that came in was much less, and quite frankly an insult. The publisher stated, the reason is because advances across the board are about 50% of what they were when we negotiated last time...which may be true, but MY books were selling well so there was no reason to offer me a pittance...they were doing it because they thought they could get away with it. Needless to say I didn't accept their offer, and they ended up paying more than they had to if they came back with a reasonable offer to begin with. But this mindset of authors have to keep taking pennies is part of what is holding down author's income...imho.
     
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  8. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    It's really hard to say...assuming only ebook sales, no foreign translations or heavy audio sales, I think you will do better as a self-published (less copies but higher revenue). I thought I would lose money when signing with Orbit, it turned out that I made more but a lot of that has to do with really strong foreign language sales and audio income.
     
  9. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    Excellent point! And one that I think a lot of people forget about...as if any author has the choice of either route. The real question then becomes IF you are writing work that COULD be picked up by a traditional publisher...which way would be best? In such a situation then you have to consider whether you want more control or a team working for you. Are you content with a small piece of the pie or do you want more. Can you put out a book that is every bit as good as the traditional companies. I'm hybrid so I CAN do both...but when I put out a book on my own I make sure it stands toe-to-toe with the books I release through traditional. I expect a bigger return...but I also have to do a lot myself, or hire and pay others to do it for me.
     
  10. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

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    You are correct. Most contracted authors don’t openly discuss their contracts, advances, earnings, how they did well and how they didn’t do so well with contracts. There are a number of reasons why, and that’s why I didn’t list the names of the several authors I communicate with and what they specifically said. All write fiction but only one writes in the fantasy genre.

    Michael Sullivan is far more open, which is beneficial for writers and authors early in their career. From what he has said, his works sell better (he earns more) than the authors I talk to. For example, the last two book contract discussed with me was for an advance in the very low six figures. And the contract negotiations were drawn out, with the author not getting everything desired, and the contract ended up being slightly less advantageous than the previous one. In any case, Mr. Sullivan is definitely someone to pay attention to based on his experiences and candor.

    Off topic, I will say that two of the authors I communicate with I met on a now defunct writing forum much like Mythic Scribes—but more general and not genre focused like Mythic Scribes. So some of the folks members cross paths with here may very well be those that are making a living in the publishing business some years down the road.

    While I am not one that views the ‘at least it’s out there’ process as necessarily a good thing, I see your point, and it’s just a matter of individual perspective.
     
  11. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    I do think self is "faring better." There are many reasons for this, but the fact that they can control price and do promotions is a big part of this. The market has always been flooded with books, this hasn't changed. And despite it being hard for authors to "stand out" new ones are discovered everyday.
     
  12. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    Hear, hear! Excellently stated.
     
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  13. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    I couldn't agree more. The most under-reported story in publishing is just how many self-published authors are earning -- and earning well. The problem is the press, and the surveys are constantly comparing apples to oranges. For traditional published authors they are counting just those that are signed, whereas for self they are counting both the professional and the hacks who are producing sub-standard work. If we want to compare apples to apples then the traditional pool should include all the unsuccessful authors who query but are never picked up. If looked at this way - the two groups are remarkably similar. Both have a very small % of getting any traction and the largest segment of the group are producing pieces that are not of a quality to get any substantial sales.
     
  14. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    On this one, I'm going to have to disagree with you. Look at it this way. Some people don't have an entrepreneur spirit.
    If given the choice they would prefer to "work for the man" than "strike out on their own." Both are personal decisions and I respect people to make the choice that best fits them. Now, that being the case...are the ones who stay traditional going to be at a disadvantage...I do think so. They are more vulnerable to the abuses of traditional publishing...but it's the cards they were dealt and for them it's either play or go home. The ones that CAN do either are in the best position...but that is a very small segment of the market. First you have to be able to be picked up (no easy feat) and secondly, you have to be able to produce a book just as good as New York on your own (with freelancer support obviously) also not an easy thing to do.
     
  15. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    Very true...which is why the publishers have the upper hand...and why authors are treated so poorly. In my case I was able to battle back against some of the most egregious contract terms, because I was earning well in self-publishing and could always stay there. Most don't have this. But even someone like me, with some leverage, doesn't come out on top.
     
  16. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    Well all rights that matter. My agent and I tried to hold back audio rights on both of my contracts and we were not able to. I've now gone the route of selling the audio rights first...which just might mean that my publisher won't sign the print/ebook rights. It's something I'm willing to risk as I'm just losing too much money on audio under the current model. And rights with the big-five are for the life of copyright so that's until you die + 70 years at which point the work is in the public domain so yes it is your rights "forever." Of course you can get your rights back if the book is a huge failure...but the thresholds being used to calculate "out of print" are ridiculously low. I don't consider $9 and change a living weekly wage, but that's all my books have to earn to prevent rights reversions.
     
  17. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    You are both right and wrong. Right in that we don't sign the boilerplate...and we have agents that negotiate...but wrong if you think one the points of negotiation is life-of-copyright or anything but a ridiculously low determination for out-of-print. My agent was negotiating a seven-figure deal (not mine someone else's) and they were trying to get the out-of-print threshold raised. It went from $500 a year to $750 a year, and anything beyond that the publisher said they would walk. Whether they would or not who knows but most won't walk from seven figures over that aspect.

    Noncompete is a different matter. When I saw my non-compete I thought it was a joke. I immediately told my agent there was no way I would sign. She said, you have to, they are industry standard and won't change, even Stephen King signs them. My response was I don't care what King does, this is a career killer an I won't under any circumstances sign it. She hired an IP attorney that read me dozens of contracts from all the big houses (some whose non-competes were worse than mine...but none of them better). He concurred they were what they were and you just have to accept them. I then turned to some published acquaintences and asked them about their non-competes. At firs they said, "I don't have one." I asked them to read xx paragraph...and they went ...oh wow...look at that. I didn't even know that was there...why didn't my agent tell me.

    Bottom line. It took me six months and a very real threat (that was made public) that I would walk from my six-figure deal to get my non-compete changed. It wasn't removed...but it was defanged to the point I could sign. I had this power due to high self-publishing sales...but I know dozens of authors who signed bad non-competes because they couldn't negotiate them out.

    Now keep in mind I'm speaking about big-five here. There are better contact terms with smaller presses but the chances of earning any "serious" money with small press is VERY unlikely.
     
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  18. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    $5,000 - $10,000 is the average rate for a debut author - lots of data supports this including Tobias Buckell's author survey, agent blogs, and articles form sources like the New York times. But what is also reported is that only 20% of books ever earn out their advances. So yes the advance is what MOST can expect to earn...although granted, easier than when it is lower. I have access to Bookscan which gives me pretty reliable sales data (for print books) and I can tell you there are many that sell only a few hundred or a few thousand copies even though they were released from "big houses." And as I already mentioned all big-five contracts are life-of-copyright. I know of only one exception to this and it was done by S&S to acquire Wool - which was done on (I think) 7 - year contract but it was also print-only so an EXTREME outlier.
     
  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I've only negotiated contracts with small publishers, and they're much easier to work with than what it sounds like you've experienced, Michael (of course, they're not offering anything remotely like the money your publishers offer). I've been able to get non-competes taken out entirely (non-compete clauses are presumptively invalid in California, though that doesn't do you much good in publishing since there are other jurisdictions that would likely enforce them).

    I wonder whether the negotiating power of the big publishing houses is going to decrease over time, if indie publishing continues to rise, or whether traditional publishing will end up being even harder to crack, where you're only going to have authors who have proven they can sell a lot of books being pursued by the largest publishers.
     
  20. MichaelSullivan

    MichaelSullivan Maester

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    Don't get too relieved. I suspect the authors he is referring to might be from small presses. I can assure you the big-five ALL require life-of-copyright. Yes I've gotten "some things" negotiated but no one (except Hugh and those at the .0001% of the sales) are getting changes to the big-ticket items like ebook-royalty rate, life-of-copyright terms, and low threshold for in-print determination.



    You're right, compared to an author with a $5,000 advance, I'm $7,000 down. For me, personally, I'm $2,000 dollars out of pocket, but then I'm not trying to make a living out of this. To me, it's a hobby, but one I want to do to the best of my ability. If I were to take up golf, say, I'd be happy to pay out for clubs and lessons and a golf club membership, for the satisfaction of it. Publishing is the same, right now. I do it for fun, but I want the result to look as good as anything else out there.

    Besides, nobody makes money out of one book. The results come (if they come at all) after 3 or 4 or 10 books. After I publish the first book in September, I have a second that will be ready to go a few months later, and I'm just finishing the first draft of a third. Once that's out - then I might start looking for a return on expenditure (which will be $6,000 by then).

    Or I might take up golf. ;-)



    Absolutely right. But to my mind there is nothing sadder than an author with books languishing in the bottom drawer because they're waiting for their big break with a trad publisher. At least the self-pubbed author has books out there, even if they only sell a handful of copies. Books should be read, not left to gather dust.[/QUOTE]
     
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