Authors and Publishers — Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Image copyright Toho Company Ltd

Well, 2014 started off with a bang in terms of publishing — on both sides of the fence. The shocker about an author who turned down a six figure advance to self-publish her work was only the beginning, and seems to have kick-started the heated debate about self-publishing all over again. Add to that changes (or not) in the traditional publishing sector and the picture doesn’t seem to be getting any less fuzzy.

Brenna Aubrey

Okay, you may not know Brenna Aubrey’s name yet, but chances are you are going to hear a lot about her — she’s the writer that turned down a $120,000 advance from a traditional publisher to put out her books herself. Yes, you read that right: she said “no” to money.

…recently I turned my back on one of the biggest author dreams (or at least one of mine, anyway) and chose to pursue something I had no idea I even knew I wanted at the beginning of this year.

Holy cow. That’s… unbelievable. I’m not sure I’d have the will-power to do that if I were in the same situation. Let’s face it, it is the dream of most authors to get that kind of deal!

The book, entitled (ironically, it seems now) At Any Price, went up for auction and four publishing houses were in the bidding. Aubrey ended up with an offer for a six-figure, three book deal. But before the process even began, she had reservations about signing a deal.

I wanted a one-book deal only, I would not sign a non-compete of any kind. I would not sign an option clause.  And lastly and most importantly, I wouldn’t accept just any offer.  I wanted to be clear on these things ahead of time.  Some might say that for a debut author, I was asking for a lot.  I know I was.  But as with any type of negotiation, you are usually most successful when you ask for more than what you really want and “settle” on your own terms.

Anyone who’s had dealings with traditional publishing probably has had similar thoughts, particularly in retrospect — but that’s a lot of money to an author! I have to give her credit though, she thought it all through and decided she wanted to be in the driver’s seat.

Ultimately it came down to the appeal of having control.  Many of my traditionally published author friends do not have that luxury.  As an indie author, I have control over my covers, pricing, promotion, marketing, placement.  The list goes on. And I wanted that control.  At Any Price is a special book, in my humble opinion, and it deserves the best I can give it.

Good for her. I thought Chuck Wendig’s take on the whole thing, not to mention his take on self-publishing versus traditional, set out the arguments nicely, including talking about his own experiences on both sides of the fence: “The narrative here, however, will again be how you can make more money as an author-publisher than you can through traditional publishing”.

Upheaval in the big 5

At the same time, I started reading stories about changes in traditional publishing and the perceived “gap” between those publishers and the authors they serve/help/exploit (your choice) to make a buck. There’s news of selling and buying in the publishing world — of companies, not books — as Forbes predicts more mergers and acquisitions are going to happen. Interestingly, the publisher of Stieg Larsson’s books is up for sale. And it’s not the only one. Change is continuing in the traditional publishing world and it’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of it.

An article about Steven Zacharius, CEO of Kensington Books, sheds more light on the differences between the way publishers think about themselves and authors and the way authors think about publishers — particularly the fear authors have about criticizing or asking questions of their publisher. It highlights the snobbery still entrenched in traditional publishing about anyone who dares to publish their own work. According to a quote made by Zacharius on Huffpo:

In a perfect world (okay, in my perfect world) there would be a separate section on Amazon or B&N.com for self-published eBooks, maybe even separate websites. I truly believe that it would help the reader distinguish the books as well. Readers don’t purchase books based on who the publisher is and don’t necessarily care. As a result, they might not even know if they’re buying a book that was professionally edited versus one that was self-published. Publishers are devaluing their own content as well by even adding to the confusion. All publishers will discount the first title in a series, and these get mixed in with the other less expensive books and just add to the clutter.

This sort of attitude has caused quite a bit of controversy on the interwebz, with big guns like Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler taking up the argument, particularly with regard to the amounts authors can earn away from big publishing’s machinery. And to repeat Brenna Aubrey: it’s about being in control. Not just about the money.

Self-publishing will not make you rich

Every time a self-published author strikes lucky, we all hear about it. I’m sure a lot of struggling authors think “that could be me”. Well, it isn’t quite that easy. Barring the odd fluke like Aubrey (although the story about her book deal may have helped promote her book, too), I think you’ll find that a) this isn’t their first rodeo, b) they work hard to get their work out there, and c) they don’t polish a turd, but work on their book until it’s the best it can be.

Both Hugh Howey and Chuck Wendig have been talking about this lately. Wendig has been talking about the fact that writing is a long game — you don’t just wake up one day with a bestseller under your pillow: it takes work. But more than that, he also says self-publishing is a viable option, provided you put the work in to make it the best it can be. Shoddy covers, bad editing, and poorly written books don’t make the grade and if you want to do-it-yourself, you need to sort yourself out.

Get your head straight. Point north. Care about this thing you’re doing. You don’t want to be inferior to the books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. This isn’t a garage sale. You want to be better than the books on the shelves at bookstores. You say those books have errors? Ugly cover or bad books or lack of risk? So go and do different! Do better, not worse.

That’s how you do it. It may not earn you loads of money, but your chances are a whole lot better if you’re producing a book that compares to or is better than a traditionally published book.

The publishing world is still changing and there’s not much the traditional publishing world can do about that but get on and up their game. A lot of them already are, but from the author’s point of view there’s still a long way to go. And yes, the publishers are right, there is a large glut of self-published work out there that’s not very good, but they need to clean up their own messes, too. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll all just learn to get along…

Image of At Any Price (Gaming the System) (Volume 1)
Author: Brenna Aubrey
Price: $14.99
Publisher: Silver Griffon Associates (2013)
Binding: Paperback, 390 pages
Image of The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience
Author: Chuck Wendig
Price: $17.99
Publisher: Writer's Digest Books (2013)
Binding: Paperback, 282 pages
Dean Fetzer

Column by Dean Fetzer

Dean Fetzer is originally from a small town in eastern Colorado, but has lived in London, England, for the past 21 years. After a career in graphic design, he started a pub review website in the late 90’s; He left that in 2011 to concentrate on his thriller writing, as well as offering publishing services for authors, poets and artists. When not writing - or in the pub - he can be found in the theatre, live music venues and travelling.

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Comments

Sanbai's picture
Sanbai from the Midwest is reading The War of Art February 5, 2014 - 10:21pm

I love Chuck Wendig, but for some reason did not know he had another writing book out. Thanks for the heads up!

Benjamin Joseph's picture
Benjamin Joseph from Southern U.S. is reading Knockemstiff February 6, 2014 - 5:51am

Serendipity. I just picked up Chuck's Blackbird's and several of his writing books. Never heard of the dude before last week.

More on point. I like what self-publishing can do for talented authors and artists. They can put out subject matter that might be too off-the-mainstream-mark for a trad pub house.

That said, I've spent a LOT of money on .99 cent books on Kindle, and some have been true gems; great finds. Some, also, have been utter, uneditied, unpublishable crap.

The fear I have with self-publishing is that the more people self-publish unhindered by any sort of quality control, the more "good" self-published authors will have to work to distinguish themselves from the the crap. Usually you can tell by artwork, and graphic style, but not always. I just bought a book for $3 on Kindle due to it's arrsting art style, and man oh man did this thing need an editor (and a better plot). Conversely I remember being hesitant to give Wool a shot for the longest time due to that (and I'm really sorry Hugh Howey) atrocious first run Kindle cover art.

Self-publishing is a great thing, but I also feel that the old gate-keeper model provided some tangible benefits to the reader.

Also, $120k would allow me to pay rent and food and write my heart out for a couple of years with no worries, so, sorry if this offends anyone's sense of integrity, but I would sell my work in a heartbeat for the chance at that kind of writer's independence. Mainly because I'd like to think no piece would be my best piece; that I'd continue to strive fore better, more personal work.