Yog’s Law and Self-Publishing

Many years ago, writer Jim Macdonald postulated “Yog’s Law,” a handy rule of thumb for writers about the direction money is meant to flow in publishing:

“Money flows toward the writer.”

This is handy because it will give the writer pause when she has a publisher (or agent, or editor) who says that in order to get published, the author needs to lay out some cash up front, and to that publisher/agent/editor. The author can step back, say, huh, this is not how Yog’s Law says it’s supposed to go, and then surmise, generally correctly, that the publisher/agent/editor in question is a scam artist and that she should run away as fast as her feet will carry her.

But does Yog’s Law apply in an age where many writers — and some even successfully — are self-publishing via digital? In self-publishing, authors are on the financial hook for the editorial services that publishers usually do: Editing, copy-editing, page and cover design and art, marketing, publicity and so on. In this case, unless the author does everything (which is possible but not advised if one want’s a professional-looking product), money is going to have to flow away from the writer, as he hired people to do work for him.

Does this mean Yog’s Law is now dead? Author Harry Connolly, who has published traditionally and also self-publishes, thinks so; a summation of his argument (presented in .jpg form because he did his own screencap of a Facebook comment on his site, and I’m too lazy to retype, although apparently not too lazy to to a screengrab, edit it down and then upload, which probably took even more time) is here:

Connolly is correct that the rise of digital self-publishing puts a new wrinkle on things. I disagree, however, that it means Yog’s Law no longer generally holds. I think it does, but with a corollary for self-publishers:

Yog’s Law: Money flows toward the writer.

Self-Pub Corollary to Yog’s Law: While in the process of self-publishing, money and rights are controlled by the writer.

Which is to say that when the self-published writer pays for editorial services, she’s at the head of the process; she’s employing the editor or copy editor or cover artist or whomever, and she’s calling the shots. If she’s smart she’s listening to them and allowing them to the job she’s paid them for, but at the end of the day the buck stops — literally — with her. This differs from the various scammy publishers, who would take the money and the author’s work, and then would effectively disappear down a dark hole, with the writer entirely out of the loop on what was going on (what as going on: generally, almost nothing).

This corollary, I think, is useful for self-publishers because there are still lots of ways for self-publishers to use their money foolishly, primarily by losing control of how it get spent and by whom. If at any step the self-published author asks, who controls this money I am about to spend? and the answer is not “me,” that’s a flag on the field. Likewise, if control of the work is somehow compromised by the process, that’s another flag.

And of course outside the self-publishing process, i.e., when the work is out there in the world, Yog’s Law continues to apply. It continues to apply however the work is published, actually.

So, Yog’s Law: Still not just a law, but a good idea. The self-publishing corollary to Yog’s Law: Also, I think, a good idea. Let me know what you think.

 

57 thoughts on “Yog’s Law and Self-Publishing

  1. Must be “Steam Engine time” for this debate to resurface. On Facebook 19 hours ago:

    [Deleted because I'm uncomfortable with a third party's Facebook comment being repurposed by commenter here without their consent -- I don't know whether they intended for it to be public. JvP, if you wish to offer a brief encapsulation of the discussion, that would be fine -- JS]

  2. With the emphasis on “TOWARD the writer” I thought perhaps it was a difference from “TO the writer” — like the Colorado River flows TOWARD the ocean, but not TO the ocean.

  3. The framing I like is that yes, money still flows toward the author–because once you are self-publishing, you take off your author hat and put on your publisher hat. You are now the publisher, and responsible for all the grim details of the process, including spending money.

    (This assumes, of course, that you make money as a self-publisher, and are not in essence becoming your own personal vanity publisher, throwing money after ego. Which also happens, lord knows.)

  4. I’m both a self-published author (backlist) and an editor-for-hire for publishers and authors. While wearing my publisher hat, I am willing to spend money for cover art and for promotional services like BookBub, because they repay the investment. As an editor, I think I repay the author-client’s investment by helping produce a book that makes sense and reads well, which will make more money flow the author’s way.

  5. No issues with the law or your re-interpretation of it for self-publishing. My only thought is on the realism of Yog’s law for the “average” writer. An inordinate amount of money goes to the publisher versus the writer on sales, and that is especially true for digital sales. As a designer who often creates book covers and lay them out I can say that the expense isn’t that high. And most publishers don’t spend a lot promoting a book. In fact, I believe a lot of what they spend is deducted from royalties. But that’s really a whole other conversation.

    Build an audience and self-publish. The difference would be somewhere between netting 60% versus, what, 15 to 17%?

  6. We self-published a book through Lulu, spent $99, have brought in a couple $k over the intervening years. Pretty happy with that overall.

  7. Excellent advice. Much of the “big publishing is evil” is elevated by crooks like Publish America, who certainly are scammers of the highest order.

  8. The co-op system, where a group of writers who trust each other pool their skillsets, is one way to sidestep–or at least minimize–laying out money up-front. The trick is to get cover design, editing, and formatting skills under the same umbrella. But I can tell you, when it comes together, it does work well.

  9. don’t you hate that pesky apostrophe that sneaks in surreptitiously? “(which is possible but not advised if one want’s a professional-looking product)” I hope that writers who are putting out a quality product aren’t getting screwed by the publishers, or even worse, their own agents. It’s hard enough to make a living by writing without having to worry about the scam artists trying to bleed off some of that money without giving fair return for the money bled.

  10. Must be “Steam Engine time” for this debate to resurface. On Facebook 19 hours ago {a brief encapsulation of the discussion}

    * Gene Stewart: “What is a professional category of employment equivalent to that of writer? Accountant? Law clerk? Secretary? Bank teller? I’m wondering because if we can decide this in a fair way, we can end up with some idea of how to pay writers.”

    * Dana Paxson: “I’ve pulled down quite a bit per hour for technical writing, and effectively zero for creative writing.”

    * I commented:
    (1) Interesting question, from my perspective as a sometimes-peer-review-published Mathematical Economist..
    (2) If I count salary of day jobs where documents were my primary work product, I’ve made very roughly $1,000,000 spread over 50 years.
    (3) If I only count advances, royalties, awards, then little more than $10,000.
    (4) So definition makes a difference of a multiplicative factor of 100.
    (5) Note that, by US Tax Law, one cannot assign any specific dollar value to an unpublished manuscript, what will my 3,300,000 words of inventory generated in the past 4 years (about 20,000 pages) turn out to be worth, including 17 book-length documents?
    (6) Worst case, negative (as my Dad was sued over his first novel).
    (7) Best case, hello George R. R. Martin and Stephen King — I’ve known you guys since the 1970s, and now I’m an overnight success!

  11. IIRC, Jim himself has explained the application of Yog’s Law to self-publishing as something along the lines of “Even though the publisher’s and writer’s pockets are in the same pair of pants, there still needs to be a transfer of funds between them”

    In other words, a sensible self-publishing author will treat a portion of their sales income as “the author’s royalty check” and set it aside in such a way that it CANNOT be used to pay copy-editors/cover artists/etc. In this way, YL is not violated.

  12. Ursula’s point is, I think, key to this. When contracting for various services that are traditionally provided by publishers the writer is no longer the writer, but the publisher. That might seem artificial, but if a writer wants to self-pub it’s critical to fully put on the publisher business hat and do what a publisher might do – ask what the likely sales of the book are, develop a budget for editorial and creative, assess the risk and decide how to proceed.

    In this sense Yog’s Law holds just fine – the money is flowing from the writer-as-publisher to outside services but then should flow back to the writer-as-writer. Of course it’s entirely possible that the money made from sales doesn’t cover the upfront costs that the writer-as-publisher decided to take on but that just means that the writer is seeing the full circle of life so to speak. In the past, if a publisher lost money on a writer, didn’t feel that they’d eventually recoup it and wasn’t willing to continue to lose money the writer wouldn’t take that loss, the publisher would. Now, that’s all one entity. Oh well, that’s business.

  13. I agree with a number of other commenters here that self-publishing involves wearing a set of distinct but important hats. Once my author’s hat is finished, the publisher hat is a completely separate set of jobs and responsibilities that I have to put on to ensure that my book is edited, packaged, and marketed appropriately. As long as I am doing my second job correctly, money still flows to me *and* I retain control of my rights and finances.

    I’d also add that, underneath it all, Yog’s Law has always been about money being sent to middle men between the author and the publication process. Whatever people think or do not think about the current state of the business, it is currently possible to produce work that does not involve any middlemen at all. It is a chaotic, messy, exciting time to be involved in sharing our words with others.

    While I deeply value the output of the traditional model, the current terms and contracts on offer made self-publishing a choice that I thought offered myself a great deal more flexibility and options. The balance between control and an initial advance is an important one and I appreciate how the corollary is laid out here.

  14. If I ever had a novel that I wanted to self-publish, I would be inclined not to spend any money on its editing, cover design, etc. until I had enough revenue from short-story sales (or other professional fiction income) to cover the cost.

    I would be following Yog’s Law in the aggregate, so to speak. Or, to put it another way: if nobody else is willing to spend their own money to publish Seth-the-Writer’s fiction, maybe Seth-the-Publisher shouldn’t spend his own money on it, either.

  15. I think the point about money and who controls it and where it goes is an important one to reiterate, because with the rise of viable self publishing, a whole new level of scamming has also risen up — promotional scams, marketing scams, web-based scams, any number of scams promising to help you sell MOAR that may or may not work. Lots and lots of people offering pie-in-the-sky results, for X amount of money. Authors of every stripe need to be very careful.

  16. In the manga industry, manga-ka frequently hire assistants (especially if they are creating chapters for a weekly serial), but draw a circle around the whole team, and money flows toward the manga-ka+team. If a self-publisher is hiring editorial assistance, graphical arts assistance, epub formatting assistance etc. … as long as they are in charge, you can draw a circle around the writer and their support team and update Yog’s law to, “money flows to the writer with their support team.”

  17. I think traditional publishing still has its benefits, particularly for people writing works aimed at broad audiences, and who don’t want to do anything more than just write. I also think it has significant advantages when it comes to marketing, not least because of the tight relationship between distributors of entertainment and the news media that covers it. There’s also still enough of a reputation of low quality for indie/self-pub works that it takes more effort to get readers to take a chance on a work that isn’t backed by a big house, which is a pity (Dear fellow indies: HIRE EDITORS, DAMMIT.)

    For me, however, going indie was the right choice, even if it meant I spent a fair amount of money up front for editing and cover art. (I have enough of a background in graphic design to feel comfortable doing my own formatting work, so I didn’t need to hire that service.) The primary benefit is that I never have to worry about facing rejection or slash-and-burn editing from people who think my stories don’t focus on straight, white dudes enough to sell. Yes, many publishers, particularly small presses, are getting more adventurous with diverse works these days, but it’s still a very tight market, and I just don’t want to mess with that drama. My editor is extremely good at what she does, but she’s also social-justice minded; she’d never suggest that I need to change a queer, PoC, or other non-mainstream character just so I might sell a few more copies. It’s possible that some people at traditional publishers would never do that, either, but honestly, the historical track record on stuff like this isn’t great. Why would I waste my time trying to hunt down a press that will support my content when I already have the means to get my work out to the public without ever having to worry about that?

    Beyond that, it’s very nice to know that aside from a small cut from the distributor, the only money I “lose” is happening up front, and is going to people I know, genuinely like, and trust. I may make fewer sales because I don’t have a marketing behemoth behind me, but I get a far, far larger cut from the sales I do make. Only a smidgen of the work I do is going to put money in the pockets of middlemen I’ll never even meet.

    That, I think, is the essence of indie distribution in general, regardless of the kind of product being made: cutting out some of the degrees of separation between producer and customer. I’m not anti-big-business in general; they have their benefits, particularly for mass distribution of broad-market goods, but they don’t always serve smaller markets very well. Having options to bypass them to serve those markets is great.

    I think most people understand and support this for many different kinds of products, from unsigned bands to crafters putting their stuff up on Etsy. Hell, “artisan” products often command a premium just because they’re not aimed at the masses (see: farmer’s markets.) Why the same has yet to really happen for indie authors, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just that publishers don’t yet have the same kind of reputation for mistreating artists as do large-scale distributors for other things. Whatever the reason, I do hope that changes, and that people come to understand that traditional presses aren’t always the best option for every book and every author.

  18. Yog here.

    I explained how Yog’s Law applied to self-publishing as far back as 2007 (and farther, but I’m too lazy to go looking right now).

    See http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/008811.html#178887 among other places.

    Dave Crisp (above) is basically correct. Money still flows toward the author in self-publishing, because true self-publishing is a category of commercial publishing. (If money isn’t flowing toward the author something is desperately wrong.)

    See also: Yog’s Law and Software for Self-Publishers for more on this.

    Please note that Yog’s Law says nothing about in what amount or at what speed that money flows.

    For the historically minded, the original Yog’s Law page..

  19. Yog’s Law (the one-pocket and the two-pocket version) is *particularly* important to share with newbies considering self-publishing because so many of the companies now taking advantage of newbies are owned and operated by the Big 5, and venue-approved by some of the industry’s largest event-runners.

    New writers hoping to use past reputation as a guide can quickly find themselves paying out thousands for substandard services and/or useless services. It’s sometimes tough to convince an enthusiastic hopeful that Author Solutions is a bad idea even though they’re owned by Penguin.

  20. John, that’s a good wa to distinguish it–and may even need to be further refined for additioal clarifty (though I have no suggestions–my brain is fried on deadline)–because, yep, there are indeed businesses preying on the ignorant these days by self-describing as “self-publishing” ventures when they are, in fact, vanity scams (ex. Author Solutions, in its many permutations–currently the subject of a class action suit). The problem does still indeed exist–and, indeed, is getting worse, since there are established publishing companies and literary agencies lending their name and weight to such operations these days (though the court has dismissed Penguin from the class action suit against Authors Solutions, which Penguin owns).

    Meanwhile, there’s a radpily expanding pool of legitimate (and sometimes extremely good) fee-charging services in the self-publishing world for editing, cover design, formatting and interior design, dstribution, etc.

    So parameters are needed for quick ways people can distinguish between legitimate services and scams in the rapidly growing self-publishing world.

  21. Where do authors go to find and hire independent editors that are legitimate? There are some successful self publishers like the guy who wrote Wool and some others. Anyone knows what they do? I would think hiring an editor would be pretty expensive and would be an hourly charge.

  22. I’ve speculated that soon enough, independently published works will begin crediting their editors, proofreaders and designers the same way cover artists have been credited all along. Where you can’t look for a big-publishing imprint as a “assurance of quality” you can certainly see that “hey, this author spent her own money to get good editing and proofreading, it won’t be painful to read.”

    I suspect as well that some of these independents will garner their own reputations for working on quality products. (PS, Guess, go look at Joe Konrath’s blog, he has a list of services he uses to get filthy rich on his self-publishing)

  23. Guess, I visited the Editorial Freelancers Association website and found a professional editor with experience in my genre. She quotes me a fee for the entire project, based on word count. Fees are also going to vary depending on the type of edit; a developmental edit (looking at overall story) is more expensive than a line edit or copy edit. I think I paid about $600 for a developmental edit and $400 for a combined line/copy edit on a 90,000 word novel.

  24. @Guess the Alliance of Independent Authors has good resources for self-publishing authors. Preditors & Editors has good resources as well as ones to stay away from. Writer’s beware is a good resource of “publishers” to stay away from. Both Publish America and Author Solutions (and both of their many subsidiaries) are vanity presses which you want to avoid IMHO.

    Learn a bit about the business – both trad and self. Make sure you understand the business side of publishing and what you need to do to have a chance at succeeding so that you make an informed decision and don’t fall into any traps.

  25. Guess, there are a number of places. All of this sort of information has become increasingly easy to find. One place is the Writers Resources Page of my website. This is almost a year out-of-date now, since I stopped updating the old site while (oh-so-slowly) building my new site, so I’ll start updating all this info after the new site is up and running (by end-summer). But most of it is still good.

    One of the sections on this page specifically lists freelance editors who I know or who have been recommended by people I know.
    http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/About%20Writing/Writers%20Resource.htm

  26. I was reading the submission requirements for a small, independent publisher. They said their publishing model was a hybrid model where they partially subsidized the publishing costs of aspiring writers and in some cases the whole cost for established authors. What would that model be called? It sounds like self-publishing to me. But it’s kind of murky too.

  27. At the risk of sounding pedantic, wouldn’t it be easier to simply Yog’s Law and the Self-Pub Corollary as follows?

    Money flows toward the rights.

  28. Tolladay:

    No, because there are always people more than happy to try to take the rights from the author, by whatever means. That’s why the author (i.e., the person who did the work in question) is important.

  29. Actually, Yog’s Law still totally applies because when self-published authors choose to spend money on the publication of the book, that’s the publisher who’s spending that money, not the writer, despite the fact that they’re the same person.

    It’s sounds like a silly distinction, but it isn’t. When you decide to become a professional writer, you’ve decided to become a single-owner small business. When you decide to self-publish your work, you’ve decided to become YET ANOTHER single-owner small business that is independent of (but, obviously, related to) the first single-owner small business. The money spent on hiring an editor or a cover artist is money the self-publisher is spending on the book. The money being made still goes to the writer.

    —Keith R.A. DeCandido

  30. Aaaaand I see that other people have made the point. This is what I get for clicking the “reply to this topic” button on my e-mail notification of a new Whatever post. :)

    —KRAD

  31. “When you decide to self-publish your work, you’ve decided to become YET ANOTHER single-owner small business that is independent of (but, obviously, related to) the first single-owner small business.”

    Which raises an interesting question… is it beneficial to the person wearing both hats to actually setup two legal entities, one the publisher and the other for the author?

  32. I like the “draw a circle around the team” concept, too, as well as the Hats concept (which is the one I’d been using). Adding Control in there is pretty important as well… And, well, as a self-publishing author, it behooves me to shop around and make sure that the entity I’m going with isn’t a scammer of some kind, or that my rights aren’t going to be encumbered overmuch, etc. (And I am wary, oh-so-wary, wary and suspicious and snide, about services that offer publishing packages. Even if one part of the package is great, counting on them all to be exactly what you want? I don’t like those odds. I would rather find my best editor, my best artist, my best layout person, etc. MY dream-team.)

  33. John, thanks for commenting and linking.

    Addressing a great many commnets: The beauty of Yog’s Law was that anyone with a book on their hard drive and an undeniable dream in their heart could use it as a simple litmus test: This person wants money from me? No.

    Now that distribution channels have changed to make self-publishing more successful, the beauty and simplicity of that test has been lost.

    Talking about wearing different hats or switching money from one pocket to another sounds very like splitting hairs to preserve a principle that was once widely applicable and useful. Me, I can’t pretend I’m not the author when I’m writing a check for cover art (which I’m about to do). I only have one hat, and all of my pockets with the moths flying out of them are mine. Maybe that’s my flaw, but I don’t have the split persona thing working for me. I can’t pretend that the money is flowing away from publisher-me but not author-me, or that it isn’t a sensible expense. That’s why I’d rather retire the law than than parse, tease, and tweak it.

    Finally, I think the Self-Pub Corollary sums up as “Keep your rights and hire wisely,” which strikes me as sensible, general business advice.

    Anyway, Yog’s Law saved me from making a dumb mistake back when I really, really wanted to be published; I have nothing against it. It just doesn’t work for me any more.

    Harry Connolly

    PS: Jim, you probably don’t remember me, but I was active on your “Learn Writing With Uncle Jim” thread for years. It was super helpful and I remain grateful for the time and expertise you shared there.

  34. I’ve found Yog’s Law incredibly useful in all my self-publishing activities — I respectfully differ from Mr. Connolly’s comment above when he says he sees differentiating between “author” and “publisher” as hair-splitting. I say “differ” rather than “disagree” because I don’t disagree that he views it as hair-splitting… it’s just that I find it incredibly useful.

    As author I want every business arrangement that I enter into to be profitable. As publisher I know that it costs a certain amount of money to hit specific levels of quality that I want each publication to have. My goal as author is of course to have 0 cost and 100% profit — my goal as publisher is realize that’s unrealistic, but to get as close to 100% profit as I can while increasing the overall value by doing some rather important things (making the book as typo-free as possible, making the cover look as good as it possibly can, making it as accessible as I can, etc.)

    All of that creates a deficit in terms of profit from the outset — each book starts in the red (though not too bad, to be honest. If I hadn’t purchased my own ISBN’s I’d be even better off). BUT Yog’s Law still comes into play here, since publisher and author are one guy — money is still flowing toward me. It’s getting intercepted by deficits I accrued, but they are deficits I “own” — I deliberately chose to spend money on things that I felt would improve the book, and they are things I can choose to not do next time. All money is still flowing toward me — it has to erode the red barrier I created between it and my wallet, sure, but it’s all coming in my direction. It’s not being intercepted by an agency that assuming management of those profits.

    So if I were, for example, to be foolish and hire an “Internet publicist” to issue badly-written press releases about my books (those are fun emails to read, btw) money would *still* be flowing to me, unless I entered into a business arrangement with them that a) allowed them to “manage” my profits first, or b) didn’t allow me to immediately terminate my business arrangement with them.

    In other words, Yog’s Law doesn’t automatically protect you from making stupid and expensive decisions — but I think the way I view it does help me avoid making stupid and expensive decisions that I can’t walk away from.

    That was my $.02 — just a little bit of red. I can expense it. ;-)

  35. Based on my last few weeks of trying to market a self-published ebook on Amazon, I’d add that while the “editor” who takes your money and goes away seems to be, if nothing else, less common than it used to be, what it seems to have been replaced with is the editor who takes your money and then blows smoke up your ass about how brilliant you are rather than doing his or her job. I’ve been downloading a lot of sample chapters of books that have been supposedly worked on by editors, and… brr. Some of this stuff is bad enough to make me doubt *my own* writing abilities, because these people thought they were good too, y’know?

    The good thing about the “professional” editors and the traditional publishing process is that while it does weed out good writing (every writer has gotten rejections, right?) it weeds out garbage too, and nothing stops the writers of garbage from self-pubbing their own work. It doesn’t help if we have editors-for-hire doing minimal work for pay and reinforcing delusions; if my work is that bad I’d rather my editor just TELL me “I can’t fix this.”

  36. @infinitefreetime – see above in @lauraresnick’s comment above for some resources, but yes, having places where you can go to find known good editors, etc would be very useful.

  37. While I agree with the idea behind Yog’s Law, and its various reformulations above and in the comments here, I don’t think that’s the real problem here.

    The real problem is that the companies doing the exploiting of newbie writers (e.g. Author Solutions) are owned the supposedly respectable companies in publishing (e.g. Penguin Random House).

    IMO, you can reformulate Yog’s Law as much as you like but you won’t reach the writers who need to hear the message unless you can break these links between brands newbie authors know and trust (e.g. Writers Digest) and their various vanity imprints (e.g. Abbott Press – also operated by Author Solutions.)

    While we’re on the topic, I thought you did wonderful work leading the charge against the awful terms of Random House’s digital-first imprints like Hydra and Flirt. I’d love to see you lead a similar campaign against Author Solutions. But I don’t remember you ever blogging about them – at least not since the Harlequin/RWA kerfuffle in 2009.

    Perhaps a subject you could address at some point?

  38. infinitefreetime: “if my work is that bad I’d rather my editor just TELL me ‘I can’t fix this.'”

    That is a good attitude, IMO. Unfortunately, we can’t know whether the authors of those samples had that attitude.

    I have edited one self-published book and began to edit another. The first book was well-written and well-researched, and the manuscript was organized and neat. I quoted the author a flat fee and then ended up doing more work on it than expected because I believed in the book, and I enjoyed making it better (and I considered it a learning experience for me, as I have always worked for publishers and this was my first foray into working directly for an author). I think he could now perhaps find a mainstream publisher for his book if he wants to do that–not just because I did a good job but also because his material was good to begin with and he was very happy to have it made better and willing to do what it took to make it so. He was excellent to work with, very committed, with his own ideas about what he wanted but always ready to listen to another opinion, and he was willing to hire people to make both text and design polished and professional. He had also been willing to do an enormous amount of research (it was a history/memoir) and pay for photos or other research material as needed. His attitude during the entire project was professional.

    He referred a friend of his to me, a friend who was planning to self-publish a book. This guy’s manuscript was kind of a mess (which perhaps should have been my first clue), and the writing was not very good. I anticipated cleaning up the grammar, spelling, and punctuation and a bit of basic fact checking (this was a historical novel based on events in his father’s life, so I expected that it was reasonably accurate–my second mistake). It was never going to be as good as the first guy’s book, but I thought I could make the writing at least competent. The more I got into it, the worse it turned out to be. I had e-mail discussions with the author about what it needed. Mostly it needed much more fact checking than I could have known at first. He seemed to want to make the improvements, but he also seemed to be in denial about how much work that would mean. The choices were that he could do the (necessary, IMO) background research himself or have me do it at a significantly higher cost than I had originally quoted. For me, the third option–leaving it as it was and hoping the reader was so caught up in the story that he or she wouldn’t notice the anachronisms and errors of historical fact–was not an option. That was really what he wanted, and said so in pretty much those words. I referred him to a book on why it’s important to get the details right in historical novels. He expressed appreciation for the referral but showed no willingness to do the necessary fact checking or pay me to do it, and he was highly resistant to rewriting a key scene that was flat-out ludicrous to anyone who knew anything about the historical event in question. So we parted ways. I don’t know what happened to his manuscript after that, but I believe his intention was to find an editor who would not get so hung up on pesky details (though I had tried to explain that his target audience was likely to have enough knowledge of the period that this level of historical inaccuracy would be a dealbreaker). If the book is ever published, it will probably be because he found such an editor.

    One problem I see is that many people who want to self-publish are not necessarily thinking like professional writers. They see that it’s theoretically easy to self-publish, and they have poured all kinds of work into their manuscript, and the book is their baby. You are the person they hired to do what they may believe will be a light edit, and if you burst their balloon about how good they think their book is, some of them will blow that balloon up again and take it to someone who either is no more competent then they or is content to take their money and do as the author wants, whether that will produce a good book or not.

    I agree that it doesn’t help to have editors doing minimal work and reinforcing authors’ delusions. I had to face that with the second guy, and I knew that I could not. But we can no more ensure that all editors behave professionally than we can ensure that everyone who wants to self-publish has at least minimal competence as a writer or researcher. Vanity presses have been feeding off these people’s heartfelt desires for decades. The technology has changed, so it’s easier for both good and bad writers to get their work out there. This means more good books that trad. publishers might not have taken a change on. It also more bad books and badly edited books.

    If my second author’s book is ever published, most likely his book will have been “edited,” and most likely it will be only a bit less bad than it was when I saw it, because making it a lot less bad would take a massive amount of work that the author was clearly unwilling to contemplate. You can tell an author that his or her book isn’t good, but the author might not be willing to hear you.

  39. It’s an understatement to say that the plight of the writer is a difficult one. The writer has all of these stories swimming around in his/her soul, ready to burst out, but getting those ideas from brain to paper to published product is a difficult one. I would imagine that along this journey, there probably are many pitfalls to avoid and charlatans to be weary of.

    We live in a great time where if the traditional industry in control of your medium is not interested in your work, it is possible to go around them and put your work out there anyway. Books, songs, even movies – if you can put it in a digital format, you can share it with the world.

    Only problem is that the traditional publishing industry – i.e. publishers and agents, will work with you to obtain the resources needed to take your manuscript and turn it into something the masses will feel is worthy of buying at a bookstore (if you can still find one) or purchasing a digital download.

    If the industry isn’t interested in your work and you still want to put it out there, you’ll need to provide all that “polish” i.e. finishing touches – editing, formatting, original artwork and so on yourself. That will cost money.

    In other words, if you want to put out something that looks great, you’ll have to spend your money. There may be a few individuals out there who could help you do this for a fee but by and large, expending money to a person claiming that said fee is the only thing standing between the author and success is a prospect to tread lightly towards.

    If you’re going it alone and spending the money anyway, it may be best to retain control over the process – hire an editor, hire a digital formatter, hire an illustrator – if you hire someone to provide all of that for you, maybe at least seek out some references of authors who have had success with said person before handing over any money.

  40. The one thing that publishers do that is not done by any other participant in the publishing process is assume financial risk, both in paying the author before the work earns out and in fronting money for editing, production, inventory, and fulfillment. Publishers hedge their risk by spreading it across authors and multiple simultaneous book releases; a single author, self-publishing, cannot do that.

    Does this make self-publishing seem like a bad deal for the author? Yes! Unless you an author understands how to deal with marketing and financial risk (that means things like writing a business plan and cold-calling potential customers) and have the money to risk, spending substantial money on self-publishing is likely to make an author very unhappy indeed. Self-publishing puts the author at financial risk. Now, it may be that this is the best many authors can do any more—the publishing industry has been taken over by financiers (Jeff Bezos used to be a hedge fund manager) and is shedding risk as fast as possible, so there may be no good alternatives. But it is taking on risk, and in this economy at this time, taking on risk is unwise unless one is already well off.

  41. Randolph–In a nontrivial sense many writers also assume a financial risk, by spending however many hundreds or thousands of hours on the research and writing, for no money up front. We talk about people having “day jobs,” and time spent writing is time not spent earning money in some other way, nor taking care of other responsibilities (like laundry), nor on fun things that aren’t writing. It’s easy to overlook that financial aspect of writing because no actual currency is being exchanged. Even if it’s the work the writer most wants to do, rather than anything else they could get paid for sooner or more predictably–and I know writers that’s true of–that satisfaction doesn’t pay the rent.

  42. Authors have been buying services out of pocket since time immemorial. For instance, many authors pay for their website, have paid to send review copies to others, have paid for advertising in an industry magazine… the list is extremely long.

    And authors can, obviously, lose their shirt on bad website designers, marketing scams, blah blah blah–and yet nobody talks about Yog’s law with regard to book marketing, even though I know multiple traditionally published authors that overspent their advances promoting their books.

    That’s because when there are functions that an author must take on, the question stops being “should authors spend money on this?” but “is this a good deal?”

    Yog’s law was expressed in a period when just about all publication services offered to would-be-authors were categorically not a good choice for anyone wishing to make a commercial career.

    We are now no longer in that period. I understand the impulse to hold onto Yog’s Law–it was a Good Law, darn it.

    But I don’t even know what this reformulation means in practical terms. Does this reformulated version of Yog bar signing an exclusive deal with ACX, since I would be giving up control of those rights? What about Smashwords or Direct to Digital–should I avoid using those, since they’re collecting money on my behalf? This reformulated Yog may very well exclude Author Solutions, but it also seems to cut out some things that have been very, very lucrative for me.

    So I suggest retiring Yog’s law and instead thinking about all publishing services (including the ones offered by publishers) the same way you’d think about a service to produce an author website. How much will it cost me in upfront fees and in ongoing percentages? How have others fared with this vendor? Is there evidence for the claims they make? Can I substantiate them? Do I trust that person, and why? What’s average, what’s an outlier, and where do I fall in that spectrum?

    Thinking about all this will make you think about the flow of money and rights to some extent, but trying to come up with a version of Yog’s law that accurately accommodates self-publishing is akin to trying to spread butter with a spoon. You can do it, sure, but it’s a crummy tool for the job.

    Grab a knife.

  43. Not a unified post (again), but maybe there’s a common thread running through these terms that came to mind as I read the comments.

    Function: Some of the job-descriptors in the publishing chain (whether traditional or self or co-op) are attached to actual job functions, which in turn require distinct skill sets. I wonder how many writers (the primal publishing-chain function) who look at self-publishing really understand how many jobs they are taking on, or are able to gauge the competence of the people they might have to pay to provide a given function.

    Triage: Somewhere in the traditional-publishing system, someone has to decide which MS might be a viable project. If I understand the system correctly, there are actually several someones, starting with the acquisition editor*, who might be second-guessed by a committee or executive farther up the chain. The primal function of the trad-pub triage architecture is to filter out non-viable (that is, non-loss-producing) projects, at the cost of filtering out some projects of real value. (This would be a different way of talking about risk assessment, outlined in a post above.)

    Validation (as distinct from success): BW’s post on editing amateurs ought to strike a chord with any creative writing teacher–or any English teacher who has tried to explain why a student essay is not up to snuff. For all of its possible pathologies and flaws, the editorial process at traditional publisher is less concerned with making the writer feel good about a MS than with producing a book with a chance of selling through.

    For some reason, this bubbled up as I was composing these thoughts: Near the start of Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues, as the “blithe psychopath” antihero of the book is inventorying the contents of some stolen billfolds, he wonders, “Why would any man want to carry around photographs of ugly children in his wallet?”

    * Once upon a time there was a slush reader at the front end, but that coarse-filter function has been assigned to the agent, who also seems to be expected to provide some early-intervention editing services.

  44. It seems to me that in self-publishing, it’s more of matter of WHEN money should NOT flow away from the writer. If the platform you’re considering using wants money up front, no matter what, it’s still bad. The legitimate platforms, Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, iBooks (if you have a Mac), etc., do not charge just to upload your book and put it for sale. They might offer optional editing/promotion/cover design packages, but if you have a finished product, they don’t charge you anything except a percentage of each sale,.

  45. In the end no matter if you are published or self publish you will have to spend money out of your pocket to create the buzz… Unless your already a big name writer, and if that was the case, your already published!
    I have done all three: I did it all, which was a mistake and blessing at the same time; I have self-published via Author House and believe that our relationship is as good as it would get with any publisher; and, I also had articles published both online and print where I didn’t get credit for my work even though I wrote it… That’s robbery if you ask me! I got paid to shut up in the end… It’s all the same! It’s a cruel hard world! It’s times like this when I would gamble on myself before I gamble on any publisher to get it on the market… The book I did myself is stocked at Barnes and Noble. That’s saying something if you know what I know about the publishing industry…..

  46. @rickg above asked >> “is it beneficial to the person wearing both hats to actually setup two legal entities, one the publisher and the other for the author?”

    I’m in Washington state, and I have two entities because of the timing in which they came into existence. It’s a pain in the ass every quarter because I have to make the distinction between which entity actually earned the dollars in my bank account(s). Since they’re both, basically, single-proprietorships, the IRS doesn’t seem to care about the distinction and rolls them all up under my SSN. Mark the Publisher has to be careful how he pays Mark the Author so as to avoid a situation where I’m basically giving the IRS an opportunity to tax me twice.

    I recommend buying an hour of someone’s time in your state and asking pointed questions about business reporting and the like. As soon as you start paying other people for services, you’re essentially a small business (rather than a freelancer, even though some states don’t see much distinction there). Pros and cons, of course, but there are lots of resources and advantages to being an actual business.

  47. Preditors & Editors gets this question a lot–and, strangely enough, most often from high fee-charging “publishers,” or companies that charge a boatload to help authors self-publish. It seems like the more these place charge authors, the more they harangue us (and even have lawyers threaten us) about discouraging authors from giving them tons of money. There is no doubt that self-publishing can be viable, but Yog’s law remains useful to the extent that it reminds authors to be extremely careful with their assets (purse strings and rights). We hear frequently from authors who have needlessly spent thousands of dollars to get (self-)published when they could have done it for closer to $0, painfully illustrating that there’s still much benefit in Yog’s law. As others have noted, Yog’s law is no longer a simple, yes/no guideline, so we’ve tried to encapsulate all this in a general advice piece, http://pred-ed.com/general.ht .

  48. @Randolph, to say only the publisher takes on risk in a book venture is highly devaluing the labor cost of the author. When you account for that at a reasonable rate the author actually has much more on the line than the publisher does. Still, your point about them expending money before receiving it is a valid one, but I’d also like to point out that with greater risks comes the potential for greater rewards. This is one of the reasons that authors choose to go self-publishing, they will keep the full profit if they are successful, where when traditionally published the amount that is passed down to the author is extremely small in comparison. The only thing more depressing than being a failure at publishing, is being a success and seeing how much money goes to the publisher, distributors, retailers, and how little stays with you. Self-publishing comes with some fiscal responsibility, but if done well you reap all the rewards.

    Each person is going to have their own level of risk-aversion. It’s not unlike any profession where you can “work for the man” and have relative security but lower wages or “venture on your own” put your own capital at risk and you may lose that investment or make a profit. All authors, self or traditional are essentially running their own business and have to weigh the many facets of publishing. Traditional publishing does use their own money, but in return they expect a very high percentage of the profits. There are trade-offs in both decisions.

  49. Is there any evidence that cover art, for either self-published or traditional books, makes any different at all to the author’s profits? I know from discussions here that cover art is often completely out of the control of the author working with a traditional publisher. My only other point of reference is that I have never in my life purchased a book directly or indirectly bc of the cover art. At a bookstore, one can’t even initially SEE the cover art (usually). First thing I do is read the jacket info and any blurbs on the back. The most recent series where I purchased every book in hardcover as soon as it came out had such ATROCIOUS cover art that it’s hard to see how it didn’t COST the author money.

  50. You bring up a good point that there are lots of ways for self-publishers to use their money foolishly. What’s great about self-publishing is that you are completely in control. You run the show. You need to be smart and do your research in terms of where you are investing your money and ensure that you are satisfied with the work.

  51. @ speakertoanimals

    The first thing most people look at when surfing Amazon is the cover. A Good cover will catch a persons eye, a bad one will drive it away.

    There are also plenty of stories from the Traditional side where books with bad covers have sold poorly, and a redone cover has increased sales. In one case, CJ Lyons had a book refused by Barnes and Noble and Borders because the cover was so bad they were sure it wasn’t going to sell.

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