New Writers, eBook Publishers, and the Power to Negotiate

In writing the pieces about Random House and its egregious, non-advance paying eBook imprints and how no writer ever should submit to them, or indeed work with any publisher that does not offer an advance, there are some folks in the comments and elsewhere on the Internet who are saying things along the lines of the following (paraphrased to condense points into a single statement):

That’s easy for Scalzi to say because he has power now, but us newer authors have no power to negotiate. And the market is changing and there are lots of good eBook publishers who just happen not to pay an advance.

One word for all of the above: Bullshit.

First, for those you who think the “Hey, let’s not pay you an advance but instead you can share in the backend!” model of publishing was first thought up in relation to electronic publishing:



This shit’s been around, my friends. It’s been around for decades, and writers groups and others who make it their business to warn aspiring authors about scams and pitfalls have been raising flags about it all that time. The idea that that because it’s now attached to electronic publishing, that somehow makes it different (and, more to the point, better) is highly specious, to say the least.

Sprinkling the Internet on a bad business model does not magically make it a good business model. It merely means that the people who are pursuing a bad business model are hoping you are credulous enough to believe that being electronic is space-age zoomy and awesome and there is no possible way this brilliant business plan could ever fail. Or even worse, that they believe that being electronic means all these things, which means they are credulous. Which is not a very good thing to have as the basis of one’s business model.

So why are so many eBook-only publishers attempting to run with the “no advances” business model? If I had to guess, I would say because many of these then-erstwhile publishers assumed that publishing electronically had a low financial threshold of entry (not true, if you’re serious about it) and they fancied being publishers, so they started their businesses undercapitalized, and are now currently in the process of passing the consequences of that undercapitalization unto the authors they would like to work with. Alternately, as appears to be the case with Random House, they’re looking for a way to pass as much of the initial cost of publishing onto the author as possible, and one of the best ways to bring down those initial costs is to avoid paying the author anything up front. Both of these are bad business models, although one is more maliciously so, and both are to be avoided. Just because someone has stupidly or maliciously planned their business, doesn’t mean you’re obliged to sign a contract with them.

But, these publishers and their defenders may say (and have said), the publisher takes all the risk in producing a book! Yeah? Hey, to publishers and their defenders who say that: Fuck you. Fuck you for asserting that the author has shouldered no risk, when she’s invested the time, opportunity cost and material outlay required to create a manuscript. Fuck you for asserting the the author sees no risk to her own career from the choices that the publisher imposes on the publishing process that the author has no control of: everything from cover art (which, if horrible and/or out of step with the market, can sink a book) to the size and distribution of the initial print run, to the marketing plan the publisher has for retail.

Fuck you for lightly passing over the risk that the author has if the book fails — that any additional books in the contract might be cancelled or put out with the bare minimum of contractual obligation, that the author might not be able to sell another book to the publisher or other publishers because of a track record of poor sales — and for lightly passing over the fact the a publisher mitigates its own risk of the failure of a single book by having an entire portfolio of releases. If one single book fails but the publisher’s line holds up generally, then the risk the publisher encounters to its livelihood is minimal. The risk to the author, on the other hand, is substantially greater. Yes, to all of that, “fuck you,” is probably the politest thing to say in response.

Tell me again how all the risk lies with the publisher in producing a book. I want to hear it again. And I expect you can imagine what I would say to that assertion, again.

Any publisher who would assert that the risk of publishing is all on them is one who simply does not understand publishing. I sure as hell wouldn’t work with them. Especially one that has the gall to not pay advances and shift production costs to the author by arguing that doing so offers a more equitable apportionment of risk. It’s certainly an advantageous apportionment of risk — to the publisher. But “advantageous” in this case is almost certainly not the same as “equitable.”

On the subject of risk and investment — when a writer gets an advance from a publisher, it’s the publisher signaling two things: One, it acknowledges the risk and investment the writer and only the writer has made to that point in creating a manuscript that the publisher sees as having commercial potential. Two, it’s signalling how much risk and investment that the publisher is willing to make in the property.

Both of these are important. As regards the first, why work with people who don’t acknowledge that the work you’ve done has value, even as they are trying to license the product of that work? Two, why work with people who have signaled they have no intention of making a material investment in the work? And if they wish to suggest that they will make that material investment — by way of editing, marketing, production, etc — again we come to the question of why everyone else is getting paid ahead of the writer.

(And as for “but, but — profit sharing!” my answer is, groovy: The advance is advanced against the expected profits (as opposed to against royalties, which is a separate thing entirely). Rule of thumb: If anyone gets paid, the writer gets paid. First. Because, once again: What the writer provides is why everyone else gets paid — and the writer has already done the work.)

Now, let’s talk about me for a minute. Yes, I am in a position where I have some influence on how my contracts are negotiated, what’s in them and what’s not, up to and including how much of an advance I get. But here’s the thing: Back when I was selling my very first novel? I was also in a position to have influence on how my contracts were negotiated, what was in them, up and including the advance.

Why? Because I had something the publisher wanted. Namely, the novel in question.

People: Unless the publisher you’re talking to is a complete scam operation, devoted only to sucking money from you for “publishing services,” then the reason that they are interested in your novel is because someone at the publisher looked at it and said, hey, this is good. I can make money off of this. Which means — surprise! Your work has value to the publisher. Which means you have leverage with the publisher.

Publishers are not grand mystical portals into a realm of fantastic living and eternal happiness. They are companies looking to make a profit so they can continue existing, staffed by people who are looking for manuscripts that will make their companies a profit, so the companies can continue existing and they don’t have to work at Wal-Mart, stocking shelves. I’ve met my publisher and editor. They are lovely people and I like them a lot, and they’ve done pretty well for me. But then, I’ve done pretty well for them, too, and at the end of the day none of us is sporting the majestical look of destiny. We’re just people, doing our respective jobs.

So when a publisher comes to you and says “We like your book, can we buy it?” do not treat them like they are magnanimously offering you a lifetime boon, which if you refuse will never pass your way again. Treat them like what they are: A company who wants to do business with you regarding one specific project. Their job is to try to get that project on the best terms that they can. Your job is to sell it on terms that are most advantageous to you.

You can do that even when you’re starting out. I did. So have many other debut authors. Because they all had something the publisher wanted: The work.

But you will not be able to do that if you go into the negotiation assuming you have no leverage. Forget the publisher screwing you — you have screwed yourself. And if that’s the case you can’t blame the publisher for then taking you for every single thing they can. Because, remember, that’s their job. They don’t even need to be evil to do it; they just have to be willing to take every advantage you let them have. That’s business. This is a business negotiation. They’re going to assume you know what you’re getting into. That’s why they have contracts: So it’s all down in black and white and you can’t say you didn’t know.

So, yeah. Damn right I negotiated terms from contract number one. And the fact I did put me in much better stead for the next contract, and the next one and all the ones after that. I had that power then — the same as any new or first time author.

What have we learned today?

1. Not offering advances is not a great new business model, it’s a crappy old one;

2. Writers are not responsible for propping up crappy business models;

3. Don’t believe anyone who tells you publishers carry all the risk of publication;

4. Even new writers have leverage with publishers;

5. If you don’t respect yourself or your work, no one else will either.

Now go out there and sell to a publisher who deserves your work, and make them show just how much they deserve it.


Final Reminder: Something Something Hugo Nominations Something Something

Yeah, if you’re nominating for the Hugos, get them in by midnight Eastern time tonight. Or live in regret. Forever.

There, I’m done pestering all y’all about it.

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