WHEN H.M. Ward was offered US$1.5mil in advances, she was amused.
Ward, who is a self-published New York Times bestselling-author, has sold over four million books since 2011. She can easily take home a five to six-figure salary a week from the sales of her book, she said in a post on Kindleboards, a popular forum for self-published authors.
“If the book nets US$100K in a week, what will it do next week? What about next month? What about next year? Never mind those other two books. Bad deal,” she said in the forum.
Essentially, the publishers were offering her what she could get in a few weeks and asking her to sacrifice potential future profits.
However, even authors who are not as successful as Ward are choosing to strike out on their own. For one, they are not keen on being victims of a publishing deal gone wrong.
“Another author I know lost the rights to his book after taking an advance and the novel never actually saw the light of day. A change in management at the publisher got his book flushed down the toilet,” said forum poster called GearPress Steve.
Then there is the issue of predatory contract terms. Publishers, perhaps hungry for a piece of the digital pie, are offering ebook-only publishing contracts to writers. But these contracts are often detrimental to the fledgling author's career.
When Random House launched Hydra, a digital-only imprint, there was a huge outcry over the terms of their contracts. The reasons:
- Authors would not be given an advance.
- The author had to pay for the cost of editing, artwork, sale, marketing, publicity, traditionally costs that publishers have to bear. Worse, if the e-book ends up having a print version, the author will be charged for that too.
- The publisher demanded “primary and subsidiary rights for the term of copyright”, which meant that the write cannot sell his book to another publisher later.
Hydra has since changed the terms of their contracts because of the protests. Unfortunately, this situation isn’t new at all. Prolific writer and blogger Kristine Kathryn Rusch often warns new writers of publishing contracts that would cost not just the author’s book but his or her potential future earnings.
“Traditional publishing has gotten worse in the past 10 years, not better. Any time you doubt me, think of a business which tells writers with large fan bases like Kate Wilhelm and Ursula K. Le Guin to accept crap contracts and, oh yeah, stop writing your way and start writing like someone else. That’s not functional. That’s a business falling apart,” she said in one post.
So, why are writers bolder? Digital technology. Here’s why:
- Authors now have the ability to earn over 70% of the sales price of their books through ebook stores such as Amazon or Smashwords. Most traditional publishers only offer a 6% royalty.
- Before e-books became the force that it is today, an author’s sales is limited by physical space and geography. A bookstore may only have one or two copies of an author’s book. And not all bookstores may carry the author. E-books have no such limitations. Writers can sell as many books as they can and reach markets around the world almost instantly.
- Writers can therefore take charge of the design, marketing and quality of their book and thus improve the success of their books.
Two years ago I went through the process of getting a few of my works published. Some of the contracts’ terms made me raise my eyebrows. Some downright alarmed me. Alas, there were no advances given (an unfortunate practice by many Malaysian publishing houses), and some folks in the industry actually told me that some books were not edited before they were sent out!
I realised then that I wanted far more control over my work, so I decided to self-publish. In January, I finally self-published an e-book short story, The Blood of Nanking, under a pen name.
The process was both satisfying and terrifying. It pleased my control freak nature to have total control over how my book looked and where it would be sold. However, I went through a steep learning curve. I had to design my book cover, convert my story file into multiple e-book formats, edit it and then upload it to e-book distributors such as Amazon and Kobo. And, gasp, understand the American tax system. (Then there’s the whole deal of being an entrepreneur, and that’s a story for another day.)
Due to my experience, I can partially understand why some authors would rather go down the traditional publishing route, thinking that they should stick to writing and let others handle the business and technical side of things.
However, if you are willing to put aside your fears, roll up your sleeves and learn to be an “authorpreneur”. Not only will you be able to get your work into readers’ hands, you’ll earn a decent income as well.
In traditional publishing, you see of writers failing to get approval for their works. Then, some works get published, but eventually go out of print. Some writers may win approval, only to have it die because of a managerial decision. Unfortunately, many great works are lost this way, but writers no longer have to despair. They have far more options. After all, digital books can be available all over the world almost at once and they never go out of print!
It’s an exciting time to be a writer. So, if you’re an author, why not embrace the revolution?> The views expressed are entirely the writers’s own