The Lady Or The Tiger – Publishing Choices Part I

By Susan Spann

When Writers in the Storm invited me to guest-post on the last Wednesday of every month, I knew at once what my ongoing topic should be:

Equipping authors to make informed decisions about their publishing careers.

As a publishing attorney, I work with a number of publishers as well as traditionally-published and agented authors, self-published authors, and independent authors who publish traditionally and/or through a variety of other publishing options. I’m often asked to advise authors (both new and experienced) about the range of available publishing options and what factors authors should consider when choosing between them.

In fact, one of the most common email questions I receive from authors is Which publishing choices are right for me???

Unfortunately, this is a question each author must answer for him-or-herself.

It’s also a question no author should answer without serious thought and adequate information and information is something I can help to provide. In the months to come, my guest column here at Writers in the Storm will look at a number of legal and business issues impacting authors, how those issues present themselves in traditional and self-publishing arenas, and factors authors should consider when making the all-important choice between traditional, independent, and self-publishing options.

Today, we’ll lay the groundwork for that discussion with the three most important publishing principles.

1.         The choice between publishing options is an individual decision which belongs to the author alone.

Only you, the author, can decide what path your career will take. You must accept ownership of that decision – as well as your writing career – before you can make more specific choices. For some, traditional publication is still the proper path. For some, self-publishing is the better road. And for others still, a combination of different options may prove to make more sense than choosing one option to the exclusion of all the others.

Many writers look at the publishing industry with fear and awe, as if their careers depend exclusively upon choices that lie beyond the author’s control. This is a myth – though not without a grain of truth. Those who choose the traditional road will be bound by the choices of agents and editors (just to name two). The independent author must abide by the rules of the company he or she elects to publish through. And every author is bound by the choices of readers – you can lead a book to market, but you cannot make it sell any more than the proverbial horse can be forced to drink.

Ultimately, though, your individual choices will form the cornerstones upon which your writing career will stand or fall. Before you can make those choices, you must acknowledge that you are making choices – and learn enough about publishing to recognize what is and is not appropriate for you.

2.         No single choice is right for every author or every creative work.

Publishing is no longer “one size fits all.” The decision to pursue traditional publication, independent or self-publication, or some other option altogether is unique and fact-specific.

Before you make a decision, you must consider your short and long-term publishing goals, your platform, your audience, PR and marketing, legal issues, and budget – and you must consider these issues for every work you create. In many cases, your initial decisions will impact multiple works, so you may need to re-evaluate only when conditions change. However, that makes the initial decisions even more important.

Don’t rush to judgment about your writing career. Take the time to learn about your options. Decide among them based upon facts and analysis – not emotion. Publishing is a business – your business – and you must treat it as one.

3.         In making choices, the author asserts and accepts responsibility for his or her choices – and the consequences thereof.

No choice is without consequences.

Every choice an author makes has repercussions for his or her career.

For example: the decision to pursue traditional agency representation and “big-house” publication almost always prohibits releasing the work for free download through the author’s personal website. Publishers are in business too, and most do not want to pay you to publish something you’ve already given the world for free.

Does that mean you should never make your work available free of charge? Not necessarily. But it does mean you need to think before you act and make decisions only once you’re prepared to accept the results of your choices.

Remember: “consequences” may be both good and bad, no matter which publishing path an author chooses. The point is not to avoid the bad entirely. There is no mystical fountain (or, if you prefer, no magical font) to protect you from bad reviews and worse decisions. You can, however, use the available information to make the best choices you can.

Are you ready to take control of your writing career?

If so – and even if your answer is “not quite yet” – hop aboard and join the discussion. Over the next few months we’ll explore the world of publishing options and factors an informed author should consider when choosing among them.

Next stop: What are my options anyway?

Tune in on April 25, when I’ll be discussing the difference between traditional publishing,  independent (or “indie”) publishing, self-publishing and P.O.D. (And yes, from my perspective those are four very different options – though sometimes with overlap between them.) I’ll see you then, right here at Writers in the Storm.

 Susan Spann is a publishing attorney and author who practices in Sacramento, California. Her debut novel, in which a Japanese ninja and a Portuguese priest must save a teahouse entertainer accused of murder, will be published by Thomas Dunne in 2013. She blogs about writing and publishing law at http://www.susanspann.com and tweets @SusanSpann.

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48 Responses to The Lady Or The Tiger – Publishing Choices Part I

  1. Excellent post! I’m almost at that point–choosing which path to take. I’ll definitely be following this series. = )

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Melissa! Don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments if a future post leaves you wondering about specific situations. I’m glad to be of help!

  2. I’m excited to follow this series!

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Brinda!

      I’m really looking forward to writing it – hopefully there will be something good in it for everyone who reads it.

  3. Susan, I must thank WITS for making the decision to have you as a regular feature. Kudos to them and you. As an aspiring writer who is embarking on the submissions stage, I feel I am truly entering a “brave new world” and unchartered waters. Ultimately, I might become what is now being termed a “hybrid” author, combining traditional and indie in my career. Yet, I tend to the more traditional side of this equation. Keeping our options open is fine as long as we have the information we need at each juncture. I have been asking myself and now you:

    What is behind the reason the Big 6 refuse to acknowledge the Big White Elephant stomping around in their hallowed halls? It reminds me of an independent marketer who continued to sell analog cable equipment through the eve of the mandatory conversion to digital. Worse, it’s like television manufacturers refusing to build in the port for cables because they think people should keep their “rabbit” ears.

    Also, do you have any thoughts on writers asking for higher digital royalties in lieu of advances? Or having any ability to build in escalation of digital royalties based on actual future sales in their contract?

    Publishers protect themselves often by adding restrictive clauses that allow them the right of first refusal on future work, “owning” a series, or having the right to drop writers who do not perform. How can writers protect themselves by adding contract clauses that reflect their future earnings?

    • Susan Spann says:

      Great set of questions.
      First off, I’m not sure the Big 6 interpret the elephant’s presence the same way authors (and possibly readers) do. Their business model continues to return profits, and in some respects that alone makes it a successful model. As a secondary issue, it takes time to turn a large ship. It’s harder for a large business to respond to market changes, particularly if change is accomplished in a manner that dislodges as few employees and established structures as possible. An author or an editor can change rapidly. A corporation, less so. Another factor is the need to evaluate before changing to ensure change is made in the right direction. There are more, and I may address this issue in a future post because there are important questions here that I can’t answer briefly with proper depth. As a business attorney, I can tell you that is much, much more difficult for a corporation to change than for an individual to do so.

      From what I’ve seen the large traditional publishers are responding to the new paradigm. Some better than others – but then, some authors respond better and faster than others, too. It’s difficult to see from the outside because the inner workings of a corporation are not (and often should not be) exposed to public view. That sometimes gives the wrong impression about what’s really happening. Rapid change won’t come to traditional publishing any faster than to any other long-standing industry, but in some ways that’s a good thing – it helps to avoid over-correction and to stabilize markets. That said, for authors seeking to work purely within the new paradigm, traditional publishing may not be the best way to go.

      Digital royalty escalation clauses are quickly becoming standard. Don’t hesitate to ask for a contract clause that escalates digital (and print) royalties based on sales – though digital royalties are often much higher than (as in multiples of) print royalties, so there’s less room for upward movement there. Another clause to consider: tying e-royalties to the company’s prevailing rate, so that if in future the company “standard” increases, your e-royalties automatically increase too. Please note: “standard” has to be carefully defined.

      The right of first refusal should be “one book at a time” or tied to a single series (or both). That way the publisher gets to profit from investing in your series initially (by continuing publication of future installments) but your entire body of work is not subject to the right of first refusal clause. Also, the right of first refusal should incorporate language which states that certain terms (royalties, advances, etc) will or may be renegotiated in those future contracts.

      Brief responses, but hopefully they at least point to the directions you should be moving!

  4. LauraDrake says:

    Susan, as a writer who recently accepted a traditional contract, I’m SO looking forward to your posts. I am keeping my eyes wide open — I’ll always be happy I got the opportunity, but by the time I complete this contract, my next choices may be different.

    I like your point that the responsibility rests on OUR shoulders, to make the right decsions for ourselves. We now have choices, which is a very good thing. So we don’t get to whine like toddlers in the candy aisle that we can’t decide. We need to step up, be educated, look down each road, close our eyes, and choose.

    Who would want it any other way?

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Laura,

      I decided to go the traditional route myself, and I absolutely agree that the issues and decisions we’ll be discussing apply equally to traditional and non-traditional (indie/self-represented/etc) authors alike. All authors are the same in that regard – when we choose a career in writing, we alone have the ultimate responsibility for its management. If we choose to work with agents and/or third-party publishers, we are essentially forming business alliances with others who will perform some career-related tasks on our behalf. If we opt to handle the process ourselves, we choose to take more responsibility for the day to day, practical aspects of publishing.

      One big point I hope this series makes – and which your comment points out so well – is that regardless of the method we choose, we are all authors – and that community is stronger when we support one another across all publishing platforms.

  5. Sharla Rae says:

    I have a brand new book ready to publish and rights back on a couple others. I know several traditional publishers have mentioned they are eager to grab an author’s back lists along with new books but now that I have full rights back, I’m not so sure I’m willing to give up those rights — maybe forever! While I decide, I keep writing on the second book in my new series but I know that I have to make a choice soon. Can’t wait to read your series of blogs!

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Sharla!

      The best advice for people in your situation is – look before you leap (in fact, look twice) and make sure to get professional advice on all contracts. You don’t want to learn too late that you’ve accidentally given up those back rights due to contract language that had secondary implications you weren’t aware of when you signed. Don’t panic about it – but make sure you pay close attention to the fine print.

  6. Great post. Thank you.

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thank you for stopping by – and for the comment. I love hearing that people enjoy the posts.

  7. Jann Audiss says:

    Susan, I’m looking forward to tuning in on April 25. The information you are providing is great. I’m currently unpublished and get so tired of hearing from published authors that I don’t need to worry about the “business end” of publishing until I get a book written.

    • Susan Spann says:

      It’s never too early to learn. When you do make your decisions and start down the publishing road, having more information will help the curve seem a little less steep – and it’s very steep for most authors so flattening it out a little is hugely helpful. An unpublished author is still an author – and the more you know, the better you will be able to launch and maintain the career you want to have.

  8. Stacy Green says:

    Excellent post. I went through this when signing with Muse last month. I chose a small press because I wanted the acceptance and guidance of others in the industry, but I didn’t want to wait years to get it. And I didn’t have a back list or the money for self-publishing, but it’s an option I’m looking at down the road. While so many choices and information can be confusing, it’s also a blessing to have all those choices. Looking forward to the April post!

    • Susan Spann says:

      It sounds to me as though you’re doing a good job of evaluating exactly the kinds of factors we’ll be discussing in the months to come. You made a decision based on your career needs, rather than emotion or impatience – a sign of a professional author moving forward with a career plan. Good job, and I’ll see you in April!

  9. Julie Glover says:

    I am so glad you’re going to cover this topic! This is my goal in the next few months — to choose a specific publishing direction. However, I am still sorting through the ins and outs of each option. Looking forward to the posts!

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Julie! I’m glad to be writing here and hope the future posts will be clear and helpful!

  10. Pingback: The Lady or the Tiger…How Does an Author Choose? | Spann of Time

  11. heather webb says:

    As always, great post and helpful tips, Susan.🙂 I also really enjoyed your explanation in the comment section of why traditional publishers aren’t moving as quickly as Amazon or other e-pubs. Too many people do not understand what it takes to make such a massive change for monolithic companies. Might make a great post on your blog in itself. Looking forward to part two!

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Heather! As usual, we’re thinking on the same wavelength. I’m already mulling over the possibility of a blog post about corporate movement and why the corporate form is the cruise ship and the individual author is the cigarette boat – one is designed for stability, and the other for speed and maneuverability. Both can be seaworthy (or sink!) under the right circumstances – the question is which one you prefer to take to your destination.

  12. Jenny Hansen says:

    We’re so excited about this series, Susan! Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with all of us here at WITS!

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Jenny! I’m delighted that I was asked to guest-blog regularly. I love the site and am thrilled to be a part of what WITS is doing!

  13. Great post! Series like this are really helping authors make the best choices for themselves. Right now, there is so much conflicting info on what is “better” that it is nice to have just a look at what all the options are.

    I hope you will also be looking at hybrid presses. I’m affiliated with Lucky Bat Books, and we designed the press based on what we wanted as writers. So we don’t take royalties. We are fee-based but are dedicated to building our brand and doing a ton of extras not done by … well, I don’t know of anyone doing what we’re doing (which is a problem for us because we have to work hard to define ourselves in the market).

    Our goal in starting the press was to allow writers control of their work while still maintaining a level of quality. So we do choose who we work with based on quality (not our taste, not what we THINK will sell. We believe a quality book will always find its readers, and with the writer keeping all the money from sales, a book doesn’t have to be a bestseller to make the writer a living wage -though we want them all to be bestsellers) and we do a lot of promoting, advising and behind-the-scenes work to ensure sales (none of which we charge for). We’re trying to offer the benefits of a traditional press at fee-based prices. No easy task.

    That said, we don’t want traditional publishing to go away. Many of our authors work with us and traditional. A few work with us, traditional and self-publishing, and we are happy to help them cross-promote because our loyalty is to the writer first, so we don’t care if we end up promoting another press. There are still things traditional publishing currently does better than us (traditional publishing has distribution to book stores nailed!). There are also things self-publishing rocks at that we haven’t caught up to yet (self-publishers are a creative bunch!). Because we are still new and small (60 or so books in 18 months), we are still learning, still changing as our author’s needs grow and new opportunities come up. It’s been a blast!

    Wow, that was a long way of saying I like what you’re doing and look forward to learning more. And I hope you’ll include hybrid presses too! Thanks!

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Cindie!

      As it happens, hybrid presses are definitely on my radar. Your model is increasingly being adopted in the app market as well as book publishing, with successes in both arenas.

      One of my major goals with this series is to lay out the options without passing judgment – authors need access to information in order to make individually appropriate choices. There are “right” and “wrong” choices for each author and for each work, but those choices vary so widely now that they can seem overwhelming. Add in editorial comments and judgments (even from very well-meaning sources) and the whole process can make an author want to curl up in the corner and wish it all away. Advocacy is a good thing, but my goal with this series is to present the issues the way I would for a client trying to make these same decisions – to take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of each option and let the author decide between them for him-or-herself.

      • Laura Drake says:

        I love that you’re not passing judgement, Susan. There’s so many out there, yelling at the top of their lungs that their way is best, and you’d have to be an idiot….

        I think they dost protest too much.

    • Yvette says:

      Hey Cindie! Your hybrid press sounds really interesting. Can you give us a way of checking it out a bit further, an email or website address?
      Thanks!
      Yvette Carol

  14. marsharwest says:

    Great post, Susan. I’ll certainly be checking in at the end of April for the next installment. I, too, love your comment that an “unpublished author is still an author.” It’s easy for us to forget that. When I’m in the dumps about my writing, my CP reminds me I’ve completed 5 books all approximately 90,000 words. Craft-wise each one has gotten better. This is a definitley a “learn by doing” job. Not published, but moving in that direction–probably will be with a smaller e-pub company, but I might look at the indie thing, so you’re info will be very timely. Thanks, WITS, for giving Susan this platform. Marsha

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Marsha,

      I wrote four “trunk novels” before SHINOBI (the mystery which will be my debut fiction work), so I definitely hear where you’re coming from. Incidentally, I didn’t think any of the other four would be trunk novels at the time I wrote them – but I learned a ton and improved with every attempt. Now, looking back, I can see how far my fiction writing has come in five years. It’s hard to see the road while you’re walking on it – but never, ever doubt that you are an author. By my count, you’ve written over 450,000 words – if that doesn’t define you as an author (and a dedicated one at that) then a lot of published authors I know aren’t authors either.

      The day we quit learning is the day we need to quit. When the dumps happen, just remind yourself how far you’ve come – and that you’re in this for the long haul.

  15. Pauline Gruber says:

    Great information – thanks! I’m looking forward to following this series.

    -Pauline

  16. Super post and so relevant. I have a CP who is seriously considering self-publishing and I emailed her to drop by and read your blog–and postpone her decision for just a bit longer. For her particular work, it might be the best route, but as you say, it’s important to study all the consequences before a decision is made. Looking forward to your next installment.

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Barbara. One thing your CP (and anyone else getting ready to make the decision) may want to do is make a list of the reasons for and against self-publishing the work in question. The lists should take into account career (and financial) goals for this work and subsequent works, the work’s potential audience, the author’s willingness and ability to spend time (and money) in promotion, etc. Once complete, the author should go through and strike out any reasons that are based on emotion rather than facts. Emotion has its place in this decision, but it can’t be a balance tipper. That’s a good starting point for evaluating the decision.

      The same list method works for traditional publishing, incidentally.

      We’ll be going far beyond that in the months to come, but sometimes that method alone highlights some surprising things for the author, provided the exercise is done honestly.

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  18. Joan Leacott says:

    Thank you Susan and WITS for this timely course. I have a question regarding right of first refusal. As is typical, a friend of mine has these rights for her second book written into the contract for her first book. She doesn’t want to work with the publisher any longer and is fretting over these first rights. To solve her dilemma, I’m thinking she must still send in her second MS but can decline any offer the publisher should make. Then she’s met the requirements of the contract and still gotten away from the publisher. Is that right? She hasn’t finished the second book, so there’s time for a course correction.

    • Susan Spann says:

      Joan, this is a very timely and important question, and not one your friend should sit on. The precise answer depends upon the exact wording in your friend’s contract – unfortunately, rights of first refusal can be worded many different ways, and the precise wording used will control your friend’s situation. If she is having second thoughts, she should definitely talk with her agent (if she has one) and/or a publishing attorney to determine exactly what the contract says and how to arrange a parting from the publisher that doesn’t (a) breach the contract or (b) have potentially negative consequences for your friend’s reputation as a professional in the publishing industry. In fewer words: to find a way to get out without a fight.

      As a general proposition, if the publisher has a right of first refusal your friend will have to send the manuscript for review. Unless the contract requires your friend to accept an offer “at least as good” as the one in the contract (some do) or has some other language defining rejection rights (again, some do) then she can probably reject the offer if she doesn’t want to work with the publisher again. I can’t say that for sure, however, without seeing the specific language in question.

      TL;DR: your friend should talk with an attorney or agent and determine her legal status and options before she finishes the second book.

  19. Yvette says:

    Yes this post is very illuminating. I agree with all the comments here. I’m what I like to call a ‘yet to be published’ author. I did get an acceptance from a UK publisher last year, but they wanted me to pay some of the publishing costs and I just didn’t have the money. So I continue to submit my books to traditional publishing houses. Three are in circulation at the moment and I wait to hear. I belong to the New Zealand Society of Authors and luckily they check contracts offered to writers to make sure we’re not being taken for a ride. I’ve used the service a number of times and they’ve saved my neck from unscrupulous publishers. Nevertheless I still hope to find a traditional publisher if I can.
    Yvette Carol

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks for commenting, Yvette,

      I’m glad to hear the NZ Society of Writers has a contract-check option. That’s a fantastic service, and one I wish more authors had the benefit of. If traditional publishing is your goal, I say hang in there, keep fighting the good fight and keep working on each new project – I wrote several manuscripts before I wrote the one that ultimately landed me a publishing deal, and I learned valuable lessons from each. Working on new projects will help fill the hours while you search for the deal that is right for you.

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