Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The Business Rusch: Common Sense And The Writer

Written By: Kristine Kathryn Rusch - Aug• 17•11

The Business Rusch: Common Sense and the Writer

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A friend of mine runs a flat fee menu service that helps writers publish novels, short stories, and nonfiction books as e-books. Her service will also help writers publish print-on-demand books as well. By a flat-fee menu service, I mean this:

If you prep an e-pub file and post to the e-book distributers yourself, but you can’t design a good cover to save your life, you can hire my friend’s company to design the cover for you. She’ll charge you a flat fee for that. I have no idea how much, since I’m not hiring my covers out.  But let’s say—for the sake of argument—that she’s only charging $250 for a cover. (For all I know, that might be high. Or low. I really have no idea.) That $250 is all she would ever charge you for that work she does on your book.

If you don’t know how to do anything except write—if you can’t even log onto Kindle Direct Publishing without getting hives and you don’t know what Pubit is, if you’re dyslexic (like me) and find copy editing an impossibility, and if you don’t know the difference between an oil painting and a charcoal drawing—then she’ll take your book from your word file and, in consultation with you, turn it into an e-book. Then she’ll help you distribute it to the various e-bookstores, again all for a flat fee.

She has worked out a system that once the book is uploaded onto the various e-book distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, she will never ever touch the money that comes from those services. In fact, she won’t even be able to look at the information they send you about the book’s earnings, any more than she could peek into your bank account.

Again, she does this for one sum—clearly a greater sum than she would charge for just a cover. But once that sum is paid, you never have to pay her another dime. Even if the book becomes a bestseller. Even if the book remains on sale for 25 years. She gets her one-time fee, and nothing else.

So imagine my shock when she posted on a blog we both frequent that she’s been getting a lot of flak for this. People have accused her of running a scam, of mistreating writers, and of taking advantage of writers. “Money flows to the writer,” they tell her, as if she’s somehow preventing writers from making money.

At the same time she made that post, I was trying to help a friend get his backlist into print. Several months ago, I had recommended that the writer friend use my publisher friend’s services to get the books published. But my writer friend had apparently ignored my advice. Like so many other writer friends in the past month, this writer friend asked me if going with So-N-So, who charged 15% for the life of the project, was a good deal.

One friend phrased it this way: Considering the fact that I will never ever learn how to do e-publishing on my own, am I better off going with So-N-So and losing 15% for the life of the project than I am to never ever get my backlist out in e-books?

Honestly, that’s a good and logical question.  I know that many writers, particularly established writers with multiple deadlines, haphazard income, and lots of health or time issues are asking the same question.  Most of them are defaulting to their agent, someone they “know and trust,” to do the backlist work for them.

Since agents have as high or a higher learning curve than writers do, not to mention the ethical issues and the possible illegality of an agent running a publishing business, the idea of going to the agent as a default really makes no sense. But let’s leave agents out of this, since writers tend to be insane over the issue of agents.

Let’s just go back to that question: Considering the fact that I will never ever learn how to do e-publishing on my own, am I better off going with So-N-So and losing 15% for the life of the project than I am to never ever get my backlist out in e-books?

In reality, it’s a Hobson’s Choice. The choice isn’t between never e-publishing or going with someone who will take 15% for the life of the project.  The question shows that the questioner simply does not understand that there are other choices.

Let’s take “never e-publishing” off the table. I think everyone with a backlist (and those who are creating their own backlist right now) should publish their work. Sometimes it’s viable to go with an established traditional publisher. And if you have my writer friend’s attitude, going with an established traditional publisher is best.

But most writers have tried to resell their backlist publically, and have been unable to in this tight market. So many of these writers know that there is money in e-publishing a backlist, but the writers don’t want to or can’t do the work, so the writers believe they have to find someone to do it for them, and find that someone now.

The “now” part is also a fallacy. The new revolution in publishing isn’t going to stop any time soon. It’ll be around for years and years. So taking some time to research the right method of e-publishing your backlist would be a good idea.

Let’s say, though, you have researched the do-it-yourself method and realize that you are unable, for whatever reason, to do it yourself. Yet you still want your backlist up.

You will need someone to do the work for you and you’ll need to pay that person. The question then becomes how to pay that person.

If you lack money, the 15% option seems like a good one. And it might be, if you only want your books in print. If you don’t care about making a dime on them, then by all means, hire whomever contacts you, trust them, and let them put the book up.

But if you actually want to make some money on the books, then you need to behave like a business person.  You need to think long term.

Here’s where the 15% model falls apart.  Imagine this: Your backlist is in print.  Let’s say it sells steadily.  Let’s say your backlist earns you $500 per month.  I’m being very conservative here, assuming only a few books up, and not nearly as many sales as most established writers have. But $500 per month makes the math easy for me.

If you earn $500 per month, then you’re making $6000 per year on your backlist with no front list, nothing new added. Over ten years, with no increase in sales, you’ll earn $60,000. (I fully expect an increase in sales for everyone. Right now, e-book sales are a tiny fraction of the market. All experts believe that e-books sales will reach 50% of the market in 5 years. Your sales numbers will increase as new readers come in. But for the sake of this piece, I’m assuming no growth.)

In that first year, you will pay your 15% person $900.  That seems like a good deal to put up your entire backlist.  But over ten years, you will have paid that same person $9,000 for no additional work. And if those books are still selling twenty years after that, the person you hired will earn $18,000 even if they don’t touch the e-books ever again.

Contrast this with a flat fee option.  Let’s say it cost $2000 to put up your entire back list. In the first year, your flat-fee deal won’t look as good as that 15% deal.  You’ll only earn $4000 on your backlist, as opposed to $5100 for the 15% person.

But in the second year, you’ll earn the full $6000.  After ten years of sales, you will have earned $58,000.  The person who is still paying 15% will have earned $51,000.  In twenty years, you will have earned $118,000 on that backlist.  The flat-fee person will have earned $102,000.

Still, you think, not bad money, especially since you haven’t done any work on it yourself except the actual writing.

But there are several more problems with the 15% option.  Let’s talk about them.

The 15% person will be the “publisher.” This means all of the Kindle, Pubit, iBookstore, Kobo, and Sony sales information and the checks will go to your 15% person first. They’ll take their cut and forward 85% to you—just like agents do.

Only you will have no legal right to see the paperwork involved. As far as Kindle or Pubit or any of the e-book vendors are concerned, the publisher of record is the 15% person, not you. So you can’t go to Kindle and find out sales figures or earnings for your book.

This, by the way, is different from the arrangement between an author, agent, and a traditional publisher. The legal agreement is between the traditional publisher and the writer, with the agent as a negotiator. The agent receives the paperwork first, only if the writer designates that in a contract.

In this e-book vending world, the 15% person will be the publisher, and will get all the materials. Unless you have an iron-clad written agreement with this person (and most writers don’t have one with their “e-stributer”), then you will never have any right to see sales figures or paperwork.

And because writers refuse to understand what this means, let me spell this out for you. If you don’t see the paperwork, then you will not know if you’re getting all the money you’re entitled to.

I know, I know. You trust your agent, e-stributer, friend. That person would never cheat you. And let’s say you’re right. That person would never cheat you. But what happens if that person gets hit by a bus tomorrow? Would his heirs be as trustworthy? Would his heirs even know how to run the business? Would his heirs know that you’re entitled to 85%? Would his heirs honestly report the income to you?

Right now, a group of writers are having trouble with a long-established agency whose owner died, and whose heirs do not know how to run the business. This is causing all kinds of legal problems as well as financial ones for the writers. And that’s with an established business. Many of these 15% people are doing the job as a favor for friends or writers or relatives.

No one has thought long term.

And no one thinks of running a credit check before hiring the 15% person. Or seeing if that person has a good record with their Better Business Bureau. Or seeing if that person has an arrest or conviction record.

Most writers just hire someone and trust them. And that makes me shudder. The writers hire someone for the life of a project and don’t even do the same kind of work an employer would do before hiring a bus boy at a restaurant.

Nor do the writers draw up a legal agreement with this 15% person. They rely on the person’s word. They hand over their creative work, something that could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in its lifetime, and don’t even think twice about the legality of everything, about accountability or about fraud. They never run a background check on the person they’re hiring, and often they haven’t even met the person face to face. That person is just a Facebook friend, an e-mail buddy.

I’m not saying that the 15% people are all scammers. Nor am I saying they’re all out to cheat their friends. But I am saying that this situation is ripe for problems.  Even with the best of intentions, most of these 15% people have no idea what kind of accounting nightmare they’ve set up, let alone have designed any way of accurately tracking income.

And what happens if the 15% person has a serious financial reversal? That person’s wife suddenly gets ill and has no insurance, so the 15% person has to pay tens of thousands in medical bills. Do you think that 15% person will accurately report that year’s income? Would that person pay the medical bills first, intending to pay you later? Where will the “later” money come from?

Most people never ask those questions or do the research. So years later, when they get taken—and they will, either by a friend or a friend’s relative or by simple bad accounting—they’re surprised. And they shouldn’t be.

So when people ask me that question my writer friend asked—Considering the fact that I will never ever learn how to do e-publishing on my own, am I better off going with So-N-So and losing 15% for the life of the project than I am to never ever get my backlist out in e-books?—my answer is simple. If you only want your backlist up for your fans to read, yeah, I guess you’re better off. If you want to make money, no. You might make money for a few years, but there’s no guarantee that the money train will continue. Your friend might tire of it. He might die. He might decide the accounting is too hard to continue.

And you will have no legal recourse. You made an agreement with this person, did not research them, trusted them, and didn’t sign a contract.

P.T. Barnum had a word for people who do things like that. He said there was one born every minute, and sadly, he was right.

Here’s the ironic thing. No one accuses these 15% people of “running a scam, of mistreating writers, and of taking advantage of writers.”  Most writers who don’t want to publish their backlist themselves have simply moved to this new model without thinking about the implications. They assume this is the way this has always been done.

But “always” doesn’t apply here. The percentage model for agents that dates from the mid-20th century works differently, as shown above. Until recently, agents have acted like real estate agents, taking a percentage of the sale to a single entity—the publisher. That publisher has a contract with the writer.

The new 15% model does not include a contract between the author and, say, Pubit or the iBookstore. The agreement is between the iBookstore and the 15% person. The writer hasn’t signed anything and, in fact, is not even considered a party to the deal.

This is a new thing, folks, and something to be very, very wary of.

If you are unwilling or unable to do the work to publish your own work, then hire a flat-fee company. Yes, yes, I know, you can’t afford the up front money. Then work out a deal with the flat fee publisher to pay in increments.

Or—here’s an idea—save a small portion of each paycheck or writing check, and put that money in a special publishing account. Once that account has the needed fee in it, then hire someone to e-pub a book. Keep doing that until your entire backlist is up.

Yes, that might take months or even years. But you won’t be losing money on each book. Better yet, you won’t set up the possibility of being scammed. Companies like my friend’s flat fee company don’t get the paperwork first. They help you set up your own account with Pubit and Kindle Direct Publishing, and then they never ever see the paperwork again. They don’t need to. Because they got their money, and they will never see another dime.

Why, then, are these people being accused of being scammers?

Because they’re asking for money while they do the work. In the writing world, no one has done that for generations. The only people who got paid up front in publishing for the past seventy years have been the writers. Writers got an advance. Never mind that the advance was an advance against royalties—a loan, in other words, that the publisher could rescind.  Writers got used to getting money and paying no one up front to publish their work.

Indeed, fifteen years ago, anyone who asked for money up front to publish a book was a scammer. Because publishing was different then. Often those folks never published the book. They just took money from the writer.

Now, though, that’s no longer the case. Now new business people are moving into publishing with a professional attitude.  Every other profession demands payment for services rendered.

Would you call your dentist a scammer if he asked for a down payment on those crowns he ordered? Do you accuse your doctor of mistreating patients because she asks for payment when you have your annual checkup? Do you think that lawyers who ask for retainers are unprofessional? What about roofers who want half up front and half on completion of the job?

Those are the people who have moved into publishing. Flat-fee people who expect to be treated like the professionals that they are.  They’re providing a service. You’re paying for that service.

It’s that simple.

If you don’t trust them, then don’t hire them. Or better yet, do what you should do with the 15% people. Check the records. Do a background check, a credit check, and see their standing with the Better Business Bureau. See if they’re a legitimate business before you hire them. Then do a test case—maybe a short story or a short book, something that doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg. If you don’t like their work, don’t hire them again.

It’s really that simple.

Honestly, I’m very, very frustrated with writers who refuse to act like professionals in this new world of publishing. Writers who want someone to take care of them, who want to make a fortune without doing any work except the writing.

Another writer complained last week that all he wanted to do was write and wanted someone to take care of everything else. Yep, and I want a million dollars delivered to my house on my birthday by a naked Brad Pitt look-alike (or hell, a naked Brad Pitt).  Ain’t gonna happen.

If you want to have an international career—and that’s what successful writers have—then realize that you have a small business. Act like a business person. Produce the very best work you can, and for those jobs that you can’t do yourself, hire the best help you possibly can for the best price.

Research, research, research. Then make the best decision for you. Can’t afford it? Save your pennies until you can. Work out a payment plan. Do what you would do with any other service you purchase.  And stop trying to find shortcuts. In the long run, those shortcuts will lead nowhere.

You’re not doing something small here, so stop acting as if you are. The decisions you make today won’t just have implications for you; they’ll have implications for your family and your heirs as well.  You can keep your own e-book in print for decades.  Make sure you’re getting all the money from that book, not some 15% person you hired on a whim twenty years before.

Even though I’ve had a long career as a nonfiction writer, I make the bulk of my earnings on fiction. I don’t charge for the free fiction on this website. I hope it’ll lead you to my novels or my other fiction elsewhere. But for the most part, these blog posts are one-shot deals that take time away from my fiction writing. That’s why there’s a donate button here. The business blog has to pay for itself.

Thanks to all of you who have donated to keep the blog alive in the past. I greatly appreciate it, just like I appreciate the comments and the e-mails and the forwards. Thanks for reading the blog, and if you find some benefit in it, please leave a tip on the way out. It keeps this little Thursday blog in business. Thanks!

“Common Sense and the Writer,” copyright © 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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42 Comments

  1. Lane Diamond says:

    Yes, the authors have options. New business models are coming online to meet the challenges of this new environment. Ours works not only on a small percentage basis, but it limited to just the first 3 years of the project. http://www.EvolvedPub.com/

  2. Ann W says:

    This kind of attitude and cluelessness by authors is why I don’t think agents will go away any time soon. They will just move to fill the 15% earnings from digital authors who are too scared, trusting, or stubborn to change (or rather invest in a few hundred dollars upfront and click a few buttons to self publish digitally). I think the only way literary agents will ever die off is when these types of authors die off themselves. Maybe in 30-40 years. It’s pessimistic, I know *glum*

  3. Loren says:

    Why does it surprise me that writers learned the wrong lesson when it comes to business?

    Of course money should flow to the writer. Always. But what they aren’t getting is that idie publishing isn’t giving out an 85% royal to the writer. It’s combining the writer monies with the publisher monies. And PUBLISHERS HIRE STAFF!

    What kills me is that agents who become publishers (sorry LD…facilitators!) are actuallly some of the most expensive hires in the business. Sure, when I had an agent, I was on board for 15% year after year. Because the agent kept working for that money. (Doing agent work.) If he hadn’t, I would have fired him. Well… Sooner.

    But hiring an editor for a flat fee? A cover artist? As a new indie PUBLISHER why wouldn’t I? It’s not costing me my “writer money.” it’s a publishing expense. If writers want to say I’m using a vanity press, i have a term for those paying 15% for life to an agent doing that same job… A gullibility press.

  4. One thing that might help people when they’re trying to make this decision: someone who is good with Microsoft Word and knows the steps can take a manuscript and, so long as there is nothing more complex than chapters and paragraphs (ie. not tables and images), can produce an ebook in under an hour.

    Seriously.

    Of course, more than a basic standard of quality will eat up more time – particularly finding just the right cover image from a Stock Photo joint, and checking and double-checking that the formatting has come out nicely, fixing any issues which pop up, is where you start to get bogged down. But the actual process of creating an ebook (if you have standardised styles on paragraphs and headings) is a matter of Save As, Import, Add Cover, Add Metadata, Convert, Upload. [Slightly different order for Smashwords.]

    Most of the issues come from formatting in the Word document, and since I spend half my day job working out what the hell people have done with their Word documents, I could very easily make a little career out of creating ebooks for people. If I wasn’t deluged with all the books I want to write, I’d probably start up my own company.

    I cannot imagine anyone paying me 15% of their book’s profit for, potentially, 70 YEARS, for a few hours work.

    The only way these percentage offers could ever make sense to me is if they were capped at a certain amount or “for two years”. And there damn well better be a formal contract involved.

  5. David Lang says:

    do writers really want these people to start judging their work and telling them that they aren’t good enough to be published?

    that’s exactly what will start happening if you force these people to put in all the labor up front and only make money if your book does. they will start to ‘prioritize’ their work so that they only spend their irreplaceable time on projects that will make them money, the others they will just pass on.

    also remember that whoever takes the most risk will end up demanding (and getting) most of the money, so if writers want the people who convert the document from word and upload it to amazon to take risks, they need to expect to loose the money.

    writing a book is a gamble, the writer is gambling their time, but if someone is doing work or giving the writer money up front, that person is also gambling.

    remember the key with gambling, the house always comes out ahead.

    you can gamble on anything, it’s not always a good idea.

    I’ll bet you could find someone to take a bet that if you don’t write a bestseller that makes at least $1m in royalties for you within 10 years, they will pay you $1m in cash.

    of course, to get this, you may have to pay $150,000 a year for the 10 years until you collect.

    unfortunately, I’ll bet that a lot of people would not see anything wrong with this idea. (for those who missed it, you are paying $1.5m for the privilege of collecting $1m).

  6. Fantastic advice! When I decided to self-publish a few of my novels and short stories, I decided to pay a one-time fee for outside services such as book covers because paying 15% for the life of a book as an indie writer seemed fraught with way too many potential problems, as you’ve explained in great detail. This has worked out wonderfully for me. I pay the one-time fees and never need to worry about sending out payments after that.

  7. Amen.

    You know, I got into a bit of a tiff over on the Kindleboards last week. It was a different topic, but it came down to the same thing you’re talking about. A lady who’d sold a ton of ebooks (and made a lot of money because she sold them at $9.99) of the last year was being approached by a couple publishers. Not agents. Publishers. She posted asking for advice on what to do. One of the first comments, from another HIGHLY successful, and from what I can tell quite smart, indie author, was “You’re going to need legal advice. Do you have an agent?”

    I about went through the roof. Legal advice??? From an English Major who’s not a lawyer???

    So I went ahead and posted a link to Dean’s recent IP Lawyers post, and to Laura Resnick’s list of IP lawyers, and recommended the lady not use an agent for this. Because the publishers are coming to her. There’s no need to shop around, and if she does some VERY simple math she can easily figure out for herself what sort of offer she should or shouldn’t accept from these guys (if she even wanted to go there at all).

    Holy God, it was as though I’d just spat on some people’s mothers. I was surprised at the response I got: chock full of every myth that you and Dean have debunked on your blogs. From indie writers who (I thought) should know better, because they (supposedly) have a better grasp on business than most. Wow, was I wrong. Hell, one person even accused me of being sexist for responding very strongly to one person’s critique of my initial suggestion.

    I’ve not gone back to the kindleboards since. I’ve no idea what happened in the rest of that thread, and I’m not sure I care. I’m not sure I’ll go back to the kindleboards at all. That whole episode really put me off. Partly because I don’t think I behaved as well as I should have (the sexism accusation really pissed me off, and I let fly with a response without thinking). But also because I was so appalled at the lack of critical thinking that this thread revealed. Plus, holy cow the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the fact that it’s four days into a month and someone hasn’t sold 10,000 copies of their book yet this month is starting to really get old.

    Long story short, I totally agree with your sentiments here. It’s appalling how many people can’t be bothered to do even the simplest common sense analysis of things.

    But then, can we really be surprised? Common sense is actively discouraged in many other areas of life (politics and education spring to mind), so why be shocked when people behave in the manner they’ve been trained to over the years?

    Ok, that’s enough from me. It’s always a pleasure, Kris.

  8. Chasm says:

    Why do I get the idea that there is some room for a new service.

    Not unlike the already known agents and publishers but with a large dose of accountant added to the mix. Also adding much more transparency than in the current business models.

  9. Carradee says:

    Many folks get stuck in ruts. They learn something that works, they’re fine with that, and they don’t care to learn anything else. It’s the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” mentality.

    Others of us love playing to find better ways of working things out. I’m currently toying with some EPUB creators to figure out how to format my own e-books so they actually look nice, even in Stanza. (That’s a feat.)

    Okay, so I reach a point of “That’s good enough—for now.” I try again, I learn, and I make it better the next time. It’s fun—for me.

    I don’t blame folks for being intimidated by things changing. I don’t even blame them for lacking common sense (which I’m convinced doesn’t actually exist).

    It irritates me when folks stick their heads in the sand and yell “La la la!” and lambaste everyone else without understanding what’s actually going on. But I’ve realized that it will happen no matter what, so I might as well accept it.

  10. Can I have your friend’s name??? :)

    • Kris says:

      Lots of great comments here, y’all. I’m at Worldcon with limited time, so I won’t be answering everything today, except to say those of you who commented on the business side, that writers are becoming publishers, are spot on.

      And Libby, my friend is Cindie Geddes of Lucky Bat Books. (If any of you are at Worldcon, so is she.) Here’s the website: http://luckybatbooks.com/lucky-bat-press/

      I recommend her highly. Just saw some of the books she’s done, and they’re gorgeous. She has done some work for me too, and she’s exceptionally professional.

  11. The “money flows to the writer” mantra doesn’t apply with self-publishing. Once a writer self-publishes, he stops being a writer and becomes a publisher. And if you’re a publisher, money flows to everybody: writers, editors, designers, illustrators, photographers, typesetters, printers, distributors, and on and on and on.

  12. Bonnie says:

    How on earth can people not see that a flat fee is far better than a percentage *for life* ?! Right now, writing is a hobby and a marketing tool and in “real life”, I’m an acupuncturist. In business, I need treatment space. My payment choices for treatment space include either paying someone a percentage of all my patient charges or a flat fee monthly rent. A new practitioner is often attracted by the percentage because well, even 30% of zero is zero. However, most experienced practitioners, which means anyone with more than 1 year experience, know that flat fee rent is better because when you charge a reasonable hourly rate for yourself as an acupuncturist, 30% of that adds up quickly.

    New practitioners who do the percentage rate know that within a year or perhaps two they’ll either renegotiate their lease or plan to move and they’re prepared for this. The sad part about the analogy is that a writer can’t “move” once they are locked into this percentage basis on a book. Certainly they can make other choices for later books, but the choices they make on a particular book are locked in for life!

    I love the idea of flat fee. Yes, as someone who has never published before and is pulling out those books from a drawer to update and wondering who will purchase them, it’s scary to consider spending hundreds of dollars and spending it on things you don’t quite understand and not being sure if you will ever see a return.

    This suggests to me as a business person who HAS to do this to market an acupuncture practice that many writers don’t consider themselves a business. Businesses do this sort of investing all the time. If you want to make money in your business at some point you have to spend money.

    If a writer is thinking they need to go with the percentage, maybe they don’t seriously consider themselves a business–which makes me wonder how many hobby writers there are out there? At the very least how many writers out there are worried they’ll have to go off and get a day job tomorrow? Ironically, with the thinking that percentage based services are cheaper then the chances are far greater that yeah, one of these days they’ll have to go out and get a “real” job.

  13. Hi again, Kris.

    Sorry to hog your comment line, but after “hanging up” the last time, I got to mulling over that thread that had me all spun up. I began to think that maybe it’s not clear to some how a writer can actually figure out how to deal with that sort of situation. In particular, how to assess potential advance offers, from a finance and cash flow point of view. So I wrote a blog post about how much a writer should be paid, based on current and projected sales: http://bit.ly/ojqj8S
    Not to blow my own horn, but I think if more writers (specifically indie writers, but really any writer who has a history of past sales) look at things in the way I’m talking about here, they’d feel a lot more empowered going into contract negotiations.
    Ok, that’s enough shameless self promotion. :)

  14. jnfr says:

    When you pay for services up front, that’s not money being taken from you as a writer. That’s money you are spending as a publisher. Two separate roles, and authors need to be aware of which role they are in at any given moment.

  15. Beth says:

    It occurs to me that someone who takes money to publish a book is is a scammer. However, as you say: someone who takes money to get you a cover, to copy-edit a book, to walk you through how to upload it… Is not a scammer, any more than my friend is a scammer ’cause I paid her for a cover to one of my stories. (And then there’s another friend, who I had to practically force money upon, who would’ve let me use some art for free. “No way!” I cried. “That’s not fair to you!”)

    What’s the difference? Who is publishing that book? If the answer is “I am,” then the person you hire for the parts you don’t want to/can’t do is not a scammer, presuming they do the job competently and on time. If the answer is “they’re publishing the book,” and you’re giving them money? Then they’re still a scammer; run away.

    (Indeed, one can still use “who gets the money?” as a rule of thumb for how much potential for abuse is present. Do you get the check from Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, etc.? Or does someone else get it before you do?)

  16. Thomas E says:

    I am convinced that in both traditional publishing and indie publishing, money should flow towards the author.

    For traditional publishing, this is simple, because you are (generally) only an author.

    In indie publishing you are the author, and you are the publisher. As the publisher, you hire staff in order to publish the book. You pay these staff, one way or another.

    But, money should flow towards the author.

    This means, part of the plan should include paying yourself a wage from your work. Part of the break even calculations, before you start, have to include salary etc for writing time, as well as for the time it takes to publish the work.

    Both roles should pay.

    As an indie publisher, you need to pay your authors a decent wage. The fact “you” are your author shouldn’t make a difference: they are different hats.

    Time and again, it seems to me, people forget to include the actual costs of their time in costing projects.

  17. John Walters says:

    Some of the best time I’ve ever spent is when I carefully studied Mark Coker’s formatting guide (available at Smashwords) while creating my first short story collection. Then that and some free online Word guides got me through formatting for print, for CreateSpace. It took time, yes, but it takes less time with each subsequent project. I strongly recommend that whoever can should take that time to learn. It sets you free. It increases your versatility, and even makes publishing faster in the long run if you can do it yourself. It also saves money. Print covers I still get help with, but that’s all. Sometimes something new might seem like a mountain, like a huge obstacle, but when you approach it you can break it down into doable parts. For some of us financially-challenged people, DIY is the only way to go.

    But if I had to pay someone to do it, a one-time fee is a no-brainer. I have just begun to experience a very slow growth in sales. Do I want to share that? No way. That’s mine, and I earned it.

  18. It’s a whole new ballgame, and hopefully writers will realize that things have really changed–and will continue to change…

    If you’ve got “money always flows to the writer” chiseled into your brain, you need to at least engrave “but the publisher has to shell out sometimes” underneath it.

    Self-pubbing ain’t that hard. It’s maybe about as hard as learning to bake bread. Really, folks, if I can do it I figure pretty much anyone can…

    If there are new kinds of professionals moving into the field, there are also new kinds of scammers. I saw an ad for a self-editing course that was aimed at writers just getting into indie publishing, and it basically said (this is from memory, I’m paraphrasing here), “you need to take this course before you self-publish because you don’t want to embarass yourself”.

    Now that, to me reeks of scam–somebody preying on writers’ insecurities.

    Please, believe in yourself, people, and believe in your ability to grow and learn new things…

  19. Tori Minard says:

    Bonnie, I’m not an expert but I’d guess there are a lot of hobby writers and even pros who don’t think of their work as a business. When I joined RWA (Romance Writers of America) for example, I thought the other members would be pros or would-be pros like me, i.e. people who weren’t published yet but who were taking their work, their craft at least, very seriously. But they’re not. Oh, yeah, there are a lot of pros in RWA, but there are a whole lot of people who spend most of their “writing” time talking about writing and not actually putting words on paper. Or when they do write a story, they think somehow they’re excused from knowing the most basic grammar and punctuation rules (this is not a guess on my part; it’s something people have actually said to me). I’m not talking about “fine writing” here, I’m talking about writing that someone else can actually read. I even saw manuscripts that had been entered into contests (contests!!) when they were still peppered with spelling errors, many of which had been caught by my word processor, so I’m sure their program also flagged them.

    These stories were so poorly finished that they gave me headaches when I tried to critique them. Literally. Not a matter of style or personal preference, just a headache from trying to wade through all the mistakes, grammatical errors, etc., that made the stories hard to even understand. I wouldn’t enter a ms like that into a contest any sooner than I’d run down the street naked. But people do it all the time. If you can’t even spell-check your ms, you can hardly be thinking of writing as a business. Because what business owner in her right mind would offer a product like that to a customer and expect to be paid for it?

    And don’t even get me started on the agent thing. It’s truly like some kind of religious doctrine for a lot of writers. Like it’s the eleventh commandment — Thou Shalt Acquire an Agent and Thou Shalt Believe His Every Word. Maybe that’s what was on that third tablet Moses dropped in The History of The World. Anyway, talking to people like that is so frustrating, every time I try it I end up slapping my forehead and asking myself why I bother.

    Whew. End of Rant. Step down from the soapbox, Tori, and no-one will get hurt. :D

  20. Teri K. says:

    Michael, I know just how you feel. I used to hang out with some great writers online, but I can’t be there anymore because they so buy into the agent myth that they literally sit around on hold waiting for agents on the theory that “if I can’t get an agent my work must be worthless.”. When someone there lands an agent they whoop and holler, but I can’t in good conscience say ‘congratulations.’. It’s hard for me because I’ve been there myself. I had agents for both trade publishing contract I’ve signed, and I know they are useless for all the reasons Dean and Kris explain.

    I am glad Kris and Dean keep beating the drums trying to educate writers. I fear, though, that like teenagers who cannot listen to advice from adults, most writers just have to learn about life the hard way. When they finally see the light, a new crop of writers will come along pining for what they may perceive as the prestige of an agent. And of course, as Dean and Kris say, there will always always be writers who want to be taken care of. So agents will be around am long time, maybe forever.

    The only hope I see is if publishers come to see them as a nuisance or unnecessary.

    But isn’t it hard to watch other writers make the same mistakes we’ve made?

  21. **Calling Brad Pitt to see what we can arrange**

    Thanks again, Kris. Great stuff.

  22. Vanessa Grant says:

    Excellent common-sense advice. I hope everyone who reads this takes the time to think about the implications of the 15% deals before acting.

    Writers, the flat fee people are providing professional business service. Use them or not, as you choose, but give them the respect they deserve. Personally I am happy to use a flat fee professional and keep control of my work.

    Kris, thank you. I’ll be sending this to several of my writer friends.

    Vanessa

  23. Randy says:

    Y’know, if money’s tight and you can’t afford an a la carte service, why not trade? You might be a terrific editor but be horrible at formatting. You might write great blurbs but can’t knock out a decent cover. Find someone who is a good match and work out a deal.

    With that in mind, I wonder if someone out there might start a group for writers who wish to barter such services. I’d join in a heartbeat.

  24. When I published my first book, over 50 years ago, I didn’t know how to proof and type a ms. for submission, so I hired a professional secretary to do that for me, for a fixed price. I could not, and still cannot, imagine paying a proofreader or typist a percentage of my royalties forever. Why is today’s situation any different?

    Well, one reason it’s different (for some of the wanna-be writers out there) is this: “I’m an artiste. I cannot be bothered to learn the grubby details that support my craft. The world must recognize my great talent and supply me with a staff of servants to handle the grub-work, and also tie my shoes and polish my boots. And kiss my behind. (and dirty money is one of those grubby details. My great novel shall earn so many millions, why should I be concerned over a petty ten- or hundred-thousand?”

    People who feel this way have always been the lifeblood of con men (and women) through the ages. We’re not going to stop them, because it’s not ignorance, but arrogance. The arrogance is what produces the ignorance–which the arrogant one considers proof of their great talent.

  25. Great post, Kris, on a frustrating topic. Michael B and JNF hit the key point on the “money flows to the writer” response — the writer is now the publisher and an independent business person. If you’re in business for yourself, you will need to hire out services that you can’t or don’t want to do yourself. You are simply making a decision to invest in areas of your business.

    And I’ll also recommend Cindie and Lucky Bat Books. You can see some of the work she did for me at http://www.smithwriter.com/catalog/70

    Doug

  26. Beth says:

    Tori Minard: “Like it’s the eleventh commandment — Thou Shalt Acquire an Agent and Thou Shalt Believe His Every Word. Maybe that’s what was on that third tablet Moses dropped in The History of The World.”

    If it was, sounds like Moses was a self-publisher. ;)

  27. Bridget McKenna says:

    I have a couple of friends who have not yet had a novel published. One says, “Oh, it’s okay for you to go the indie-pub route, McKenna–you’ve already been published in print. But even though my book hasn’t found a home with any agent or publisher I’ve sent it to so far, I’m going to stick with the traditional route because I haven’t yet paid my dues.”

    Excuse me, my otherwise very intelligent friend? Dues? Is this a country club? Take a look around at an industry in utter chaos, and don’t get hit by any falling agents while you’re about it. The rules have changed while you weren’t looking. This might not be the best time to keep your eyes closed and pretend they’ve not. Any writer who thinks the process of being successful in the writing trade still necessarily includes being chosen by agents and editors needs a good smack round the ear. Don’t make me stop this car and deliver it. I’m just sayin’.

    My other as-yet-unpublished friend bought a good book on how to format and publish ebooks, designed a first-rate cover (and if he hadn’t been able to would have been happy to pay for one), and hired an editor to make a couple of passes on his first novel. He has established his own publishing company, and ponied up for a few ISBN’s, cos he’s already outlining the next two books. By the end of this month he’ll have his book out there looking for readers. This time next year, one of my friends will have readers and some income from his writing. You probably don’t have to guess which one. I know I don’t.

  28. Zelah Meyer says:

    As far as I’m concerned, the only thing I’ve got in to so far that I can’t walk away from if it doesn’t work out – is motherhood. That’s because I chose that knowing it was a lifetime commitment.

    Most other things in most people’s lives, including marriage and house ownership can be sorted out with a bit of expense, emotional upset and paperwork.

    The thought of giving X percent to someone other than the Government for years and years (in some cases, on paper for the lifetime of copyright) makes me shudder.

    Even the Government (in the UK anyway) lets you accept your own money first before you pay them their share. It has never seemed fair to me that a writer’s money goes through an agent (in effect, the minor shareholder) before it reaches the author. At least with a publisher, they are the one generating the money.

    Yes, if you put down money up front and don’t earn it back then you’ve lost out, it’s a gamble. Like most gambling though, you shouldn’t risk more than you’re prepared to lose.

    I think there are a lot of people who need a stamp of approval from an agent or publisher before they’ll feel like they’re a proper writer. I don’t rule out ever signing an agreement with an agent or publisher (especially for something like childrens’ fiction) but – if I do, it won’t be one of those ‘selling your soul’ lifetime ones! There had also better be more on the table than a stamp of approval!

  29. I honestly think that some people are afraid to be businessmen and women and so don’t want the publishing world to change. These are the people who attack Cindie when she talks about Lucky Bat Books and what the company is doing for authors.

    As a new author, I am so glad I found Cindie and Judith! They are good ladies. I think that they’re model of publishing is really the best that can be offered right now. It’s affordable and it’s quality. I’ve had many people compliment the covers of my books!

  30. Oops, I meant their model of publishing … see, this is why I need an editor!

  31. Silver Bowen says:

    Long-term, long-term, long-term. Think long-term. You have to think long-term in the new world of publishing. Everything you have to say in these articles is helpful, Kris, but I feel like this is the most important point. This should be the mantra of every writer from this point forward.

    Think long-term. Build to the future. Do the best you can now, and constantly strive to improve. Give away nothing, parcel out no percentages, retain complete control, flat-fee or DIY only, unless you have a carefully thought out reason that implies long-term benefits. Like promotions, loss leaders, etc. Like a business. It’s not about today or tomorrow, it’s about twenty years from now.

    One more time – think long-term.

  32. I like Randy’s idea… :)

  33. When people tell me that New York will publish their book “for free” I try to point out that no money up front is not the same as free. Some people understand, some don’t.

    I also try to explain that the differences in finances is pretty simple: In legacy publishing, it is the publsiher who takes on financial risk and is therefore the one to get the financial gain, With indie, it is the writer taking on the financial risk and the writer reaps the reward. This just seems fair to me.

    • Kris says:

      Thanks, everyone. I just got home, and will try to answer comments when my brain returns. (It’s still at Worldcon…) I appreciate that y’all kept the dialogue going. :-)

  34. I’ve recently had a wonderful experience with a flat fee publisher. I don’t know who your friend is, but Lucky Bat Books has been incredibly helpful to me. Judith Harlan couldn’t have been more professional or a better guide for a novice through the world of digital publishing. She arranged for an artist to do my cover and then uploaded the book to Amazon, B &N, Smashwords, etc. She set up my website and showed me how to run it. She also set up my author Facebook page and linked everything up. She provided exactly the services (and no more…never puhing for additional fees) I needed for my first book. The fees were more than fair. I intend to use Lucky Bat for my next book and others that I’ll be uploading in the near future. There may come a time when I will do some of this for myself, but I hope not. If my sales are good, then I’ll continue to use Lucky Bat and save my time for writing.

    • Kris says:

      Lucky Bat is the company I was referring to, Robert. I’m so glad you had a good experience with them. Judith and Cindie are great and professional. And great point about writing time. I’m certainly feeling that one this morning…

  35. Arinn Dembo says:

    I can see the value in both these models: a flat fee is more profitable for the author over time, but sometimes it is hard to pay all the risks up front. A press seems more “prestigious” and deserves some reward for doing important work and taking risks that the author alone is unwilling or unable to shoulder.

    I also see a third alternative. Not all presses have to be straight-up profit ventures. I would propose a cooperative press model, in which the small fee per sale that any given author pays would go into a common fund. The small portion of the profits for your book sales that you contribute might go help yourself AND other writers in your genre put up their own titles without too much risk: hire artists, pay set-up charges, buy ISBN’s. And if your co-op produced more than a small profit per year, you could use the common fund to publish academic texts on science fiction, fantasy and horror, produce an anthology for members of the press with payment per word, etc.–there are a lot of worthy projects that are never tried because no one sees the automatic Almighty Dollar Sign attached to them.

    Personally, what I am hoping will work for established writers who would like to put up their backlist is a simple reversal of the standard publisher/writer relationship. The writer gets the bulk of all profits and a right to quarterly reports of all receipts (and obviously any initial expenses). The cooperative press takes the tiny pittance per individual sale–a few cents on a paperback, a bit more on a hardback, a small percentage of e-book sales–and puts it toward the common good. The payments are used to set up your next book, and books for other authors. If the whole cooperative is enjoying success, maybe the press opens an anthology to submissions and creates a market for others. Spread the love a little, have these fees do some civic good.

    I suppose it might sound strange, given that the genre has traditionally been so dominated by the drive to make a profit. But many other literary communities have cooperative presses, some of which are quite successful and even become prestigious, and important community resource centers. I think it would be worth a try.

    • Kris says:

      There already are several coops, Arinn. Bookview Cafe is one. They trade services to put up the books. I know of a few others in the romance community (don’t remember the names right now) and am sure even more will crop up. It’s a good idea, and probably not all that hard for folks to set up.

  36. JJBrannon says:

    A friend of mine was an established SF/F short-story writer, reviewer, and editor with at least one short book under his belt when he began an ambitious project about a quarter-century ago.

    He told me that the best money he spent was hiring a copy-editor that he respected out of his own pocket because the long novel had many difficult names and scene shifts.

    The novel went on to win a fairly prestigious award. He’s readily credits his deciding to pay extra for the polish.

    “The laborer is worthy his hire” and “you shall not muzzle the oxen that treads out the grain.”

    JJB

    • Kris says:

      I used to be an editor, and I can’t live without a copy editor. I’m dyslexic and when I’m tired will often spell words backwards. (Or lleps sdrow sdrawkcab) Or I skip words and never see it. Copy editors find all of that stuff. I’ve already discussed how inept I am with covers. Everyone has different skills, and admitting what you can and can’t do is the first step toward improving your work.

  37. Like Doug Smith, I’ll also recommend Cindie and Lucky Bat Books.
    I just published a revised and reissued novel, CHILLER, that made me over $300,000 in the 1990s. On its own, in an edition with new introduction and afterword, it’s already selling in the first week.
    Every step of the way, Judith Harlan and Cindie and Lucky Bat Books made the project happen with great speed and craft.
    I’ll do my next book, a short story collection, with them too.