Pay'in For It: How should writers pay for help with self-publishing?

In the wake of Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath's discussion of Eisler's move to self publishing (turning down a $500,000 contract in the process), Dean Wesley Smith has posted some thoughts that he disagreed with their views on how to get help in those bits of publishing a writer wasn't able to do, or didn't want to do: things like covers, formatting, and uploading the books. Today Dean, Joe, and Barry all posted a chat they had where they discussed these different opinions. Dean insisted that these services were "day labor" and that authors should resist paying a percent. Joe was adamant that they were worth a 15% fee to agents-turned-book-packagers who would take your book, edit it, slap on a cover, format it, and put it up online, managing the book and sending you a check when sales came in. Barry sort of took a middle road.

I am firmly on Dean's side in this issue. There's so many holes in the percentage idea that it would quickly turn into a nightmare, I think. Let me hit some of the major points here.

Two Models Enter - One Model Leaves

Right now there are two models for author service companies out there. One model is represented by places like Telemachus Press. These companies take the manuscript, and for a set fee that the company and author agree on, they edit the ms., create a cover, format it for print and ebook, and then give all that finalized work to the author. In some cases, I understand they have helped authors set up accounts for uploading those materials, or even uploaded them - but in the author's name, not the company's name. So income flows directly to the writer with no middle man. The writer retains full control of the work. And the company gets a nice fee for their work on producing the book.

On the flip side of the coin is the subsidy press. This is exemplified by places like Abbott Press, Westbow, iUniverse, and others. They take a hefty up front fee from the author, AND 50%+ of the earnings from the books as well. This is pretty obviously not as good a deal for writers, since they pay on both ends. But this, or something very close to this, is what agents are looking to move toward. They aren't looking at taking 15% for doing a full package, Joe. They're looking at 50%. Every time I've seen an agent blog about this and mention a number, it's been about 50%.

This IS the model a lot of agents want to move toward. They see the writing on the wall. They know that agenting as it existed in 2008 is a dead man walking. Some old style agents will survive to help manage deals with legacy publishers, but most will be losing their jobs soon. Being able to take those self published books that are costing them their old jobs, and earn 50% of the profits, would put them back into a good way to make a living from author's work again.

It isn't about 15%. Nobody is offering that.

But these models are mutually exclusive. If enough writers refuse to use the 50% packagers, then the one time fee companies will thrive and that will become the dominant model. If enough writers get sucked in by agents using their current pedestal placement to take 50% of a writer's profits, then eventually the one time fee companies will get in line too - they'd earn a lot more using the 50% model, so if it's working, why not?

And that's why it bothers me when well known writers like Joe espouse a percentage model. Because Joe, like Amanda, Dean, Kris, Zoe, and a number of other folks out there, influence hundreds of other writers and would be writers. What Joe thinks is OK will have impact on the future of publishing in general, because of all the other writers who will listen to him and follow his advice.

The percentage deal would leave us all worse off than the old traditional publishing model.


I Trust My Agent

I almost spat Coke all over my laptop when I read this. Direct quote from Joe. "I trust my agent." Also a direct quote from Dean - in one of his "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing" essays, where he debunks that myth. You don't trust someone in business, not if you want to stay in business. You build contracts, and you build ways to ensure both parties are following the contracts into those contracts. Without this, a business arrangement becomes a way for one side to take advantage of the other. It won't happen every time, of course; some people are ethical enough to avoid taking advantage even if they can. But it will happen, and often, if the deal is not evenly balanced.

If you go with a legacy publisher, you have the ability to audit them. You can check their accounts, make sure that they're paying you what they're supposed to. This has historically been somewhat more difficult when dealing with agents. Agents taking up the mantle of packager/publisher would have to open themselves to the high level of scrutiny by their partners, the writers. I'm just not convinced I see them doing that. Why should they? It's not part of their business model now, and "trust the agent" is so ingrained in writers today that I doubt there would be a huge call for it, not until major problems surfaced.


A Percent For Day Labor

Dean and Mike Stackpole have both talked about this quite a bit. Dean likens paying a book packager a percent to giving someone a percentage of your house to trim the hedges. I think that analogy breaks down a little, so let's use one that is closer to the point:

It's like a movie production company paying a percent of their gross receipts to the company making the posters that hang in theaters, or to the guy who drew the movie's logo. It's like an artist paying a percentage of auction sales to the person who made the frame for a painting.

But in a way, it's worse than those things, too. Because the artist would only pay the percentage once, when the painting sold. And when the movie left theaters, the percentage to the poster company would dry up. But an author who pays a percentage for book packaging pays it forever - for the life of the book, which could be decades, or could extend past the author's life. A writer's kids or grandkids could be dealing with that packager and whatever problems have occurred over the intervening years. Especially with so many of these places being small businesses, this is a potential nightmare in the making.


More Time to Write

My jaw pretty much dropped when I read this, too. Joe, you really need to go read Dean's Sacred Cows essays. (grin) They're good stuff, and you might find some eye openers there. Joe is a smart, canny guy - but I kept seeing him parrot Myths that Dean has been busting in his essays for a while now.

Joe's math is wrong.

He says that each project takes him 10-15 hours to get cover, formatting, descriptions, uploading, and corrections of problems done. He also said he'd done 13 original properties in the last year, and that packaging those had cost him time, enough time that at his writing rate (750 words per hour) he could have written an additional 97,000 words of fresh material in the last twelve months.

So Joe wants to give out 15% of his income for earning back 130 hours of work.

That only makes sense if 130 hours is more than 15% of your total annual work hours, though. Which is only true if someone is working 867 hours a year or less. That's 16.6 hours a week of work.

So if you're working more than three hours a day, five days a week? Then 15% is too much.

And let's not forget, these agents are the ones who want to charge 50%, not 15%.


Employee or Percentage?

Dean suggests hiring an employee to handle the tasks you want to delegate. Joe suggests paying an agent a percentage. Joe asks "What is the difference between hiring a fulltime employee (who you will need forever) or paying someone 15% forever?"

The difference is, the employee is not forever.

If you have a disagreement with an employee, you can fire that employee. If you dislike a book packager, depending upon the contract you might not be able to withdraw your book. Places which charge up front fees (subsidy presses I mentioned above) let you withdraw the book whenever you want (but generally bar you from using their packaging, formatting, and cover). They can do that because they charged an up front fee, so they are carrying no risk.

But a packager who is not charging up front fees will demand a contract of a certain minimum duration, or minimum sales number. By not charging up front for packaging, they take on risk, and therefore must have some way to ensure they get their money back on each book they do.

So no backing out if you have issues with them. You're stuck, just like in legacy publishing.

Suppose you decide to retire in twenty years, or thirty years, and not write anymore? You can lay off the employee. That cost vanishes, and your royalties continue coming in, unencumbered. But with the percentage model, the packager collects those fees even after you retire. They continue collecting their share even after you die. They continue collecting, potentially, for a very, very long time.


Packager as Brand Label

Joe says: "There’s a concern that the ebook market will become glutted with poorly written crap. A savvy estributor, who only releases edited, formatted, polished material, could very well become a brand label. Much like a publishing imprint. A book released by ESTRIBUTOR X could have a logo which automatically signifies to readers that this ebook has been vetted and is quality. I believe, in the upcoming years, such a stamp of approval could become very valuable."

And he's right. There's plenty of things out there which could cause the market to swing in bad ways for indie writers. But if you're going to a packager because you want to be seen as "vetted", then you aren't really indie publishing anymore, are you? You're back to a new legacy publisher again, with all the trimmings. Once begun down that dark road you have, forever will it dominate your destiny, and all that jazz. (grin) Once you hand packagers that level of control because you believe you need them to get readers, you hand them power over you, and lose your ability to confront them as equals.

It's possible Amazon will be forced to "stem the tide" of bad novels someday. I mean, YouTube hasn't needed to, but it could happen. I always thought that if that happened, Joe would gather 'round him a bunch of other bright people and found a collective of indie writers who produced books together, forming a sort of "indie collective", vetting new members for quality, and using the collective name as a brand that gave that set of indies stability, reputation, and power.

It's what I'd be looking at.

Anything less is simply clipping on a fresh collar and handing the chain to a new master.


Bottom Line?

The bottom line is that publishing is changing. Indie publishing opens new doors and new opportunities for writers. Not the least of those opportunities is that because there are now alternate options for publishing a book, writers have a better potential bargaining position with legacy publishers than they have had in decades. We have the ability to write and publish what we want, and the power to help guide the sweeping changes taking place in the industry today.

But when we pay a percentage to someone, we lose some of that control. We take a step back from that power. I'm not saying that there is no time for a percentage deal. Suppose you were making a multi-media book, with music, special programming, and video elements. Is it reasonable to pay the other creative artists a percent for a shared creative effort? Much like a co-written book, it certainly could be. And of course, you're sharing royalties with legacy publishers if you use them - which can be incredibly beneficial under the right circumstances.

But as a general rule, for your short stories, novellas, and novels? Why would you pay a percent for something you can get for a flat fee? And just as important, if you start paying a percent now - will the places who offer a flat fee still be around in five years, or will the entire industry have moved back to a percentage model, where only those writers who submit and are accepted by agent-packagers or legacy publishers can see their books in print?

We have the ability to shape these changes. So do legacy publishers, and even more so do agents (because of their position of trust with so many authors, and because they already tend to understand business much better than writers). If writers today are not wary about which changes they accept, the future could easily be one where writers have merely traded one boss for another.