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What's Driving Self-Publishing? "Company Policy."

Posted by on in The Business of Publishing
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While self-publishing experienced huge growth driven by authors who could not get publishers to pay attention to them and agree to publish their books, there are now very good authors—even authors who have deals with major publishers—getting into the self-publishing game. Why? Two words: “company policy.” And, no, I don’t mean banning casual Fridays. If only. I mean insisting on certain rights or royalty rates and refusing to negotiate on those rights or rates.

I have repeatedly been informed by publishers that they must have audio rights and that there will be no offer without the inclusion of audio rights. I have also been informed that they must have World English rights or even World rights, or they will not make an offer. This is not about negotiating the best package of rights given the advance; these are firm take-it-or-leave-it positions. Yet, in most cases, the editors have not even yet read the book!

Whenever I make a submission, I specify the rights I’m offering. And what I offer US publishers is the United States, Canada, and the non-exclusive Open market, excluding Audio, Film, TV, Graphic Novel, Comic Book, and other traditionally retained rights.

All too often, the editors respond by saying, “We appreciate your position, but it’s company policy.” Really? Company policy to withhold an offer or break off a negotiation over rights the house may or may not exercise? Company policy to alienate the author you want to do business with by drawing a line in the sand not after a series of offers and counter-offers, but at the very start? Seems like a terrible way to start a relationship.

At the end of the negotiation, an author should feel he got a good deal, that she trusts her publisher, that he or she looks forward to being in business with the publisher. And that they were treated respectfully during the negotiation.

Authors should feel excited about getting a publishing deal. Not as though they just agreed to an arranged marriage in which the terms were dictated to them. The vast number of authors who get publishing contracts do not get them after an auction or bidding war. Most are patiently waiting for editors to get to their manuscripts and make an offer. That doesn’t mean the offer won’t be for good money from a good publisher. But when the offer comes and it ignores that certain rights were on the table or it takes the position that getting World rights including Audio is company policy and those things are not negotiable, I think most authors end up feeling boxed in and bullied into giving up rights they would otherwise have hoped to license for additional advances and income elsewhere. Perhaps we should just be grateful that getting movie rights has not become “company policy” anywhere . . . yet.

And I understand authors can always walk away, but we both know that it’s not a realistic move. When Hachette had a months’-long dispute with Amazon, it could have walked away. It did not, because that would not have been a realistic business decision.

Fundamentally, these company policies are about making money. Publishers want every chance to make money. As do authors. But making these policies take-it-or-leave-it positions shows a lack of respect for authors and for the traditions of publishing. Sure, publishing is a long way from its days of gentlemen publishers who made deals over three-martini lunches, but publishers still buy the lunches for the agents and authors, if only to recognize the fundamental reality that publishing survives because good authors (and their agents) bring good books to publishers. It may be a buyer’s market (it always has been), but we must still recognize that publishers need authors.

On the other hand, authors do not need publishers. Not anymore. Amazon, CreateSpace, Ingram Lightning Source, Smashwords, Nook, and Kobo will happily take any author’s book and make it available in eBook or print format. NetGalley will help make it available for review. GoodReads will help you promote it with a giveaway. Sure, getting it into traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores may be harder, but it’s by no means impossible.

Publishers need authors. Perhaps that should be the first and most important “company policy.”