The Risks of Losing Book Control
When discussing the world of publishing, especially indie versus traditional, I’ll often bring up the concept of control as a factor in deciding which route to pursue. Being indie gives you almost complete control over every aspect of your book, while using a traditional route means trading some of that power over to them. But saying you lose “some” control of a project isn’t really much to go on. It doesn’t offer details of what to actually expect to lose, and how it might impact your work. Today I’m going to discuss a few of the areas where control is lost by the authors and gained by the publisher, how that can manifest when things are going well, and of course what the risks are if shit goes bad.
Before we dig in, please note that I’m definitely not implying every publisher will use their control to ruin or substantially change your book without your consent, that’s silly, those people are in the business to make money. These are merely things that can happen, risks you incur when giving over some control of the reins. As always, the best way to mitigate such issues is to do extensive research on the company and people you’ll be working with. No anecdotal or general advice is ever better than actually talking to the people in question.
Also, more or less everything I’m going to say is contract dependent. Get big enough, and you may have the clout to nullify these. For most of us, however, they’re facts that are unlikely to change.
You Lose Final Say
There are a lot of smaller, lesser incidents that fall under this umbrella, but most of them come back to this root truth. When you hand over a book to a publisher, the two of you are entering into a project where you both want to make the best book possible. They need it to be good so it will earn money, pay for the costs of creating itself, and (depending on your individual deal) make enough to recoup any advances they paid. In a perfect situation, this leads to give and take as you talk things through, trading ideas and solutions for any issues encountered until you’ve got a compromise that makes everyone happy. However, not all situations are ideal, and if you come to a truly impassable point on a manuscript, you are not the one who will make the ultimate call. Nor, honestly, should you be.
When you go to a traditional publisher, you’re mitigating risk. The costs of editing, marketing, cover design, and etc are no longer on your plate. If you get an advance, then you’ve just ensured the book earned for you no matter what. That risk doesn’t vanish, though. It transfers to the publishing company, who are now paying for all that and potentially your advance. I’m not saying you might not need it to succeed for other reasons, but outside of time investment, this book shouldn’t be in the red for you the way it is for the publisher. They assumed your risk, which is why they also get to take over the final say. To you it might be art, but for them it’s a product, one they need to succeed in order to keep buying and making more books. So it stands to reason that if you hit a true impasse, especially on something so significant that it could impact sales, then they’re the ones who decide which way to go.
Fiscally speaking, traditional publishing is far less inherently risky, but the trade-off for that is having to make sure you put your work in the hands of people you really trust, because you’ll need to.
You Lose The Future
Alright, that’s a bit of a dramatic title, but I couldn’t think of anything else that fit the message and the title-style for this blog. What I mean to say is that you lose the ability to plan for the future of your works with real certainty.
One of my favorite things about being 90% indie is that I have an unprecedented amount of control in my books, allowing me to set-up and pay off things with more surety than most authors in the traditional system can. For example, I think I’ve said this on enough places that its fairly common knowledge but if not enjoy the surprise: There is, technically, a very minor crossover between Villains’ Code and Super Powered: Year 4. Don’t feel bad that you didn’t catch it; the truth is there’s no way for you to have done so because without context from the Villains’ Code side of things it doesn’t look like a crossover. Now that’s a small payoff of a fun tidbit from down the line, and exactly the kind of thing I couldn’t do if I were more traditionally published.
For one thing, I couldn’t very well set-up a plot point I didn’t know for sure would make the final cut, and remember in traditional I don’t have the last say. Additionally, in traditional pub there would be no certainty that I would even get to release the later VC books that pay this crossover off. Remember, traditional is a business, with sequels usually dictated by previous sales. If you’re careful with contracts (and you should be) it is possible to retain the right to keep publishing the series yourself if your previous publisher passes on a sequel, but some contracts shut the whole thing down entirely, so pay close attention to your rights.
Even in the cases where the author is allowed to self-pub the series after having it traditional, that’s not a transition everyone is comfortable with. As a hybrid author, the idea of moving from one format to another is no issue for me at all, but for those used to the traditional system; it can be mysterious and daunting. Add in that nearly every writer is a creature 51% made from self-doubt, and hearing that your series didn’t sell enough to warrant a sequel will echo in the ears as “It wasn’t good enough.” One thing to consider, if you’re an author in this situation: the thresholds for indie success and traditional success are much different, because while going indie does require you to handle the fiscal risk, you also take home 70% royalties under Amazon, as opposed to traditional where you’re lucky to get half that. Higher profits per sale means a lower amount needed to break even, so remember that just because there’s not enough demand to support a whole company with your book doesn’t mean there isn’t enough to handle your own needs.
Keep in mind, there is trade-off for going traditional. It opens up new doors, new distribution options, all kinds of useful stuff. Plus, it puts your work in the hands of people paid to make books that sell. You’re getting access to professional editors, designers, and formatters who should be capable of top-tier work. For a lot of authors, especially those just getting into the job, that trade is a good one to make. I’m not here to say that traditional publishing is bad and has no place, only that taking either paths has associated costs. Some of the traditional ones can be invisible, if you don’t know what to look for, and I think the more an author knows going in, the more likely they are to choose the publishing route right for their needs.