For those that don’t know, I’m self-published. Quite decently well, too. I pretty much run my own tiny publishing house, but for all that, I actually don’t have any issue with traditional (in this case, other publishing companies) publishing. I think there is a place for them in the ecosystem of writing, especially the big 5.

Even outside of that, there are groups that do really well in their niches. 


Traditional Publishing, Small (or Indie Press) and Other Definitions

Before I get in too far, some quick definitions. Realise that most definitions used are in flux and created by shared use, so often people end up talking at cross purposes. 

Traditional publishing as generally defined is when a 3rd party who pays you to publish your work. This term encompasses both the big 5 publishing companies and smaller publishing houses.

Hybrid publishing and Vanity Publishing are often the same, though not always. In both cases, you as an author are paying the publisher to put your work out. The amount and levels are often what separate the two, but MANY vanity publishers (i.e. people out to scam authors) have started calling themselves hybrid publishers. There are a few legitimate hybrid publishers, and often at first glance, they’re always hybrids or vanity’s. It’s often in the contracts in the small print (things like requiring you to pay for ‘their’ editors or their cover designers or buying a set number of books, etc.). Mostly, avoid.

Small press publishers are any publishing company with revenue under $50 million by one definition. The term indie publisher or indie press is also used for them, and they used to make up to 50% of the publishing marketplace in the US. They’re a much smaller proportion in Canada for… well, a lot of reasons we won’t get into now.

Of course, indie publisher is also a term people like me like to use to describe what I do. Partly because I publish others (in a co-author arrangement mostly for sure); but also because I have employees and contractors and multiple releases a year. That kind of gets confusing, when people ask.

There’s another term I’ve seen tossed around, which I personally like, that helps differentiate certain types of small presses and that’s digital first publishers. These aren’t just indie publishers like me but also includes people like Tor.com and their like, where the focus isn’t the paperback release but a digital release. If there are print versions, they are often Print-on-Demand unless said work becomes extremely popular.

Agents and Contracts

So, most of the big 5 traditional publishers require authors to have an agent. It didn’t use to be that way, but as I understand it, it has very much become the norm. Now, it’s possible if you are large enough and/or have a close enough relationship you can get away without an agent, but for the most part, many places require agents.

Smaller press, smaller publishers and on occassion, even the big 5 imprints might have non-agent submissions, sometimes for a few days, sometimes on an on-going basis. Most digital first publishers (especially those who have grown out from self-publishing) are often agent free. So it’s not impossible to get traditionally published (i.e. published by someone else who bears the cost of publishing and marketing) without an agent. 

They just make life easier.

In general, agents take between 15-20% of your gross revenue (i.e. what you as an author get paid). The amount varies depending on the type of revenue. The SFWA has a model agent contract that outlines the amounts you can expect so it’s a good place to start if you ever get an offer. 

In many cases, the agent will require that the publisher pay them first and then, after that they will pay the author. Which is strange to me in a way, since publishers can either split payments or even, pay the author first (who can then pay the agent, who works for them after all). But that’s the way it’s done, and it’s unusual for it to be different (though you can ask for split payments when possible, and should I feel).

Here’s something I did learn recently though.

Industry standard is that agents do NOT include an audit clause in their contracts. It’s contended that since you get royalty statements, you don’t need an audit clause – you should be able to tell how much you should get. And that’s not wrong (assuming publishers get royalty statements to you on time).

However, this assumes that the author knows enough to ask for those royalty statements and that they even knew such a deal was coming through. For example, a renewal on an options contract might never be informed (or lied on) to the author. Money arrives, and they’re never told. You wouldn’t even know to ask.

A foreign rights deal happens, but again, isn’t informed. Or gets paid fast but you aren’t informed till much later.

That’s what a full audit is supposed to catch, if done right. Reviewing the books and yes, e-mails, in detail can provide much needed clarity. 

Of course, the truth is, a proper audit is incredibly expensive. The amount of time and expertise involved makes it very unlikely that anyone would ever utilize one unless they believed there was significant amounts missing. Even the SFWAs model agency contract doesn’t specify a full audit. 

However, the fact stands that the existence of such a clause gives the author an option, a chance to review things if they are deeply concerned. The fact that agents don’t have the clause available as a matter of course seems incredibly concerning, especially considering the length of many publishing contracts these days.

Planning for the Future

What do I mean for length of contracts? Well, it used to be that most publishing contracts ran out. They had renewal options, but they did run out. However, the majority of new publishing contracts are for life of copyright. That is life of author + 50-70 years (depending on jurisdistion). 

That’s a very, very long time.

You might – completely legitimately – trust your agent. They are your ride or die buddy.

However, often you’re signing the contract not with the specific agent but with their company. Even if you do sign with the agent (a one-man show); there’s no guarantee you (or them) are going to be the individuals handling the contract in 20/30/50 years from now. 

What happens when you die? What happens when they die? Or less morbidly, when they retire? These funds are still routing to the corporation you signed with. Who is the one handling it? 

Always look at contracts and the term and who you might have to deal with in the end. Not just the person you’re talking to now, but potentially long into the future. 

Do you trust, unliaterally, a random individual who you don’t know with the money and your IP? Can you? 

My point is, you shouldn’t. So, please, please – ask them for an audit clause.


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