Indie Versus Legacy

by Tosh McIntosh

(Originally published 12/12/12)

Often when I read one of Brad Whttington’s posts, I get the feeling of “being behind the power curve.” That’s an aviation term for an undesirable condition in which full engine power is offset by very high aerodynamic drag, resulting in minimum airspeed. That same power setting with the airplane ahead of the power curve would result in maximum airspeed. You can think of it as using the most fuel to travel the least distance. In your automobile, it would be like pushing the accelerator pedal to the floor and spinning the tires trying to get out of the mud.

Two characteristics of Brad’s posts put me there: 1) I always learn something in retrospect that I should have known, and 2) he has a tendency to throw down the gauntlet with a statement like, “Now maybe we can convince Tosh to do a post on paying people royalties to do day-rate work.”

This subject relates to an essential consideration for any author when comparing the pros and cons of indie versus legacy publishing, especially now that literary agents are scrambling to offer publishing services to authors. Let’s ignore the fact that this is in violation of the Association of Authors’ Representatives canon of ethics and deal with the practical result of agents acting as publishers.

At the core of the current turmoil in the industry lies the prime motivator for agents and publishers alike, to carve out a piece of landscape in the new world out there. They no longer have a monopoly on printing and distribution, and it’s easier than ever for authors to create their own books and put them up for sale with the potential for reaching a market limited only by how aggressively the products are promoted. We have an alternative to legacy publishing that is more viable than ever before.

Authors and prolific bloggers Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch have written an extensive series of informative articles on how to think like a publisher. Two of their specific topics relate directly to the issue at hand, and they serve as the cornerstones of the title of this post.

Today’s publishing contracts typically contain addendums to the standard boilerplate of the past. One such alteration is to what’s called “the sunset clause” and refers to the criteria in the contract for determining when a book is declared out of print and all rights revert to the author. When sales drop below a defined number of units for a specified number of successive months, the author has the right to request and receive control of the book’s future, whatever that may be.

This is a very important point, because over 40% of all print books published end up as remainders, sold at deep discount or tossed into the maw of a pulping machine to become recycled paper. If a publisher has thousands of copies of a stagnant book lying around in a warehouse, they have every incentive to declare it out of print.

But with ebooks, unlimited virtual online shelf space costs them nothing. Why not hold on to the book rights and benefit from whatever profit potential exists in the future? The result is that publishers don’t want authors to utilize this escape clause, so they alter it to effectively retain rights to the book in perpetuity.

Let’s combine that with how publishers, and now their mutinous agent-cum-publisher sidekicks, establish the structure of royalty payments. They deduct expenses from the list price and pay the author a fixed percentage of the net. To toss a gauntlet back to Brad, we’ll let him provide the figures on how much he earned per copy in his traditionally published Fred trilogy. (Hint: Comparing list price to his cut of the profit pie was a jaw-dropper for me.)

The egregious result of this business model is most apparent when considering how the old guard is positioning itself to snatch control of the ebook from authors, most of whom don’t want to bother with production details. Understandably, they want to spend their time writing and leave the business side of publishing to others. And therein lies the trap.

“Let us handle all that,” they say, which supposedly will cover content/developmental editing, copy/line editing, proofreading, manuscript conversion to ebook digital format, cover design, and promotion/marketing.

“Oh, boy,” says the author. “That sounds like a great deal. No money upfront, and they just take a percentage of each book sold. What’s not to like?”

A lot, actually.

It’s as if you have just made a deal with your lawn maintenance company to pay them a percentage of the value of your home for a task worthy of no more than hourly-rate compensation. Your legacy-inspired and -trained compatriots in this business endeavor have just tricked you into paying in perpetuity for something that cost them a few flat-rate hours. The number of ebooks sold divided into their total venture capital expense quickly turns the concept of net into a dinosaur. After they get their money back, you are giving them the lion’s share of the list price forever.

Authors thereby become indentured servants to the new, improved legacy royalty, and it’s totally unnecessary. Hire someone to accomplish all the production tasks under the simple business concept of this service for that compensation and be done with it. Don’t fall for the temptation of making it easy.

In the long run, it’s just not worth setting up your lawn guy to inherit your house.

On Saturday, November 17, 2012, five AIW members will attend the second meeting of the brand new Lake Travis Fiction Writers and present an overview of four distinct paths to becoming an indie author. The segments are:

  • The role of the small press in the digital age—Deanna Roy of Casey Shay Press
  • Paths to getting published—Cindy Stone and Laura Resnick-Chavez of Violet Crown Publishers
  • Happiness is a legacy publisher in the rearview mirror—Brad Whittington of Wunderfool Press
  • Total independence and doing it all yourself—Tosh McIntosh of AviatorWriter Press

Without knowing the order of our presentations or how my colleagues will organize their remarks, I’ve decided to address the factors in the current publishing industry that nudged me to choose the indie option, explain why I elected to tackle each of the production steps myself, and describe the workflow required to publish a novel in print and eBook editions.

One of the issues all the presenters will face is that LTFW is so new, and its members appear to include only a few individuals who have either completed a novel or are currently writing one. I don’t think we want to let that diminish the message, however, nor do we want to liken publishing a novel to climbing Mt. Everest.

Here’s a list of my talking points:

Arrival of the eReader and advancements in print-on-demand technology have driven the publishing industry into a state of flux that shows no signs of abating.

From the author’s perspective, that’s good news because legacy publishers and their gatekeeper literary agents no longer have a monopoly on printing and distribution, and authors now have a viable alternative to legacy.

That said, the road to publication has to begin with a completed novel that represents a writer’s very best effort, worthy of a reader’s hard-earned money and commitment of time to read it.

Before you choose the legacy or the indie path to publication, consider carefully the advantages and disadvantages of each option.

Although submitting to agents in the hope of being offered a legacy contract deserves serious consideration by any first-time author, I had enough experience with the process to conclude that driving this road to publication has to be accomplished under a caution flag.

I believe it’s more difficult than ever before, and that the contract provisions currently being offered are much too biased toward the publisher.

Simply put, I saw no benefit in waiting any longer for the remote possibility of an offer, especially when combined with the high probability that I wouldn’t be able to accept it.

My decision to go indie included a commitment to minimize the upfront investment of venture capital, which imposed the requirement to teach myself how to accomplish all the production tasks necessary to publish a book. 

Following a brief description of my nine-step workflow, I’ll emphasize that while I did it all myself, I wasn’t alone because my fellow writers provided invaluable “think tank” advice and offered their expertise to augment areas in which I found myself lacking.

And then I’ll close by suggesting that the Lake Travis Fiction Writers have what it takes to create an atmosphere of writers helping writers in a mutual, collaborative exploration of their craft, dedicated to improving their skills, and assisting each other to think like a publisher.

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