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Why Indie Authors Should Support The Call For Fairer Publishing Contracts

Why Indie Authors Should Support the Call for Fairer Publishing Contracts

Photo of Jane Steen

Indie author and campaigner Jane Steen

It's easy for indie authors to assume that trade publishing issues don't affect them, given that they've made the decision to ply their trade outside the traditional sector. English author Jane Steen, who is based in the USA, explains why she believes all authors, no matter how they are published, should join forces to lobby for fairer contracts and respect for authors' rights.

Two venerable author advocate groups,  the UK’s Society of Authors and the Authors Guild in the USA, have recently stepped into the limelight to announce that they are fighting for fairer contracts between publishers and authors. The impetus for these actions seems to come from reports that authors’ median incomes have dropped precipitously since 2009, while publishers have fared far less badly.

Industry journalist Porter Anderson here summarizes the situation for the UK’s leading industry publication, The Bookseller. In short, the Authors Guild’s Fair Contract Initiative seeks to empower authors to stand up for their rights, while the Society of Authors is seeking legislative change – an interesting comment on the differing political environments of the two countries.

Should Indie Authors Care?

Should indie authors care? In a word, yes. ALLi’s attitude toward trade publishing is to see it as one of many options open to authors.

Yet in the broader indie world there’s sometimes a tendency to use reports of any and all ills in the corporate publishing sector as proof that self-publishing is the better way, (indeed, for some, the only way), and that all authors should leave their agents and publishers behind and embrace entrepreneurship.

I’m here to argue that we should not only care about fair contracts in trade publishing, we should actively support the advocacy efforts of our sister author organisations:

  • because it shouldn’t be about taking sides. Yes, many indies have gleefully shaken the dust of corporate publishing off their feet after, one or several, bad experiences with agents or publishers. Others have decided from the outset that the entrepreneurial spirit, retention of rights and flexibility of indie publishing is the right business model for them. But it doesn’t make sense to ignore what’s happening to traditionally published authors. For one thing, many indies are trade published too—they still have books in the corporate publishing world, or they choose to move between the two models as it suits them. For another, we’re all authors following the dream of reaching readers and being read.
  • because fairer terms for content creators (of all stripes) is a principle we need to stand up for. We, the creators, are the essential element in publishing. We’re also the most vulnerable, because we tend to work alone. Indies and trade authors alike are at the mercy of the large corporations that provide the platforms and/or the investment capital through which we publish. Right now the issue is being fought on the corporate publishing side, but last week it was the changes to the Kindle Unlimited program that were grabbing the headlines. We need to stand up for a fairer deal for all of us, however we choose to publish.
  • because a healthy corporate publishing industry is good for indies too. And by healthy, I mean one in which the value of literature is preserved and authors are allowed to develop their careers without constantly looking over their shoulder for the next scam or rights grab. Where new authors are given a fair chance at building a readership before their contracts are dropped. I don’t think anyone can claim that the current publishing industry is healthy, or open to scrutiny, or supportive of diversity and originality. It’s not serving readers well, and to be financially successful in this unhealthy market some indies are finding they have to restrict their own creative freedom and write the same book more than once. Price structures are Dickensian, copyright law is a tangled mess unsuited to the global market, and sales tracking is spotty. Fair contracts could be a first step on the road to a 21st-century creative content market.

How to Support the Campaign

Photo of Nicola Solomons speaking at the House of Commons

Society of Authors Chief Executive Nicola Solomon calling for fair pay for authors at the House of Commons, London, July 2015

How should indies show their support? As a first step, consider joining your local Authors' Association if you’re eligible and that feels right to you. ALLi's Open Up To Indie Authors campaign has seen most associations now embracing indie authors and understanding they can learn a lot from us.

Going forward, simply make your support for these initiatives known.

And don’t talk about authors who publish through a corporation as if they’re from another planet. They are us.

Do you agree with Jane? Please feel free to join the debate and add your voice to the campaign via the comments box below.

Author: Jane Steen

Jane Steen is the author of the House of Closed Doors mystery/saga series set in 1870s Illinois, and of the Scott-De Quincy Mysteries; the first in that series, Lady Helena Investigates, is now available. Born in England, she spent 16 years in Belgium and 19 years in the USA before moving back to the south coast of England. Fun facts: she was named after Jane Eyre, and contrary to all appearances she has a black belt in karate. Be warned. She blogs at www.janesteen.com and reviews and writes features for the Historical Novel Society.


This Post Has 17 Comments
  1. Now the Authors Guild is suddenly concerned about shitty contracts? That’s a bit late. Moreover, considering that associations’ past (and present!) actions (I mean, that amicus brief? really?!?), I’d hesitate to support *any* of their campaigns, no matter how worthy.

  2. The Author’s Guild is a misnomer. It should be called the Publishers Guild. Until a big name author is willing to put his paycheck on the line to support midlist authors, the entire thing is a joke. And the secret deals with NDAs many big name authors sign, which give them much more favorable terms than the midlister is the elephant in the room that publishers, agent and those big names don’t want to talk about and share.

    Look at how vaguely Publishers Marketplace announces deals. And they have to take the word of the reporting agent. I know for a fact one big name agent who misrepresents some of his deals, inflating them. I have copies of the contracts and the reports and the two are very far apart.

    The Authors Guild is also supporting “Authors United” another misnomer in their desire for an action against Amazon. Yet, every single member of “Authors United” has their books still on Amazon. In any other area that’s called hypocrisy. But that’s the standard in publishing. Until someone puts their paycheck on the line, I don’t see any reason to support these people or organizations. I have never, in over a quarter century in publishing, working with four of the Big Six (then) saw a bestselling author put anything financial on the line for the others who aren’t at their level. I’m sure it happened, somewhere, sometime. I just missed it. I’m looking forward to seeing Scott Turow, Doug Preston, Malcom Gladwell and the others do this. It would be most welcome.

    1. Thanks so much for dropping in, Bob, and I must say I agree that traditional author organizations (and particularly Authors “United”) seem rather clueless about what life is like for vast swathes of authors and particularly clueless about Amazon’s role in self-publishing. Glad to see this point being articulated. Also, until authors unite in a meaningful way, to work together as in, for example, the Hollywood screenwriters strike of some years ago, this move is unlikely to convince many of the money folk in trade publishing. I agree with you that authors organizations should speak out on behalf of authors and readers, only, not publishers. On the other hand, ALLi does — and always will — support any move, or attempt, to make life better for any author.

  3. i wholeheartedly agree that we should support this initiative. We are all authors, and any “Them vs Us” divide serves only those who seek to take advantage with lousy contract terms, or those who (for whatever reason) feel the need to justify their publishing choices.

    As a yet-unpublished author, I’ve been trying to remain realistic and keep all my options open from the moment I realised there were even publishing choices to consider.

    Thanks for sharing the Authors Guild link, Jane – they mention that there are around one hundred conditions in a “standard” boilerplate contract, conditions they’ll back down on IF the author has an agent or lawyer that is aware of how negotiable those conditions are.

    For me, as a writer of SFF, that’s important to know – because there are a couple of BIg 5 houses that do accept unagented submissions, and they also happen to be the big name houses in SFF. Another reason is that twice in the last two years I’ve seen open calls from Big 5 imprints for SFF. There’s one happening next month.

    Sure, the odds are never in our favour, but IF one were to be offered a contact, it would be good to know exactly what that really means. The link also mentions they’ll be posting more on those negotiable contract conditions – I hope Alli will keep us updated!

    many thanks,

    1. Hi Piper,

      Read any contract that’s offered to you carefully, and it can be worth paying an IP lawyer to look it over. Think about how much your book is potentially worth to you! And good luck with your future career choices.

  4. I think ALLi’s definition of an indie author is relevant to this discussion — thanks so much Jane for kicking it off: Below is from our FAQs, on our website:

    What is an independent author?

    At ALLi, “independent” is an inclusive description and always relative (everyone needs support to write and publish well). Some of our members are fiercely indie-spirited, as DIY as it’s possible to be. Others are happy to collaborate with a publisher where that seems advantageous, some working with paid publishing services, others with trade publishers.

    So what marks out an indie from other authors? The Alliance allows that you are an independent author if:

    You have self-published at least one book.

    You see yourself as the creative director of your books, from conception to completion through publishing and beyond.

    You expect that status as creative director to be acknowledged in any partnership you negotiate, whether a paid author-service, or in a deal with trade-publisher or agent e.g. if you have an established author platform, you should receive a higher royalty rate and advance than an author who does not.

    You recognise that you are central to a revolutionary shift in publishing which needs to move from seeing the author purely as a resource (in the new parlance ‘content provider’) to respecting the author as a creative director, with much to offer — and be rewarded for — in each step of the publishing process.

    You are proud of your indie status and carry that self-respect into all your ventures, negotiations and collaborations for your own benefit and to benefit all writers.

  5. Thanks for this excellent post. The only way for authors to enjoy the best of both worlds is to start seeing it as one world in which we’re free to move seamlessly between MOs based on which tactics are most advantageous for any individual book.

    1. Thanks Joni! I agree that moving between both worlds seems to work very well for some authors, although most successful indies agree that a trad deal has to be very favorable to induce them to change their business model. This is a rapidly evolving area, with new players emerging every day–small presses, new forms of publisher (see today’s Canelo launch) and agents who want to work with indies–who knows what the picture will look like in the future?

  6. Until traditional authors/publishers and their associations recognize and support indie/self-pubbed authors, I will leave them to their own devices. As far as I’m concerned it’s a free-for-all in a dog-eat-dog industry, and I’m far too busy making it go right to be overly concerned about their mistreatment at the hands of traditional publishing’s greedy profit mongers. They should know better than to sign with those pirates in the first place.

    1. Both the Authors Guild and Society of Authors recognize indie authors, who are welcome to join their organizations under very low entry conditions. I’m not sure how a trade publisher would support indies, though! Any ideas are welcome…

  7. As a former business professor, I have to ask, what is fair? The simple fact that author earnings are down does not necessarily equate to “unfair.” A person used to be able to make a living as a milkman. Do we have them anymore?

    I am not equating published authors with milkmen, of course, but times change. With the advent of the internet and gaming, it is not surprising that the landscape is changing. It could be because the publishing houses are colluding in some what and acting unethically or even illegally. It could be because of other factors. I simply do not know. All I do know is that it would take a pretty amazing offer for me to consider going trad publishing.

    IF the publishing houses are acting unethically, I would wholeheartedly support our trad-published brethren. But I don’t know that as of now. And if our trad published brethren are being treated unfairly, I invite them to come over to the dark side. If there are no writers, the trad houses will have to offer better terms.

    1. I think the Authors Guild does a pretty good job of outlining what they mean by a fair publishing contract at https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/the-authors-guild-fair-contract-initiative-a-preview/

      They’re being very specific about certain terms in publishing contracts, particularly those offered to new writers. I don’t think anyone’s saying the publishers are being unethical, or even unfair–they are acting as corporations act, trying to maximize their benefit in a contractual relationship.

      In a sense, I think the AG and SoA are attempting to educate authors about what they should be asking for. If they don’t get better terms, authors certainly have options–they can hold out for what they want or they can go indie. But the indie option isn’t for everyone, and there are too many authors willing to accept lopsided arrangements in their eagerness to be published.

  8. I was in attendance at the Society of Authors All Parties Writers Group gathering where the Chief Executive Nicola Solomon amongst others were calling for fair pay for. It was not simply a nice occasion but all the speeches by MP’s as well as SoA, and ALCS made powerful presentations to bring home the need for such a campaign. Its success will in part will be the ‘collaboration’ of all umbrella bodies + Authors to cause indigenous publishers to review the historical practices and bring about a fairer ad more equitable deal for Authors.

    We tend to use acronyms and one of mine in terms of experience is E&A. The point where Author’s finally secure a publisher to take on their book at which stage there is a sense of Euphoria, celebrating and then waking up the next morning with a renewed sense of Anti-climax with the realisation that they have just signed all their rights way for little or not upfront fee; the potential that their creative cover design might be ripped up and replaced to appease a consumer market with any regard to reference to the Author; and ‘possibly’ some royalties although to what extent that might be payable is equally questionable.

    This is a changing a hugely competitive time with not only austerity impacting, but also new emerging markets, technology now playing a huge part is promotions, marketing, distribution, and sales, creating a sea of competition not before seen with so much wide choice for the reader/buyer that we are left with the question why would anyone want to buy my book as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of others out there in the public domain!!?? Spoilt for choice? Price comparisons with varying deals; lending, pay per page; and so the list grows.

    ALCS recent stats [with copyright acknowledgement to ALCS] says it all: Only “2/3rds of respondents and received an advance at some point in their career.” A decline since 2006. “The size of advances is falling by 44%”, again a decline over the past 5 years. Buy-out Contracts 46% of authors have signed buy-out contracts at some point in their career”. As much as “30% of authors had seen an increase in such contracts over the past 5 years”. Self-publishing: “The top 10% among self-published authors made a profit of £7,000 or more”. “The top 20% earners among self-published authors made a profit of nearly £3,000”. “The bottom 20% earners among self-published authors made losses of at least £400.”

    Let us all join in this commendable campaign and work together to bring Author’s contracts into the 21st Century that gives Authors a fairer playing field to encourage creative content in the interest of all – not least the readers and buyers of our books in whatever form.

    1. “Encourage creative content in the interest of all” pretty much sums up what we all want, I think, Gordon. All authors need the freedom to develop their careers and an industry structure that allows them a chance to earn a modest living–if they work hard enough at their craft to attract a readership, of course.

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