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How Indie Authors Can Work With Trade Publishers

Jackie Collins Independent Author

Jackie Collins now successfully combining self-publishing and trade-publishing

Today, in the fifth and final part of our ‘Which Distributor’ series, Orna Ross explains how independent authors can successfully work with trade publishers to distribute some of their books.

At a writers conference, an agent and writer are putting out tentative feelers towards each other. The agent is from a venerable company, with a long list of illustrious clients. The writer is an independent author, who has earned her indie spurs by successfully self-publishing two ebook thriller titles (with more on the way) and building a vibrant and growing fanbase, both for her books and her writing advice website.

The agent wants to sign this author, who is young, hardworking, full of ideas, with many books ahead of her. The author is actively seeking a trade publisher, because she wants a third party to handle print.  For her, print takes too long and requires the sort of activities that don't interest her. It's the one thing trade publishing can do better than she can do for herself, she believes.

The two talk, they seem to understand each other. Back home, the agent sends over an  Author Representation Agreement but before she's read too far, the writer is concerned. A clause states that the agent will take a commission on all of this indie author's income, including self-published work.

The agent's logic belongs to traditional thinking, that having a trade publisher increases an author's self-published income, but it fails to acknowledge that this works both ways. And, arguably in these technologised times, far more in the opposite direction. The agent has misjudged her prospect and shown an inherent disrespect for this writer — for her hard work to date, for her achievements, and for her aspirations and creative plans for the future. For her indie spirit.

Just having that clause in the standard contract is enough to give the writer pause. End of negotiation.

Independent Authorship and Self Publishing Are Not Synonymous

The number of ALLi members who use trade publishers to distribute some of their titles makes it clear that, contrary to what many people still think, being an indie author does not mean that you only self-publish. Though the indie movement rose out of self-publishing, it has gone beyond it.

But many agents and publishers need to rethink what they do and how they do it if indies are going to be interested in working with them.

As one of our members, Bob Mayer, who has successfully combined trade and print publishing put it recently in Digital Book World: “The product is the story.  Not the book, not the eBook, not the audio book: the Story. The consumer is the reader.  Not the bookstores, the platform, the distributor, the sales force: the Reader. Authors produce story.  Readers consume story.  If anyone is in the path between Author and Reader they must add value to that connection.”

We have a number of members who attest that trade publishers can add value for indies but only if the author's status as creative director of the book through all stages of the process is acknowledged.

Acknowledged by contractual terms and conditions, not lip service.

How Indies Work With Trade Publishers

The acceptance of self-publishers by trade publishing is a new phenomenon, so we are in the early stages of devising new ways for working together. Indies who want to go this route need to think very carefully about the value that is actually being added at all three stages – getting the book written, getting it published, getting it read.

Most crucially about what the publisher will bring to each format (ebook and pbook) that it has a stake in. For indies, it often makes sense to offer print rights only, if only to get agents and publishers thinking about how they can add to the author's existing digital presence.

Each author and each book will be different but to work successfully with trade publishers, you need to:

  • Position yourself as an equal-partner not merely a ‘content provider'.   You will shun the disrespect for writers inherent in publishing terms like ‘slush pile' and ‘list-culling' and see yourself as entering a creative business partnership as an equal player.
  • Establish that you are the creative director of your book.  Of course when you sign a publishing contract, you enter a collaboration but an indie author rejects the cap-in-hand, publish-me-please attitude fostered in writers by traditional publishing practices, and will have creative expectations and requirements.
  • Have creative input at all three stages of the process.  One of the main reasons experienced authors turn to self-publishing (it's why I did so myself) is lack of creative collaboration in the choice of title, the look of the jacket, the tone of the blurb, the press and marketing campaign.  “You do kind of give up some control” with a trade deal, says indie millionaire Amanda Hocking, who took on St Martin's as a publisher last year. But “I kind of had a little bit of a name for myself before I went with a publisher. [So] I think I get more influence… I've had say in everything.” 
  • Seek contractual terms that reflect this respectful, collaborative, equal partnership. The writer who parted ways with the traditional agent in the story that opens this post was our UK advisor, JF Penn. Joanna's story has a happy ending, as she is now signing with a more forward thinking agency. “As an indie, I've used business partnerships with professional editors, book cover designers and formatters. I also depend on distributors like Amazon, Kobo and BookBaby. I look at signing with an agent, and a traditional publisher, in the same way. They are business partners who I will work with to achieve a mutually beneficial goal.”
  • Pay close attention to terms and conditions — particularly royalties, pricing,  licensing, and reversion of rights clauses. Seek vastly different terms for ebooks and pbooks, where necessary.  
  • Choose different ways to market for different books.   Boyd Morrison turned to self-publishing after his thriller series was dropped, mid-contract, by his trade publisher. “It might seem like I would become a rabid self-publishing advocate because of my situation,” says Morrison, but no.  “My goal is to get my books to readers in the best possible way. If that's through a traditional publisher, great. I'm thrilled to be with Little, Brown UK [and] I have hardworking publishers around the world, with books being released in the next few months in Israel, Germany, Italy, and Thailand and, in the U.S., Simon and Schuster [the company who dropped the series] will continue to be the publisher of my first four books for the foreseeable future. But sometimes, as with The Roswell Conspiracy in the U.S., self-publishing is the best (and in this case, only) option. I'll take on all the risk, but I'll also reap the rewards if it goes well.”  Jackie Collins is about to self-publish The Bitch, a book she successfully trade published in the 1970s. She will simultaneously use St Martin's Press in the US and Simon & Schuster in UK to publish her 29thbook The Power Trip.
  • Recognise that self-publishing is central to a revolutionary power shift in publishing and help more traditionally minded players to open up. “Traditional publishers should not fret over authors self-publishing non-competing work (and should take a liberal stance on what constitutes “competing”), says indie James Scott Bell who is very successfully doing both. “An author who makes more readers helps the traditional publisher sell more of that author's books.”

ALLi's Code of Standards encourages all members to be proud of our indie status, and to carry that pride into all our ventures, negotiations and collaborations — not only in the interests of our own success, but also to further the empowerment of all writers.

Self-Publishing: The New Slush Pile?

Self-publishing is now a recognised pathway to trade publication but unless we want self-published work to just become the new slush pile, just a way for publishers to find tried-and-true prospects who have already done the hard work of finding readers, we must understand what the power-shifts in this new and rapidly changing publishing landscape mean for us as indies.

The shift in power towards writers is making many people uncomfortable, including many writers. It's an old story: with power comes responsibility and that can be scary. The danger is that the fear factor – nervousness, anxiety, dismissing all trade publishers as the enemy, monetarily undervaluing our indie achievements, not preparing for effective negotiations – could see us selling ourselves short.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the publishing industry carved up territorial copyright and royalty incomes on conditions that were very favourable to publishers and very unfavourable to authors. As a result, the typical income for a professional author is one third below the national wage in the UK.  And as bad, or worse, in other countries.

Now at the beginning of the twenty-first, we are at a turning point. We now can directly  reach our readers. This, and the increased incomes that many of us are enjoying, is not something to undervalue and neither is the century of expertise in book production and brand building that trade publishing has accumulated. 

In this critical time of flux, when everything is being reconfigured, how we independent authors position ourselves when the trade publishers and their agents come calling — as they surely will when we self-publish well — is critical.

It has implications for all indies, and for the future of all writers and publishers.

Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


This Post Has 13 Comments
  1. Thanks Joni and Roz. The agent’s role is critical and we’ll be doing another piece in a while about the indie approach to working with agents. It’s a delicate balancing act to position your agent to go and get you the best possible deal — especially if what you want falls outside the usual. This is where it often falls down for indies, in that very first conversation, where the writer leaves things too open. Many agents are reluctant to seriously challenge traditional publishing practices, because it is the publisher who writes their cheques. An independent author will get clear about their ideal outcome and what is, and what is not, a deal breaker for them before having that very first conversation with their agent — which is the point at which they are most desirable.

  2. Excellent points, Orna. The other week my husband was at a meeting with his publisher, who said that increasingly the authors who are offered deals will have self-published first. That means authors will have had a much higher stake in creating their brand than has traditionally been the case. It’s simply not fair for an agent – or a publisher – to try to take a slice of that work. Another publisher I know has abandoned his slush pile and now just trawls Amazon. Some old-school agents don’t like to acknowledge that the publishing world is changing in this way, but they will increasingly miss the authors who publishers want to work with.

    I’m signed with two agents, and what they get a share of is clearly defined in each contract. If they sell something, they get a share. If they don’t, I don’t owe them anything. I choose whether to place work with them. I had to tweak the terms they offered me, but they agreed to my changes – so it’s always worth asking for terms to be clarified or adjusted.
    Oh, and just for the record – some of us *like* making print books as well!

  3. Amen to all of the above, and I hope it gets read and taken to heart by up and coming literary agents. Thank you for this intelligent piece, Orna. Much to think about here.

  4. Hi, Orna. Great post. I’m sure you’ve given a lot of people food for thought with this one, and that’s what is needed if authors intend to keep moving forward. It is a tough business, and authors need to think more like business people. That’s scary for some, embraced by others.

  5. I read this on my phone first thing today, before I had even switched my PC on! An excellent, thoughtful piece. I seemed to have been going on for years about the need for writers to become more businesslike in their approach to agents and publishers. I was very weary of the ‘humble supplicant’ role which I was never expected to assume in any other professional relationship – and I’ve run other businesses to buy time to write, still do. But whenever I attempted to shift that relationship with publisher and agent onto a different footing, I generally met with a very dusty response, or no response at all. And you’re right – terms such as ‘slush pile’ indicate a mindset which has to change. Which means that writers too have to shift their own mindsets, taking responsibility, working in partnership with other professionals. When I think about it, that’s how theatre at its best works involving a group of people who are often freelance, with each individual respecting the experience and skills of the others to produce something that can be greater than the sum of its parts. But to allow this to happen, traditional publishing attitudes need to change – and authors need to get used to treating themselves as professionals, because if they don’t, nobody else will.

    1. Absolutely, Catherine. It’s when you compare the attitudes to/of writers to those in other creative professions that you see how wrong things have gone in the writer/publisher relationship. And how important is the phase we are now in. My own sense is that being an indie is more about a state of mind than anything else — which sounds wooly but calls for some very practical, hardheaded actions. Thank you for all your fine contributions to ALLi.

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