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The Double Life: Walking the Fence in Publishing by Nancy Holder

These are great times for writers. We’ve never had so many opportunities to publish work that is legally protected as belonging to us. Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens both fought for better copyright laws for writers on their respective sides of the “the Pond” but never reaped the rewards of their labors.

We can create beautiful “physical books” that look every bit as professional as traditionally published books; we update our text if we find errors or simply decided to revise it. We can change our covers or marketing tags without editorial board meetings and/or expensive re-dos.

We can band together and publish and promote with other writers. And we can still work as freelancers selling what we write to traditional publishers.

There’s still a lot of sorting out the new indie frontier. Situations still in flux include: the role of literary agents in indie publishing; editors’ attitudes toward the role of independent publishing in their authors’ lives; marketing indie books; and learning to juggle it all.

One of the most interesting situations in the brave new world involves writers who have been traditionally published, are represented by literary agents, and are now venturing into independent publishing. A number of agencies have informed their clients that they are opening up e-publishing companies, for example, and that they expect these clients to publish e-books with them, even for books they didn’t represent (from earlier in a writer’s career,for example.) I know a writer who had written a novella that she subsequently published with a group of other writers, and her agent terminated their relationship without warning. The agency had established its own e-venture, and this author was one of several who had branched out on her own. This was costing the agency money and setting (so it was felt) a bad precedent.

In this instance, the writer was able to change the agent’s mind by pointing out that she had been invited to work with these other writers, and the agreement was that they would not use anyone’s agency. Although the agent had sent a number of queries and proposals out, the writer currently had no work under contract. It seemed prudent to her, therefore, to take a chance at something new.

I personally find it remarkable that the agent would resort to these tactics, and it seems to me that an agent who is also a publisher might be a caught in a conflict of interest. Some agents are looking through the websites of authors they currently do not represent to see if they have a lot of previously published books —back-list— that they might be able to turn into e-books, at a profit to the agency.
They’re then offering representation to the author, who might later feel (sometimes rightly) that the agency is more interesting in mining their back-list for e-books than in selling new work.

However, consider the flipside: most writers who are represented by a literary agency agree to be “mutual and exclusive” with that agency—meaning that the writer and the agent will work together, and that the writer (though not the agent) will use only that agent. There are exceptions: I know a writer who has an agent for her “secular” work and another for her Christian fiction. Another writer has an agent for her picture books, and another for everything else.
The argument can go that if a writer spends their time writing a book that they subsequent publish independently, they are depriving their agent of something to sell (and make more money off of in royalties.) Sometimes agents feel that they’ve spent a lot of time and effort helping a writer to establish a career, usually with ever-increasing advances, and so they should reap the rewards of success that come with time. Some writers have offered a percentage of their independent sales to their agents in the spirit of these fruitful established relationships.    

Traditional publishers and editors have also begun asking their authors to write short stories either to give away or sell that will expand the world the author has created for them. Sometimes the publisher pays the author for this “enhancement,” but authors have reported not only not being paid for them, but being unable to collect royalties as well. A prominent author recently turned down a contract for a series of novels because the publisher forbade him from writing any additional material to increase interest in the series unless it was written for that publisher.

Another author told the story of a publisher who, disappointed with the sales of the first book in a series, offered the author such a low advance for the second book that she was considering publishing it independently in the U.S. She had to write it anyway because she had also sold publishing rights to foreign countries, so why not do it herself in the States? Her agent advised her not to independently publish the book in America because “it will make you look like your career is going downhill.” The author pointed out that she could create her own company to list as the publisher, but the agent was concerned that people would “find out.” Yet in a nearly identical situation, a different agent not only encouraged his author to independently publish the second book, but helped her acquire the prepared English text for the book from her UK publisher.

However, in many of these cases, authors report that they’re unhappy with the resulting sales of their independently published books. At the University of Southern Maine, where I teach, one student who owns a publishing company did a side-by-side comparison of the sales of a book she had written versus one she had acquired. Her book sold better, but she couldn’t figure out why. The other book had better reviews, for example, and the cover art was similar. Identical social media campaigns were conducted for both books. Since that presentation, I’ve discussed e-marketing with her and she’s still refining her sales strategies, although she has noticed a few things: that it’s good to take advantage of programs where you can give away the previous book or books in a series when the next book debuts; that novellas are a tough sell; and that people seem to be more interested in buying novels than short stories, even from new authors. But beyond that, she still can’t predict which books in her publishing group will sell well, and which will have a tougher time.

That’s both a blessing and a curse of those of us who independently publish. Although it feels as though we should have more control over the outcome (our sales) now that we can control the process, our confusion is often just as “traditional” as that of any traditional publisher. Indeed, it’s often said that if publishers knew how to guarantee success, every book they published would be a bestseller. Data point: the “Random” in Random House is because the founders of the company felt that they didn’t have an overall vision for what kinds of books they would publish. They just picked some at random.

And we can be random, too. As individual, independent publishers we can move nimbly when a strategy isn’t working. We can see publishing as a fluid, changing state that can reward innovators and risk-takers. But we can also keep one foot in the more traditional publishing world. We don’t have to choose one or the other. And that’s why I love this brave new indie so much!

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Nancy Holder is a New York Times bestseller author. She has received five Bram Stoker Awards for her horror fiction, a Scribe Award from the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, and a Young Adult Pioneer Award from Romantic Times. She is involved in three different e-publishing ventures. Undead for a Day and Strange Spirits are both available through distributors such as Amazon. Contact Nancy: www.nancyholder.com
Twitter:   @nancyholder

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This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. Nancy, thank you for sharing these great insights and stories. I can see how different books would fare differently in different arenas. I think forums like this, where it is all laid out, will help authors decide which route is best for them

  2. Thanks for this Nancy! I love that there are no middle-men between me and my audience. If my book isn’t selling, I can switch up the marketing or, heck! Write another, different book that will hopefully garner their interest. Power to the people! Er, Indie!

  3. Data point: the “Random” in Random House is because the founders of the company felt that they didn’t have an overall vision for what kinds of books they would publish. They just picked some at random.

    LOL! Ok, I did not know that, and now whenever I think about “Random Penguin” I’m going to laugh even more (that name is seriously a missed marketing opportunity)!

    Great post! You wonderfully show how authors really need to be their own best advocates and think broader about what’s best for their careers, beyond just a single book or opportunity to publish.

    Nice to “meet” you!

  4. what you say makes so much sense, Nancy! Some books will work with traditional publishing, others will not. But as long as an author is writing what she loves and producing quality work, there’s no reason not to publish in the method that works for the piece.

  5. What a wonderful article! I have two traditionally published books–and would love to have many more–but I’m also interested in working on some indie projects. I don’t have an agent yet, but I would like to have one somewhere down the road. This article shows me how important it is to know what to watch out for as I begin this indie journey. Thanks so much for sharing.

  6. Thank you for this post. I’m still new to all this and haven’t worked out whether I need an agent or not. I’m also scared of finding one and being treated badly. (This is all pie in the sky mind you at the moment because I’m still on the rewrite of my first book!)

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