In the past few days, I believe I’ve given some people the impression that I hate traditional publishing.1 I don’t. I don’t think publishing houses are evil. I don’t believe authors who choose to go with the traditional model are doing anything stupid or wrong. I don’t want print publishing to die. None of those things are remotely true.
What I do believe is that authors need to understand the different publishing options and the risks and benefits of each model for their particular situation. There are risks and benefits to every choice. Did I completely understand those choices when I decided to sell a book to a traditional publisher? No, I didn’t. I was new, I was green, and the publishing world looked very different then than it does now. Self-publishing was virtually non-existent in 2008 when I signed my contract and barely getting off the ground in 2009 when it was published. We didn’t worry about reversion clauses because there was nothing you could do with your reverted rights anyway. And most of all, it was still very much a print world, although the ground was certainly beginning to shift and rumble in noticeable ways by then.
The advent of both self-publishing and an ever-increasing array of digital-first publishers has changed the landscape in fundamental ways. Especially in romance, where digital adoption rates are higher than in any other genre. Print distribution is traditional publishing’s strength, but with shelf space shrinking and digital on the rise, it’s just a fact that not every book is going to be served by print distribution. Knowing which category your book falls in is an important part of making the right decision.
So is thinking about things like pricing (are readers in your genre price-sensitive, especially in digital? how does your publisher price its books?), cover art (do you like the covers of other books in your genre from this publisher?), option and non-compete clauses (can you write for other publishers? can you publish books yourself if you want to?), and reversion clauses (are you ever going to get the rights to this book back if you sell it?). Even if you don’t like the answer to some of those questions, it still might be in your best interest to go the traditional route, but if you don’t even know to ask the questions, you may find yourself regretting your choices a few months or years down the line.
I want the wide array of publishing options authors have today to survive and thrive. There are some things I think traditional publishers could do to better serve authors and their books. More timely sales reporting, fairer reversion clauses, more limited non-compete and option clauses, and higher digital royalty rates would be high on my list of improvements. But saying that isn’t saying traditional publishers are evil and shouldn’t exist.
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to succumb to an “us vs them” mentality. There’s room for all the players. But just as it’s perfectly reasonable to point out the potential pitfalls of self-publishing (cost and level of difficulty being the two primary ones), it’s reasonable to point out the potential pitfalls of signing a contract with a traditional publisher or a digital-first publisher. That’s not “hating on” anyone. It’s just good common sense.
1For purposes of this post, “traditional publishing” means a publishing arrangement in which the publisher releases the book in both print and trade format and provides distribution of print copies to retail outlets. “Digital-first publishing” means any publishing arrangement in which the publisher releases the book first (and possibly only) in digital format. Most of the companies we associated with “traditional publishing” have “digital-first publishing” arms (for example, Random House’s Loveswept line, Avon’s Impulse line, or Penguin’s Intermix line).