Career Control

May 7, 2013 | Opinions

Sometimes, I read about a particular aspect of the traditional publishing world, and I ask myself one question: would this kind of thing fly in any other industry?

Most of the time, the answer is no.

So here’s a post from Rachelle Gardner that asks another, rather more difficult question. Will my publisher let me self-publish too? What it means is whether a traditional publishing contract allows for self-publication of other works while the author has sold another work to a traditional publishing house. Allow me to quote from the first part:

If you are contracted with a traditional publisher, you may have restrictions on your ability to self-publish “on the side.” And this is not because publishers are overly possessive, or “dinosaurs,” or “just don’t get it.” It’s because they have an investment to protect, and it’s their responsibility to ensure nothing you do will interfere with the saleability of the brand they’re building (you).

Allow me to make my own position on this clear by saying that this is unimaginably, irrevocably ridiculous, and my level of respect for Ms. Gardner has fallen a little at the thought that she supports the inclusion of non-compete clauses. She lays out a number of considerations that publishers must consider when looking at this phenomenon, of authors who self-publish ‘on the side’, and it’s some of the most infantilizing idiocy I’ve encountered yet, to the point where I cannot let it lie.

The problem is that anyone, even publishers, are asking this question. This is a stupid question.

Anyway. Let’s dive in and be controversial.

Branding issues

So a publisher bought a manuscript, and they want to position it in a particular way in the marketplace. They don’t want branding interference. Well, tough luck – they didn’t buy a brand, and authors are not regular employees of the publishing houses. If a freelancer produces a widget to sell to one company, for example, people would rightly laugh their lungs out at the notion of that freelancer being restricted in selling a similar widget to another company because the first company has branding concerns.

Once again, they didn’t buy a whole brand. They bought one damn manuscript for a few thousand dollars. If they want control over a whole brand, well, they should be paying a hell of a lot more for it.

Quality Issues

Publishers spend considerable money on several rounds of editing, copyediting, and typesetting. They also have expensive, experienced designers for your cover as well as the interior design of the book.

Well, this is nice and all, but once again – who cares? They might be concerned that a lower quality self-published work reflects badly on the manuscript they bought, but frankly, their concerns don’t mean anything when they didn’t buy control over the author’s other works. They want that control? Then they can pay for it, by hiring the author as a regular employee. There are all kinds of sensible rules about contracting vs. fulltime employment, after all.

Time Issues

So the publisher is worried that the author isn’t going to be spending all their time on the manuscript that’s covered under the contract. At this point, I just have to throw my hands up and ask who the hell are they kidding? Why did they sign a contract with this author if they’re afraid the author can’t deliver?

This sounds a lot like the publishers being self-centered. I hate being a broken record, but seriously – did the publishers pay for all the author’s time? No. They paid for one manuscript. Authors are not regular employees. They can do whatever the hell they want with their time as long as they produce the goods according to the contract they signed. Unless and until the publisher pays authors a regular wage, with specified hours, they don’t get a say.

Promotional Issues

If they allow you to self-publish, they may lose their right to set boundaries on what you’re allowed to do promotionally, and this can be disastrous. What if you are working with a self-pub company who wants to put two of your books on a special “free” promotion… the same week your publisher is doing a big launch for your latest front-list release? Readers may be exposed to both promotions and choose the “free” books over your new release. You have just undercut your own sales.

Emphasis mine. This actually made me irrationally angry. The author hasn’t undercut their own sales – they undercut the publisher’s sales, and that’s debatable at best. The author gets more exposure out of it, which is a good thing, as we all know that free promotions boost sales of other books by the same author.

In Summary

Rachelle points out that this is all about competition, and let’s be honest – it is. Publishers want control so that they can reduce competition for their product, the manuscript they’ve bought. Most businesses would like this. I bet they’d also like the moon on a plate as well, and maybe a unicorn.

Here are the problems with all this:

  • They’re not paying for it.
  • It’s unethical in the extreme, to the point where a similar non-compete clause in a regular work contract would not be enforceable.
  • They’re not paying for it.

That’s really all there is to it. Publishers are completely insane if they think that authors should give up their ability to make a living elsewhere with other manuscripts, devote all their time to a single contracted work, and only do promotions with their permission, all for only a few thousand dollars. This isn’t to say that they can’t ever do that – they certainly could, but there’s a word for people over whom a company can expect that level of control, and they’re called EMPLOYEES.

And this is why it enrages me so much: publishers can only get away with this kind of crap because they used to be the only way an author could get published. Having a monopoly is a good method of making sure that you can dictate any terms you like, no matter how onerous they are, to your business partners, as well as paying them a pittance for their services. And make no mistake about it – authors are business partners in this respect. Publishers are going to have to wake up to the fact that they don’t have a monopoly any more, and this kind of clause is unacceptable if they’re going to continue paying very little, comparatively speaking, for an author’s work.

So here’s the final note from Rachelle’s article:

As I said up above, we are in an age of experimentation. Publishers have a lot to lose in terms of investment, so it behooves them to move cautiously when trying new things. But take heart—most of them are trying new things!

You know what? Nobody gives a damn if they have a lot to lose. If they can’t run a business, then they deserve to fail and get out of the way of companies who have a clue. Publishers seem to think that picking up an author’s book is doing them a favor, something they should be grateful for. The reality is that authors don’t owe them jack shit, and they sure as hell don’t owe them any patience when they include crap like this in their contracts. So, again, who cares? They can try new things. They can move as slowly as they want. They can dictate anything they like to their own employees, but the instant they try to do the same to outside business people, they should be rightly treated with the contempt they deserve.

(Note: I’ve mentioned the ethical considerations, and it’s worth reading up on non-compete clauses in other industries, but long story short: such clauses that shut down someone’s ability to earn a living are flat out unenforceable in most places, and with good reason. That’s all I have to say about it.)