Publishers have always made a killing on the backs of writers

Tara Sparling posted There’s An Indie Publishing Gold Rush, And Guess Who’s Making A Killing?

While the article is, itself, worth reading, I’d like to point out that publishing as we currently know it is the primary form of writer exploitation.

In traditional publication, writers give up much of their rights over their work for a period – often years, sometimes indefinitely. Most writers get damn little support, too. And for giving up the right to price their book, sell it where and how they please, and a bunch of editorial control, the writer gets ten percent of cover price (or about 20% of what the publishing house makes).

Defenders of traditional publication will say that the publisher assumes all the financial risk. Which is untrue. The writer has spent untold hours of their life writing and editing before they get to the point of publication – that’s financial risk, too. But no one talks about the financial risk of a writer because it happens beforehand. But it’s there and its real. The writer has spent their precious hours writing the book with the hopes of financial reward for their labor, after all.  That’s the definition of financial risk.  Writers are taking a chance writing at all.

Absent an argument of financial risk – which is shared equally by the writer and publisher – the rationale for the publisher getting eighty percent is. . . what, exactly?

Let’s flip the script a bit. You’re an engineer. You’ve spent a lot of time, money, and effort to become an engineer. And you spent another year of your life making a cool invention. So you take it to EngineerCo and pitch your invention. What they say is, “It’s a great invention, we like it, but we’re not going to pay you anything for it – or we’ll pay you a pittance, like, five grand for your years of work – and if we sell any, we’ll take eighty percent, and you won’t get paid anything until we recoup the money we forwarded to you.” If you’re an engineer, you’d be insulted and seek elsewhere – or go into business for yourself.  Society would praise you for your entrepreneurial spirit.

But that’s what publishers tell authors. Even when they like their work, they don’t pay a living wage for it (unless you’re one of the lucky few), and they take a shamelessly high percentage of book sales. So if your book sells a few hundred copies, they make their money back, and if it sells a million. . . well, they make about four times as much as the author.

It’s a good scam, really.  And the most significant one, too.  Traditional publishers are robbers.

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