Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Publishers: Is it wrong to jump ship?

When I write about independent publishing and hybrid authors (those who publish both traditionally and independently), I’m routinely asked about whether it’s fundamentally wrong for an author to strike out on her own after being published by someone else.

In one sense, these questions are heartening. Relationships matter. We should respect those we work with. But they also point to a huge disconnect between what writers think goes on in traditional publishing and what actually happens.

Let me say first off that no author’s experience in publishing is exactly like anyone else’s. With that in mind, here’s my perspective on the ethics of jumping ship:

  • After a publisher commits resources to publishing your book, isn’t it wrong to publish your next book somewhere else, or to publish it yourself? With the exception of a few big-name authors, publishers aren’t courting writers, and they’re not looking to marry. They’re selling books, title by title. Their investment is in a particular title at a particular time for a particular market. It’s a calculated risk. If your publisher wants first option on your next book, they’ll include an option clause in your book contract.
  • But it’s hard to get a contract with a publisher. Once you’ve got one, shouldn’t you do everything you can to get another one with the same publisher? Not necessarily. Each book deserves the best home you can find for it, and these days there are more options than ever. Sometimes that will be with the publisher who published your last book. Sometimes it will be with a different publisher. Sometimes a book is best served by you bringing it directly to readers.
  • I thought publishing was about relationships. Once you’re working with people who believe in you, shouldn’t you stick with them? Decades ago, it was common for agents and editors to identify and mentor writers with promise, nurturing them from one book to the next. Those relationships tended to be exclusive. These days, it’s a rare and beautiful thing to find someone in the industry who has the time, energy, and freedom to develop a long-term relationship with an author. Unless you’re able to bat book after book out of the park in terms of sales, market forces require most industry professionals to turn their attention to the next author and book with hit potential.
  • When you publish independently, aren’t you competing with the traditional publishers you worked with in the past? Not if the book’s not right for that publisher. In fact, the reverse is true: Your previous publishers will benefit from the marketing and branding you do when you promote books you’ve published on your own—and frankly, you will do more of it for those books because your return in sales is so much higher than for traditionally published books. As more and more readers discover your writing, sales of all your titles increase—and those previous publishers had to risk nothing to achieve it. That’s a win-win for everyone.