The Shadow Side of Publishing

I loooove writing. Making my life as an author is my childhood dream come true and I’m enormously grateful. When I was just a few years old if you would have asked me what I wanted to do when I was grown-up, I would have said, “make books.” While creative writing is my happiest place, to me being a writer has always also been about the publishing world. From the start, I was determined to learn everything I could about the industry.

To date, I’ve published around 40 books with traditional publishers. There are some publishers who add tremendous value, and I’ve been lucky to work with a couple of them. However, there are also many publishers, both small and large, indie and world-renowned, who offer little to no support, and this occurs within the context of horribly inequitable terms. For example, many publishers:

  • Do not provide editorial feedback
  • Do not provide copyediting
  • Require authors to format their own books
  • Require authors to create back cover content and other marketing materials
  • Require authors to solicit their own endorsements for their books
  • Do not provide any marketing
  • Do not go after piracy
  • Place books in digital repositories for which authors receive little to no compensation

For all this, publishers still take 80-97 percent of all earnings, as well as legal ownership of the author’s work. I’ll say it again: legal ownership of the author’s work. Ownership often extends to licensing rights (they can chop up a book and sell it off in parts), translation rights, derivative works (including sequels and entertainment deals), the right to give the book away for free, the right to price a book (a poor price point can kill sales), the right to publish on any schedule they choose (they can sit on a project for an indeterminate period of time), and so on. While this is going on, they have likely also required the author to sign a noncompete, preventing them from publishing other books on the topic. Add to this, some publishers use print-on-demand technology so they aren’t even creating a print run and warehousing books, which admittedly is a real service (although one that could be arranged through a distribution deal, instead of taking ownership of the work). As an author, I have experienced all of this for the “privilege” of having a publisher stamp their name on my work. And I’ve been lucky to get much better contracts than many, including high royalty rates and having the rights to many of my works of fiction reverted back to me, and in other cases, coming to licensing and distribution deals in which I’ve never lost ownership. But this has been uphill and hasn’t alleviated other issues, such as price setting, lack of marketing, publishers breaching contract terms, etc. Overall, it’s a deeply problematic system that doesn’t make sense in the age of Kindle Direct Publishing, print-on-demand technology, and other means by which authors can release their own work, without giving up ownership of their art and intellectual property. (Note: Today, there are some hybrid publishers who provide some of the value traditional publishers offer, while allowing authors to retain more ownership, both creatively and financially. That’s an exciting new option for writers, especially those who may lack the experience to feel confident self-publishing.)

After years working in this system, and trying to improve conditions for myself and other authors, I’ve realized the battles are never ending and the costs too high. For me, the only reason to continue on in this kind of scenario would be vanity– the idea that having a publisher stamp their name on my book is more important than all these others issues. It isn’t. It’s an illusion and one that I’m shattering in my own work life. Believe me, it’s not for a lack of options. I’ve recently turned down book contracts and even had one of my existing publishers cancel two contracts for forthcoming books. It’s not that they don’t want me. I don’t want them. I share this because self-publishing has gotten a bad rap, and it’s often thought that writers resort to it when there aren’t other options available. This is untrue. I believe I could go on indefinitely having my creative work published by others. I simply don’t want to. So I’ve decided to become a publisher.

I started Paper Stars Press as a way out of this imbalanced system. I bring with me 20 years of experience as an author of both fiction and nonfiction, as well as my experience creating and editing 10 book series for publishers (I was involved in editorial, marketing, sales, etc.). I plan to continue maintaining the level of quality I’ve always tried to bring to my projects, by seeking peer review and continuing to work with the professional copy editor I’ve collaborated with for nearly a decade. I’m so excited to finally free myself from the shadow side of publishing and step into the light of creativity. In fact, I’ve never felt more creative or inspired.

I know that I’ve been privileged compared to many authors and I am truly grateful to every publisher who has supported my work. I’ve learned so much along the way and I’m proud of my back catalogue. Nevertheless, it’s time to make a change. I will continue to work with a couple good traditional and hybrid publishers on a project-by-project basis– those who bring real value. I’m fortunate to work with them. For example, Guilford Press is a world-class publishing team, they bring enormous value and are guilty of none of the grievances I’ve noted in this blog. I will happily continue to work with them on my research methods texts for as long as they’ll have me. I’m also excited to have recently signed a contract to publish a novel with She Writes Press (an outstanding hybrid publisher). As for the other publishers I’ve worked with in the past, thanks, and see ya. I wish them well, but under the current conditions, I can’t see handing my original authored work over to them again. That’s why I established Paper Stars Press. I plan to release many new works and new editions of older works under my own label (I’m very glad I negotiated fiercely for the rights to do so). I have several projects just waiting to be released, so stay tuned.

I’m over-the-moon that I’ve finally taken this leap. I should have done it sooner. That’s part of the reason I wrote this blog, to help ease the way for other authors who want out of this system but might feel afraid going out on their own. Personally, I have no fear, only enthusiasm. My father gave me the best advice I ever got: always bet on yourself. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I want to extend my deepest heartfelt gratitude to my loyal readers. You allow me to live my childhood dream and it’s because of you that I’m able to take this leap. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I can’t wait for you to see what I’ve been working on. Although my whole life has been words, sometimes they fail me. After 20 years as an author, I have no words to tell you how excited I am to publish projects under my own imprint.

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