So I had to make an ebook cover…

Making ebook covers is a relatively new task for designers and there haven’t exactly been many lengthy discussions on the topic. If there were any lengthy discussions I completely missed them which is entirely unsurprising. (I was probably too busy watching videos on Youtube of dogs running into walls and cats falling off furniture.)

I didn’t think of googling “how to make an ebook cover” until last week and my first advice is don’t buy a book about designing ebook covers if the book in question has an ugly cover. It’s just good sense. Otherwise googling ebook covers is good fun and I highly recommend it.

The first thing to keep in mind when making an ebook cover is that it has to look good both when it’s big and when it’s small. It seems quite obvious but you’d be surprised.

Cowardly Lion

Small cover

Hungry Tiger

Big cover

So to me simplicity is the key which is great since simplicity is kinda what I like anyway. It’s easy to lose yourself in minute details when putting something together in Photoshop with it’s handy zoom tool. It often seems like the designer tried to squeeze as many textures, frames, layers and squiggly bits as possible on the cover. A lot of the time it seems too much detail for a little paperback let alone an ebook. So what I like to do is look at book covers made before the age of Photoshop and the zoom tool. Like way before…

Now I went through a lot of effort finding this book, “The Art of American Book Covers”, in my book shelves to get some nice examples for you guys (which is no easy feat since I got the brilliant idea of arranging my books by colour. My book shelves look like a rainbow now but finding stuff is a pain in the butt.)

boat poems doggy      lighthouse    daybreak

These covers (which are dated 1904, 1903, 1904, 1886, 1915) are much more minimalistic and often better suited for ebooks than many of the modern style covers. Sometimes less is more and so on. Bold colours grab attention. Simple and eye catching is a good theme for an ebook cover so you can also try looking at some vintage advertisements for inspiration. Now I might just be using this as an excuse to post some pictures from my postcard collection (I collect postcards with vintage advertising just so you know) but I digress. I think the often stylised composition and limited colour palette is very suitable for ebook covers.

nylon2 mossbross2 hudson2 lincolnchrysler2

Now the fun thing about doing covers for a series of books is that you can give them a common aesthetic. One suggestion, and my favourite, is taking a picture and cutting it into little pieces for each cover. I think it’s the animator in me. Anything remotely sequential is very exciting.


Look! Sequential drawings. Very exciting.

To me it has endless possibilities. You can take a picture and cut it into two, three, four pieces any which way you like and they can look so lovely sitting next to each other on your screen or shelf or whatever (unless your shelves are colour coded like mine. It can make it a bit difficult.) The downside is you have to actually know how many books will be in the series beforehand. So there’s that.


One picture, four books.


One picture, one book.

So in conclusion: Simplicity! Minimalism!  Yes to late 19. century, early 20. century book covers. Also vintage advertisements. Less zoom in, more zoom out. And cutting pictures into smaller fractions for an ebook series saves time, has the potential of looking quite nice but it’s better to know just how many books will be published beforehand. And do us all a favour and back away from that ebook cover generator.

Hope this was helpful. Peace out.


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So long, Readmill, and thanks for all the fish

I wish it had gone differently. I don’t fault Readmill for selling at this point. They did excellent work.

I’ve previously gone on record about my enthusiasm for their platform. (Which reminds me, I need to do a followup to that post, Kindle for iOS has improved dramatically.) Unlike most other firms designing ebook readers, Readmill understood that all of the typographic variables are interconnected. Unlike others, their defaults were beautiful to read.

It’s kind of hard to imagine it going any differently, though. Most people just don’t like reading in public. Publishers just aren’t that interested in working with startups. Ebook retailers don’t care for supporting competing reading apps. Sometimes a beautiful product just doesn’t make a successful product—it just ends up being a beautiful thing that not enough people want.

As for me, I switched to Marvin a while back, even though I prefer Readmill’s look.


Because the public social reading thing turned me off. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

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What ebook production problems are self-publishers facing?

Driven by curiosity (as always), I’ve just spend a large part of my lunch break browsing through various forums[1], trying to get a handle on what problems self-publishers are facing when they are creating their ebooks.

My impression is that, unlike what I expected from the work and challenges I face making ebooks for a traditional publisher, styling and formatting isn’t a major issue—formatting problems seem limited to edge cases. I’m assuming this is because most self-publishers are doing novels with very simple style needs.

The problems people seem to be facing, in no particular order:

  • Getting font embedding to work
  • Editing and managing the metadata
  • Editing the book itself:
    • Creating ToCs
    • Getting footnotes to work and look nice
    • Editing typos and making corrections
    • Adding dropcaps (which fortunately has a simple solution[2])
  • Making sure the images embedded are of a correct resolution.
  • Conforming to vendor requirements (mostly making sure there are no links to rival stores)
  • Converting a Word file to a tolerable ebook.

Then there are more general problems that are probably more about library management for readers, such as:

  • Extracting a subset of a book
  • Merging books

What do you think? Is this an accurate reflection of the ebook production problems self-publishers are facing? Are there any major biggies that I’ve missed? Are any of these maybe not so big a problem (i.e. I stumbled upon a newbie thread and regulars think the problem is solved)?

  1. Ebooks @ StackExchange, Mobileread format subforums,, KDP Community.  ↩

  2. Just don’t use them. Seriously. They’re ugly, break the word apart, and can’t be done properly on the web or in ebooks.  ↩

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Many stories, many truths

Once upon a time there was a man from Iceland who attended a conference in Canada.

The weather was, by any sane measure, awful. The temperature was borderline arctic. Snow covered everything.

But it reminded him of home.

So filled with nostalgia was he, and so primed by the resemblance to his birth country, which he had left many years earlier, that everything about the conference seemed more positive, more optimistic, and more uplifting than most publishing conferences he’d been to before.

So I went to Booknet Canada’s two day ebookcraft/Tech Forum conference combo. Did a talk.

Saw a bunch of talks I really liked. The Safari crowd especially did a good job, both Pablo Defendini’s one on digital comics and Liza Daly’s on markup quality in ebooks. Got a lot of thoughts on Pablo’s which I’ll write up whenever I get around to it.

Once upon a time there was a man from Bristol who whose health began to deteriorate. Breathing became more difficult. Sleep became next to impossible. Over two years nobody could figure out exactly what was going on and life became progressively more difficult.

Then he was discovered that construction work next door had caused the plumbing in his house to spring a leak resulting in a persistent colony of toxic mould. After moving to a house free of toxic mould and ditching some of the old furniture, he recovered completely.

Less than three months later, he attended a conference in Canada—the first conference since his escape from toxic mould. Well slept for the first time in two years, he saw this conference in a more positive light than any of the other publishing conferences he had been to before.

The talk I did was on social media. Not about social media analytics or social media marketing or any other stupid, fact-free bullshit like that.

The talk was about the joys of actually doing research into a problem before deciding how to tackle it, using the popular subject of social media as an excuse to stand up in front of hundreds of people and tell them most of their executives are greedy, destructive, and ignorant.

They took it rather well.

Once upon a time there was a country called Canada. Like its next door neighbour it had a large and dominant ebook retailer that had grown out of its book retail industry.

Unlike the rest of the world, its ebook industry wasn’t completely dominated by the big firm from its next door neighbour.

Then an Icelander came to visit. Having only experienced book markets who were completely and utterly dominated by the U.S. firm, he found attitudes in Canada to be friendlier and more productive than he’d experienced at other publishing conferences. Less time was spent on negative bullshit. Fear didn’t dominate publisher rhetoric. Even those visiting like him seemed to take a more positive outlook during their stay, preferring humour over fear.

Most of the advice out there on how to use social media to sell something is creepy and evil, and it is so in destructive and counter-productive ways. What’s worse, the very premise of the idea—infiltrating people’s communities as a shill with a mercenary product-selling motive—is fundamentally dishonest.

Those are not tactics you use if you see others as autonomous, sentient, self-aware, and feeling beings.

Once upon a time, an Icelander attended a book conference in Toronto, the home of an innovative powerhouse startup in publishing that democratised reading and writing in new ways.

Like a singularity bending time and space, this startup had distorted the publishing industry around it.

Through interacting with this new and alien entity, Toronto publishing people began to take a new outlook on the industry that was more forward looking and hopeful than those outside of the startup’s sphere of influence.

All of the above stories are true. Every one presents a series of facts pulled from real life.

One of the problems with most writing about research—posts, articles, and books that tell you the world is this way or that way and that this is caused by that—is that the world could well be this way and that way and neither being the cause of the other.

All of the stories can be true. All of the variables described can be interacting in the system in all of the ways narrated. Isolating something from the system removes it from the context that makes it work. It becomes inert, dysfunctional, and untestable.

In other words, almost everything you read is a story and none of them are true, especially the ones based on real facts and research. A story presupposes a single cause and a single effect and all too frequently they get them the wrong way around. It narrates a continuity of causation that presupposes perfect knowledge of the world. A story fabricates its own evidence for the singular truth it is promoting.

Which is cause and which is effect?

—Stephen Fry sells a lot of books because he has a lot of Twitter followers.


—Stephen Fry has a lot of Twitter followers because his work is popular and in demand.

A frightening number of articles and books that claim to be explaining how the world ‘really’ is, make the mistake of switching cause and effect, presenting a misbegotten jumble of ‘truthy’ facts as an ordered progression from cause and effect.

A story is a demand by a writer that you take their worldview as truth. It is a performance of what they want to believe is true, however subconsciously that desire may be.

There are exceptions. The novel structure is capable of presenting a multiplicity of voices, all interacting and interdependent, but nevertheless capable of presenting their own truths. You can write a ‘novel’ that isn’t a novel and a non-fiction book that is a novel.

If you want to present something that has the same truth dynamic as real life, you have to write something that is structured differently from regular blog posts, articles, essays, or stories.

Stories that sound true are almost always false. Especially the ones you want to believe. Stories converge on single ‘truths’. Reality is messy and divergent.

I went to Canada. Canadians are nice. We had fun.

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Problem statements for digital publishing research

The publishing industry has an absolute mess of unanswered questions that need further investigation if we are to solve its problems.

Here are a few relevant problem statements, off the top of my head. I’d be very surprised if these questions aren’t answerable with a bit of work.

  • Estimate the earnings of the typical author (i.e. median earnings), both self-published and traditionally published. In 2007 in the UK the per annum earnings of the typical author was estimated to be £4000. Estimate the earnings of each author group individually: self-published, traditionally published, hybrid authors. (This leads on to the question: how do we increase the earnings of the typical author?)
  • Describe the production values the typical reader demands from titles in a specific genre. How important are spelling, grammar, formatting, visual design, cover design, and typography?
  • Describe the storytelling quality the typical reader demands in a specific genre: plot, characterisation, style, structure, and illustration.
  • Identify what the typical reader in a specific genre wants from the ebook experience. Are the current ebook platforms underserving these readers?
  • Identify what the ‘jobs to be done’ are for a specific non-fiction genre. What task or goal are readers using these titles to accomplish? (This leads on to the design questions. How could these tasks be accomplished in different ways? How could the material be changed to better address these needs? Can this be done in ebooks or does this change require more capabilities?)
  • Identify the biggest pain points for self-publishing. What are the areas that self-publishers find the most difficult? What costs them the most money? Where do things go wrong the most?
  • Identify the problems self-publishers have with ebook production and ebook backlist maintenance specifically.
  • Identify what approaches to writing and publishing would best serve reader demands in a specific genre. What do readers want from the authors they like? More titles? Personal appearances? Insight into work processes?
  • Identify which processes, departments, and capital goods in a publishing corporation could in theory be replaced with web services. Do not focus on web services that exist. Focus on the tasks at hand and whether they can be abstracted into a service.
  • Identify the biggest pain points for ebook production. Why is it not an automatic output from the production workflow? Why is there still a market for ebook production? What is stopping us?

How about you? What big questions about digital publishing do you think need answering?

Bonus questions:

  • Estimate the impact of Patreon and Kickstarter on web comics.
  • Identify what readers want from a Patreon or Kickstarter campaign.
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To do, to do

Yesterday’s blog post is the last in the pile of previously unpublished posts that I intend to publish.

There’s more left in the pile, about ten last I checked, but I’m not going to be publishing them.

Some of the posts are simply out of date. Remember, these posts were written over the past two years.

Most of the posts are simply uninteresting. Most blog posts are, including the ones on this blog.

A few of them are uninteresting to you specifically. For example, it’s clear by now that nobody is interested in further entries in the Stumbling into Publishing series.

The remaining unpublished posts aren’t really any worse than what I’ve been posting these past couple of months. That isn’t why I’m stopping. I’m stopping because I’m tired of them. I’m tired of their tone, style, and focus. I’m tired of stating the obvious, arguing the basics, having opinions on things that won’t change, and giving feedback to institutions and groups that don’t care.

There is value in blogging in some contexts. It makes sense to blog if you’re writing about comics, SFF, romance books, or the like because those fields have a community. You may not like it overall or only stick to a tiny subset of it, but even a small community beats the trench warfare that passes for discourse in the the more general publishing industry.

In publishing, on one side, the incumbents throw doubt on every change.

On the other side, the radicals throw doubt over anything that is older than three weeks.

There really isn’t a sense that “we’re all on the same side” as one writer blogged this week. It’s very much the opposite. Many sides. All at war.

As a contrast, consider SFF. Over the past few years the community blows up regularly. Usually it’s because some reactionary bigot throws a fit about having to stop being incredibly rude and nasty and abusive to people who aren’t like him. Despite these near weekly skirmishes, the field has much more of a sense of community than digital publishing, ebooks, or publishing commentary in general. It’s a community in turmoil because it’s being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, sure, but it’s a community nonetheless. People are invested in it being a community, which makes it interesting, if a bit frustrating. The only people personally invested in blogging about publishing are consultants trawling for gigs.

I think I’m going to stick to a simple rule on this site. I’ll try to only blog when I or somebody else is doing something that I think is interesting.

I’m rubbish at telling people about things I or my friends work on. I need to get better at it. I don’t talk about the ebooks I make for Unbound or the workflow scripts I’ve written for them. I never blogged about Tom Abba’s weird and fun experiments. There’s a lot of interesting activity going on in the peripheries of publishing and those are more interesting than any commentary I could make.

Pointing out people doing something is more interesting than saying that somebody should do that thing.

Of course, when I say ‘interesting’ here I mean interesting to me. It’s quite obvious from past experience that it isn’t interesting to you (blog readers) because very few of you click through to read those sorts of posts. Your interest and behaviour is toxic.

It also might be interesting to do ideas and arguments properly. Instead of throwing a series of half-digested posts onto the blog, maybe pick the best idea and write a short ebook. Up the quality of the argument and then blog only to point people to the ebooks.

I don’t know. I haven’t made up my mind.

If I start blogging on a regular basis again it’d probably be about comics, SFF, or some other book sub-genre (see the note above on community).

My sister might pop in here once in a while to blog about goings on in the Icelandic publishing industry, which I think is more interesting than the stuff I’ve been throwing out. An insight into an alternative publishing universe is always educational. It helps you realise that there isn’t a specific destiny that all publishing must migrate towards.

All in all, expect sporadic posting on this blog in 2014.

If I truly believe what I wrote above about community then I should put my money where my mouth is and switch to commenting opinions instead of blogging them.

In theory, that should be the way to try and build up a community around ongoing discourse.

I’m very bad at commenting. I need to get better.

What about? What about? What about?

Everything I wrote above applies to Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus as well. They are only worthwhile if writing within a community. With that in mind, I think disentangling from Twitter is a sensible thing to do. How exactly I’ll do that, I don’t know. It’s something to figure out over the next couple of weeks.

If I unfollow you on Twitter, please don’t take it personally.

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iBooks Author tempts you with bling

It’s very easy to make a decent-looking ebook in iBooks Author, then drop in a bunch of expensive and badly thought out interactive doohickeys and call it a day.

This is a mistake. A regular book ‘decorated’ with interactive tumours growing throughout its body is not an improvement over even a regular ebook.

I’d like to say that iBooks Author has enabled a lot of experimentation but instead it’s been the ‘safe’ option for creating interactive and ‘designed’ ebooks. It’s become the tool middle-managers point at when they don’t want to take any risks even though it won’t make a profit. If it looks good enough, you might win awards. It’s a venue of acceptable loss. Where before publishers would hire an expensive programmer to create an app they now hire an expensive freelance designer who then proceeds to ignore iBooks Author’s template features and lays out every single page by hand, racking up so many billable hours that the programmer begins to look cheap by comparison.

Oh, and don’t forget the obligatory hour or so of crap video they throw in as well.

(Not crap because it looks ugly. These companies spend a fortune making oodles of beautiful video shots for these things. They are crap because they are pointless and don’t add value for the reader.)

Being able to drop in widgets makes everybody think they’re an expert in interactive design, dropping the bling in left, right, and centre, with no thought as to what it’s for, whether it adds value.

What makes this even worse is that iBooks Author combines the worst of ebookstore and app store worlds. It has the limited business model flexibility of ebooks (no subscription, no in-app payments) but is also bound to a single platform like most apps.

Scratch that. Two half platforms: iPads and recent Macs.

It’s an unfortunate inevitability that the type of interactivity that is the most harmonious with a regular ebook’s design and nature is also the type of interactivity that is both impossible to do easily (requires javascript) and not on the roadmap for most ebook platforms.

In theory, these are exactly the sort of feature that should work well in content apps, ereaders, and websites.

Making sure that a reader could reorder a table, for example, or interact with an image in basic ways is unobtrusive and doesn’t distract from the reading experience. Yet it does help whenever the reader needs to make sense of a complex thing.

However, the only way to implement this type of interactivity is with javascript and that only works in iBooks. It might end up working in Readium SDK apps, whenever those get rolled out, but that’s of limited use as long as Amazon has no plans of ever supporting javascript in ebooks.

That limits our options quite a bit. Essentially, if we think that the value we can add to a specific digital title is via interactivity then we have to turn it into something that isn’t an ebook. And it can’t be an app that looks too much like a book because Apple has an occasional tendency to block those.

But there’s another more subtle problem with this type of interactivity. They add little to no value to a text exactly because they are harmonious and integrate well with most texts. Because they don’t disrupt or restructure anything, they are sapped of power.

The iBooks Author temptation distracts us from the true problem with its genre of ebooks. Most of them wouldn’t work that well even if they were available in a cross-platform, standards-compliant way on flexible business terms.

The problem with taking an ebook and adding interactive widgets to said bog-standard and linear ebook is that it’s fundamentally just a redecorated horse.

It isn’t even a faster horse because it honestly isn’t any better than the print original.

It’s an incremental addition to a form that is pretty damn good to begin with. There is little to improve over the basic form of the book. There is a hard limit to how much value a little bit of interactive bling can add to a text when you are also otherwise being faithful to the original text.

Unfortunately, there isn’t nearly as much of a hard limit to how much they can cost to make.

There’s also quite a bit of arrogance in the idea that interactivity can be contained within a widget and dropped into an otherwise unchanged text. It’s yet another demonstration of the publishing industry’s disrespect of interactive media as a form.

The interactive bits that do add value become integral to the entire experience and transform the text as a whole. If you can add or remove it without changing the meaning of the text substantially then you aren’t adding value to the text.

In other words, you are spending money on shit people won’t pay for.

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Microsoft Word is a liability

Word has for many years now been the publishing industry’s de facto editorial and production format. Once you move into the world of digital, Word ceases to become a foundation and instead becomes a pair of cement shoes dragging you underwater. It is the worst possible format for the purpose.

The heart of the problem with Word is that it isn’t WYSIWIG anymore and hasn’t been for a long while. Even in the days of print, there was often a chasm between how a Word file was formatted and what the text would look like laid out in a page layout application for the book itself. Now, when ebooks, the web, and other digital publishing platforms have become important targets, Word’s pseudo-WYSIWIG has become a massive liability.

Because, if it were actually WYSIWIG, anything that looked like a heading would automatically be exported as a heading. Anything that looked like a quotation would export as a blockquote. But, even if you do give your Word file the correct styles with the correct names, often those styles are nothing but names and result in no corresponding structure in an export file. Word isn’t WYSIWYG, it’s WYSIWYS.

What You See Is What You see, and nothing more.

WYSIWYS is a bad idea for an interchange format, as it distances everybody in the process from the actual structural markup of the text. A badly documented proprietary format is even worse. It completely prevents an ecosystem of tools from growing up around your editorial and publishing processes. It throttles a lot of your best efforts to rejuvenate your processes in their crib. The publishing industry needs to consider alternatives to Microsoft Word. Using Word in a modern publishing workflow is like using a screwdriver to hammer a nail.

As I explained in HTML is too complex, the range of elements that are usable for authorship and editorial is limited to those that have an immediate visual or behavioural effect. The invisible elements (which are still supposed to have some sort of embedded meaning) are simply too complex for normal people to use. It’s just too hard for people to tell if they’ve done something correctly.

Word is the inverse of that. It’s rich formatting hides text blobs that are free of structure.

What we need for publishing is a true WYSIWYG format where formatting is structure. All headings should look alike and if it looks like a heading it must be a heading. Standardise the rendering and formatting for all structural elements so that it is obvious what is what.

Or, stick to Word and all of the additional work and costs that it entails.

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The print design mentality

Screen design isn’t print design and will never be print design, no matter how high the screen’s resolution gets.

Digital design needs to account for a level of changeability and dynamism that print has never had to deal with. The interaction model of print is embodied in the book object and not in the on-page design. The interaction model of digital has to be accounted for in the screen design itself and functionality needs to be specifically designed.

The differences in the two colour systems, additive and subtractive, are also more than just a matter of how the colours are specified. They behave in fundamentally different ways. The same colour looks and feels different in print and on screen, even though according to all objective measurements they should be identical. Digital colour screens that use the subtractive model are as good as non-existent in the market.

Digital design offers the possibility of animation. Print does not.

Binding content to the book is what all good book designers do. To do this, they use Canons of Page Construction, or other principles to design grid systems that, when populated by content, create that connection. But with all paper-based design, they start with paper. Paper that has edges, ratios that can be repeated. A canvas. And here’s the thing. Creating layouts on the web has to be different because there are no edges. There are no ‘pages’. We’ve made them up. (Mark Boulton – A Richer Canvas)

No iteration or evolution of current technology is going to turn screen design into print design.

A print designer is going to think that the above are minor differences. Which is why print designers are rubbish digital designers.

The problem is that you can’t really attain a singular design in digital. Even apps have to adapt to changing circumstances (accessibility settings, screen sizes, updates).

The digital mindset acknowledges constant change, recognises that getting a specific design is sometimes impossible, and thinks of projects as ongoing concerns—not one-off products. Platforms change. Design contexts and capabilities are fluid. Ebooks and apps need to be updated by somebody down the line.

Anybody who doesn’t understand this will be a liability in digital publishing.

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Book contracts

Normally, whenever Don tweets anything I just nod my head in agreement and move on.

My response to this tweet, however, was more ambivalent because it seems to imply that we shouldn’t be complaining about unfair standard practices in the publishing industry.

On the one hand, I and Tom Abba did refuse to sign a publishing contract last year because the contract was objectively unfair and one-sided. (It was for a non-fiction book on ebooks, writing, and all sorts of fun stuff. Would have been fun.) We didn’t complain about the contract in public or throw accusations at the publisher. We just didn’t sign and put plans for that book on hold.

Could we have renegotiated the contract? Probably. But there was so much wrong with it that we would have had to have a new one written practically from scratch which would have meant high legal fees and lengthy negotiations. Even if we had felt that it was worth our time, it’s doubtful the publisher would have felt that it was worth theirs.

This would imply that Don is indeed right. Just don’t sign a contract if you don’t like it. Don’t complain when you sign a bad contract and get screwed.

Except it isn’t that simple.

First off, author contracts in English-language publishing are intrinsically less fair than in many other markets. (It doesn’t take much research to discover that US publishing is generally in the same ballpark as UK publishing when it comes to fairness in book contracts.) Authors have fewer legal rights. Copyright laws in the UK and US are geared towards protecting corporations over individuals. There’s no collective bargaining like authors have in several European countries and some other industries. The contractual baseline is also relatively unfair.

What I mean by that last point is that the baseline English-language contract—the best most authors are going to get if they shop around—is actually a pretty nasty piece of work. Rights are generally claimed for the entire copyright term with reversion clauses that are very easy for the publisher to game. Non-competes in one form or another are relatively common. And, because many of them got burned by the ebook transition, most publishers now pre-emptively claim all rights to all future formats for as long as they have the right to publish.

That’s generally the best case scenario that an author can expect and it’s already distinctly unfair—the contract completely favours the publisher over the author. Offer a similarly one-sided contract to a carpenter, for instance, and they’d laugh you out of the room.

It gets worse. A lot of the contracts authors get offered, the ones labeled ‘standard’, are even less fair, often claiming subsidiary rights, harsher non-competes, and impose onerous obligations on the author.

For a lot of markets in the publishing industry the only contract you can get is an unfair one. Which means the only alternative for many authors, if they want the services that publishers offer, is to not be published at all.

Which is a pity because publishers really do have a lot to offer to the publishing process. But, of course I would say that, I work for a publisher, albeit a small one.

There are two alternatives.

Firstly, you can negotiate for a better contract. But you aren’t going to get a fair contract unless you are in high demand or unless you are dealing with a smaller publisher. Good luck trying to get an English-language publisher to sign a contract that’s strictly limited to a five year term.

Secondly, you can self-publish. But you’d be missing out on the one really important thing that a publisher contributes to the process:


Without a publisher, the author needs to have the funds needed to buy the services that are essential to publishing: editing, design, marketing, etc.. And the author generally needs to provide the funds up front. A publisher has the capital to provide those services in exchange for a share of the profits.

Which also means that if an experienced author works in a mostly ebook-oriented genre, has the capital necessary, and is willing to risk it, they’d be a fool to sign up with a publisher. In that context, everything a publisher provides can be hired in. Freelancers don’t demand a tax on your revenue.

But, I digress…

All publishing endeavours need capital of some sort. You can work around it, minimise it, spread it out, or simply cut corners, but the simplest way to navigate that roadblock is to sell your book to a publisher.

Then you have to face the fact that publishing contracts in the English-language industry tend to suck.

Which is why, in the end, I think I’ll have to disagree with Don. Given that the best case scenario for most authors is only a slightly less unfair contract, I’d say they have every right to gripe when something goes wrong.

Moreover, speaking out is important for other authors. People need to be reminded so that they can take care themselves. Unless you are aware of how prevalent crap contracts are in the industry, you wouldn’t understand the importance of following the advice implicit in Don’s tweet (don’t sign a bad publishing contract). Every time an author gripes online about a contract another author is reminded to always go over their contracts with a ruler and an anal attitude.

If we ask them all to shut up because we perceive their complaints to be attacks on traditional publishing then we are only making the situation worse for everybody.

And I mean everybody. Every time a publisher screws another author they are doing their industry a disservice.

The single biggest step publishers could take towards taking the wind out of self-publishing’s sail would be to standardise, publicly, on fairer contracts.

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