When indie publishers go traditional

Some of you will have encountered self-published author and digital guru, David Gaughran, at our Festival of Writing. David writes novels, but is perhaps best known for his Let’s Get Digital which remains probably the best guide to e-pub there is. I recently asked David about his experience of indie authors hooking up with literary agents.

Here’s his answer. My thoughts follow at the end. I’ll post soon about when, in my view, self-publishing makes most sense and when regular publishing does – and how, in both cases, to maximise your chances of success.

Plenty of indie authors would consider a publishing deal, but I guess it would make most sense to restrict the conversation to the savvier, better selling end of the spectrum. I don’t mean the biggest names, but those making a living or on the way to doing so – which is quite a large number these days. Anyway, a lot of those guys would be interested in the idea, but would have a lot of conditions that may or may not make such a deal palatable for a publisher (or representation palatable for an agent).
There’s a real spectrum of opinion out there, and everyone has their own red lines. Prospective deals would have to make sense financially, of course, and self-publishers tend to have a very clear idea of what their books are worth. They are generally happy to take the long term view, and are wary of signing rights over forever (unless it’s a considerable advance or it’s with an outfit like Amazon who bring serious marketing power to the table).
Pretty much all self-publishers are interested in print-only deals and foreign rights sales (we tend to view both as subsidiary rights), but the paucity of the former and the nature of the latter seems to mean that a lot of agents aren’t interested unless the author is putting digital rights on the table too. Some won’t, but most probably will if the deal is good enough.
I think self-publishers in general would take a harder line on various contract provisions in both publishing deals and representation agreements with agents. Many are wary of non-compete clauses (I don’t know the situation in the UK, but in the US these have been getting quite grabby with the larger publishers), option clauses (ditto), out-of-print clauses (i.e. seeking to put in minimum income thresholds for rights reversion instead as all books pretty much stay in print these days).
They also can look for certain commitments in terms of marketing – although they know a large advance will generally commit a publisher to backing a book too. And they want to know that their book will have wide print distribution, as that’s a market that’s tricky to hit on your own. In terms of representation agreements, the kind of things they look at include the clauses for dissolving the agreement and the agents’ interest (i.e. so that the agent won’t get a cut if they fail to sell the book, and then the author subsequently sells it through another agent).
Of course, there are lots of self-publishers out there who wouldn’t care about any of the above, and would happily take any kind of deal to be published by one of the majors. But to be frank, they tend to be those who are selling much less anyway.
I should also mention that, in the US at least, agents are becoming very proactive about signing self-publishers – even if they don’t trumpet it. Lots and lots of my friends have either signed up, or had approaches, and quite a few negotiate deals on their own, or just use an IP lawyer instead of an agent (and pay a flat fee).
I think agents can often be surprised at the savviness of the prospective client they are encountering. Some writers I know have already dispensed with the services of their agents, because they felt they were too wedded to the old ways of thinking, and weren’t doing much for them that they couldn’t do themselves. Plenty are quite happy though and have either signed deals with Amazon imprints or the Big 5, or have an eye on same.


David is definitely right that agents are increasingly seeking to mine the indie world for talent. Right too that agents and the publishing industry in general are relatively quiet about this fact.

The general picture, though, of self-pub authors negotiating hard, offering print rights only, and walking away from offers of representation unless everything looks right isn’t, though, quite in tune with our experience at the Writers’ Workshop. That’s not because I think David is wrong – more that I suspect his experience is more US/international and ours is largely domestic. And my gut feel remains that most authors most of the time will want the resources of traditional publishers on their side (and agents too, of course – hence why our Festival is the hit that it always is). Not that those resources are always successful or even always competent – they’re not and they’re not – but most authors (with glorious exceptions) just don’t want the hassle of writing and producing and marketing and selling their work.

That said, I am warmly welcoming of any trend which lends negotiating strength to the author. The division of e-royalties (to pick just one issue) is deeply questionable with some books, some authors and some publishers. Anything that puts power back into the hands of authors is to be welcomed.

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