Challenge,  publishing

I Feel Bad for New Writers… Part 7… More terminology

Outdated Terminology Continued…

As I said before, ew fiction writers coming in now are really torn between all the myths and hype of traditional publishing and all the myths and hype of indie publishing.

But as I said back in the first post of this series, the paperback era of big publishing is pretty much done, and the distribution of fiction is changing over to the electronic era of indie publishing, with indie writers in charge.

These kinds of major shifts in fiction distribution to the readers has happened four major times through the history of this country, with each new era lasting about 50 years and the transitions lasting about 25 years. Again, see my first post.

New writers coming in today don’t know this history, don’t realize they are coming in smack in the middle of a transition. And to make matters worse, terminology that was common in the big publishing paperback era is now just confusing or really has no meaning.

This is the second part of those terms. Please read the entire series to understand what I am talking about.

Rights Bought

I use the term bought correctly. Traditional publishers basically buy all rights to a book for the life of the copyright.

In indie publishing, we don’t sell anything. We license our work. We hold onto all our own copyright. We can do audio or large print or whatever we want when we want.

Back not that long ago in traditional publishing, the corporations would only buy North American rights. So if you wanted your book out around the world, you had to sell it to publishers in other countries. And more often than not, the US publisher got a chunk of those sales as well. (I won’t mention what agents did and still do with this money from other publishers.)

And even to this day, those selling to traditional publishers seldom have the distribution reach around the world an indie writer can easily get.

Next Book (or Right of First Refusal)

I have watched, sadly, more writer’s careers fade away and die because of this contract clause.

When a traditional writer sells a book (again sell used correctly) to a publisher, in their contract the writer also gives away the right to the publisher of what book they can write next and when and what type.

Yes, I am not kidding. Just ask any traditionally published writer about this contract clause and watch them get uneasy or hem-and-haw or worse, not really know what they have signed away.

Indie writers create what they want to create and publish it when they want. Very simple.

Traditionally published writers not so much. And some of these clauses have been so bad that it takes the writers years to get out of them, if they ever do.

Indie writers license their work and never give away control over anything to a publisher. The indie writer is the publisher.

This clause can not be taken out of a traditional fiction contract and the reason it is that the writer is blindsided by it when they get their contract. And if they complain, the agent just says “Nothing we can do.”

There is something the writer can do. They can walk away before signing the contract. But the myth of traditional publishing is so strong, that is nearly impossible. So the writer shrugs and signs away their future.

And the writer just can’t go indie publish the next book without big corporation lawyers coming down hard.

Truely ugly…


Imprints are lines of books that publishers set up to focus some fact or another about a group of books.

Often a traditionally published writer is going with a major publisher for the bragging rights of being in a major press. (I call that fairy dust, since it has just about that much value.)

Indie writers in their own publishing houses can create imprints as well. WMG Publishing has three or four.  Pulphouse Books is one.

So say a traditionally published writer sells (used correctly) their dear book to Particular Publishing. How many people is that going to impress? Sounds to me like a small press somewhere in Oklahoma. (Actually it is one of the hundreds of imprints of Penguin.)

Imprints pretty much kill the old value of fairy dust to traditionally published writers. (And I must admit, it is fun to watch them squirm as they try to explain their publisher to impress someone.)

Moving On…

I have more topics to cover in this series to explaining the transition from 50 years of paperback focused companies to indie electronic focused publishing.

Every new writer coming in has to battle the myths on both sides, so up next, the advertising myth. From both sides…




  • blitchfield

    My understanding on the Rights of First Refusal (also called Non Compete, I think) in traditonal is that you have to get permission to even sell a short story someplace. And that continues forever, even after the book is long out of print. Is that true, or am I wrong about that?

    Another question, going back to the 1980s: have traditional contracts always been that bad, as in buying up all rights and preventing you from selling anywhere else under your own name?

    • dwsmith

      No, back in the 1970s and into the middle part of the 1980s, traditional contracts were basically licensing agreement between the rights holder and the publisher. Writers could get their rights back, or they automatically reverted at a certain time limit, as in normal licensing agreements. Writers let it change from the 1980s to what it is today. And the structure of publishing houses changed. Back 30 plus years, publishers actually made all their money selling books. Now these big publishers don’t flat care if the book is published or not. Not how they make their money. (Remember, under oath, major CEO told the court that of the 98,000 traditional trade books published last year, about half of them sold less than 12 copies.

  • Kate Pavelle

    Dean, the information about imprints seems to have two sides to that coin:
    1. Good – one gets to group books by genre
    2. Bad – the name of the publisher (or here, the writer) gets diluted into obscurity.

    Is there any value for me, for instance, to have imprints for the several genres in which I publish? (60 novels/novellas, lots more short stories.) I have to redo my back matter anyway, so would it be of any value to spend time dividing books into imprints? Since I now pulled all fiction under Olivette Devaux, I’ve been working the branding and blurbs pretty hard to signal what the reader can expect. Would the imprint help with that? I generally ignore imprints, I get pulled in by the cover, the blurb, and the sample read (in that order.)
    If I ever do this, this is a good time to think about such things.
    As always, thank you!

    • dwsmith

      Nope, imprints in indie publishing tend to be by a larger product. Pulphouse and Fiction River as two examples in WMG Publishing. No need for genre imprints anymore.

  • Harold Goodman

    I worked for three years to write, design and produce a teaching course to learn spoken Mandarin. It was published by a major UK publisher where, since 1997, it is still selling though thanks to piracy, something you neglect to mention, Dean, my royalties are less and less. The publisher says that going after internet pirates who will steal your work ( anything digital can be stolen very easily) and sell it for a pittance, is like a game of whack a mole. It is very hard and costly to stop.
    Anyway, the main reason that I am writing this is that the US rights were acquired by Random House, the big publisher. Since they failed to do any publicity, the total sales of the title here was 50 copies. In Europe it has sold thousands and continues to sell.
    I have refused to do another such course for them in another language.
    You publisher, if you are stupid enough to go with a traditional one, will not support you as Dean has explained.
    Save your money for psychotherapy for self destructive tendencies if you are contemplating going the traditional route.
    BTW, the same publisher, who has since been acquired by Hachette, one of the largest conglomerates, has offered me a contract, sight unseen, for a book.
    I told them that I am not interested.
    Indie is the only way to go if you have a brain and self respect.