On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The Myth of Giving Away 15% Ownership in Your Work.

Oh, oh, I’m doing another Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post. Stay tuned, I have a hunch there will be more. And it’s time for me to redo some of the old ones as well. Things have changed.

Why this topic? Why now?

Over the last month or so I have been hammered by all kinds of writers bent on the belief, the myth, that giving a percentage of their work away is a good and smart thing to do. I went to the conference I talked about in a previous post and heard writers talking about giving away percentages. My wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, on her blog every Thursday has been pounding on how horrid traditional publishing contracts have become, detail by detail.

And the common thread on her posts is that writers are determined to give away control of their work.

And lately I’ve seen a couple of contracts that are flat horrid from epub companies (meaning companies that claim to “help” writers get their work into print while taking 15% or more forever).

And the key to all of this is that they take these rights FOREVER.

So what am I saying exactly?

Simply put…Writers should hold onto 100% control of their own work.

Period. No exceptions.

Sure, license a right to a publisher or a magazine or an audio company for a short use time, but keep 100% control of the underlying property. (If you do not understand what I mean by license your work, the you need to learn copyright. A great place to start is the Copyright Handbook from Nolo Press.)

And when the publisher is done with the work, get the rights back. And that means in the contract having a firm date you will get the rights. Not some stupid speed limit and the requirement that you then go begging the publisher to give the rights back.

Make the reversion of rights you license a set date.

Period. Again, there should be no exceptions.

And if you publish the book through your own indie publishing company, keep 100% control and ownership.

Sure, give bookstores discounts for selling a copy.

Sure, give distributors a discount for every copy they move to a bookstore.

Sure, give the print company their due for producing the book.

But never give away any part of the 100% ownership that is your work. (Again, if you don’t understand how you can sell a copy of your book and still retain all rights, get yourself to the Copyright Handbook.)

It really is that simple.

I can hear the questions. “But I can’t do covers, so shouldn’t it be all right to trade the work on the cover for a percentage of the sales?”


For some strange reason, smart writer after smart writer seems intent on wanting and fighting to give away ownership percentages in their work, both with agents, with traditional publishers, with small presses, and with indie publishing “helpers.”

When it finally dawned on me that indie publishing might be a wonderful addition to traditional publishing for writers (not replace, an addition), I got excited about how writers could keep 100% control. (You can read my article in Kirkus about this.)

But the myth in publishing about giving away a percentage of work is so strong, indie writers figured out ways to do it. The worst thing about traditional publishing and indie writers worked it over into their world without needing to.

So this myth, simply put is this:

Writers (for some silly reason) believe it is fine

to exchange work for a percentage of their property.

Nope. It is not.

Not ever. That’s a myth, folks.

How flat silly is this practice when looked at in “real world business” terms?

For example, you have a gardner come to your house to mow your lawn. But instead of money, you decide to give the gardner a percentage ownership in your home.

I’d become a gardner if that was the practice and I hate mowing lawns.

It’s the same thing, folks. Exactly.

You want another example in the real world closer to “having a cover done.” How about you need a new kitchen in your restaurant? You hire a contractor to do the work. But not once, ever, would you think about giving that contractor a percentage ownership (or a percentage for even a few years of the income).

Writers, for some reason, think it’s just fine to hire an agent to sell a book and then give the agent some ownership in the work. For the simple task of mailing a manuscript to an editor, something the writer could do.  And now some indie writers think it is all right to hire a person to do a cover and give that person ownership or a percentage of the income for years to come.

What are you giving away is copyright. And copyright lasts 70 years past your death.

Copyrights are a form of property.

The solution, of course, is just think of your work as valuable property and stop giving parts of it away. For any reason.

I have seen this problem come up in different areas just in the last month. Here are a few of those areas.

Traditional Publishing Book Contracts.

The contracts from traditional publishers have become so abusive to midlist and beginning writers, it’s just stunning. Joe Konrath just did a new post about why he won’t go traditional anymore. He says he’s flat tired of being abused. My wife on her blog has done great articles about some of the clauses that take away writer’s rights. ThePassiveVoice blog also has talked on this issue at times in length. All worth tracking down.

But let me be clear here. Unless you are getting a huge offer, meaning up into six figures or more, you do not have the clout at the moment to negotiate with a traditional publisher in any way that will allow you to keep your rights on your work. Unless you have a darned good attorney on board and the publisher really, really, really wants your book, you will never own those rights to that book again. (Or at least not for thirty-some years…again, learn copyright.)

And worse. Traditional publishers now want to control what you write in the future as well. And they are getting away with it.

So caution. Get an IP attorney to help you with any offer from any traditional publisher and understand what you are thinking of signing.


Agents are slowly fading away in importance in this industry. But they are not gone yet by a long ways, and the lower level agents can really trap you. And some of the big agencies have turned to getting ownership in a writer’s work they represent in an effort to stay in the business.

(Makes sense…they own something, they get to hang around. If they are just making buggy whips, then few of them will survive.)

These rights grabs come through a number of ways directly in your relationship with the agent.

First off,  agency agreements often make a rights grab on your work. Never sign one. Period.

Second, caution about the agency clause in book contracts you sign. Rights grabs by the agents often happen there as well.

A second major area for agents to try to take a part ownership in your work is the agent’s scam of becoming a publisher.

I’ve seen some of these contracts between these “publishers” and the writers now, and trust me, they are rights grabs in all the worst ways. Most agent “publishers” want at least 15% forever, and they also get control of the work. You are not free to take your book out yourself.

So, what major clues are there to look for in an agency agreement or an agency clause or a clause with a agent-as-publisher contract? Biggest clue is the words “coupled with an interest.”

Run when you see that. It means the agent is trying to own your work for the life of the copyright.

But what is the real solution to all these agent problems?

Simple: Never use one.

Take your career into your own hands, go directly to editors with your work, and hire an IP lawyer to help you with the contract. It’s cheaper, safer, and twenty years from now you will thank me.

Companies that “Help” indie publishers.

There are two types of these companies. The Good and The Scam.

You always know The Good company when they never ask for a percentage of your work. The fees are up front for the work you need and stated, not hidden. And you always retain all rights to your work and the money goes directly to your bank account.

They work off of what is called a “menu” of services. They are, for the most part, the good. You decide how much you want to pay up front and either pay it or not.

The Bad company tries to hide any fees from you, tries to get you to give them a percentage, wants to handle your money before it goes to you with every sale, even tries to get you to sign up in their online agreements before you can even look at their site.

Solution: Run!!!!

The Real Hidden Ugly Side of All This

In a word: Accounting.

So far no person has managed to do an accounting program that WMG Publishing Inc. will sign onto that will allow us to simply find out how many books we are selling. A number of people have made great attempts at it and one I really liked except for the fact that they wanted me to put my entire company’s financial statements into some cloud and wanted me to sign an agreement that I wouldn’t sign on my first year of writing. And they would not budge and got mad at me for even asking them to.

So with 273 titles as of this moment published through WMG Publishing Inc., we have to hire data entry people to log in our sales to spread sheets to even get some idea how many we are selling of each title every quarter. In other words, we are trying to do it the same way traditional publishers have done it for decades, and trust me, that sucks. (You think it should be easy to just combine the statement spread sheets every month from bookstores and distributors. It’s not. Try it.)

Some major traditional publishing companies, with departments full of accountants and data entry people, are having issues with all this as well.

So you sign up with some small press publisher or some agent “publisher” who promises to get your book into electronic print, and then pay you FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE PLUS 70 YEARS 15% every month of everything that comes in.

Yeah, that’s going to happen and if you believe it will, I’ve got a very old bridge to sell you.

Imagine your grandkid trying to chase the grandkid of the agent sixty years after you die to get money and you start to see how really silly that idea is.

But it is not so silly when you suddenly realize you have, forever, meaning for the life of the copyright, given another person a partial ownership in your property.

Imagine in five years that person you gave a percentage to for your cover demanding their money, even though you have replaced their dated cover two years before.

Imagine the agent who grabbed a share of your property because they sold it ten years ago now getting that same percentage for the next fifty years of your ebook that you indie published. And taking you to court because you don’t send them a monthly check.

I can imagine much worse and have already seen it happening.


The myth that you need to give someone 15% of your income from your books started way back in the history of publishing. But back then contracts were easy, publisher’s didn’t hold onto books forever, agreements with agents were a handshake and no one tried to own your work.

In other words, back then, when the practice started, there was a respect for writers in this business.

In case you have been living under a rock and haven’t noticed, I need to say this: Publishing has changed!!!

Now agents want to own part of your work forever.

Scam “helpers” want to grab part of that ownership for simply doing a cover or putting it up electronically.

Traditional publishers are grabbing at anything they can grab at, including the lifetime of your work and your future work.

So what do you do?

— First, never, ever allow anyone to work for you for a percentage, either of income or ownership.

— Second, start learning how to indie publish your own work. It’s scary at first, but fun after that, and it gives you a sense of intense freedom. That way you can be clear-headed on signing a deal with anyone else.

— Third, make sure every contract you sign has a set date where the exclusive rights return to you. Period. Never sign a contract with a “speed limit” or a dollar figure of sales. Just set a date and if the publisher wants the work after that date, they can negotiate a new deal with you.

That seems very, very simple, doesn’t it? And actually, it is.

This is a wonderful new world for writers. More and more of us are making a really nice living. More and more of us are now allowed to write what we want without anyone looking over our shoulder. Readers can find our work and it will never go out of print, so new generations of readers can always find it as well.

The key is hold 100% of your work at all times.

And, of course, keep having fun.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Crowvb/Dreamstime

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