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The Top Five Dumbest Business Practices in Publishing

11 May 2015

From Dean Wesley Smith:

From the real world perspective, publishing is really, really, really known for its head-shakingly stupid business practices. But inside of publishing, these practices have become so common and set in “the way things are done” as to be defended by otherwise sane business people.

So I figured I would honor Dave Letterman’s departure with a quick top five list.

I’ll give the real world equivalent of the publishing practice, then the actual publishing practice, working down to the most stupid publishing practice of them all.

. . . .

Real World: You walk up to a neighbor’s house you don’t really know, but at a neighborhood block party you met them. You ask the neighbor to give you legal advice about a legal contract you have been offered. The neighbor teaches English at the local high school and is not an attorney. Plus it is against the law in your state (and all states) for someone without a law degree to give legal advice. But since the neighbor on his last trip stayed at Holiday Inn Express (remember those commercials?) he agrees to give you advice on the contract and negotiate it for you. Would you ever do that? Of course not. You would go to a lawyer who knows the area of contracts you have been offered.

Publishing: Recent graduates of college with a bachelors in English who have a business card that says “agent” think nothing of giving legal advice to writers and negotiating the contract for them. And writers let them without a second thought. Apply common business sense and hire an IP attorney to handle your contract and negotiations. Duh.

. . . .

Real World: You hire a gardener to mow your lawn when it needs it. In exchange for that simple task, you offer your gardener 15% of your property for the life of the property, plus seventy years past your death. That means the gardener’s grandkids would be getting money from your grandkids because the gardener mowed your lawn once or twice. Would you do that? Of course not. You would simply pay your gardener by the hour or the project.

Publishing: Every agency agreement, both from agents and inside of publishing contracts, gives an agent on a project 15% of the property (remember, copyright is property) for the life of the copyright which is 70 years past your death. And often the agent gets this for a couple hours work one day and a phone call. Apply common sense. If an agent won’t work for a set fee per property, then hire an IP attorney who is licensed and who can do all the same things an agent would do, only legally. And you only pay one set fee or hourly rate. Duh.

Link to the rest at Dean Wesley Smith and thanks to Ava for the tip.

Here’s a link to Dean Wesley Smith’s books

Agents, Dean Wesley Smith, The Business of Writing

21 Comments to “The Top Five Dumbest Business Practices in Publishing”

  1. Oh, my, Mean Dean is being nasty to Trad Pub… again!

    Excuse me, I’ve got to go cry me a river now. 🙁

    (The fact that “common sense” is so uncommon in publishing practices is irrelevant. Nothing to see here folks, keep moving on.)

  2. My initial reaction was “only five?”

  3. I love this and the Duh at the end is just giggle-worthy!

  4. Is his advice on “Number Five” never to hire a freelance editor who has never written a commercial novel (which must be an exceedingly small number) or never to hire a freelance editor period (which I hope he’s not advising)?

    • never to hire a freelance editor who has never written a commercial novel

    • He specifies book doctors, not copyeditors or proof readers.

      • But then he goes on to say: ‘In the indie world, this is called hiring a “freelance editor.”’ (You’re probably right, though, that he means “developmental editing” to be his target rather than copyediting or proofreading. To me, a “book doctor” would be more along the lines of “someone who knows how to make a book commercially viable” than “someone who can make it the best version of itself it can be”–but either way, it doesn’t follow that such a person should first be a writer of commercial fiction. Improving the writing of others is a separate though related skill.)

        Overall, while he may have some good points–not being deeply familiar with working with agents, I couldn’t say–this article is a textbook example of how argument by analogy can be used to make your argument sound superficially better than it actually is.

        When you parse number 5, you get, “You shouldn’t hire a carpenter who has never worked as a carpenter, therefore you shouldn’t hire an editor who isn’t also a writer.” A better analogy would be “You shouldn’t hire an editor who has never edited a book before.” (Or perhaps, you shouldn’t hire a carpenter to build your house who has not hired a carpenter to build their own house…?) Some people opine that the best editors are also writers, while others believe that such editors are more likely to “change my voice!!!!11!!!” and try to make the author’s book one the editor would have written–either position might be true, I suppose, but the analogy doesn’t prove it either way.

        Similarly, it is an agent’s actual job to negotiate contracts between authors and publishers. If on balance they fail at doing that effectively, it isn’t because of some fancied similarity between agents doing what agents are actually supposed to do and your neighbor the English teacher masquerading as a contract lawyer.

        And as it almost always is, that much-hated phrase “common sense” is invoked as a screen for “the author’s ideology or beliefs.”

        • “Similarly, it is an agent’s actual job to negotiate contracts between authors and publishers. If on balance they fail at doing that effectively, it isn’t because of some fancied similarity between agents doing what agents are actually supposed to do and your neighbor the English teacher masquerading as a contract lawyer.”

          The problem, and what I understood Dean to be saying, is that in most jurisdictions, negotiating a contract is in fact the job of a contract attorney – which few, if any, literary agents actually are.

          In most jurisdictions, as I understand it (and I am a paralegal, but not in intellectual property nor contracts), negotiating a contract on behalf of someone else (absent credentials as an attorney) would be construed as the unauthorized practice of law and is at best unethical and at worst a felony.

          That most writers don’t understand this is sad, but apparently true.

          • Just a quick addition to clarify. You don’t want a contracts attorney, you want an attorney that specifically deals with book contracts. They are their own beast, you need someone familiar with them.

            I’m an attorney somewhat familiar with book contracts but if I were to look at signing one I’d still go straight to an expert attorney who has handled them before.

        • Some people opine that the best editors are also writers, while others believe that such editors are more likely to “change my voice!!!!11!!!” and try to make the author’s book one the editor would have written . . . .

          What you describe is what I found to be the case when I solicited editors. Those who were writers tended to edit my word choice to fit theirs and thus changed the voice. They did not like my sentence structure, chopped it up, changed my work to something they would have written. 🙁

          I found an editor who leaves my stuff mine. Edits to make things clear, but does not change the voice. Never been published. AFAIK never written anything. But a great editor.

          • Antares: this sounds like an ideal relationship. A good development editor should understand what tone and style you’re aiming for, and should provide changes or corrections that enhance that, never detract from it.

          • I am a writer, but when it comes to editing, I do not make corrections to vocabulary and word choice or even unclear verbiage unless it’s just obviously a mistaken word, like “discrete” instead of “discreet.” I highlight the problem area and say why it’s unclear, generally this is what it makes me think, which can’t be right.

            It’s the editor’s job to find the problems, not correct them, except in clear cases of punctuation (according to writer’s preferred style), spelling, typos, etc.

  5. Now if only we could get writers to read this before signing on with an agent or publisher …

  6. It does sound rather batcrap when phrased like this. Had I suggested a flat-fee arrangement with my ex-agent, though, she’d have laughed all the way to the Bat Farm.

  7. Totally agree. If you’re hiring a business consultant, you want someone with a degree in business. If you want a plumber, you want someone licensed in plumbing. If you want a lawyer, definitely need someone who studied law.

    What I found interesting though is the acknowledgement of the need for licensing to guarantee professional qualification among plumbers or other counsel —

    But not for writers, for whom the only qualification of being a “successful” writer, as many in the indie world seem to define it, is “sold a lot of books.”

    In my experience, what makes a great editor is one’s ability to edit, not to write. What’s made a great teacher is one’s ability to teach, not to write. I got to study with Syd Field; he literally wrote the book on screenwriting and read them for years, but by WGA I don’t believe has any screenwriting credits to his name, though he consulted on many with regard to story and structure, from my understanding. I bring him up because he was a great screenwriting teacher.

    • Good point, Will. Tiger Woods had a golf coach he worked with for years named Butch Harmon. (Googling tells me he’s since changed coaches.) Harmon got a lot of credit from both Tiger and others for how well he did. Yet Harmon’s career as a professional only included one tournament win. The question is, are we talking apples and oranges?

      I think there are situations where someone can teach/explain how to do something better than they can do it themselves. An editor (talking substantive, content, development, or whatever terminology you like for a high level editor) may be able to spot the holes, bad pacing, or other ways where someone else’s story isn’t working as well as it might, but be a crappy storyteller themselves.

      • BigAl, bad example with Butch. (grin) I played a lot of golf with Butch in my pro days in Palm Springs and he was a far better player than I was. And his father was Claude Harmon, the head professional of two major golf courses and one of the best teachers of golf on the planet.

        Butch was maybe one of the better players to come out of that area at that time. He was like me, he didn’t like the travel or the stress that tournament travel golf demanded. But he was as good if not better player than almost anyone he ever taught until Tiger. That’s why he was respected. He could do it.

        Yes, I wasn’t talking about copyeditors, but those book doctors who have never written a book but pretend to tell beginning writers how to make a book sellable, when they honestly have no idea. However, there are major writers who do help writers with books. Dave Farland springs to mind. If Dave says a book will sell, you could trust that.

        Just continuing to try to warm writers away from the scams of publishing.

        • “Just continuing to try to warm writers away from the scams of publishing.”

          Dean,

          Too bad that your attempts all too often fall on deaf ears — and in blind eyes.

          I’m specifically referring to ASI here, and their poor, deluded, victimized, wannabe authors who desire ASI’s worthless-but-expensive “validation.”

        • My word, Dean, is there nothing you have not done? Good on ya for wide experience of life.

          • He should try eating the old 96er from “the Great Outdoors”. Then I’ll be impressed!!!

            For any folks too young to know or too busy doing useful things with their lives, the Great Outdoors is a late 80s era John Candy movie….

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