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What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
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For some reason, the art world is rife with predators, ready and waiting to use and abuse an artist for profit. Just like Hollywood movies show the novice actress busing in from the Midwest with fresh hopes and naivete, writers enter the publishing world just as confused and hopeful. The predators bank on it. That lack of knowledge is how they butter their bread. But the lack of ethics reaches to the heights of every creative industry, and the offenses to encounter are legion.
Probably the worst practice is profiting off of an author through the use of their ignorance about their rights regarding their intellectual products, but also their desire to be a success. Coercion, therefore, falls under this umbrella. This manifests in sexual harassment/assault and other criminal behavior, but also in the suggestion that the author will not find success otherwise or outright promising to prevent it, should an author refuse to agree to contract terms that don’t compensate them appropriately or even forces them to give up their rights.
Most unethical practices do not reach this height of depravity, but what is done is still harmful, and it’s done on a daily basis to authors. Most contracts for publishing, in recent years, assure authors retain rights to their work. This intellectual property law is fairly recent in the pantheon of creative rights law. Keep in mind, however, it is the you can leave at any time, but will be cut off clause. Generally speaking, you can dissolve the contract, you may owe money to the publisher to buy your way out, but you’ll never be able to come back to them in the future. It burns a bridge to do it. So, then, you’re pretty much stuck unless you miraculously get a better offer that sees to releasing you and doing all the necessaries of the business to change your situation, but you’re switching out to another of these contracts. The bridge is still burned with the old contract holder, but you have a new home and good prospects as long as that new situation stays positive.
In addition to this, contracts often cut the author in on profits at a low percentage. Keep in mind, it is the author who has done all the work to create a manuscript, probably they have paid editors and proofreaders out of pocket to get it past the gate keepers, and an agent will take approximately 15% of whatever profit the author gets. What authors aren’t considering is that they’re not at all likely to be selling millions of copies worldwide, making their profit quite hefty. What is actually likely to be true is a lifetime profit of a few thousand, maybe as high as ten thousand, on their book. You certainly cannot live on that. Hopefully, you earn back what you’ve paid out.
Did I mention residuals? If an author isn’t aware of residual sales that could arise from their publication, or doesn’t think to plan for them, and thus it is not in their contract…well, then they’re not getting that money. You have to ask for it. It has to be in there. Residuals are often where all the money comes from. In addition to this, if you don’t contract for it, you don’t have a right to control what is sold either, but it will be affiliated with your work forever. Think about how that might impact your image.
The low percentage paid to authors, let’s call it 10% (which is considered top tier for many), leaves the publisher with 90% of the profits. So, now that you’ve written a bestseller, however long that took, and however much work it took, the publishing house will format, bind, and slap their name on it for 90% of the sales profits. I guess they edit, as well, but I’m not sure why when you have to present pristine copy to them to start.
Seems very steep, doesn’t it? 90 %. It is. It is considered robbery in many other fields, but it exists because authors have allowed this for the notoriety of being published by a big name house. You’ll sign the contract to get the name recognition and access to stores (coercion). You’re all but promised the dream.
But the problem is, they don’t do anything to help you sell. It’s true. An author is expected to have a publishing ready copy, have navigated agents to obtain representation, and sign over their hard work for 10% of the take, so they can turn around and provide their readership and marketing skills to the publisher and pay them 90% of the profits from the book.
I’m surprised they exist at all anymore. If authors actually thought about what was happening, the flat out robbery of their intellectual property, I think the percentage take would be a lot higher for authors. At least independent publishing is a team effort model: Authors take about 30%, the indie publisher takes the rest, but supplies printing ability and sales pages. You also get a discount on marketing through their company (including editing, reviewing, and cover design). The author retains their rights and can leave at any time, but they can also return when they want without burned bridges. (The 70% taken by the publisher is divided up in overhead and profit.)
I still believe that indie publishers take too much, yet electronic format provides the means to make up for it by often giving the author as much as 70% of the take. How? There is no printing involved, and the interface of an online sales portal is already built and in maintenance mode. It’s a far more equitable agreement, and there is no evident coercion that I have found in the contract, and since there are no gatekeepers, there is no coercion by those holding the keys.
I hope this has been a helpful answer. Be sure to check out what the other authors have to say by clicking on their links below.