photo by @Doug88888

We’re so glad that former WU contributor Jane Friedman agreed to visit today as a guest, to give us some updates on the state of the ever-changing publishing industry. 

Most writers are aware that the publishing industry is undergoing a range of transformations, new beginnings, failures, and consolidations. But there’s so much change it can be difficult to weed out and understand the most relevant and important changes—especially when hundreds of opinions seem to surround the smallest change.

Based on industry conversations I’ve had in the last six months, as well as reports I’ve read by people I trust, here are five trends that writers should keep a close eye on.

1. Publishing Contracts

When I started working in trade publishing (1998), it was very rare that the company’s boilerplate contract would change. Obviously it was negotiated in minute detail by every agent that came into contact with it—so contracts differed from author to author—but the process always played out by a certain set of expectations or guidelines.

By the time I left trade publishing (2010), the contracts were being tweaked every 6 months to reflect a changing business environment and new opportunities in digital and multimedia publishing. I’m starting to wonder if there will ever be a “typical” contract again, given the increasing number of variables. Consider:

  • The increasing leverage of successful self-published authors (see Hugh Howey and his traditional publishing deal that allow him to keep his e-book rights).
  • New digital imprints or start-ups that offer very different contracts than established outlets—and rightly so, though some are good contracts and others are bad, more on that below.
  • Print publishing deals and distribution rights are becoming more and more like subsidiary rights. In other words, they’re not always the most important or profitable right for an author to license.
  • Foreign and translation rights will become increasingly important as e-book sales grow in international markets.

Unfortunately, most publishing contracts are closely guarded and not available for public review. So what is an author to do? Here’s my advice.

  • Do your due diligence on any publishing contract you sign. Fully understand what rights you’re granting and if it makes sense for your career and what you’re getting paid. If you don’t have an agent to negotiate your contract, consider hiring one on an hourly basis.
  • Think carefully and negotiate hard when it comes to digital-only publishing contracts. Some ebook-only publishers take a healthy share of your profits for doing things you could accomplish on your own. I’m skeptical of many digital start-ups that promise visibility and “talent discovery” when they have no success stories, no better distribution than what’s already available to a self-publishing author, and limited (or no) industry experience. If the publisher isn’t reaching a greater audience than you could on your own, ask yourself why you want to sign a contract with them. What value are they providing?
  • Always double-check how and when rights revert to you (the reversion clause). With traditional publishers, rights often revert after sales fall below a specific threshold. With digital-only publishers, rights often revert after specific time period has passed, or upon written notice. Make sure you understand the terms, and always negotiate for a better deal on this particular clause—to make it easier for you to get your rights back. (For more detail, read Dean Wesley Smith’s post on rights reversion.)
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away from a deal. Too many authors get caught up in the excitement of a publishing offer, and overlook contract terms that could hurt them in the future. If you can’t be hard nosed about negotiations, find someone who can. No deal is better than a bad one.

2. The Evolving Role of Agents

To further complicate matters, your relationship with your agent may be the first contractual obligation you need to consider or reconsider.

Traditionally, an agent takes 15% commission on every book she sells. But what happens when you self-publish some of the titles that your agent couldn’t sell? Or what if your agent sells your work to an imprint that pays no advance and even charges you (the author) upfront fees—a scenario that was briefly on the table when Random House rolled out new contracts for their digital-only imprints? Or what if you get the rights back to older titles that your agent sold, and you want to self-publish them on your own?

It’s a hornet’s nest of complications, but some of the best practices I’ve seen work off some variation of the following:

  • As usual, the agent takes 15% commission only on those books they’ve sold (where there is an advance or the makings of a “traditional” deal).
  • The agent does not take 15% commission on any type of self-published work by the author. However, if the agent is able to sell subsidiary rights or make other deals with that work, then they get their usual share on those specific deals.

Most agents are not interested in selling your work unless an advance is involved (70-80% of books never earn out their advance). However, agents often assist existing clients on all kinds of deals if there’s a longstanding relationship in play. A good agent will be transparent and upfront about how all deals are handled, and will be closely following the evolution of best practices in the industry.

3. The Value and Distraction of Author Platform Building

As far as trends go, the idea of building a platform has been around for at least five or six years now, if not longer. Unfortunately, as time has passed, I’m not sure the discussions surrounding platform—or the common wisdom that gets spread—is any better than it was in 2007, and social media as both marketing tool and creative tool has greatly complicated matters.

The questions that often get asked include:

  • When publishers or agents look at a writer’s platform, what are their criteria? Is it a numbers game? What numbers do you have to reach?
  • Do you need an established blog or website?
  • Must you be on Twitter, Facebook, or the social media site du jour?
  • Do you need to be a “brand”?

I’ll make a bold statement right here that I don’t think I’ve made before.

If you’re a totally new, unpublished writer who is focused on fiction, memoir, poetry, or any type of narrative-driven work, forget you ever heard the word platform. 

If you’re a totally new, unpublished writer who is focused on fiction, memoir, poetry, or any type of narrative-driven work, forget you ever heard the word platform. I think it’s causing more damage than good. It’s causing writers to do things that they dislike (even hate), and that are unnatural for them at an early stage of their careers. They’re confused, for good reason, and platform building grows into a raging distraction from the work at hand—the writing.

Therefore, build your platform by writing and publishing in outlets that are a good fit for you, lead to professional growth, and build your network. The other pieces will start to fall into place. It might take longer, but who cares if you’re feeling productive and enjoying yourself? Go be a writer and take a chance on the writing. Writing and publishing good work always supports the growth of your platform—and I’m willing to bet more valuable platform building will get done that way, especially for narrative-driven writers.

Exception to the rule: Nonfiction/non-narrative authors and entrepreneurial authors who are self-publishing. Sorry, but you should probably focus on platform as much as the writing.

If you want more of my take on platform, read my definition here.

4. Transmedia & Authorship

Let’s start by defining transmedia; I’ll lean on Guy Gonzalez here. He wrote the following in 2010:

[Transmedia] focuses on the storyworld first, distribution channels second, with the latter determined via a collaborative process that puts the author’s creative vision at the center. Most so-called transmedia projects are really just cross-media marketing initiatives and/or brand extensions, driven by licensing deals and a parceling out of rights in a manner that often includes loss of creative control by the author. Star Wars is the go-to example of a transmedia property, and while it has definitely evolved into a legitimate one, it didn’t start out that way.

My two cents: Unless you’re already a high-profile commercial author, don’t worry yourself about transmedia. Yes, you will set yourself up better if you’re thinking of expansive storyworlds to begin with (think: Game of Thrones), but unless you already have friends and colleagues involved in media—e.g., app development, audio/video production—you’re probably not going to be shopping around your transmedia project any time soon.

However, when it comes to platform building (which I just told you to forget!), it does help to think beyond blogging, tweeting, and all the text-based forms of communication, and consider the whole world of opportunities available to you, to produce fun, interesting content that complements your published work. Think John Green’s YouTube videos or Seth Harwood’s podcasts or Tweet Speak Poetry.

Which brings me to No. 5.

5. Emerging Tools for DIY E-Books and Multimedia Publications

It’s an explosion. That’s how I’d describe the market for easy-to-use (and often free) tools to produce digital books, magazines, and other tablet-based media. Because these are emerging tools, I can’t point to a specific author project that uses them, but this is good news. You can be among the first. Here are a few to begin exploring:

  • The Periodical.co: Create your own app-driven publication for Apple’s newsstand.
  • iBooks Author: OK, this isn’t emerging any longer—a lot of cool projects have been spun out of this Mac-based software
  • AerBook: create graphic books in your browser without knowing code
  • Graphicly: create visual stories distributed across all major digital platforms
  • BookCreator: create beautiful books for the iPad

What other publishing trends are you wondering about? Ask your question in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman is the co-founder and publisher of Scratch, a quarterly magazine focused on the intersection of writing and money. She teaches digital publishing and media at the University of Virginia and is a full-time publishing consultant. Find out more at her website.