One of the most oft-repeated arguments that I see in self-publishing is this notion that you should not give a percentage of your work to anyone, ever.
I think this is mostly because Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch–two very intelligent and business-savvy people–have said they think it is a bad idea, and because Dean and Kristine are often smart and intelligent, they are cited as gospel.
This post by Dean is typical of the argument:
We sure aren’t paying anyone who helps us a percentage. And never will. It’s my work. I ain’t giving parts of it away.
Without any sense of irony, Dean ends the post with this:
…[E]ven if in my opinion, they are stuck on giving percentages away to agents. But oh well, it’s their money to give away (if they ever decide to try what they are pushing). Their headache.
I would rather just keep the full 70% to be honest.
Wait, what do you mean, “full 70%”? What? Last I checked, “full” was 100%. What happened to that extra 30%?
Oh. I see. Amazon took it. A percentage. Dang it, Dean, why are you stuck on giving a percentage to Amazon? I thought you weren’t paying a percentage to anyone. It’s your work. How come you’re giving parts of it away?
Now, that’s not quite fair, of course. The answer is obvious: You pay Amazon 30% of the take because if it were not for Amazon, your take would be much, much smaller, and you would weep.
Why Dean doesn’t think this concept is generalizable, I do not know.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I am very jealous of my percentages, and I wouldn’t go around throwing them away willy-nilly. That being said, I can see how giving someone a percent would make sense.
Let me give you an example: Suppose that it takes 400 hours to write a book and 100 hours to get it ready for publication: incorporating changes from copy edits, finding editors, finding copy-editors, proofs, chasing things down when they don’t get done, getting covers made, getting formatting done. You may snicker and say, “Courtney, those things don’t take 100 hours!” But they did, for me, for Unlocked. (Partially because I was learning how to do things right–hopefully the process will streamline in the future.)
Do you know what it means to do a good job finding an editor? It doesn’t just mean you find any person who hangs out their hat and says “I edit. Pay me.” You need someone who gets your work. Your voice. Who operates in a way that you can work with. Someone who understands what is good about your book and will work with you to make it even better. That’s not easy to find, and you won’t know if someone fits that bill until you pay them money. Sometimes lots of money.
Some people will do sample edits on a few pages (good to see if you’re in line on the voice thing), but some won’t. So instead, you read books that they’ve already edited—or google to see if they’ve written about their style or writing tips—and you try to guess from that whether they would work well with you.
Maybe you find someone who looks awesome, but she’s booked for the next four months solid. (Yes, this is happening.) Maybe you find someone who looks awesome, and it looks like you’ve got a decent fit, but it turns out that you can’t deliver in the timeframe when she would edit because you figure out you need to rewrite 30% of it, and so you miss the mark.
It’s hard work finding a good editor who works well with you, stylistically. Repeat for copy-editors. There are lots of people calling themselves copy editors these days, and when you ask them what style they prefer they say, “huh?” Or they think that “copy editing” is synonymous with “proof reading.”
Not everyone who formats ebooks does a good job. I wouldn’t trust someone who thinks that you should avoid curly quotes altogether (that’s the ridiculous Smashwords fix—everyone else gets “ ”). How can you tell if someone is doing something right? You download copies of their books and then you unzip the epub file and look at the underlying HTML. That’s how.
It’s a lot of work to find people who are doing things right. It’s even more work to figure out how to do it right yourself.
If you hire someone else, you only need to find one person whose competence lies in identifying people who are competent.
So just do the math: if it takes me 400 hours to write a book and 100 hours to get it ready for publication, that means that I could write 25% of another book if I didn’t have to mess around with all that crap. Under those circumstances, it would make sense to pay someone 15%.
Now, you’re saying, “But Courtney, the solution is obvious. Just pay someone a flat fee to act as your liaison to all these people. You don’t need to pay a percent.”
Sure. But what incentive does the liaison have to do a good job, then? If they’re getting a flat fee, how do I know they aren’t just going to have their friends do it to kick a few books their direction?
Salespeople are put on commission all the time. Key employees often get profit sharing points in the business world. These are not weird or odd or unusual business arrangements. There are times when you want to give someone a percent, and you do it because you think that you will get more money than if you pay them a flat fee. This is not hard or weird or wrong. It is, in fact, entirely normal, and it’s mind-boggling to suggest otherwise.
Most importantly, the assumption in Dean/Kris’s writing is that if you pay someone a percent you must pay them a percent forever–but nothing requires that. What if someone set up a business model where you paid them 10% for four years? Or 20% for two years? Or 50% for the first 6 months, and nothing thereafter? All of those are reasonable choices that give the person you are hiring an incentive to maximize income, but which won’t have any impact on your long-term revenue.
There’s one other thing, and I hesitate to mention this, but I’m going to anyway. Much of what I’ve said above is centered on the fact that I think it’s worth spending time and money to do things right. I would rather produce one story that was tightly edited, brilliantly proofed, properly formatted, and professionally packaged than 20 that were not.
This is not Dean’s model. I’m not trying to knock his model; it apparently works very well for him. But, for instance, take a look at his challenge post:
—To write 100 original short stories in one year….
#1… Please, I know I will make typos and such. I don’t care and please don’t tell me. Thanks. If you have trouble reading something with a few typos, please don’t read these stories. There is no such thing as a perfect story and I ain’t trying to write one.
And then, on this particular story:
TOTAL HOURS SPENT (Including writing, publishing, and cover and putting it up here and writing this post) just over 6 hours in one day from first word to finished and up.
Which is fine. It is a perfectly fine business plan to write 100 stories in a year, not edit them, and post them. I think it’s a great writing exercise. You’ll make a few bucks on each story every month–after a year, it definitely adds up to a pretty darned good income.
But it is not the only business model. And I think that the fact that Dean works this way colors his view of what’s acceptable. It doesn’t look like he leaves room and time in his schedule for fussing and nitpicking, and if that’s the case, I completely agree with what he says: just hire someone who’s going to get the job done at minimal cost and move on. If something flops, oh well; there’s always something else in the works.
But if you don’t work like Dean, and you do fuss and nitpick, and you can’t afford to have something flop–it might make sense to have a real business partner who helps you make sure that nothing you do truly flops, and it might make sense to pay that person a percent. If your business model is to try and make your pie very big, it makes sense to give someone a piece of the pie so that they maximize your pie. If your business model is to have lots and lots of tiny pies, obviously you’ll see things differently. Your job then is not to make very very big pies, but to produce as many pies as possible, and the only person who can do that is the author.
There are successful writers who do things Dean’s way. There are successful writers who don’t. Never trust anyone who says that the only way to write is to do it their way. Do it your way. And once you know what your way is, your goal is to match your way of doing business with your way of writing. Not all writing styles are equally suited to all business styles.
Personally, I’m not suited to the write-100-stories-and-post-them-that-day kind of thing. More power to the people who can do that. Dean’s probably not suited to my kind of thing, either. It’s okay to write differently, and it’s okay to engage in the practice of business differently, too.
A disclaimer: At present, the only people I am paying a percentage to are my distributors. But I’m not foreclosing the possibility that I’d make a different choice in the future, and I it bugs me when I see people saying that doing so would be “stupid” when they haven’t bothered to unpack the assumptions behind the original dictum.
If you aren’t paying someone a percentage forever, it’s not that bad. And if a person is helping to make a small pie bigger, a percentage just makes sense.