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Self-Publishing Companies, Through a Legal Lens

In my last post, Five Legal Terms Every Author Should Know, I explained that the worst mistake indie authors make is losing control of their work. After all, the key benefit of self-publishing is controlling the quality and marketing of our books, in other words, wearing the publisher hat. But too many writers are intimidated… [Read More]

self-publishing companies through a legal lens by Helen Sedwick for BookWorks.com

In my last post, Five Legal Terms Every Author Should Know, I explained that the worst mistake indie authors make is losing control of their work. After all, the key benefit of self-publishing is controlling the quality and marketing of our books, in other words, wearing the publisher hat.

self-publishing companies through a legal lens by Helen Sedwick for BookWorks.comBut too many writers are intimidated by the self-publishing process or simply don’t have time. So they sign on with self-publishing companies (SPCs, also called subsidy publishers, vanity press/publishers), that grab too much control.

An expensive mistake. Typically, these self-publishing companies own the book cover, interior design, and ISBN. So if the author wants to stop working with that SPC, she would have to start all over again. Some self-publishing companies set retail prices too high, killing sales. And some claim exclusive control of audio and translation rights, even though they don’t provide those services.

How is a writer to know whether they are giving up too much control? Unfortunately, you have to read the Terms of Service, the contract.

Daunted? Don’t be. The secret is—don’t start at the beginning of the contract. Go straight to the paragraph that’s titled something like License or Grant of Rights. If that section gives the SPC exclusive rights, particularly if those rights include audio, translations, and formats now known or hereafter devised, you don’t need to read the rest of the contract. I would not work with that SPC.

Exclusive Rightsself-publishing companies through a legal lens by Helen Sedwick for BookWorks.com

I am something of a zealot about this. All self-publishing contracts should be non-exclusive. That way you may sell print books through CreateSpace, IngramSpark/Lightning Source, and your own website, and sell eBooks via Amazon, Smashwords, iBooks and other vendors, all at the same time. (Note: This is why we at BookWorks always advocate that authors purchase own ISBN's)

There are exceptions, such as KDP Select where writers agree to sell their eBooks exclusively through Amazon for a 90-day period. In return, authors can offer free or low-cost promotions. But that’s a short-term program and in the author’s control.

Here’s an example of a writer-friendly grant of rights:

Author grants Outskirts Press a NON-EXCLUSIVE, worldwide license to distribute and sell the manuscript in print and/or digital form; author grants Outskirts Press the non-exclusive right to exhibit manuscript in part on websites or promotional materials owned by Outskirts Press; author grants Outskirts Press the non-exclusive right to store and transmit digital versions of manuscript to facilitate production, distribution, and sale of manuscript.

Translation: The author is giving Outskirts Press the right to sell the work in print and eBook only, and the right is non-exclusive, meaning the author may also sell the book through IngramSpark, CreateSpace and his own website.  (Note, if you are doing this, be sure to use your own ISBN).

But avoid any contract that has a granting clause that looks like this provision from an Author Solutions’ contract:

Distribution License Granted. Throughout the Term of this Agreement, You grant to Us the exclusive, transferable, worldwide license to manufacture, store, use, display, execute, reproduce (in whole or in part), transmit, modify (including to create derivative works), import, make, have made, offer to sell, print, publish, market, distribute, and sell (individually or as part of compilations of collective works), and license for use via any subscription model, through all distribution channels (now or hereafter known, including online and electronic distribution channels), and otherwise exploit in any language, in print form, digital format, audiobook format, or via any other medium, now known or hereafter devised, the Work.

Translation: The writer is granting to Author Solutions the exclusive right to distribute the book in print, digital, audio and any other format, in any language.

A broad grant of exclusive rights makes sense in a traditional publishing contract because the traditional publisher is investing money into editing, designing, and marketing the author’s work. But even in traditional publishing, you can and should negotiate the granting clause to limit it to markets in which the publisher has a track record.

In contrast, a self-publishing writer is making the financial investments by paying the SPC for its editing, design and distribution services. I see no reason why the self-publishing companies should get exclusive rights. It is not the publisher; it is merely a service provider. The author is the publisher and should maintain control over how and where the book is sold.self-publishing companies through a legal lens by Helen Sedwick for BookWorks.com

Hybrid Publishing

A new breed of publishing company has emerged, sometimes called hybrid, assisted, partnership or some other term implying teamwork. The author pays for editing, design, production, and marketing services, and the hybrid publisher provides these services at no or low cost. In return, the hybrid publisher retains a higher percentage of royalties. The license agreements typically run for three to five years and are exclusive.

Hybrid publishing is a developing business model. To me, they look like barely repackaged SPCs, and I don’t see any advantage. Jane Friedman has written an interesting piece on evaluating hybrid publishers.

Bottom Line

I do not want to scare writers away from using self-publishing companies. Some companies offer reasonable deals and enjoy solid reputations. They permit you to control the process and the result. They provide services to you, the publisher, the boss.

But do your homework before you commit. To help you sort the good from the bad, check out my post, How To Tell Which Self-Publishing Company is Right for You.

Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is an attorney licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.


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