Break Free with a Paradigm Shift

Broken-chainsYou know how I’m always talking about how readers rule, quoting Jeffery Deaver’s advice to me to “never forget the reader is god?”


Understanding that changed how I approached my writing, both creatively and from a business aspect.


On the creative side, I’m my first reader, so of course I have to be passionate about a project. Then when I’m ready to put it on sale and ask my reader in invest their time and money in a book, I have to think of what will delight and excite them.


On the business side, it makes every decision sooooo much easier. All I do is ask myself: Will doing xyz serve my readers?


That single piece of advice was a huge paradigm shift for me…but recently I came up with another that I want to share with you because it will change everything about how you think of publishing and your career as a ProWriter.


I’m going to throw it out here and then we’ll chat more about specifics.


Ready? Here it is:
When an author works with a publisher, the publisher is acting as a subcontractor.


Okay, let that sink in. While you’re thinking about it, we’ll break it down.


We’re conditioned to think of the author working FOR the publisher.


The language of publishing reinforces this misbelief: we as authors must query (eg: beg) the publisher to take notice of us and read our books (all the time screaming inside: pick me, pick me!) after we submit to them (hmm…publishing as BDSM, who knew?) and risk rejection…


Yet, unlike others who work for publishers, we don’t get a steady pay check. We put hundreds to thousands of hours of work into each book but we don’t get paid until years later at the publisher’s convenience and after they make their money back…they keep the vast majority of the profits and often control subrights….they control everything about how the book looks, what kind of packaging it gets, how it will be promoted/marketed.


In other words, the old way of thinking is: once an author sells a book to a publisher, they take control of it and it becomes their product, under their control, and the book’s creator is now seen as the weakest link in the production chain: that necessary evil, the unstable, neurotic author.


(I submit that even that stereotype of unstable, neurotic author is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has reinforced this paternalistic mindset. After all, if we’re so neurotic that we can’t manage our own business, then we’re damn lucky we have publishers around to do it all for us, right?)


But now is the time to break that conditioned thinking! Let us free publishers to do better work, free authors to make a living wage, and serve our readers by giving them more options. I totally respect publishers for what they can accomplish, but this old paradigm is causing them more harm than good. As painful as it is to shed the old mindset, it’s worth it for all.


So here it is again: Publishers are subcontractors.


They work for YOU, the creator. You control the product. They provide expertise and experience that you use to get your product into the hands of the right audience.


Here’s another way of thinking about it: when I built a house, I knew exactly what I wanted. I took a basic floor plan (just as we all work from a basic storytelling structure) and I designed it to achieve my vision.


Then I hired a contractor to bring that vision to life. He subcontracted out to an architect to draw up the blueprints (editor), plumbers and electricians to make everything work behind the scenes (formatters, copyeditors, proofreaders, layout and design), hired painters and roofers to make the outside look nice (cover art, printers), and when it was done and he wanted to sell more houses like mine, he used  photos in his advertising to help him grow his business (marketing). And in the end, when the house cost less than I paid him upfront, he gave me a check, refunding me some of the money I’d paid him to build the house.


He did all the work of making my vision a reality. But it was still MY house. He still worked for me.


The same with publishing. We don’t give a publisher our books, we simply allow them to bring our vision to reality. We pay them: via the money they make licensing our rights to print, to distribution, to translation, etc.


When we get a royalty check from them, it’s not really a paycheck. It’s them paying us BACK because those rights we paid them up front have earned money. We don’t get the full amount back, only a small percentage because of their overhead, etc.


They’re acting as a licensing contractor.


Doesn’t that change everything?


Now, keep in mind, that just like hiring a plumber, sometimes we make the mistake of subcontracting with a publisher whose fees are higher than our rights were worth, and we’ll lose money or not make much. Sign the wrong contract or hire an unscrupulous contractor and you can lose your shirt.


When I partner with a NYC publisher, it’s because I’m hiring them for their expertise in creating a product and bringing it to market, shipping and distributing it. All that costs money, so I might not make as large a percentage as I would if I didn’t go with a subcontractor, but if we both do our jobs well, we both get paid.


When I partner with Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, Smashwords, or Pubit it, I’m solely hiring them as distributors, so I pay them less and pocket more. But I also have to provide them with a finished product, so I need to hire other subcontractors: editors, cover artists, etc. in order to create the product that I’m asking them to ship for me.


The only difference is that with traditional publishers I’m paying them with use of licenses to my work; when I hire subcontractors on my own, I pay them with money.


Make sense?


This little change in thinking is totally changing how I handle business decisions and weigh the pros and cons of who I decide to partner with.


One great side effect of it is that it takes a lot of the emotion that used to come with an offer from a publisher (and the thought of querying, submitting, being rejected!) out of the equation.


It’s no longer about how “good” they think my book is, it’s about finding the right partners for my business who can help us all make the most money from the rights attached to my books.


I don’t know about you, but that sure as hell makes this writer a lot less neurotic!


Stay tuned for next time when I’ll show you the next step in thinking about this new paradigm: Becoming Master of Your own Global Empire…


Ready to share your stories with the world as a ProWriter? Check out the courses created by myself and Joanna Penn on The Secrets of a ProWriter, Breaking into Publishing , Secrets of Indy Publishing, and How to Reach Readers and Market Your Novel.


Click HERE for more info.

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  1. Thanks, C.J. That’s a cogent argument built on strong analogies. I’m not sure everyone could write a book as ably as you designed a floor plan, but for authors who are up to the challenge, this is definitely a good way to look at the business side of things.

    • Thanks, Mark! and you are exactly right–once you start to treat your career as a business, it is a challenge!

      Some days I wish I could just sit and write without worrying my little brain with all this stuff…of course, if I did, then I’d be writing my books from a cardboard box on some street corner. No one likes facing reality and figuring out where the money will come from to pay the bills or how to balance the checkbook, but it’s all part of taking control of our lives and careers and being an adult….oh boy, now I sound like my mother, yikes!

      Preaching to the choir because you guys reading this are already taking control of your destinies!

  2. I love this post. Having a legal background I can tell you that it is right on the mark. Just as banks pretend to own our deposited funds, publishers pretend to own our work. OK, “pretend” might not be fair, but it makes the point. Yes, it changes everything to see that we are hiring a publisher.

    • Thanks, Mia! I’m glad it made sense to you–hope it serves you well!

      Oh, and for the record, this is not about bashing publishers. I truly value my partnerships with them and they bring a lot to the table that I can’t replicate. But if they embraced this paradigm shift as well, I think it would open a world of opportunities because we’d be free to form strategic partnerships rather than limited hierarchies.

      Thanks for stopping by,

  3. This was a great breakdown of the publishing relationship! I get this, I totally get your point.
    This is the year I’ve decided to move forward with my ebook idea and I really appreciate your outlook on how everything works behind the scenes.

  4. Great analysis. Just one nit-pick: you mention a living wage. As a writer, you’re an independent businessman. When you run a business, there’s no wage, and certainly no guarantee of a living wage. You bring in revenue, and you pay expenses, and hopefully the difference between these leaves you a profit. Could be a profit, could be a loss, but there’s no wage.

  5. This is a great post ~ thank you so much for the analogy which makes so much sense as we navigate this publishing world, no matter which path we choose for our books. This helped clarify my thinking and the conflict I was feeling about doing it my way and whether or not I should consider other options. I do spend a fair amount of time each day on marketing; sure, I would love to write and do nothing else, but that is not the way it works. Thanks so much!

    • Katherine, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Time management is just as important as money management. I think it’s important to play to your strengths and put your energy into marketing efforts (even if it’s just writing a letter to your readers and sending it out once amonth like I do) that will not sap your creativity or energy and give you time to write.

      For some, reaching out via social media is actually energizing and they use that energy in their writing, for others (like me) it’s just as draining as real life crowds, so I tend to write first and market last.

      You need to find the balance that works best for you. Happy writing,

  6. Great post, CJ. It has opened my eyes. :-)
    Glad I found your blog!



  1. […] last post about Paradigm Shifts struck quite a chord. (if you haven’t read it yet, you can find it […]

  2. […] Break Free With A Paradigm Shift  This one is over at CJ Lyons blog.  I first found CJ via the Self Publishing Podcast…and have since added her blog to my list of regular web haunts.  In this post she talks about viewing publishers as subcontractors.  If you plan to go traditional, this is recommended. […]