Please Don’t Pay Me: Dispatches from a Digital Publishing House

Isa is the president, founder, and all-around person in charge of digital publishing house fluffy-seme. Here she talks about the continued relevance of publishing houses to web fiction.

About four months ago I got an email from a writer asking if fluffy-seme would be interested in publishing her work. The timing couldn’t have been more wrong. Although fluffy-seme had been “publishing” for a few months, we’d only just decided to throw caution to the wind and just make it official and incorporate. We had started the pilot run of Hyperlocal (a scavenger hunt where players solve clues to collect pieces of an on-going story), and that program had just been featured in TimeOut New York under their 75 Things To Do Before Summer Ends cover story. The competitive environment of Hyperlocal turned out to be more competitive than I ever imagined it would be: clues were released at midnight and most of them were solved before 9am. On top of that, Split-Self had only just started publication and it needed a lot of tender love and care to help it find fans. On top of that I was also writing two other serials for a grand total of three serials at roughly 4,000 words each part … about 12,000 words a week.

Nevertheless, despite completely overcommitting myself … we were a publishing company and I was itching to start recruiting writers (mainly so that I did not have to write 12,000 words a week). So I said okay, send me something to look at.

What she sent me wasn’t going to win any Pulitzer’s, but it was serviceable and marketable. A little polishing and I could see it being a series that attracted an audience. There was just one problem…

“Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to pay writers right now.” I explained.

“Oh, that’s alright … you don’t have to pay me.”

At first I kind of assumed this was just naiveté, and so I explained to her that yes … in fact we do have to pay you. In order for us to publish you, you have to sign a contract giving us the right to reproduce your content and to profit from said content. You should never sign away those kind of rights without some compensation. So I suggested … “How about this? I can draw up a temporary three month contract at a low rate and then when it expires we’ll renegotiate.”

“Oh … no … really that’s okay, I really don’t feel comfortable getting paid for my work. It’s not that good.”

Negotiations actually stalled and inevitably fell apart over this unbelievable problem: she really didn’t want me to pay her for her writing.

Because to me when you’re selling something: $$ > $ and $ > free I assumed that this encounter was merely an anomaly … instead it foreshadowed the hair pulling frustration that was to come in October when fluffy-seme opened up for submissions and went about trying to recruit writers. Nearly every single time I started negotiations with a writer discussions would come to a dead stop as soon as the fact that I actually intended to pay them became clear. Once I spelled that out one of two things would happen: either the writer would suddenly have a crisis of confidence like the encounter described above, or the exact opposite, the writer would turn around and declare (some more subtly than others) that since I was willing to pay, then maybe a BETTER publishing company would also be willing to pay. Or better yet, maybe the author could go out on their own and get to keep 100% of the profits.

Writers Need Publishers

Writing is a scary thing. Not only are you putting yourself out there emotionally, but you have to deal with all manner of scams and publishing predators looking to sell your dream back to you at a hefty profit. One of the reasons why I started fluffy-seme’s corporate site was to show prospective writers the way we do business and make them more comfortable. You can read all about our advertising strategies, our values, our business plan, the contracts we put writers on, even look at traffic and growth reports. When I started fluffy-seme I expected writers to be skeptical, I was prepared for that. I never expected to be caught up in a cultural rebellion against the concept of a publishing house. And by in large that is the problem: everyone wants to go it alone. There was one writer I spoke to who sincerely thought he had a shot with a major traditional publisher (and who knows, maybe he still does) but everyone else wanted to go it alone. They were convinced that despite the thousands of self-publishers and web literati that have come before them, they will succeed and get their story out there to hundreds/thousands of readers without a publisher watching their back. fluffy-seme, as a digital publishing company, was not seen as a legitimate publishing option not because writers thought we were an elaborate scam but because they believed that everything a digital publisher can provide, they can get just as easily on their own.

Quality Does Not Matter

I had a very (thankfully) short career in the traditional book industry when I got out of college and one of the things I learned before I ran screaming from that world was: quality does not matter. Every writer on the face of the Earth seems to believe that their work will become popular because it is well written. Every writer also seems to wander through writing groups, scribbling corrections and edits so that they can ‘make the reader want to read more’ as if readers who have no interest in Civil War epics are suddenly going to want to read your Civil War epic because the writing is pretty.

It’s nice to think that people are really that open minded, but sadly that is not how books get bought or sold. The vast majority of people look to buy books that reflect their existing interests and world views. The only thing that you as a writer can do to convince someone to read something they’re not usually interested in is reframe the blurb so that appears to be something they ARE interested in. This is why the publishing industry gives us totally absurd cover quotes like: “It’s The Hunt for Red October meets Free Willy!”

The reason why writers cannot rely on the strength of their writing is simple: unlike music or TV or movies, reading is not a passive activity. You cannot just zone out, listen/watch and find yourself enjoying it. Reading is actually quite a lot of work neurologically. Even books on tape require focus and attention to “read”. All that work requires a commitment of time and effort from the reader and even if your writing is beautiful and your characters fascinating … if the story isn’t about something that interests the reader already they’re not going to keep reading.

Strength in Numbers

There is one exception to this and that is having established a familiarity and rapport with an existing audience. One of Haruki Murakami’s more recent works involves a guy who murdered cats … I can’t imagine the market for that is very large, yet it was a run away bestseller because it was Haruki Murakami. (It was also good, but again that’s irrelevant. If Kafka on the Shore was written by Harry Kim– first time writer– doubtful it would have had the same success)

It takes a long time to build that kind of trust with a large reader base and that’s the real strength of the publishing company and what an author really gives up by going alone. Publishing companies are businesses designed to make connections with readers both directly and with intermediaries (book reviewers, bookstores, etc) for the purpose of selling stories. Publishers keep the connection open with the reader even when the writer is on a break from writing. By going alone you only maintain that connection with your readers for as long as you are producing content.

More importantly, publishers pull resources that individuals do not have access to on their own.

Today’s writers, particularly the ones who are internet savvy seem to resent that fact, as if the publishers have access to these resources because the industry is snobby, elitist and unfair. Well, the industry is snobby, elitist, and unfair, but that’s not why publishing companies have better access to resources. It’s a basic economics principle at play: economies of scale. Economies of scale means that in an industrialized modern economy things are cheaper in bulk. In other words a company that manufactures frying pans will pay more per frying pan if they produce 20 than they would if they produced 20,000. How does this apply to publishing? Even with online publishing, POD, eBooks and a number of other services that have made getting the story out there dirt cheap, writers still require a variety of services to make their book a success: editing, design, promotion, more promotion, still MORE promotion. A publisher with a whole stable of writers can buy these services in bulk for dirt cheap. Editors can be paid a salary instead of by word, and just about every advertising department major or minor offers deep discounts the more you buy.

As an individual writer you pay out the nose because all you have is YOUR BOOK. You may write another book … or you may have only one in you. You’re in no position to offer service providers even the promise of more orders that might encourage a discount. All you have is yourself.

Give Up Some of Your Rights

By now you may be thinking ‘okay but I can get a few other writers together to pool resources and still be independent’ and yes, absolutely, you can do this. And probably some writers will find a modest amount of success in doing just that, but there are also pitfalls to consider. An informal arrangement like that often offers neither the group nor the individual writers any legal protections. I’m not just talking intellectual property here either. Imagine this situation: three writers throw in $100 dollars each for an advertising campaign and because it’s hard to advertise three books at once they pull together a little site for their group, give it a name and a brand identity and start promoting. Two of these writers see sales and make money as a result of the advertising, one does not. Does the unfortunate writer have claim to the profits of the other two?

Another wonderful advantage to publishing companies is that the roles, responsibilities, and obligations of everyone are clearly defined and spelled out in contracts. You give the publisher the right to distribute your content in exchange for an agreed upon sum. Both your claim on the profits and the publisher’s claim on your work are clearly spelled out. The above situation is not so clear and unless there was a partnership agreement drawn up before the adventure began saying otherwise, the writer without sales could argue that the profits from the other two should be split evenly as return on their joint business venture.

And this is where webfiction has come to: no one can reach a large enough audience alone. Cross promotion is an obvious and necessary next step that will benefit everyone, but it can’t be done without capital (read: $$$) and that can’t be done without agreements that make it clear who’s putting up the capital and what they’re getting in return, that requires publishing houses. Webfiction writers have understood this need for a while, but they implicitly hand off this responsibility to sites like WFG and, and they offer the owners of these sites nothing in return. As amazing as both are, without a commitment of serious capital to promoting the webfiction brand, their effectiveness at opening up the wide wonderful world of webfiction to new readers is limited. And why should anyone be expected to pony up large sums of cash without any claim to the profits from that result from those actions?

As fun as it is for everyone to set up their own private sites to distribute their work, if webfiction is going to thrive as a storytelling medium it cannot remain a self-publishing model where everyone goes alone. And while other models could be developed the one that handles the challenge most efficiently is the one we already have where the writer signs over some rights in exchange for services and $$ … a publishing company.

Isa tweets at IsaKft, and maintains a business blog chronicling her adventures as a digital publisher on Campaign for fluffy-seme. Her super-power is her business sense, and she plans to some day rule the world.

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Category: Guest Bloggers · Publishing