31 January 2013 - 12:24 pm

Independent vs Traditional Publishing: Creative Control

Do you like control?Photo by Stephen Bowler

Do you like control?
Photo by Stephen Bowler

(Part of the indie vs trad series.)

Control over your work is a big issue for many creators, including me. I’m not shy about being a bit of a control-freak and relinquishing grip on your creative baby is hard for most writers. When it comes to publishing, the control that you retain as an author varies depending on which way you go with it.

Creative control includes having the final say in many aspects of your project. Let’s break it down a bit.


The rights relating to your work include:

  • Translation
  • Audio
  • Movie
  • Merchandise
  • Various publishing rights (electronic, paper, geographic regions, etc).

When publishing independently, you retain control over all of these rights. You give retailers permission to sell your work but ultimate control usually remains with you.

There are exceptions. For example, some retailers can sign you into an exclusivity deal, such as Amazon’s KDP Select program. However, that’s completely up to you to sign or not (you do not have to be part of the Select program to sell on Amazon, and there are other retailers you can go with).

With traditional publishing, it’s normal to sign away most if not all of these rights. Some publishing contracts will be specific to paper and electronic publishing copyrights and leave the audio, movie and translation rights to you. Other contracts will option all of it, so the publishing house can sell certain rights on later if it chooses. They can also hold those rights and do nothing with them if they wish, which effectively wastes them for you and blocks you from seeking other avenues of selling or distributing your work. This is not unusual.

These contracts are usually time-limited and the rights return to you after a specified time period (usually a matter of years). Often this is dependent on the book going out of print; the rights won’t revert to you if your book is being actively published and sold.

The real questions: how important is keeping hold of copyrights to me? Who will make best use of them?


This is referring to how your work is presented to the world. Genre, blurb, pitch, links to other works: all of these things can affect how your work is viewed and interpreted. Are there quotes from known authors on the cover? Is it being bundled into an omnibus with an author you despise? Is it being likened to a book you love or loathe?

This is straying into the ‘marketing’ discussion, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. When it comes to making decisions about how your work is presented, the message is the same as above: indie authors retain control over this and can do as they wish, but in a traditional publishing deal, you sign all of this away. If they wish, they can represent your work as ‘dying of a broken heart’ when you were going for ‘die hard’.

However, publishing houses are in the business of selling books. They should be choosing the presentation that is most likely to grab the most sales for you. They should have the resources and skills to make the right decisions for your sales, even if you don’t agree with them. Relinquishing your death-grip isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The real questions: how important are sales to me? Can I make the right choices for my work? Do I know what they are? Can I trust the skills of a publishing house to make the right choices for me?


You’ve written a story but when it comes to publication, you need to put that text into a visual context. You’re going to need a book cover, marketing materials, and merchandise. But who gets to decide what those images look like? Who determines the colour scheme, the fonts, the overall ‘feel’ of the visual impact of your book?

For indie authors, it’s all about you. (Starting to see a theme here?) It’s completely in your hands.

Traditionally-published authors seldom get the chance to offer input into the decision-making process. They seldom get to have a say in the cover art or any of the imagery produced for their work. Publishers may ask for the author’s opinion but they are not bound to listen or act on it. I’ve heard many authors complain about their cover art (mostly for getting something terribly wrong) and their lack of control pains them.

Other authors go out and get their cover before approaching a publisher, and secure the cover as part of the package. However, even this isn’t a guaranteed tactic; it wouldn’t be unusual for a publisher to retain the right to change the cover if they wish.

However, it’s not as simple as that. As with representation, it’s worth remembering that publishers want to sell your book and they should be pushing for the cover that will best do that.

There’s also the geographical issue. Should you be lucky enough to be published in multiple countries, your book will usually be given a different cover for each culture, because the imagery will impact those markets differently. Again, a publisher’s experience and resources will handle this for you. (This really only applies to paper books; as far as I know, it’s common for ebooks to have the same cover worldwide.)

The real questions: can you confidently choose the best images or artwork for your work? Will it meet market expectations and sell the work for you? Can you get a professional job done?


Here we get to some of the more touchy subjects. Who gets to decide the plot of your story? Or the characters? Is it one book or three? Is it an ongoing series? Can you write and release that second trilogy as well? Can you write just standalone books?

Independent authors are exactly that: truly independent in this realm. (Yup, it’s definitely a pattern.)

Traditional publishing also sticks its oar into this area. Your publisher’s editor could ask you to change plot points, structure, character, wording, metaphors… anything. They may ask you to stretch it out into a series or compact it into a trilogy. They may refuse to publish subsequent books if the first one doesn’t sell well enough.

What happens if you say no? I’m honestly not sure. The way I understand it, you have to reach an agreement with your editor before they’ll pass it through to the printing presses, so you’ll have to compromise to make that agreement.

On the other hand, this editor should know what they’re doing. They should know what sells, what works. Even if you’re publishing independently, all the best advice out there says that you should get your work professionally edited before publishing (the only difference is in how you pay for it, but there’ll be more on the money side in a later post).

The real questions: how much do you trust your editor? How many compromises are you willing to make? If you have a series in mind, can you deal with being cut off and not finishing it? Do you want to retain the right to not apply edits?


This is a tough call to make. This is why I pose the questions above, because it really matters what’s important to you. Throughout this series, I’ll be saying this over and over again. I’m not aiming to tell you if you should go one way or the other; I’m just aiming to arm you with what you need to start making choices.

So which is it? Is control important to you? Do you think that you can do your story justice in the publishing world, or would a publishing house’s resources and skills make your success story?

Like all things with this debate, it’s a trade-off. To get published, we make choices, sacrifices, and compromises. But don’t make up your mind yet! There are more factors involved than have been described in this post; stick with me and I’ll take you through them.

Next up: Distribution

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One comment

  1. Kurt A. Webb says:

    Ingram will carry Lightning Source print-on-demand books on a “short-discount” basis, a discount less than 55%. Foner Books assigned a 35% discount on the $14.95 cover price of “Start Your Own Computer Business” so the book is sold by Lightning Source to Ingram, Amazon, and other wholesale customers, for $9.72. Here’s where the math really departs from the traditional publishing model: $9.72 – $3.09 (the printing fee) leaves the publisher with $6.63, which happens to be 44% of the cover price. This price was chosen to correspond with the average net for a trade publisher before expenses such as book development, author royalties, etc. This 44% of the cover is entirely hands-off, with no inventory or storage costs, no shipping and handling, and virtually no returns since the book is only printed in accordance with demand.

    February 10th, 2013 at 3:46 am