about a conundrum within the world of publishing, namely an ideological
holdover from the last century in which being published by a large
corporation is considered “serious” and publishing oneself is considered
There was probably some semblance of truth to this view from the 1950’s
through the 1970’s. Before the publishing industry convulsions of the
1990’s, the expectations of publishers and editors was that their job,
first and foremost, was to enforce literary standards and maintain a
clear vision for what kind of writing their house was to publish. Houses
with better or worse standards existed, hence the existence of “pulp” in
any decade. What changed in the 1990’s was that the new standard in all
houses became profit. Out went the idea that publishers needed any
vision or guiding principles besides finding the most expedient path to
achieving raw profit numbers. Editorial quality became equated with mass
appeal, and mass appeal with “good literature,” regardless of the house
doing the publishing or any individual ideas within its ranks.
For this reason, I shared my opinion in my previous
that the best path for a writer who cares about honing their craft
rather than popularity or profit is to self-publish. The typical
arguments of the industry fall apart when put under any kind of
scrutiny. “Only professional editors are capable of teaching writers the
skills they need to develop their craft.” No, the editors of publishing
houses are there to drive writers toward the kind of prose that will
maximize the house’s profitability. “Professional publishers are going
to pay writers a living wage, unlike Amazon.” This is demonstrably false
for all but a few ‘rock stars’ (e.g. J. K. Rowling or Steven King).
These attitudes also lead to terrible publishing advice, one piece of
which really gets me worked up every time I run into it—whether or not authors should copyright their work.
In the United States, obtaining a copyright is relatively cheap, about
$50 per work if the work is unpublished at the time of copyright. The
form takes perhaps ten minutes to fill out and can be completed online.
It provides the writer legally binding recourse if someone were to
publish their work and profit from it. It registers the work with
the government as “theirs” and not someone else’s to do with as they
please. No matter how much anyone might yell “your work is automatically
copyrighted to you once you’ve written it,” nothing about that statement is
legally enforceable without an official copyright.
Writers should copyright the work that is most important to them, and they should do it themselves.
Although it is inexpensive, it is also not particularly cheap.
I copyright everything I intend to publish for money, and I recommend other writers do the same, at least in the
US. Other countries’ price points might make that more or less feasible. It is unlikely a
self-published author will ever need to rally the force of law to
protect their work, but then so are all the things we pay insurance
companies to protect us from. We still do it, because once-in-a-decade
events will happen six to eight times over the course of the average
person’s lifespan. One of those could be the discovery that someone is
illegally distributing your writing.
This leads me to my plan for the intellectual property rights of my
writing after I am gone. Unlike most other writers, I don’t want my
copyrights going to my spouse or any other inheritor, even a literary
agency. I want them to expire. Once my time is up, I want all my
copyrights to go with me, and I want my writing to be as free as it
possibly can be—I want it to be in the public domain, not seventy-five
years after my death, not after someone finally decides it can’t be
milked for profit any longer, but the very moment I take my last breath.
During my lifetime, I want full creative control over where and how my
work is distributed. After that, it is up to the world to figure out
what to do with it.