Interview with Gordon Williams – Traditional Publisher: Part 2

Last time at ellenbooks, Gordon Williams, publisher at Babora Books, offered some thoughts on why, given all the information and advice that is freely available, so many independently publishing authors have lousy experiences. This time he gives us the nitty gritty on separating the wheat from the chaff. Before you think about signing any publishing agreement, you must read what Gordon has to say.


A lot of indie publishing choices are out there — some good, some predatory. Are there any tell-tale signs an author should look for to avoid the latter?

“Indie” covers a lot of ground — from small press, to DIY self-publishing, to “self-publishing” companies. Any of these streams has its own set of warning flags so I’ll try to be generic as possible about some of the key things I tend to notice.

Baffling Business Schemes:

Publishing is actually pretty simple. The three basic business models are:

  • Traditional: The publisher pays the entire cost of publishing the book under its imprint.
  • Pay-to-publish (aka “self-publishing company”): The author pays the cost of publishing and the book comes out under the publishing company’s imprint.
  • DIY Self Publish: The author owns the imprint and pays directly for whatever services he or she needs to publish the book.

There are variations but if you visit a publisher’s website and it takes you more than about 30 seconds to fully understand which business model a publisher uses, it’s probably a good sign you need to look elsewhere.

Indy Publishers Quick Sniff Test: The “Author discount” on print books

The “author discount” reflects what the author pays the publisher for books for his her own use. One of the best-known “self-publishing” companies offers author copies at 30 percent off the regular retail price. When a reader buys that same book on Amazon, the retailer takes 40 percent of the sale price (the standard retail discount), and publisher pays the author a royalty out of what is left. In the end, this publisher makes more money by selling books to the author than by selling books to readers.


Claiming to be a “traditional publisher” while selling author services:

This is a huge potential conflict of interest. The author seeking a traditional contract can easily be lured into buying services (e.g. reading fees, editing, marketing) in hopes of getting a contract. These services might be provided directly by the publisher or indirectly through an associate that has an interest in the company.

A variation on this theme is what I call the “mixed model” of publishing — a company that bills itself as a traditional publisher while offering pay-to-publish services. This always feels like a bit of bait and switch to me because, again, it brings authors in the door with the expectation they are querying a traditional publisher. The author may get all kinds of encouraging signals, only to be offered a costly pay-to-publish contract at the end of the process.

Brand new in the business – e.g. less than one year in publishing:

Think of your book as having a lifespan of many years. The majority of start-up publishers fail within their first year or two of operation. This has nothing to do with integrity. It is simply a cold fact of being in the publishing business. Having your publisher shut down could leave your book in legal limbo and possibly put you back at square one. If your publisher goes bankrupt you may even have to battle with a receiver company to get your rights back. The best predictor of a publisher’s stability is a proven ability to stay in business for a few years.

Should an author be concerned if a publisher won’t provide a sample contract when asked for one?

Very much so. Not providing a sample contract on request gives the impression that the company has something to hide. While it is true that every contract can be tailored to specific project, common variables like contract length and advances (if applicable) can be blanked out if necessary.

How a publishing agreement is structured can tell you a lot about how the company approaches its authors. How is the company dealing with subsidiary and derivative rights? What recourse do the parties have if one or the other is not fulfilling its obligations? Under what conditions can the contract be terminated and rights reverted to the author? Is there a “save harmless” clause that puts the author on the hook for any potential legal costs?

Any of these items can represent a hidden cost to the author, whether that is giving up more rights than expected or the cost of getting out from under a publishing agreement that has soured.

What are five key things an author should be sure an independent publisher provides before committing to their services?

    1. Everything in writing.
    2. If the author is paying for services, exactly how much each service being provided will cost, and what you are getting for your money.
    3. Contact information for other authors who have worked with the company.
    4. A sample contract.
    5. Time to think about it.

Thank you, Gordon, for your time and patience! This is very helpful information for ellenbooks readers!

Gordon Williams is an editor and publisher with more than 25 years of experience in writing, publishing and communications. A long-time science fiction fan, Gordon and his partner founded Babora Books in 2010.

Babora Books is not actively soliciting manuscripts at this time; your best bet is to take a look at the Babora Books Web site to see if your work fits what Gordon publishes and if they are seeking submissions:

Interview with Gordon Williams – Traditional Publisher: Part 1

With so many publishing options available, how do you sort out the best option for your own book? How do you keep from getting swallowed whole by the sharks that swim the waters? How can you be sure you’ll end up with a book you’re proud of, instead of something that leaves you wondering if it ever saw an editor or cover designer? Gordon Williams, whose small Canadian publishing house Babora Books [] specializes in action-adventure science fiction, graciously agreed to answer a few questions from ellenbooks, ranging from understanding what he believes are the three key publishing models to sniffing out the bad guys.


Lots of great articles on the Web (and books galore) deliver advice on how to find a publisher and what the publishing process entails. Why is it we find so many writers suffering from lousy independent publishing experiences, given all this free advice?

The short answer:

A lot of the information out there comes across as very negative and I think writers get enough discouragement in their lives. Those of us who are committed to helping writers avoid the pitfalls of indie publishing have to constantly stay involved and active in communicating with writers. I personally use LinkedIn discussion groups on a regular basis. Just about every day I get an opportunity to share information and opinions on the questions indie authors need to be asking of publishing companies. And, yes, I also get to engage directly with publishing companies and ask them detailed questions about how they operate.

The long answer:

Two main reasons authors are regularly disappointed in the indie publishing sphere are: unrealistic author expectations, and misleading claims by predatory publishing companies.

Just about every author who ever sent off a query letter to a publisher or agent hopes he or she is going to be discovered, offered a lucrative publishing contract, and become an international bestseller. Most of us know that, in reality, very few people are ever going to make a lot of money in this business.

The self-publishing boom has created many expectations that are at odds with reality. With very few exceptions, as an indie published author:

  • Your books will not be stocked on bookstore shelves.
  • You will not be doing book signings at mainstream bookstores.
  • Your books will not be featured in the New York Review of books (or similar publications).
  • Writing books is not going to pay you a full time income.

Predatory self-publishing companies actively court inexperienced writers. Many spend a great deal of money on online advertising to keep their companies and proxies at the top of search results for queries like “finding a publisher.”

Taking the four points above as an example, here are just a few of the things that authors are regularly told [and what those statements actually mean]:

    • “Your books will be available in thousands of stores.” [A customer can special order your book through Books In Print at any bookstore.]
    • “You can have a book signing event at your local store.” [For $1,000 extra, copies of your book will be shipped to a chain store in your local area (e.g. B&N or Chapters) and held for 90 days. Note: it is up to the store to put the books on their shelves and you will be totally responsible for promoting your signing event.]
    • “Your books will be reviewed by some of the most prestigious sources in the publishing industry.” [Paid reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.]
    • “We provide opportunities for authors to be discovered by traditional publishing companies.” [There is absolutely no indication that this route provides any better chance of being picked up by a traditional publisher than the usual query route.]

When the claims above are used as selling points for self-publishing services the result is very often a lot of disappointment on the author’s part.

Have you seen Jane Friedman’s graphic describing what she considers the four “Key Book Publishing Paths”? If so, do you agree with her categories and examples? Which category fits your publishing company?

There are a few points where I might disagree with her divisions, though I appreciate the effort to make sense out of all the different publishing options. Friedman restricts the definition of “traditional publishers” to those that pay an advance on royalties. There are divergent views on whether a press that doesn’t pay advances should be considered a traditional publisher. Paying an advance certainly gives a strong indication up front of the publisher’s commitment to the project. At the same time, advances are shrinking all over and may well become a thing of the past for new authors, even at the “Big 5.”

The term “partnership publishing” has been applied to pay-to-publish companies where the author pays most of the cost of publishing. That arrangement is now classified as “Fully Assisted publishing” though many such companies like to refer to themselves as “Hybrid Publishers.”

I really see three main paths to publishing: traditional, DIY and self-pub company. I divide that along the lines of who owns the imprint and how much the respective parties invest in moving a book from the completed manuscript to a published work.

I would describe my publishing company as a traditional small press with a digital focus. In the Friedman chart we would be considered a “Partnership model” because we don’t pay advances on royalties. Three quarters of our sales are ebooks. Ninety percent of our print sales are through online vendors like Amazon, Barnes& and Ingram. If we select a manuscript for publication, we pay for editing, book design, layout, cover art and promotion. We do expect authors to take an active role in self-promotion but we never ask authors to pay for publicity.

Gordon has much more to say about how to distinguish the good from the bad from the ugly – next time, in Part 2.

Gordon Williams is an editor and publisher with more than 25 years of experience in writing, publishing and communications. A long-time science fiction fan, Gordon and his partner founded Babora Books in 2010.

Babora Books is not actively soliciting manuscripts at this time; your best bet is to take a look at the Babora Books Web site to see if your work fits what Gordon publishes and if they are seeking submissions: