Is it a Steal? – UK Society of Authors 15 Key Self-Publishing Principles

The UK  Society of Authors (SoA) and Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) are releasing Is it a steal? – an investigation into ‘hybrid’ / paid-for publishers that charge writers for publication while taking rights in their work which was generously supported by ALCS.


The two organisations represent 14,800 writers of all types, who between them have adopted every conceivable route to publication for their work – from traditional publishing to self-publishing, from crowdfunding to hybrid / partnership / contributory models. We carried out the research last year after an increasing number of members started to raise concerns about the nature, management, and outcomes of publishing deals that they had been asked to pay for.

The publishers in question often describe themselves as ‘hybrid,’ ‘contributory,’ ‘subsidy’ or ‘partnership’ publishers, but they have much in common with what used to be called ‘vanity’ publishers. Their practices have been challenged by individuals including David Gaughran and Victoria Strauss, and by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), whose Watchdog Desk has already flagged some of the organisations that SoA and WGGB members have raised concerns about.


Key findings 

We have included a copy of Is it a steal? with this letter, which we hope you will take the time to read. It details aggressive marketing tactics, manipulative sales approaches, unclear contracts and publishing processes and services that fall far short of expectations and value. The report also includes the results of a survey which found that 94% of writers who had paid to have their book published, made a loss, with median royalties coming in at only £68.

This report shines a spotlight on questionable marketing tactics and contracts which are, at best, opaque, and, at worst, misleading. As the publishing industry continues to evolve, we need to ensure that authors are not taken advantage of, or blindsided by promises that, very clearly, these companies can’t keep.

We found that the median loss for a writer in a ‘hybrid’ / paid-for publishing deal was £1,861 with some participants reporting losses as high as £9,900. The deals resulted in an average of just 67 books sold, including those that writers bought themselves, while 59% of writers said their book was not available to buy in bookshops, supermarkets, or retail outlets.

What does publisher mean? 

Fundamentally, what we are seeing here is a hijacking of the term publisher. These companies are not traditional publishers. They provide a service and should market it as such so as not to mislead authors.

We all have a role to play in ensuring people are not exploited by these deals, and that includes being clear in how we define what a publisher is.

Trade bodies and author advocacy associations like your own have an important role to play here too. You have a responsibility to ensure that ‘hybrid’ / paid-for publishers can demonstrate their legitimacy and that if they cannot, we can protect authors against them.

Next steps 

We will be writing to many ‘hybrid’ / paid-for publishers to ask them to adopt the 15 key publishing principles. We are keen to open as constructive a dialogue with this sector as we have with traditional publishers, and we hope that many will sign up to the principles and work to improve clarity, fairness, and value for money.

15 key publishing principles

Publishing is about much more than just book production. A genuine publisher makes its money primarily from book sales. If you make most of your money from payments from writers, yet you describe yourself as a publisher, this is misleading to the writers who might work with you. It is important that you describe yourselves as a business based on service provision for writers, not publishing.

Both publishers and service providers should commit to the 15 key publishing principles below.

  1. Business model
    Be clear about your business model from the outset. Provide detailed information on your website and other marketing materials about how you make your money. Vague references to ‘hybrid’ or ‘partnership’ models are not enough for writers to make an informed decision about whether to work with you. If you adopt a traditional approach when publishing some writers but charge others for publication, be up front about what proportion of the books you publish are paid for by writers. Declare what proportion of your revenue is derived from book sales and exploitation of rights, and what proportion is from writers’ payments.
  2. Consumer rights
    Notify writers of their rights and allow them to withdraw by sending Consumer Rights Act notices.
  3. Transparent costing and predicted return on investment
    If you charge authors for any services provide typical cost and sales figures to writers before they sign, setting out the itemised cost of every service, including itemised listings of optional extras and the predicted result or return to enable them to make informed decisions on value for money and likely return on investment. Any estimated costings you provide should be binding and should not change unless extra services are mutually agreed in writing. For each element of the service you provide, provide a detailed, plain English explanation in writing of what you will provide in return for their payment.
  4. Production
    Ensure you have substantial editing, design, production, sales, and distribution expertise and capacity, and explain how you will meet the needs of each book.
  5. Marketing
    Produce a clear marketing plan and budget for each book, including how you will work with third parties including printers, distributers or sub-agents for example. If you do not provide marketing for the book you publish, or if it is an optional extra, make this clear from the outset.
  6. Physical copies
    Be clear in your publishing commitments about how many books will be produced initially in each format. State whether books will be produced as print-on-demand (POD). It is not enough to state that you will print ‘up to’ a certain quantity of books. Of the copies that you manufacture, be clear who owns them – you or the writer.
  7. Contracts
    Ensure your publishing contracts are as clear as possible, setting out in writing the exact scope of the rights granted (see the R.E.A.T.O.R. campaign for fair contract terms, in which we ask for appropriate Clarity, Remuneration, Exploitation, Accounting, Terms, Ownership and Reasonableness of contract terms). This should include a plain English overview of the terms and implications of the contract. All contract terms should be reasonable and time limited. They should include regular reviews to consider new forms of exploitation. Include a clear reversion clause in every contract (see 15). Be clear that you are happy for writers to discuss your proposed contract and their concerns with the SoA’s or WGGB’s teams of specialist advisors. Allow time for this to happen.
  8. Financial clarity
    If royalties are offered, be clear on how the royalty is calculated across all formats and platforms and offer royalties that fairly reflect the level of writer investment. Contracts should include rising royalty scales or ‘bestseller clauses’ so that if a work does far better than expected, the creator shares in its success.
  9. Publishing and production best practice
    Publish books under their own ISBNs and publish to best practice standards, including editorial support, copy editing, attention to proofs, production and design. Get approval from the writer on all matters of production.
  10. Exploitation of rights
    Only take rights in a work that you need and have the skill and expertise to exploit yourself. Only acquire rights to sub-license any of the author’s rights where you can guarantee active, adequate and profitable exploitation of the writer’s rights by that third-party. Be active in selling and exploiting any rights you take.
  11. Credit
    Credit all creators involved, such as editors, illustrators, and translators, for their contributions in the work, including in all metadata. Moral rights must not be waived.
  12. Responsible sales tactics
    Never target writers in emotionally manipulative ways or seek to upsell unnecessary services to increase the payment required by the writer.
  13. Clear communication
    Maintain strong lines of communication with the writer. It is particularly important for a writer to have a named contact with whom they can communicate about editorial, publicity, and accounting matters.
  14. Accounting clarity
    Account to writers no less than twice a year and abide by best practice accounting standards. Royalty statements should be easy to understand and detailed. They should cover royalty payments and other sources of remuneration. Be ready to provide information about how the book is selling on request, even if it is between statement dates. Share the good news of any significant sales deals with the writer whenever they occur. Always pay on time and without having to be prompted. Within limits, authors should have the right to examine the publisher’s books and distributor statements or request an audit if they feel there is an error in statements or payments.
  15. Rights and reversion
    Take rights for a limited-term – typically two years – and revert rights on request. If it isn’t working, financially or professionally, then be honest and let the writer go with professionalism and fairness.



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