Testing The Indie Spirit
As we’re reporting this morning (April 6) at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook, Jasinda and Jack Wilder have come up with an Easter surprise for their many fans: Their agent, Kristin Nelson, has negotiated a seven-figure deal for three books with Penguin Random House’s Berkley Books.
This is a new case of self-publishing authors stepping into a major traditional-publishing success, having established themselves as indie bestsellers with more than 2 million ebook sales.
The wife-husband writing team — with more than 40 novels and novellas self-published — is creating a trilogy, Madame X, for Berkley. The first book is to be released November 3, the second and third in early 2016.
And when I interviewed Jasinda Wilder over the weekend, her comments repeatedly touched on her and Jack’s dedication to readers of their books, until now entirely self-published and including the very popular Falling series. She told me:
I’d like to stress that we will still be publishing Omega and the other titles we’ve scheduled for 2015…I want everyone to know we aren’t slowing down. We’re just expanding our horizons, seeking new audiences, trying new things.
There are subtleties here to be appreciated.
And to some degree, Wilder may be throwing a signal not only to fans but also to the self-publishing author community while falling into so much good fortune.
Non-Compete: ‘We Negotiated Very Hard’
As demonstrated in responses to our recent piece, Isn’t It Time For Self-Publishers To Get Over Self-Publishing?, there is a “militant wing” of the independent authors movement that might see the Wilders’ success as a betrayal of the indie way. Author-publisher Bob Mayer has written of having an experience that I’ve had, too: Being told by authors that they didn’t announce their traditional contracts for fear of being criticized by self-publishers.
Surely, you’d think, no one could feel anything but happiness for the affable Jack and Jasinda Wilder. A farm-based couple in northern Michigan, they’re raising five children and “a menagerie of animals” while maintaining a production schedule that will not, as they’re insisting, give up any of their self-publishing plans to the new traditional project.
In fact, in talking to me, Wilder makes the point that she, her husband, and Nelson drew a line with Berkley at any non-compete clause that might have prevented their self-published output to roll on:
We negotiated very hard for a publication and non-compete schedule that would allow us to continue to self-publish projects throughout the process, because we’ve promised our fans certain titles this next year, and we pride ourselves on keeping our promises, and keeping our readers happy.
By coincidence, Kristin Nelson’s new column in her series on what makes an agent good has a lot to say about “negotiating hard.”
In Fearless Negotiation: An Agent’s Most Important Role for an Author, Nelson stresses that time is important in genuine negotiation — “Even with a basic boilerplate for my agency in place, most contracts take 6 to 12 weeks to negotiate fully” — and she makes several points about how authors and agents need to understand contracts and negotiation, including:
- Good agents negotiate all deals. Sounds simple enough. Doesn’t that always happen? Not necessarily.
- Good agents don’t accept the initial offer from the editor.
- Good agents negotiate the deal even if an author brings the publisher offer to the agent.
- Good agents are willing to walk away from an offer if the terms aren’t favorable enough for the author.
Nelson’s column makes no reference to the Berkley-Wilder negotiation, of course, nor to any other instance by name. She does include a harrowing anecdote about an author brave enough to walk away from a contract that had no out-of-print clause to define what would constitute a book going out of print and what actions would result. After she and the author walked away, the publisher went out of business. Walking away was the right move.
If anything, Berkley has done the canny thing, of course, in agreeing that the Wilders’ prolific self-publishing work should go forward: that’s the audience the publisher wants — Wilder’s “many dedicated fans,” as Berkley vice-president and executive editor Cindy Hwang put it in a prepared statement.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that in 2015, authors and agents might still need to “negotiate very hard” for the privilege of continuing to grow that readership. That’s how retrograde some standard elements of a contract can be.
Still, it’s important not to paint this as an acrimonious relationship but an interesting point in the evolution of publisher-author relations.
I asked Jasinda Wilder how they’d found their reception at a division of the largest publisher. She was adamant in describing a warm welcome from their new publisher:
Berkley has absolutely made us feel comfortable, and welcomed. That was absolutely paramount, significantly more so than the numbers and parameters of the deal. If we didn’t feel like it was a good fit for us, the editor, the house, the deal, the team, we wouldn’t have gone forward with this.
And had a major traditional-publishing contract been a goal of the Wilders’ self-publishing efforts all along? No, Wilder says. A possibility but not a goal.
‘We Are Indies, And We Are Proud Of It’
We’ve always been open to partnering with a traditional publishing house. We’ve just known it would have to be the right publisher and the right editor, at the right time, with the right story.
That story involves another interesting criterion that Wilder makes for a traditional contract:
>What we saw working best was an original story written specifically for traditional publication, rather than an indie-published piece being acquired.
And she’s encouraged by what she sees as a good fit of material to the traditional publishing setting:
We’ve had the Madame X story and characters simmering on the back burner for months and months, just waiting to be brought out and perfected. It actually came from a very vivid dream that I had last year. It’s an incredible story, and one that, to us, lends itself perfectly to a partnership with a traditional house.
It’s a high-concept trilogy, with a lot of elements drawn from various sources woven together, doing some interesting things with point of view and narrative voice. It’s a chance to try something bold and new and exciting, push boundaries and test limits and really flex our creative muscles.
We’re really, really geeked about this project.
As eager as they were to move forward with the Madame X project, she says, the offer had to be right.
We weren’t willing to compromise our sense of what’s right for us, for our career. We’ve held out this long for the best opportunity, we knew we were willing and able to hold out longer if this didn’t pan out.
But it did, and we are excited to partner with Berkley, and with Cindy Hwang, in particular.
We’re early in the process, but so far it’s all been amazing. Everyone at Berkley seems to hold us in high regard, which makes us feel good, obviously.
The Wilders turn out to be, in other words, anything but knee-jerk self-publishers. They were popular attendees at last October’s Novelists Inc. conference in St. Pete Beach, Florida. There, they were recognized for their success — months before the public would learn of negotiations with Berkley — and convivial friends with Hugh Howey and other “indie bestsellers” in attendance.
But just as Howey (another Nelson client) has some 30 traditional publishers of Wool for his foreign editions — and that print-only contract on the first book of the trilogy with Simon & Schuster in the States) — many of the major independents are quite interested in the right “partnership” with a publisher, as both Wilder and Howey have termed the correct relationship: a partnership.
The more successful a self-publishing base can prove itself to be, clearly, the more reason for a publisher to look carefully at partnering — and the harder the independent author needs to think about whether being a writer or being a self-publisher comes first.
How self-publishers greet this news may say something about where the independent-author community stands today. Proud of its diversity in the ranks, that creative army no doubt will have many shades and gradations of opinion about the Wilders suddenly “going New York” with a Big Five contract.
For their part, Jasinda and Jack Wilder say they see this as no hiccup in their work as devoted players in the independent movement. Jasinda Wilder tells me:
We are indies, and we are proud of it. We’ve accomplished a lot as indies, and we will continue to do so as well, but we will now go forward proud to be partnering with Berkley for this project…This is absolutely the best time in history to be a writer. The sky is truly the limit.