Guest Post: Yog’s Law and Self-Publishing

by John Scalzi

John ScalziMany years ago, writer Jim Macdonald postulated “Yog’s Law,” a handy rule of thumb for writers about the direction money is meant to flow in publishing:

“Money flows toward the writer.”

This is handy because it will give the writer pause when she has a publisher (or agent, or editor) who says that in order to get published, the author needs to lay out some cash up front, and to that publisher/agent/editor. The author can step back, say, huh, this is not how Yog’s Law says it’s supposed to go, and then surmise, generally correctly, that the publisher/agent/editor in question is a scam artist and that she should run away as fast as her feet will carry her.

But does Yog’s Law apply in an age where many writers — and some even successfully — are self-publishing via digital? In self-publishing, authors are on the financial hook for the editorial services that publishers usually do: Editing, copy-editing, page and cover design and art, marketing, publicity and so on. In this case, unless the author does everything (which is possible but not advised if one want’s a professional-looking product), money is going to have to flow away from the writer, as he hired people to do work for him.

Does this mean Yog’s Law is now dead? Author Harry Connolly, who has published traditionally and also self-publishes, thinks so; a summation of his argument (presented in .jpg form because he did his own screencap of a Facebook comment on his site, and I’m too lazy to retype, although apparently not too lazy to to a screengrab, edit it down and then upload, which probably took even more time) is here:

Connolly is correct that the rise of digital self-publishing puts a new wrinkle on things. I disagree, however, that it means Yog’s Law no longer generally holds. I think it does, but with a corollary for self-publishers:

Yog’s Law: Money flows toward the writer.

Self-Pub Corollary to Yog’s Law: While in the process of self-publishing, money and rights are controlled by the writer.

Which is to say that when the self-published writer pays for editorial services, she’s at the head of the process; she’s employing the editor or copy editor or cover artist or whomever, and she’s calling the shots. If she’s smart she’s listening to them and allowing them to the job she’s paid them for, but at the end of the day the buck stops — literally — with her. This differs from the various scammy publishers, who would take the money and the author’s work, and then would effectively disappear down a dark hole, with the writer entirely out of the loop on what was going on (what as going on: generally, almost nothing).

This corollary, I think, is useful for self-publishers because there are still lots of ways for self-publishers to use their money foolishly, primarily by losing control of how it get spent and by whom. If at any step the self-published author asks, who controls this money I am about to spend? and the answer is not “me,” that’s a flag on the field. Likewise, if control of the work is somehow compromised by the process, that’s another flag.

And of course outside the self-publishing process, i.e., when the work is out there in the world, Yog’s Law continues to apply. It continues to apply however the work is published, actually.

So, Yog’s Law: Still not just a law, but a good idea. The self-publishing corollary to Yog’s Law: Also, I think, a good idea. Let me know what you think.


John Scalzi is a former president of SFWA.  THis post first appeared on his blog, Whatever.