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.

9 Responses

  1. Dobes

    I think another way to apply the law is to separate the writer and publisher even if they are the same person. So the self publisher does writing and publishing and the publishing part pays the writer part. But it’s the same person.

  2. Elizabeth Moon

    Agreed. The self-publishing writer in the new age will have to shell out some money–but gets to choose what for, and to whom, to hand it over. Can look at that person’s work and decide if it’s worth what’s being charged. Most importantly, can set a budget that works for the writer (not one that works for the scammers) and thus count on money (eventually) flowing to the writer.

    Plenty of scam artists still prey on novice writers who are desperate to be published. Yog’s Law is easy to teach them, and can save them from losing their savings to the predators. It still distinguishes between the good and the bad on the publishing end.

  3. Kathryn Allen

    I think Yog’s Law only ever worked if ‘flow’ was considered to be tidal. The money may come in or depart as waves do but the tide should always be flowing in (or out) to the author. At the end of the day, I should definately not have paid a person who has said they can sell my book (agent or publisher or whatever) more money than I have gained.

    Even in the olden times of the last decade writers had to spend money — on research, conventions, computers, postage, paper etc (it’s a long time since anyone would read a hand-written submission and I recall earnest advice in writing manuals about learning to type or employing someone to type up the manuscript for you) . I always assumed that Yog didn’t mean I shouldn’t buy the appropriate printer paper (not to light and not too heavy). I did believe that Yog meant I should be wary of anyone selling me a much more expensive paper with the promise that it would attract an agent or editor’s eye — that Yog was a useful rule of thumb for judging the advice and sale’s pitches of others. And also for limiting ones own excesses — frex self-publishers should probably pay for some services, but purchase services at a level where they’ll improve the presentation of the story while not being so expensive that there’s no chance of seeing a profit.

    I suspect I always considered Yog’s law as akin to Murphy’s — the simple statements aren’t in the quite same league as the laws of thermodynamics, but they’re useful reminders for how you should plan your day.

  4. Mick Rooney

    Bravo, John. A thoughtful and balanced post that takes an important cornerstone in traditional publishing and applies it to self-publishing without extracting a concrete and literal meaning. Modern self-publishing is about taking control of your investment as well as your book.

  5. Steven Saus

    (I made this same comment over at Whatever; just posted here for a different audience)

    This came up a little over a year ago in a G+ discussion with Evo Terra (link at ). I’m sticking with updating Yog’s Law with what I call Cthugha’s Corollary:

    “VALUE flows toward the author.”

    I think that successfully sums up everything from “exposure” and “for the love” markets to the need to hire quality editors.

  6. J.L. Dobias

    I agree with this, but there is a certain irony built into it.
    I’ve heard some say that a person self publishes because they are a control freak and feel they need to be involved in every phase of the process.

    The truth is that self publishers must control everything: they don’t have to do everything, but they have to actively be involved in decisions every step of the way to retain their rights and control of the money. They have to know that the finished product will reach the consumer.

  7. Dario Ciriello

    As both an author and publisher, I entirely agree with this. One of the saddest queries I see every time we announce a new Panverse antholgy is a close variant of this one, received last week:

    “What are the costs associated with submitting my manuscript for consideration?”

    My reply is always to restate Yog’s law and point them towards the Writer Beware post on vanity and subsidy presses.