This Book Will Be Freely Accessible, or It Won't Be a Book

A primer on my common publishing deal-breakers, and why I can't do it any other way – at least not within the ethics of social justice.

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A handful of times I’ve been approached by Acquisitions Editors offering me book deals. Every time I’m as surprised and flattered as I was the first time it happened. But every time it happens, I’m increasingly hit with another emotion as well: anxiety.

I’m anxious because I feel like I can see the future: we’re going to talk about the topic; we’ll probably hit it off because they’ll be a super interesting well-read person who gets it; so I’ll be excited to write a book on the topic they pitched; then I’ll explain my two big deal-breakers; at which point the conversation becomes a bummer.

Let me share the two deal-breakers first, then I’ll walk you through the bummer.

My Two Publishing Deal-Breakers

Many have entered a conversation about publishing a book with me, few make it past door number 1.

#1: The book has to be uncopyrighted.

I mean exactly what it sounds like I mean: the manuscript, my contribution to the project, cannot have a copyright restricting it, or be protected as intellectual property. Instead, I need to uncopyright it (I’m also okay with an unrestricted Creative Commons license, like CC-0 or CC-by).

This way it will be gifted to the commons, freely accessible for others to use in their curricula, teaching, organizing, writing, or whatever they’d otherwise license it for.

Wait – where are you going? I have another request, one that is even more unfeasible – or so I’ve repeatedly been told in a mix of tones. Why walk out on me when you could read this next part and run away instead?

#2: The book must be accessible without a paywall.

Again, I’m saying exactly what you’re hearing: the book has to be available for free.

The whole thing. Not an excerpt of the book, not just some of the chapters, or an abridged version. And not just during certain windows of time (“We can do a one day free promotion when it launches”), or under certain conditions (“We can make it free with Kindle Unlimited”).

But hey – I’m happy to compromise. The hardcover or paperback don’t have to be free. We can set a market price on those. I only require that a digital version (.PDF and .epub) is available without paywall restrictions, or other burdens on accessibility.

What’s so funny? Why are you actively laughing right now? Is it good news? I’m laughing now, too! It’s contagious. This is fun – what are we laughing about? Do we have a deal?!

No Deal.

After several of these conversations, I now understand how much of a joke it feels like to Acquisitions Editors. I also know how naïve I appear to many of you for having these deal-breakers.

And while I’ve appreciated the people who didn’t immediately hard pass when I shared those two items, it’s now gotten to a place where “Maybe we can work with that!” feels worse than “lol nope.” Because the “Maybe!”, like maybes often do, has consistently collapsed into “Nope!”

And that collapse was accompanied by a lot of time wasted, or worse.

One time I got a response that was, “Maybe! If you get a few chapters to us, I’ll run them back to my editor and make your case.” So I wrote the samples, then, a month later, I get a “Nope. We still can’t offer it for free. Sorry.”

But now I’m invested. I’ve sunk time into this. And I got to see a glimpse of what the book would look like, and loved it. So it’s even harder for me to stand my ground.

With the latest potential book deal, after I shared my two asks, I got back (paraphrased) “We might be able to do that! Let me talk to so-and-so and draft up a deal with those caveats.”

Then a few weeks later they sent me a new offer that included a bigger advance and a larger initial print run, so I could “buy some of the books myself and hand them out to people.”

Y’all. How? No. That isn’t it. Now I’m mad.

I’ve emptied my patience reservoir when it comes to people responding “Maybe!” to my two deal-breakers above. In fact, I can now preemptively say “No, the deal is still broken,” to the following rebuttals, in addition to everything detailed above:

  • Offering me more money doesn’t change anything. I’ve been offered everything from low four-figure advances to high five-figure ones, and it’s not made a difference. I’m poor, but money doesn’t motivate me (maybe that “but” could be exchanged with a “because”). I’ve never been offered a gonzo advance like a lot of people – millions of dollars to write a book wuttt – but I hope still wouldn’t make a difference.
  • Making a later edition freely accessible doesn’t change anything. It has to be the first edition, and every other edition we publish together. A limited run, or “the 2nd edition can have a free version,” don’t cut it.
  • “The book will be available for free in public libraries” doesn’t change anything. Yes, I know about libraries, even if they confound me. But a lot of people don’t. Or they can’t access them. Or they live in places without them.
  • Pledging a percentage of sales or profits doesn’t change anything. Even if that % was 100, it still wouldn’t create the accessibility that I think needs to be the bar. The minimum.

Maybe I’m misspeaking: pledging percentages of sales, the amount of the advance, etc. – they do make a difference. For example, I love the idea of donating percentages of profits. I think that makes the project more socially-just than otherwise. They just don’t make up the difference.

The book being freely accessible is the necessary condition. That is the cake. Everything else is icing. Tasty, expensive icing.

The bummer is that I didn’t think those two caveats were “deal-breakers” when I first started fielding book offers. I thought of them as “reasonable requests.” I figured that publishers interested in publishing a social justice book would have heard things like that a million times, and that some of them would be thrilled that I asked. Excited to do a social justice book in a socially-just way.

Hey no more laughing! I’m on to you. You – oh, oh no – now I’m laughing again, too. You! Youuuuu.

It’s the only socially-just way to publish a book that I can reckon.

If you aren’t publishing a book that’s social justice focused – it’s not about feminism, racism, or any of the -isms – I’ll give you a pass. I don’t expect you to share the intellectual property with the commons, or ensure people can access the book without paying.

Even then, even if your book isn’t about social justice, I still think you and your audience and the world would be better off if you did. There are so many other arguments I could make for why this is the best path beyond just the social justice ones.

But if you are publishing a social justice book and you’re not making it freely accessible… how? How do you add that up?

Access is a cornerstone value of social justice. Restricting access to a thing to only people with money and privilege, when the thing itself is saying, “We need to dismantle barriers that inhibit access in society, especially those that affect people inequitably” feels like such an Ouroboros way to approach the problem to me.

If you didn’t publish the book at all, and therefore didn’t create a barrier preventing access, would you actually be dismantling a barrier to access? Or, at best, I can’t see that as anything but taking a step backward in order to take a step forward.

Let’s skip the step backward. We’ll get further.

Meanwhile, restricting the sharing and use of knowledge is a cornerstone of oppression. Intellectual property restricts who gets to wield ideas, who can build on a concept, and the ways people can use what they learn to improve their communities; all based on an illusion of “individual merits” that ignores generations of community effort, evolution, and shared human consciousness.

Saying, “You can’t use this knowledge unless I say so,” is oppressive in itself, but “and pay me a fee to license it” takes it to a whole new level. Again, we are reifying harmful power structures in society – in the name of challenging, replacing, or dismantling them.

Let’s liberate knowledge. It’s an antidote to oppression.

I would love for these to become deal-makers.

I would love it if some Future Me and Past Naïve Me can agree that these aren’t silly things to ask for. That a publisher interested in a social-justice-oriented manuscript would be open to – even excited by! – the idea of making the book freely accessible.

Right now, as Bummed Out Present Me, still waiting for a publisher like that to sweep me off my feet, I feel a bit like Cinderella waiting for her prince. Doubtful, exhausted, talking to squirrels about how great things could be. What a dream!

I believe that dream is somewhere out there, in the future, as a reality.

I can see little glimpses of it in every conversation I have with a fellow social-justice-y author about these weird deal-breakers I have. Where the ideas feel less weird, and my compatriot gets excited about the idea. When it starts to make the most sense to them, too, and they echo, “How else do you reckon publishing a social justice book in a socially-just way?”

I can feel what it would be like to live in the world where this is the norm. Where we start asking, “Why wouldn’t you have your book freely accessible?”

And I know, on some level, that if we made that world happen, we’d be one step closer to living social justice. Without it, I’m not sure we’ll ever get there, so I’m going to keep on dreaming.

After all, “A dream is a wish your heart makes.”

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