The Business Rusch: The Death of Publishing

Business Rusch logo webIt is the last day of February, 2013, and by now, traditional publishing should have mailed its holiday cards with the gleeful misquote attributed to Mark Twain on the cards’ interior: The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Not that there were actual news reports of the death of traditional publishing. But if you read the blogosphere in 2010 and 2011, a wide number of reputable publishing industry insiders predicted that traditional publishing would be dead or unrecognizable by the end of the Mayan Calendar on 12/21/12.

I’m serious. And I’m not sourcing the predictions for fear of embarrassing some good friends.

Those of us who understand how the large industry that is publishing works, and how business works in general knew that those predictions were misguided to say the least. A number of the folks who predicted such things stopped when it became clear that the e-publishing revolution wasn’t storming the barricades of traditional publishing. Like most revolutionaries, e-publishing grew older and got subsumed into the traditional system. And those who felt the revolution’s initial passion and fire have either given up proselytizing, settled into the daily grind that a real work brings, or have given up the cause altogether.

Where is traditional publishing four-plus years into the revolution? Bigger, stronger, and richer than ever. Who ended up getting harmed by the revolution itself? Writers who never really learned how the business worked and/or writers who believed their traditional publishing careers were bulletproof, that these crazy changes in the delivery method wouldn’t touch them.

Even now, these formerly bulletproof writers have no idea what happened to them. They blame traditional publishing, rather than their own business acumen.

The writing was on the wall as much as four years ago, when the recession hit. Book advances worldwide went down significantly, as much as three-quarters, according to an article in the London Times. Writers continued to accept those advances and bemoan them, so as the e-publishing revolution hit and publishers started to realize they could make more money than they ever had, they kept the advances low. Why put out a ton of money up front if authors will accept less?

It’s excellent business. Minimize your up-front costs. Think about it. Would you pay in advance for something if you could get the same (or better) product for less money, money paid out made six months after you’ve already profited from that product? You’d do the latter, of course. And many traditional publishers are doing the same. Pay less, pay lower royalties, get the same product for one-quarter the cost. Makes tremendous business sense to me.

I’ve seen this trend for the last several years. And now traditional writers are beginning to realize what’s happening—and that it’s happening to them. I have received four letters this past week from friends with many New York Times bestsellers under their belts who are now complaining that the new advances either aren’t forthcoming at all or are significantly lower than they were before. Significantly, meaning money that would have caused these writers to walk ten years ago. Now there’s nowhere to walk to that will pay a higher advance.

Back in the day, you know, ten years ago, traditional publishing advances were designed to encompass the entire future earnings of a novel. That way, the publisher wouldn’t have to pay royalties, even though royalties were listed in the contract, and the advance was essentially an interest-free loan against those royalties.

When the recession hit, traditional publishers lowered advances, thinking book sales would go down. And book sales did go down for a while—in print books only. Book sales went up in the more lucrative e-book area. And then they went up more and they went up even more. Publishers were paying only 25% of net on those e-book sales so the pay-outs to writers were significantly less on e-books than they were on print books.

Even if the publisher was selling fewer e-copies, it was making double the money it would make from print copies. In other words, folks, publishers are making much more money from the e-book revolution and they’ve designed publishing contracts so that they can keep more of that money.

Writers have signed those contracts, and continue to do so. So traditional publishers are making more money per sale and keeping more money per sale, while traditionally published book writers are taking smaller advances and making less money per sale, if they can even get accurate royalty payments from their publishers.

So…whose death should we be predicting? Maybe the career death of the full-time traditionally published midlist or lower level bestselling writer.

Not that there won’t be midlist or lower-level bestselling writers working for traditional publishers. But those writers will also have day jobs. They certainly won’t have big houses and assistants and the freedom to write whatever they want any more.

They didn’t just miss the handwriting on the wall. They missed the gigantic neon signs littering the town. They missed air raid sirens, the warnings, everything—mostly because they trusted their advisers (read: agents) to warn them that the world was going to hell.

Not realizing that agents, who make 15% of what their writers make, were dealing with their own collapsing business model and didn’t have time and/or didn’t want to tell the less business savvy clients that the End Is Near!

I’ve written about this for years. I did a much reprinted blog post called “Writing Like It’s 1999,” which was just reprinted in England and is causing some buzz there. But that post has been on my site now for years. The information is and has been available since May 10, 2011. And I wasn’t the first to discuss this.

Why am I discussing this today? Partly because of those four letters I received from different writers. Partly because I’m teaching all this week, so I’m talking about the hybrid indie-publishing/traditional publishing model.  And partly because the Passive Voice blog has a link to a truly whiney writer’s blog which has some great information about declining advances (coming from his conversation with another writer), but I won’t link directly to it because the writer in question is completely clueless (and apparently always has been) about the business.

I’m concerned that these traditional writers who can no longer make ends meet are at the end of the gravy train. And by that, I mean this: Traditional publishers have gotten quite savvy in the past year. Traditional publishers no longer revert rights to out-of-print books without a long fight, which sometimes ends up in court.

The contracts I’ve seen from every traditional book publisher, including one that used to be quite writer friendly, have added deadly non-compete clauses and are enforcing those clauses.

Then, as we kicked up the Fiction River anthology series, I discovered something else: agents want to keep their hands on their clients’ short stories. The excuse is this: publishing contracts have become so complicated, that the agent must now look over even the smallest contract to make sure the writer isn’t in violation.

As if a person who makes his living with words does not understand words. The writer should know what he signed on his book contract so that he—smart person that he is—would know if the short story contract violates that book contract. The agent doesn’t need to be involved. Period.

Twenty-plus years ago, when Dean and I ran Pulphouse Publishing, a house that specialized mostly in short works of fiction (short stories/novellas), we dealt with three different agents over eight years. Two were old-time agents who had been in the business since the 1950s and hadn’t changed their business model with the time, so they still handled short fiction. One was a scam artist whom it was later discovered marketed short stories he had no right to market.

And that’s it.

That’s no longer the case. Agents want their hands in everything. Why? It’s not because of contracts, folks. Or at least, it’s not because of traditional book contracts and their clauses. It’s because of the agent agreements. Here’s the thinking: If an agent handles a work—large or small—the agent gets a percentage of the ownership in that work according to most agent agreements that the agent is forcing the authors to sign these days.

So if the agent doesn’t handle a short story contract for that $30 commission, the agent doesn’t own a piece of that short story.

No writer with an indie publishing career lets her agent handle her short fiction. Not one that I know of. All of the writers who want their agents to handle their short fiction contracts are traditionally published.

And yet again, those traditionally published writers get squeezed.

It makes me sad.

Writers have always segregated themselves into those who knew a lot about business (real business, not the goofy traditional publishing industry) and those who let others manage all that messy business stuff. Until five years ago, the writers who knew a lot about business and the writers who didn’t had a pretty equal chance of striking it rich. The only real difference between them was that the business-savvy writer would either quit publishing (because it’s so geared toward the business-ignorant) or would become well-off partly because of their own money management skills.  The writers who knew nothing about business often quit publishing involuntarily when something went seriously wrong in their careers, and those writers blamed their craft for the problem instead of understanding the business cycle.

All of that has changed.

Now the business-savvy writer has a significantly bigger chance of becoming rich than the business-ignorant writer, even if the business-ignorant writer sells more books and has more readers. Got that? The business-ignorant writer has been squeezed by the publishers and the agents so that making a big six-figure income, year in and year out, is becoming nearly impossible—without a worldwide blockbuster.

The business-savvy writer is either a hybrid writer—traditional and indie—or goes indie only. Those writers can and are making six-figure incomes without having a single bestselling novel. They don’t need a blockbuster to save their financial future.

They control their financial future.

Again, it’s math. The indie and/or hybrid writer gets 50-70% of each indie book sale. The traditional writer gets 25% of net, which works out—at least according to the royalty statements I’ve seen—to 10% of the sale price of each book.

You make a lot more money faster when  you’re earning two to seven times more than someone else on the same kind of product. You can also have fewer sales at that higher royalty rate and still make more money. Math.

And I was computing that as if all things were equal. They aren’t. The indie/hybrid writer gets money every month from the sales made 30-90 days previous. The traditional writer gets paid every six months from sales made six months before that—and that assumes that their advance has earned out and their publisher accurately reports both the sales and the royalties. It also doesn’t take into account that mysterious calculation publishers make called “a reserve against returns” which, in most contracts, isn’t even defined. (In other words, the publisher can hold back as much money as it believes it can get away with, because nothing in the contract says otherwise.)

A lot of the writers I will see this weekend, who are coming for an anthology workshop, are indie writers who now make a living at their fiction. In fact, several of them are making good enough livings to quit their day jobs. One, a person who is extremely conservative about finances, who once told me publishing was “too risky” to chance the loss of a high-paying day job, hasn’t worked a day job in more than a year. The steady monthly income from that writer’s indie published novels has convinced that financially risk-averse writer that the writer’s time is better off spent creating new words than it is sitting at a desk for someone else.

What do I tell the traditionally published writers who are writing to me, upset that they can no longer earn what they did in the past? I still point them to the blog posts that can help them if they would only listen. But most of them have seen those posts, and then write me angry letters telling me that “it’s too hard” or “too much work” or “not suited to their personalities.”

Which is exactly what beginning writers used to say to me when I told them that writing is a craft, not a gift from the muse, and if they wanted to earn a living as a writer, they had to write fast, write a lot, and practice, practice, practice.

After a while, I stopped giving advice to beginners. And I’m getting to the point where I’m going to stop giving advice to writers stuck in traditional publishing.

Because, honestly, I’m beginning to lose patience. I can only repeat myself so many times.  There’s only so many ways I can say this: The business has changed dramatically. If you want to make a living as a writer—a good living, like you used to—then you have to change.

Here’s what I want to add, but I never do in conversation.

I’m adding it here, now.

If you’re unwilling to change, that’s your problem. If you don’t want to learn the new ways of doing business in this new century, that’s your problem.  It’s not mine. I can’t tell you that traditional publishing will return to the gravy train for writers that it once was, because it won’t.

Traditional publishing has used the recession and the e-publishing revolution to improve its business model so that the companies make more money. The companies are leaner and richer. And they don’t care about you writers. Contrary to what you’ve always believed, traditional publishing companies have never cared about writers. Traditional publishers know that when one writer goes away, another will step into her place. You’re a rotating group of widgets that might make the publisher some money. If you don’t make the publisher money, then they’ll find someone who will.

It’s time to understand that.

Stop whining.  Because here’s the truth of it. Traditional publishing did not die in December 2012.

And 2013 is shaping up to be one of the best years for writers ever. We have more opportunities than we ever have. We have more opportunity to make a living than we’ve had in seventy to eighty years.

That’s the truth of it. Let go of the past and move forward.

Like the rest of us.

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“The Business Rusch: “The Death of Publishing” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.





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59 Comments

  1. As you said, one of the biggest problem is the authors who say “it’s too hard” or “too much work” or “not suited to their personalities.”

    But there are also the mainstreem medias. As far as I know, when a self-published author sells more than one million ebooks, Oprah doesn’t talk about it. As you said once, newspapers like the New York Times are linked with traditional publishing.

    They also don’t tell us about the legal scam with traditional publishing (for readers), like the bestseller campaigns :
    http://www.leapfrogging.com/2013/02/18/debunking-the-bestseller-book-sales-spike/

    Fortunately, internet is gaining on mainstream medias. Could a young trad pub author become the next Stephen King, stay trad published for the rest of his life and continue to be screwed on the same basis for the rest of his life ?

    That may happen, but we can hope it will be the exception, as more and more authors who sign trad pub deals do that after having success indie publishing. Or am I wrong ?

    Reply
    • Funny that you picked Stephen King, Alan. He signed one of the worst contracts in the business for Carrie. It allowed Doubleday to put all the money he made in escrow, and pay him an annual stipend. Doubleday kept most of the money he made in the 1970s, and it wasn’t until he got a clue around 1980, that he understood what he had done wrong. Then he had to go through all kinds of legal negotations–and give Doubleday another book to end the contract–before he got the money he’d been owed all along. So yes, the trad pub writer will be screwed for the rest of his life if they aren’t careful. It’s happening in music already.

      And the NYT and other places are now putting indie books on their bestseller list. USA Today did it first, but the Times is doing it as well–after a huge outcry in which the Times ignored indie books. Things are changing…

      Reply
      • A striking example, indeed (Stephen king and Doubleday). Thank you for it. I think the public haven’t got a clue how much big names can be screwed (I heard it’s the case for Amélie Nothomb in France).

        I also read the biography of Kirk Douglas (le fils du chiffonier in France, I don’t know the original title) where it appears he got totally screwed by his agent for a long time.

        Yes, I know NYT begins to speak about self-published, and it’s very important self-pub can make the list (hoping that authors with deep pockets will not use the service of companies like Resultsource).

        What indie publishing lacks is the impact of front page news for the moment. A Fifty Shades of grey has helped in the sense it was originally self-published, but I doubt many people know that fact.

        Reply
        • I tell people that if King were starting today, he’d be self-publishing. My wife says it sounds arrogant. But I am pretty sure it’s true.

          Reply
          • I think you are right, Scott.

          • It was four years ago on the Florida Writers Conference blog, that I asked what Stephen King needs with a traditional publisher at this point. I got snark for that question and I stand by it today.

          • Rumor has it that King makes 50% by print sale, so it’s in his best interest to stay trad pub now.

            Not only for the paper books money, but because of the permanent ad paper books (disposed prominently in bookstores) brings to his ebooks.

            Perhaps things would be different if Barnes & Noble went bankrupt. Perhaps.

            Still, if he was a young writer these days, I do think like Scott he would self publish at first, and try to obtain a contract for paper like Hugh Howey did, keeping his ebook rights. Just my two cents.

  2. Great info. Thanks so very much! :-)

    Reply
  3. Very well said! I have for a while decided to go indie only as I want to own my rights. I want to write what I want and operate how I want. Maybe that makes me a control freak, so be it I think I can make money at this if I work hard enough and keep writing.
    Great post!

    Reply
    • I’m with you. I want to write what I want, how I want, when I want, and maintain control over MY books, MY rights, MY characters and worlds, MY time, MY career, MY name, and, oh yeah, MY money.

      Control freak, yeah :)

      I’m more and more glad all the time that when I started writing 23 years ago and dabbled my toe just a bit into the publishing waters, I listened to my gut instinct that publishing (as it existed at that time, before ebook self-publishing and print-on-demand) wasn’t right for me, and decided to wait for the right opportunity to come along someday. And now, here it is :)

      And for writers who say “it’s too hard,” well, I did it so it can’t be that hard, can it?

      Reply
    • In my opinion, control freaks are the ones who control others i.e. trade publishers. Being in charge of your own life is the smart thing to do. People who rely completely on others are the ones who get screwed. Of course, then they always have someone else to blame…

      Reply
  4. You go girl!

    I think a lot of the writers who complain/maintain that they can’t or won’t do the business end of their writing career do so not out of an inability, but I think taking over those aspects of their career makes them feel like they are not ‘team players’. That going along with their agent and publisher is seen as a desirable attribute. What they don’t understand is they are the only one who sees themselves as part of the publishing/agent team. The publisher likes the money the author brings in and may even like the author personally, but ultimately that’s not going to stop the publisher/agent from doing what is right for them. There is nothing wrong with being a team player — but you have to know who is on your team.

    Also, the indie/traditional hybrid is still looked down on in a lot of circles and completely not understood by people out of the industry so writers who need outside validation don’t get this and claim inabilities as opposed to just fear. Or perhaps even embarrassment to be going against the grain.

    I think also writers just think it will return to the ‘good ole days’ but life doesn’t ever return to — it just keeps evolving. Carpe Diem!

    I have to say if you’re claiming impatience that’s saying something. You’ve gone well above and beyond what most writers have done so for longer than they would have. And it is much appreciated.

    -Josie

    Sorry if this sounds a little rambling — I’m a little rambly today, apparently.

    Reply
    • I agree with Josephine about the hybrid author being looked down on… in fact I just blogged about this on my own blog, using a picture of a rather miserable hybrid “zonkey” to describe how I feel!

      I’ve so far only done my backlist “indie”, but most of the purely trad authors I know think I’d have done better trying to get a publisher to reissue these books, but I’m not so sure. As an experiment, I did let a small publisher reissue my debut novel, but so far have seen no royalties only a tiny advance (out of which which my agent took 15% plus VAT), whereas amazon pay me royalties direct every month for the others… enough said.

      Reply
  5. Amusingly this post came up right next to another author’s on how “not all authors want to be publishers!”

    So rough it is, running your own business. It’s so much work! Someone else should do it! -_-

    Reply
    • Doggone it! Authors don’t have to be publishers if they don’t want to, and they can STILL write what they want and make money at it. I’m in partnership with Gere Donovan Press, who design my books and cover art, upload the content across all available e-book purveyors, monitor sales and collect the loot. They get 25 percent, and it’s worth it to me to have that much more time to spend writing. It is a lovely feeling to have that check wire-deposited into my account the first of every month. It’s almost like having a regular paycheck.

      As Kris says, it is all about having choices. For the first time in my writing life, I do, and I am reveling in it. It just about kills me to hear from writing friends who either don’t know those choices exist or who are too frightened to learn about them or take advantage of them.

      But as Kris also says, not my problem. Writer, educate thyself!

      Reply
      • I know, Dana. Isn’t it fun? I can write something and know someone will read it, no matter what. :-) I love that!

        Reply
  6. You would think with so many facts in favor of indie publishing that no one would even care to pursue a traditional deal anymore. Yet I see and hear writers all the time still struggling to find agents and publishers. Other than a sense of validation by being picked up by a big publisher, I can’t imagine why anyone would choose the traditional path for all their efforts.

    Reply
    • I understand this need for validation. While I’ve found some success in indie publishing and know how toxic trad publishing has become, there’s still this little voice that tells me I’m not a “real writer” because I haven’t been anointed by a professional publisher.

      I’ve decided to feed–more like, give a snack–to this validation craving of mine by writing more short stories and submitting them to pro-level magazines and anthologies. The good news here is, no matter what happens to these stories, accepted or rejected, they will end up in my indie oeuvre. But if I can snag some traditional publication credits this way, I can sate the need for validation and still retain control over my career and work.

      Reply
    • I can’t either. I get it when a highly successful indie author tries to make a bigger play and reach blockbuster through traditional. I don’t get it for people just starting out. Made sense three years ago. Doesn’t today.

      Reply
  7. I actually do find this a bit sad, for a number of reasons, even though I’m pretty happy just indie publishing for now (even though I am far, far away from any kind of six-figure income doing it). I’ve already seen this article posted, too, with people asking the question, “Is it true publishing doesn’t care about writers?” I find that such an odd question, actually, and really kind of making the point. What other business do the suppliers ask whether their business partners “care” about me and my art? If you need validation from the people who you’re going into contractual relationships with, you’re kind of already screwed, imo.

    On the other hand, it really is a bit sad for some of those writers.

    I am realizing more and more that something that is relatively easy for me, emotionally, I mean, like owning my own business, is not something a lot of people feel they can do. They avoid facing that when they enter into working with big publishers (even though they DO own their own business, they just don’t seem to want to *admit* that they do). They do whatever they can to maintain that “employee” feeling, even when it’s not appropriate or accurate. They pretend they work for their agent, that they work for their publisher, and it puts them at such a huge disadvantage, but they seem to only be able to cope with the relationship that way. I’ve seen this with other, non-writers in my life, too, who have opportunities to become self-employed and get themselves out of difficult financial situations, and they just can’t seem to do it. Instead they work for peanuts for someone else, because it’s all they can manage emotionally.

    It’s really a shame.

    Reply
    • JC, I’m working with two academic trad pubs right now, and I get more care, concern, and effort from the editor I hired for my indie work than I do from either of those two houses. I’m doing all the permissions leg work, I’m paying for the illustrations, I’m doing the maps, I’m doing the indexes. Why am I even using trad pubs? Because I have no choice. One book contract required that it be published by a Big 6 or university press, and the other only counts towards my academic publications requirements if it is done by an academic press. And I will not make any money from either book, after I deduct my expenses.

      Reply
      • Aw, that’s really a bummer. I do wonder at this seeming trend of not paying artists by major companies. I have a good friend who is experiencing this in terms of special effects for movies, too. Those major companies don’t seem to care that they are bankrupting their suppliers…there’s seems to always be that assumption that “there’ll always be more around.” Wish more people felt that way about MBAs! Maybe it’s something we’ve always done as a species, but there’s this real denigration of the value of any work where the person doing it gets some personal satisfaction out of it. We only seem to want to pay people real money if they are bored in their jobs, or they have to become sociopaths to succeed in them. :)

        Reply
    • “What other business do the suppliers ask whether their business partners ‘care’ about me and my art?”

      This reminds me of what my Dad used to say about farming — which is how his father & their ancestors used to make a living. Farmers would sell their crops/livestock by saying, “How much do you want, & how much will you give me?” They didn’t have much leverage in getting a fair price.

      I’ll admit that things have changed since my grandfather’s day (he sold the family farm in the early thirties after discovering the mortgage allowed the bank to apply all of the payments to interest, not to principal). For example, my wife’s first husband is a farmer, & he’s doing quite well: he once stated he never plants a crop unless it’s already sold. (He also does well because he owns his farmland.) However, it took a lot of changes for my wife’s ex to get to that point, & not all farmers are in the position of being able to negotiate fair conditions to their contracts.

      Sometimes the relationship between a writer & a publisher is a lot like that between a farmer & the middleman who buys his crops. Sometimes too much like it.

      Reply
  8. I always want to comment and say stuff about everything I’ve been through over the years since finding your blog in 2011. I can’t blab though because I’ll just get picked on for my opinion. Let’s just say I’ve been treated like crap by online writer/bloggers and leave it at that.

    All I really want to say is thank you for blogging and giving us all this information. I never would have persevered at writing if it weren’t for your blog posts. I’m on a roll now and can’t be stopped. I’ve got quite a few titles under my name and once again writing is fun for me.

    If it wasn’t for yours and Dean’s blogs I would have never figured out the business side of being a writer with common sense.

    Thank you a million times a million! :)

    Reply
  9. Good article.

    I stopped proselytizing years ago because I “settled into the daily grind that a real work brings.” Well, I never really proselyted that much anyway because I had a few solid points to make, the only one of any import was, “Who are YOU to tell me what I can and can’t do with my work?”

    And so all I really feel compelled to say is that while I never got the satisfaction of getting “The Call,” now I just thank God for unanswered prayers.

    Reply
    • I’m so incredibly grateful now for all those reject letters!
      (Check out The 99 cent BestSeller by Andrew Rice in TIME 12/10/12 issue)

      Reply
  10. Like JC, I feel empathy for the writers who are getting screwed, but also for Kris, who must get so tired of holding people’s hands.
    I think the kindest way to look at it is with the good luck/bad luck Zen koan (http://www.awaresilence.com/Inspirational_Stories/Good_Luck_Bad_Luck.html). I never sold a book to New York. Bad luck? Well, now it’s good luck in that I control my rights. In the future, who knows?
    Writers accepting ever-lower advances seems like only bad luck for those writers, but it’ll probably be a wake-up call for lots of them, like the Carrie escrow was for Stephen King. There will always be some ostriches, but once their income drops precipitously, writers will either leave the business or learn the business. The latter is the only way you’ll survive, as Our Gracious Hostess keeps reminding us, so maybe after this culling, writers as a group will end up more business-savvy, confident, and in control of our work.
    Thanks, Kris.

    Reply
  11. It seems the Author has to go from being the passenger in the Publishing Taxi, and becoming the driver….

    It’s a major change: instead of agents and publshers, it’s IP Lawyers and freelance editors, artists/cover creators, and online sevices. Instead of an advance and earning out over a year, it’s a liitle money over a long period of time.

    To be honest, the business of being a writer scares me. Every decision I make is mine alone. This week column and several others are the foundation that I am trying to build a writing career on. Without them, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. I can’t afford the workshops, the programs, or lectures at this time, so I have to pull in all the free advice I can find.

    Right now, it’s writing to write something — I’m a bit to far away to worry about the next step. But I’m slowing stepping toward that goal. Thanks again, Kris for blazing a trail we newbies can follow.

    Craig

    Reply
  12. Thanks for the post Kris! Timely, as usual, for me. The problem I have with there being so many choices for writers now is…there are so many choices! And what if I make the wrong one, LOL. I work for a marketing company for authors (day job) and I know first hand how hard it can be for indie authors to be “accepted” by others in their genres. Mystery seems to be especially difficult to find venues for indie authors, but there are difficulties in all the genres. I love the idea of having all that control over my work, and most of me is ready to dive in–but then I hear some people in my writing group talk about how wonderful their agents are and how it’s so nice to have someone hold your hand… it makes me feel very confused. When I think about indie publishing, my list is FULL of pros and few cons. When I think about traditional pubbing, my list is full of cons, and one pro. But that pro (the kind of “status” being traditionally pubbed gets you) really tugs at me sometimes in my moments of doubt…

    Reply
    • Melanie, call me any time you get a stab of doubt and I’ll talk you through it!
      There may be status in being published by NYC, but that’s nothing compared to the status you’ll feel when you make enough money Indie Publishing to quit your day job!

      Reply
  13. I started making my plan about 10 years ago, complete with a starting budget, for becoming a publisher so I could publish what *I* wanted to write. A few life rolls happen, I look up and, huh, wow, it’s SO MUCH EASIER!! I was unbelievably excited. It’s always been my dream to work for myself (my family thinks I’m crazy) and now I can do that AND write! I love living in the future!

    Reply
  14. This is a very encouraging article for a writer such as myself. However, it seems to miss the important aspect of business that is advertising. One reason midlist authors flounder in traditional models is because the publishers won’t put money down to get the word out, but they still have the (short time) advantage of being in catalogs and shelves of the surviving retailers. Indie authors have a much harder time to get onto these shelves and have no advertising.

    Unless you are already popular in a niche, for whatever reason, you will have to spend money on advertising which is an expense trad publishers pick up for you. While it is great that the NYT will place indie books on their best-seller lists, that doesn’t do much for authors trying to get their indie books reviewed by a press that is still shy, for good reason, about taking on epub books for review.

    Seems to me the best option for authors is to align with indie publishers who will take them under their banner or form publishing companies with like minded literati. It’s a micro, more collective, version of trad publishing.

    Reply
    • Lots of myths here, TA. Traditional publishers don’t advertise midlist books most of the time, if ever. And there are many ways that an indie author can get to bookshelves. I’ll be discussing one here in a few weeks, but Dean talks about it in his Think Like A Publisher series. It’s really not very hard to get on bookstore shelves. Nor is it hard to get as much or more promotion than a traditional publisher will give a midlist writer. Times have changed, and while what you say might’ve been true ten years ago, it is true no longer.

      Reply
      • And there’s no point in being on a bookshelf when no one knows you’re there. The book, spine out, somewhere at the back, for a few weeks, and then gone. Just like you were never there. That’s not advertising.

        Advertising doesn’t wait around and hope to be spotted. It forces itself on you, sometimes a bit too much. Like the 2 for 1 and discounted books on the front tables, all easy to spot. The books in the store window are also impossible to miss.

        People don’t remember the rest.

        I don’t want a short term ‘advantage’. I’m going for long term success. Word of mouth rules. That’s why recently a book hit the bestseller list, even though it was published 6yrs ago. That book wouldn’t have been allowed to sit around in a bookstore for 6yrs.

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      • More on this, please! I think if us writers could really grasp how to get our books in the top-selling locations, get high-profile reviews that really build brand awareness, and promote our books at least as well as a traditional publisher, there would be no need at all to put up with the delays and lack of control of the old process.

        Reply
        • Laura, it takes nothing to promote a book “at least as well as a traditional publisher.”

          Reply
        • Also, remember that the publisher “advertising” tends to be very broad. You don’t need to be that broad; you need to find your niche and figure out effective ways of getting in front of them (without being a dick about it).

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    • Let me second what Kris says here (either above or below, not sure how the comments appear, but she was here first!)–as I said above, my “day job” is being a marketing assistant for a company specifically working with authors. The authors use our services because the publishers don’t advertise for their authors–even the ones that sell well. Bestselling authors have to do a lot of work to stay on that list, work that their publishers expect THEM to do. Your publisher will not approach blogs for you, will not approach review sites for you. They will very rarely pay for ads, etc. It all is on the author.

      So the question I always ask myself is this: If all that is on me anyway, why should I deal with being forced to have a crappy cover (that has also been on two or three other books, just photoshopped in different ways), and getting a tiny percentage sales? And of course there is more to indie/self pubbing than that, but it’s worth thinking about.

      Going with a small press is not always the answer, either (depending greatly on the press, of course). I have a friend whose small press editor actually put IN errors which made reviewers complain about the book. And from a marketing standpoint, it can be just as hard to get reviewers and bloggers to take the small presses seriously as it is if you self published. I’m not saying that it’s not worth it–put work into it, and you can get reviewers and bloggers. Put together a street team, etc. There are ways to do it.

      And of course–It’s hard to market a first book, even harder a second book. But once you start selling a third, fourth, fifth book, people see that you are serious, and your books will start selling themselves (as long as you put in the work to make them good books!). Once you have those sales, the blogs and review sites will start paying attention, and it will get easier. And that goes for books published in any way. Don’t tell my boss, but seriously, the best marketing, as I’ve heard some very smart people say, really is your next book.

      Um, sorry if I hijacked your comments, Kris!

      Reply
    • Hi,
      Those of us who’ve been print published for years laugh out loud when we hear publishers telling authors now that if they don’t have contracts with big publishers, they won’t get any advertising support!
      We know how very few authors published by New York ever got real advertising support. It’s a complete and total like that NY publishers will give more than a very, very few authors a huge push with advertising.
      If that’s all NY can come up with to offer you, walk away. Walk very quickly away from them.

      Reply
  15. Having bought into the needing-a-sliver-of-respectability myth 10 years ago, it has been a difficult slog for me to let go of my traditional publishing goals. I had an agent from a top NY house in 2006 and fired her in 2007 when she failed to attend to a contract from Pocket in a timely manner, losing me the sale. I’ve talked to several others over the years but never settled on another one. Then the world changed and I stopped looking.

    In spite of my reluctance to go indie, I published my first indie novel in summer 2011. In Fall 2011 I contracted a book with a traditional (albeit small press) publisher. I thought this would be a good test. Compare the supposed “reach” of the traditional publisher with my own book. AND, because I really wanted that “respectability” I invested heavily in ads and blog tours for my trad book. Wanting to be accepted into PAN at RWA. Oh the web we weave for affirmation.

    Long story short, my indie book has consistently outsold my trad book 10 to 1. I’m still not PAN, but I don’t care anymore. Thank goodness I was smart and my contract with that publisher had a two-year rights reversion clause which I will exercise this August. In the past year that publisher now has a minimum of 7 year rights reversion and has made it difficult for anyone to negotiate otherwise, AND they grab all electronic, TV, Movie rights too.

    Though I am business savvy, I really did not want to be an entrepreneur. Been there, done that in another life and it was not pretty. My time, the worry and stress, the money to pay cover designers, copy editors (I thought) was too high of a price. What I learned is that my time and worry checking up on an agent or a publisher was worse because I had given up control and didn’t know how to navigate the large agency or the publishing entity that is hidden behind so many walls.

    Here’s my calculation on how to save. On average I was spending $3,000 to $4,000 per year (that includes travel costs) attending conferences to hear from agents and editors what they wanted and to get a chance to pitch to them and get past the slush at the door. I now spend that money instead running my indie press, paying the people I need to do what I can’t. I’ve also formed an author cooperative at Windtree Press and we are supporting each other, sharing our skills and cross-promoting.

    I’m not making a great living yet, but I’m making more money than I ever did chasing editors and agents from one conference to another, or forcing people to pay me what I’m owed.

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  16. Kris, this is great info. One more thing that has kept some of the more prolific writers from earning more money is the publishing schedule: the publisher determines when their book will be out and how many per year will be released. That, plus the fact that the industry is slower than a three-legged mule–don’t get me started on how many years I wasted finding my first agent, then the second, then getting no’s, almost yesses, “yes, but the editor who loved your book is fired” responses–is enough reason to forget about them. We don’t have an unlimited lifespan.

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  17. I’m fairly certain I know which post on which blog you’re referencing. The comments on that blog post of helpless writers with one indie book up, struggling, or those who’re yet hoping for agents and publishers made me sad. The post itself was several times wrong.

    They don’t get this at all, which is extra sad for the ones just starting out: “If you want to make a living as a writer—a good living, like you used to—then you have to change.”

    Anyone who lacks the passion to learn how to indie publish lacks the passion to succeed as a writer for the long haul, regardless of the current business climate. I will forge a path to success even if I have to blaze a new trail.

    Reply
  18. I think it really speaks to the progress still needed to allow authors to build their own platforms that even with all this data and high-profile writers now regularly going rogue, those of us still getting started are still tempted to sign with a traditional publisher in the hopes they can help us make a living. But, look at the situation the way it is, not the way you want it to be, right? I’m starting to think that if I query agents or publishers at all (in order to see if anyone thinks my book has the goods to be a top-seller), I should do it while I’m still polishing the later chapters of the book, so I don’t waste months waiting for people to get back to me. The pace of traditional publishing is unbelievably outdated. I self-published my first novel 2 weeks ago, and I think I can have my second novel I wrote last year edited within a couple months. If I self-pub, that’s two novels visible on free Kindle bestseller lists during launch promos within the quarter. Tell me I can’t build a platform on my own if I keep pumping them out James Patterson style. :) And I already have novel #3 and my first short story collection written, so I may really be able to keep up a pace close to this long-term. Do you think that’s enough?

    Reply
  19. Great article. I always share these on my author pages on Facebook to inform my friends/readers who are writing books. They often ask what route to take – indie or traditional. The best answer I can give them is to look at the facts, educate yourself, and then make a decision. Once they know the reality on both sides of the fence there should be no surprises in this dynamically changing landscape.

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  20. Wow, that article was just sad. And some of the comments were mind-boggling. I guess that old saw, “there are none so blind as those that will not see” is true.

    And all due respect to Hugh Howey, et. al., I still see nothing in traditional publishing that’s worth signing a contract. He’s getting nothing he couldn’t have done himself — and probably quicker and with less trouble — other than accolades from other writers.

    Thanks for another great article, Kris. You and Dean are keeping me sane and on course in this brave new publishing world.

    Reply
    • “And all due respect to Hugh Howey, et. al., I still see nothing in traditional publishing that’s worth signing a contract. He’s getting nothing he couldn’t have done himself — and probably quicker and with less trouble”

      I thought it was just me…It just shows how much freedom we have to do whatever we want. Hugh seems like a nice guy, but I can say I’d never have signed any deal with trade publishers. Their work practices disgust me – obviously I don’t know what his publisher is like – and I want nothing to do with them. I LOVE not being tied down to anyone else. It’s a great time to write – total freedom!

      Reply
    • I wonder if you are aware that Hugh Howey’s deal is for print only, and that he retained electronic rights to all of his work? So he’s continuing to have total control over ebooks, and is making oodles of money on those. The film rights to his big blockbuster, WOOL, have been bought by Ridley Scott, and the book could actually turn into a movie script that gets made. Hugh is in London as I type this, having done a whirlwind tour of England and Germany, promoting the hardcover version of his WOOL Omnibus. The U.S. print edition from Simon & Schuster comes out March 12th, and the tour will follow.

      I think Howey is VERY savvy, along with being a rather extraordinary writer, and he has managed to grab onto the best of both worlds. He is getting that rare exposure that does move books in bookstores. Watch in the next week as ads appear in major publications and there’s a Wall Street Journal article about him, along with other major coverage. He got major money for the print rights… and even he would agree that he has been amazingly lucky.

      Reply
      • Yes, I’m aware, Patrice. I wonder why you think I’m not, since I’ve blogged about it before. He had a property that traditional publishers wanted because it was a proven seller, and he knew how to hold the line in a negotiation, something most writers do not know and are unwilling to do. As for “lucky,” I would simply quote my friend Kevin J. Anderson who says the harder he works, the luckier he gets. That goes for Hugh Howey as well. And for both the creative side of his career and the business side of his career.

        Reply
  21. So I have looked into publishing my book but find that trust is something that should be guarded, I have been talking with Literary & Rights Agency. SBPRA BUT WORRIED I could be making a hug mistake so I have been holding off. My book is on AMAZON past 4 months, and has not even been looked at. I am at a loss.. can any one help?????

    Reply
  22. Great post. I agree with every word. I’m so tired of frustrated authors telling me they could never do what I do because they aren’t the businessperson that I am. News flash–I wasn’t BORN with this knowledge. I acquired it along the way and used it to drive my self-published books to incredible sales, sales that landed me for the first time on the NYT list last week–no. 11 COMBINED, which means it outsold all but 10 books in ebook and MMPB when it was ONLY available in ebook format. It also hit no. 6 on the NYT ebook list, no. 15 on USA Today and no. 6 on the Wall Street Journal ebook list. That doesn’t just “happen.” It takes a lot of know-how in a number of different areas. I wasn’t born knowing any of this stuff, and like you, I’m tired of people inferring that I came equipped with something they didn’t get. We’ve all got the capability to run our own careers profitably. We don’t all have the gumption and the fortitude to get down in the mud to make it happen. Thanks for your great post!

    Reply
    • Congrats, Marie!!!! Yay! I’ve been teaching and missed that news! It’s fantastic. And yes, those of us who know business learned business. Sometimes the hard way.

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      • Thanks, Kristine. I couldn’t be more thrilled! Thanks for all your great info!

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  23. Reading the comments reminds me that people are so very different. The thing is being a full out indie writer is very like running your own small business. With details down to how much to hire out or do yourself, just like any other small business.

    Writing for a trad publisher only is very like being a contract employee.

    The thing is different people have different comfort zones for what and how much they want to do. I for instance had a very good offer of an office and receptionist if I wanted to start my own consulting/repair business back in ’98. Knowing myself and my own personality I turned it down.

    I’m not driven enough to run my own business.

    Note again I’m not driven enough to run my own business.

    And that is the problem I think a lot of the traditionally published authors have. They are not driven enough to run their own business. And are perfectly happy to leave everything after the writing to someone else. That is their comfort zone just as you won’t find every person out there would be happy starting their own business.

    That said our hostess is absolutely correct that they need to be advertent enough to at least manage their own contracts. They are after all embracing the contract employee approach. This means that they do need to do the basic work of paying attention to their contracts and knowing enough to negotiate a good contract. That is on them and as noted here is becoming very critical to their continued life.

    All that said I’m wondering what further changes will come along with writing. Will there be perhaps writing houses that gather together their own group of writers, editors, artists, layout folk etc., and provide the finishing of a novel. Or at least provide a good place an author can go to hire work done on their book. I don’t know and I’m probably completely wrong with this idea but I do know that the shape of publishing will have changed again in the next five years. The business is not done evolving and changing to the new realities.

    Reply
    • My dad ran his own business and nearly everyone around me growing up was self-employed in some capacity. Compared to that and all my friends who are self-employed, being an indie writer is dirt simple. It’s really not difficult. As long as you’re only putting out your own work, of course. I wouldn’t assume that it’s at all like running a consulting/repair business. Much easier than that.

      Reply
  24. I’m a reader, not a writer – all that time alone would kill me, no exaggeration. But it’s fascinating to see the world with all this new information. For instance, I could almost see you rolling your eyes at this lady:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2013/mar/05/writing-love-money-al-kennedy

    And the review of her book:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9885686/On-Writing-by-A-L-Kennedy-review.html

    I’m not entirely sure what I’d tell her, but I know she’s doing it wrong. And having that knowledge out there has to be worth something.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the links, Liz. And I’d try not to roll my eyes, honest. But that’s exactly the attitude I’m talking about. Along with the “moral” side of things. Apparently it’s immoral to make your living as a writer. Good to know. :-)

      Thank you too for the reality check. The information is out there and easily available. Just have to point the writers past the myths…if possible. :-)

      Reply
  25. “You’re a rotating group of widgets that might make the publisher some money. If you don’t make the publisher money, then they’ll find someone who will.”

    Exactly. If you want job security till the day you die, including a great place to live, a car, and designer shoes, there’s exactly one job that that’s true of — being Pope.

    Oh wait.

    Yep, there’s always someone else who will do your job. ANYONE can be replaced nowadays.

    Reply
  26. Thanks so much for this blog post, Kris. It was really eye-opening for me. I’m a first-time visitor now subscriber (thanks to Chris Hamilton for the link from the FWA blog). The information is vital to any writer, aspiring or best selling or anything else in between. I have heard similar ideas for years on my attempting-to-trad-publish-novels path. But what you wrote here struck that part of my brain where it all clicked.
    A few months ago, I took up the self-pub “experiment” as I like to call it with some short stories about my pets that I’m making into an e-book series. I decided to keep it as simple for myself as possible. I’m one of those writers who fears the business aspect of self-pubbing and wanted to dip my toe without getting overwhelmed. I went through Kindle Direct Publishing only and figured out how to make my own book cover. That is not necessarily something I would recommend. Hiring someone is probably better or find a friend/student with graphic design aspirations who wants to help and pay them what you can. What it meant for me was no expenses spared on the actual publishing. I found the process fairly simple. Reading is required, of course, but KDP provided all the info I needed on the site with step-by-step instructions that require little tech savvy. I intend to publish the stories once a month, which gives me practice with a deadline. And now I know how to publish one e-book, so the second one took way less time and is ready for release this Friday. The idea of money-making wasn’t part of my goal. I already knew the $0.99 cost I set for the e-book meant I would only get $0.35 per book per KDP guidelines. That wasn’t the point for this venture. The point was to see if I could do it.
    I’ll repeat what many people have said in the comments. If I can do it, you can do it.
    If anyone else out there is like me, I’d like to throw out my two cents and suggest dipping your toe first by self-pubbing a short story. I’ve actually sold 17 copies of the first e-book so far (yippee!). No, that’s not much, but I’m still excited about it because it’s just a start. And I’m learning along the way and my work is available for people to buy.
    The trad route is still a choice that all writers have in terms of at least attempting it, but weighing that choice from what Kris shared and what I’ve learned from self-pubbing so far certainly puts things in perspective.

    Reply

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