Business Musings: Traditional Writers (Fear-Based Decision-Making Part 5)

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The other day, I got an email from a writer friend who was about to give advice to one of their friends. Seems that friend had a niche how-to book for parents who are dealing with a certain kind of health issue. My writer friend asked me, Is there any reason for this person to go to traditional publishing?

I looked at the whole thing with an unusual thought for me: Some niche products might do well in traditional. The friend of the writer friend (hereafter known as FoWF) wasn’t in this for the money or even to hold onto rights. FoWF wanted to get information out there, and really, wasn’t trad pub the way to do so?

I started answering my friend by email, and as I did, I realized that publishers know nothing about this niche field because there are no books about it. Which meant that FoWF would have to educate an editor, find places to market the book on their own, do all the social media, and…eventually FoWF would discover that the traditional publisher has no in with the places that could effectively sell this book, like seminars for parents of kids with this issue.

The more I typed, the more I realized that, nope, trad pub wouldn’t help FoWF at all. It might even hurt them, because the book wouldn’t sell well, which meant that it would probably go out of print. And it would be priced too high, so that parents struggling with this issue and day jobs and all the things parents struggle with probably couldn’t afford it. So I wrote:

But as I type this, I realize they can probably do all that on their own.

So, never mind.

No, there’s no advantage to traditional publishing.

Yeah, even I get tripped up once in a while, thinking—hoping—wanting traditional publishing to have some benefit for writers.

There really isn’t any. And anyone who would do a modicum of research about the field they’re trying to enter would learn that pretty darn quick.

In fact, traditional publishing itself tells you that in a myriad of ways—and has since I got into this field forty years ago. The evergreen article just appeared in that company town rag, The New York Times, in April under the title, “What Snoop Dog’s Success Says About The Book Industry.”

The article had this little tidbit: “…about 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.”

That would be new releases, not backlist.

But here’s the thing that the company town rag doesn’t tell you: For decades, the majority of new releases from traditional publishers sold fewer than 5,000. For decades.

The new figure in this little equation isn’t the 5,000 copies; it’s the 98 percent. If you combine that with the other statistics that came out about our pandemic year, you’ll see that this is up by maybe about a third. Bookstore sales, which are generally frontlist, were down 30% in 2020.

We don’t have the statistics on how many frontlist books felt the impact of the closed bookstores which is why I think that percentage is higher, but we do know this: trad pub doesn’t know how to market direct to consumer, nor do they know how to market to any place other than a bookstore. Their ebook prices are too high, so a lot of readers migrated to other new-to-them books, which included a lot of backlist.

But the backlist isn’t up as much as trad pub would want you to believe. Backlist sales were 69% of all book sales in 2020. In 2019, backlist sales were 63%. Yes, the pandemic accelerated the rise of the backlist, but not by as much as the trad pub editors are screaming about.

And yet, traditional publishers don’t put any money into their backlist. They make backlist books extremely hard to find. They take the paper books out of print.

In May, I got Nora Roberts’ new book, and in the Books By Nora Roberts section up front, it had this gem: “Ebooks by Nora Roberts.” Those ebooks were the titles she wrote for Harlequin back in the day. Apparently, some not-so-brilliant exec figured that Nora’s fans who hadn’t read those books were undeserving of a paper edition.

Yeah, that’s pretty damn dumb. But I’m not seeing much intelligence from traditional publishing these days.

Nor am I seeing much from writers who want to go into traditional publishing. In May, Dean wrote a blog post about a writer we’ve both known for a decade, who has been revising the same book for six years, at a Big Name agent’s command. Yeah, that agent has sold some amazing books. That agent was an amazing editor, back in the day when he bought my first novel.

But the market in which he first saw her manuscript is so drastically different from the market today that I have no idea why he’s still stringing her along. He asked her to write a new book for him, which she did, but then he bailed on her when the pandemic hit.

Note that he’s an agent, who has no authority to buy books at all.

Nor do I understand why she’s still in touch with me and Dean, because we’ve been urging her for years to write something else, anything else, and to get out of this trap. But she claims to be happy with the situation.

And she’s not alone.

I get emails all the time from writers like her, writers who are happy to have an agent for the book they want to publish through traditional, writers who like telling me that my head is up my ass for not promoting traditional book publishing, and—last week—a writer who asked, sideways, if I would be his agent for traditional publishing because I “clearly know so much about the business.”

What are these writers doing?

Well, not thinking for one.

But there’s more to it than that. They’re terrified of going down a path that they see as mostly untested. Never mind that many writers have been making a living at publishing their own books for a decade now. One of those writers, Lindsay Buroker, mentioned on Twitter last month that she’s been freelance for ten years now and has published roughly 80 books.

In the same amount of time that this other writer wrote one entire novel—and made zero dollars on it.

Examples like Lindsay’s, though, seem to make no difference to writers like the one I mentioned, because that writer is operating out of fear.

The writer wants someone to take care of her, and she’s not alone. She doesn’t want to learn the business. Like that writer who wrote to me, she wants someone else to learn the business so that she can…what? Be famous? Because writing clearly isn’t her passion, or she wouldn’t have wasted all this time on one book.

But writers who want to go into traditional publishing feel they need several things. They need a curator—an editor—to tell them what they’re doing right or wrong with their books. They need an agent to “defend them” and do the messy stuff like learning contracts and dealing with money. They need a marketer to buy ads in all those (non-existent) places that advertise books. They need someone to handle sales and bookstores and…

They’re just too scared to do any of it themselves.

And that’s a shame.

The fact that there are vestiges of the 1950s and 1960s versions of publishing, where some of that stuff actually did happen, still around makes it hard for these folks to step out of their comfort zones and learn how the business is actually done these days.

And if these writers manage to sell something to a traditional publisher—a big if, as you can see from that writer above—they will sign away their copyright for a 4-figure advance, and lose their chance to ever have a writing career outside of what has become a small and narrow niche of publishing.

That niche is small and narrow. Bookstat with its narrow little focus on the big players in the bookstore economy found that of the 2.6 million books sold online in 2020, only 268 of them sold more than 100,000 copies that year. (I added that year because remember, traditional only looks at recent sales, not cumulative sales).

One blogger wrote this after she found that statistic:

As an author, this is distressing. If I can spend two to three years writing a novel and my best case scenario is having it sell a couple hundred copies on Amazon, perhaps it’s time to face the music and realize that writing books—like knitting or playing the harp—is nothing more than a hobby. Something I can do for fun on the weekends but should never hope to earn a living from.

Yep. Distressing.

Note all the fear in that paragraph. Two to three years writing one novel. What the hell? What is she doing the rest of the time? Actually playing the harp? Because real writers write. They don’t have people look over their shoulder, go over every word, churn out a paragraph a day, and then have agents ask them to rewrite the book to make it presentable for some editor who is going to lose their job in a year or so anyway.

But scared writers? They need to be told if they’re telling the right story with the right words. They need someone to hold their hand throughout the entire process and then, they’ll be distressed when they learn that their lifeless manuscript, which has lost all the energy it ever had because it’s been rewritten to death, only sells a few copies.

They let non-writers, like agents, into their process believing it’s the only way to achieve their dream, a dream that the rest of the world—including the company rag, The New York Times, tells them is impossible.

Since it’s impossible, it’s okay for them to go to trad publishers like beggars who want a scrap. Because that’s all they’ll get anyway, and they should be grateful for it, dammit.

Fear keeps them from being equal partners in a publishing process, fear opens them up to scam artists, embezzlers and other thieves, and following the “accepted way” of doing things—a way that doesn’t work in the 21st century—will eventually make them bitter and sad and perpetrators of the “it’s impossible” myths.

Is it impossible to get a book published? No, not even traditionally.

Is it impossible to make a living at writing books? Damn near, in 2021, if you’re going to traditional venues only.

Is it impossible to make a living writing books? Not if you’re indie, but it’ll take a few years. I’ll deal with those fears next time.

Almost everything writers who are still traditional or trying to be published traditional do comes out of fear. And that’s a shame. If you don’t understand why, then go back to the very first post in this short series.

Fear gets in our way, and forces us to make so many decisions that are bad for us. When it infects something that we love, like writing, it also destroys our dreams. And we become willing accomplices in the destruction.

That makes me sad.


This weekly blog would not exist if I had decided to send my Freelancer’s Survival Guide to traditional publishers back in 2009. Since then, the published guide has sold hundreds of thousands of copies—although, in its first year, it only sold 100.

The business has changed. Writers need to change with it. That’s why the folks who support this blog have kept it around for eleven years.

Thank you!

And a reminder: We are running the final half-off all writing workshops sale on Teachable. We’d been running these sales during the worst of the pandemic to keep you all home and writing. The pandemic is not gone, but with the vaccines, it seems like the worst of it might be behind us. (Fingers crossed.) So after this sale, no more. If you want to stock up on workshops, click this link, choose your workshops, and add the coupon code THELASTSALE.

This sale will only run for a few more days.

If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.

If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

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“Business Musings: Traditional Writers (Fear-Based Decision-Making Part 5),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / kvkirillov.

14 thoughts on “Business Musings: Traditional Writers (Fear-Based Decision-Making Part 5)

  1. Hi Kris,

    It’s been sometime since I came to the blog, but I catch snippets from ThePassiveVoice regularly. 🙂 And Dean shouts out what you’re doing too hehehe Or I find it through Feedly. But I digress.

    I’m always in agreement (I know, I know, my opinion means so much to everyone) on the outcome/way forward, but I feel like I’m in a similar position to the FOWF, and my reasons for getting to the same result as you is for slightly different reasons. I, too, like the FoWF have a specific book in me that is rather niche. It has a potential market of about 300K people in total in the industry (at least at the current time) of which maybe 5-10% would want it, and depending on price, maybe 10% of those who would actually buy it. Call it about 1500-3000 people. (I have friends who estimate it way higher for the long tail, but well, their entrepreneurial types, not realists, and they think everything will make them rich).

    Like the FOWF though, I don’t want to make money off it, I feel in part like I’ve already been paid for it through my normal day job, and it’s part of paying-it-forward that I share my lessons learned with others. I also have no intention of commercializing it in other ways, although people have asked me if I offer workshops and training, a fairly lucrative field potentially because for this training, their employer would likely pay the freight. However, when asked, I give the presentations for free. Like I said, I feel it’s part of my day job where I already get a good salary. The “book” version is for the people I can’t help directly. Your own blog and that of ThePassiveVoice both inspire me to offer this type of content out to the masses. If it helps someone, great; if it doesn’t, well, it’s one less piece of detritus floating around in my brain. 🙂 For those consulting companies who reach out to me to want to partner (i.e. take a share of my workshop profits that are $0), I decline. At the moment, it might even risk a conflict of interest problem, but when I retire, I still don’t want to necessarily charge (although it would be nice to be invited to present still).

    In figuring out my way forward, I have seen lots of niche publishers who do a decent job of putting these type of NF books together and in a way that gets them in physical bookstores. Some aren’t a lot more sophisticated than Amazon self-publishing options, but they WILL take them. And someone published one in my genre/niche not too long ago. I suspect it sold less than a 1000 copies in total. But people can order it for the long tail. $20 Cdn, $15 US approx. Ebook available for life! Not quite traditional, more indie I guess, but there are some publishers out there that are looking for those books. And if the goal was simply to get it out there in book for, it would be possible to do. FOWF wanted more than that, as do I, and I totally agree the publisher have no value added for marketing, targeting, etc. other than what you tell them, it’s too niche-y, but they CAN do it, and some WILL do it, but none well.

    So as I said, I think your rationales are all good, but for me, it isn’t the deciding factor. The FOWF wants to spread the word, as do I, but our word only spreads to those who actually buy our book. I personally don’t want to limit my distribution that way, I want anyone to be able to read it.

    As such, I have a blog with a lot of that content already there. People find it, I started with the simple few hits a day, and an occasional download of an powerpoint presentation about the topic, I’ve passed the 5K download threshold quite awhile ago, and 50K for people just reading it and using it online. I opened up my contact area awhile ago, and I’m only a few per week still but I don’t advertise that I respond/help directly, and I’ll do that until someone mistakes me for you or TPG and send me way too many comments! Most people find me through a subreddit. But unlike the FOWF, I’m not actively pushing it either. People know who I am, they can find me, word of mouth is all I rely on. When I occasionally step out from behind the Wizard of Oz curtain, some people are like, “OMG! It’s YOU! YOU”RE A REAL PERSON! Emailing and responding!”. Which is flattering of course, but not relevant to the issue that they know who I am because they read my stuff (I use a nickname for my work, PolyWogg).

    Yet if the FOWF is really passionate about their topic, I honestly think a simple website with solid digestible content will spread their info wider than a book. And if they want it in book form, they can make a free PDF for download. I’ll have mine revised and in good shape by the fall in full prose, with fully updated website content too, and I asked on the reddit forum which topics I was missing (yikes, a 100+ people said, “Include this too!”). But I had a Fiver site guy design me a better book cover for about $15, similar to what Dean does for his books with a bit of a swirl added to the layout and design that I couldn’t make look nice myself (but which I can reuse for other books in the series just by changing photo and text hah!). And I can assign my own ISBN to it (they’re free in Canada, I’ve registered 10 blank ones so far). If someone wants to print it on their printer, great. I might do a POD version if people want something bound, but the price will be high (too many tables and layout issues, colours, etc.).

    But so far, just about everyone wants the simple website version. They can get to the part they want fast, it’s easily sharable, it’s always available to them with a couple of clicks. And they are constantly amazed it’s free. I’m not allergic to money, and maybe I’ll use the niche type publishers for something I have in mind in the future that is a bit more commercially viable in the textbook world, but that will be after I retire. I’m totally fine charging for that one because it’ll be a lot of work that is NOT paid for by my day job. 🙂

    In the end, I try to constantly remind myself of what I think has always been your best advice — what is MY goal? Is it a shiny book on a shelf in a bookstore? Or is it lots of readers? Or is it, in the case of the FOWF and myself, sharing our lessons learned with others? Of course, filthy lucre is occasionally nice too. hehehe

    Thanks for the continual prodding to think of our goals and the best way to achieve them.


  2. This was a good post for me. I’ve been sitting on a novel for a long time. I’ve got others that are self-published, but this one was a risky story to tell and I’ve been hesitant to do the last polish and pull the trigger on it. Covid didn’t help – the political uncertainty didn’t help – but those issues aren’t near as bad as they were. I need to kick that book out of the nest and into the world.

    But what also concerns me are the many beginning writers who have two or even three finished novels that they won’t self-publish. They may have shopped them out. They might have gotten an agent. But they are sitting on them like my pet goose on her eggs. Anybody who gets close gets nipped. They hover and squawk, refusing to let go and let their books have a life. Or sink if they are duds. They want a trade publishing contract!

    My books are out there, even the silly Horsewomen of the Zombie Apocalypse books. They’re out in the world, not moldering on my hard drive. Those little birds have flown the nest.

    1. I have friends who have died, and their novels with them. I have another friend who has several novels, and is still playing Dances With Agents. I fear that his novels will disappear with him when he dies, too. 🙁

  3. Some of us are still building our backlist and just learning about promotion. There is a FB group called 20booksto50k, which has writers who are still at the algae level all the way to Leviathan.

  4. Our son’s sixth grade teacher told us he either had to broaden the field of things he was NOT afraid of, or learn to do things he WAS afraid of. The teacher planned lessons to include risk, too. One book report assignment began, Pick a book that’s too long and too hard. Our son tracked down the longest book in the house, which happened to be about the invasion of England by Emperor Claudius! He loved it. For a math lesson, the teacher put two numbers on opposite ends of the classroom, with a thread strung along the walls to connect them. Each kid had to work out a series of math problems (six, I think) that would get them from one number to the other, and post them along that thread.

    The teacher knew a bit about risk himself, by the way. He was a banker who quit to teach sixth grade.

  5. I’m grateful to have left behind both fear and impostor syndrome, though they pop up their ugly heads on occasion.

    I made an early decision that the fiction I’m writing would not attract a publisher, and decided that the PROCESS of submission wasn’t worth trying (after doing that for the unpublished mystery series I may return to some day). By comparison, self-publishing was much easier in the stress department.

    I have a friend who is ‘over the moon’ because a traditional publisher just put out her first novel, and will put out the second, and I have kept my mouth tightly shut because that’s what she’s always wanted (and she’s a grownup and a lawyer). I pointed out the perils lightly before – she was not open to it so I stopped.

    But I’m already detecting the letdown she’s experiencing because even though everything is happening – it’s not leading to the sales she would like, and I know how short that window of opportunity is. I’m just glad to be out of that loop.

    I wish she would read your blog.

  6. Kris, great post. Mentioning indie authors like Lindsay Buroker helps because anyone can download the “Six Figure Author” podcast that she runs with Jo Lallo, and Andrea. Each episode they talk about what’s working for them and what isn’t. Yes, when you start out as an indie author it can be overwhelming. And yes it’s going to take years to figure things out, but I think that’s the joy of it all: As an indie author, I’m always learning something new. I started in 2011 and to date I have 14 published fiction books and 5 non-fiction. I remember spending 10 years trying to get my first book published traditionally. I’m so glad I got off that train and jumped onto the indie author one. I haven’t looked back since!

    1. A quick second on Lindsay & Co’s podcast. When I’m in my workshop on my hobby (my job is FT author) I catch them. LOL… I wanted to mention one I listened to and in digging for it got lost: there’s sooo many good ones I’ll be catching. ANYWAY… it was ep #88 about going back to basics that gave a huge boost to our Spring sales; we hadn’t been doing Countdown deals regularly on the backlist. Now we’re booked out at least 30 days out for them and our sales have grown by about 20%.

      Just mentioning it to back up what the poster said: it’s really, really good stuff, produced by generous, smart people in the biz. If you’re a noob, this stuff’s gold. Back in the day for me & my wife, it was Rusch/DWS/ some stuff on KBoards and JAK. Now…there’s so much authorish advice you gotta pick & choose.

  7. Kristine, I’ve been reading your “fear” articles, and this one made me think of something for the first time. Is some of this fear based on negative reviews? I do everything myself, so I can only look in the mirror if a reader doesn’t like something. Yes, I know we shouldn’t read reviews (LOL) and usually I don’t take them too seriously, but having a thick skin is a necessary part of this business.

    If a writer has an editor, an agent, gets traditionally published, has a group of people working around him or her…does that make those negative reviews any less “their” fault? I have no idea, but thinking about what might have writers so fearful about indie publishing makes me wonder.

    When we do it ALL ourselves, I believe it’s liberating. Like any other self-owned business, we have the control. We make the decisions. We get to say when, how, and why we write. I love it, but getting over that fear is the only way to enjoy the ride!

    1. Too many negative reviews will make a traditional publisher start looking askance at the writer, even if the book is selling. And nope. In trad pub, bad things are the writer’s fault, not the publisher/agent/bookseller’s fault. That way the publisher can move on to newer writers who don’t have any stigma attached. Sigh.

  8. I’m seeing a rise in a new type of service with indie writers—mentors and/or coaches. I have no data on whether writers who use a mentor/coach do better in the short run or better in the long run than those writers who learn their craft from a myriad of places. Any insights on this?

    1. I can’t call them all scams, because I don’t know. And I’ve benefited from mentors over the years. We occasionally offer a mentoring program. But if the mentor/coach has never written and has only edited/agented or not even that, then run, run, run.

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