Traditional publishing strikes out again

If you’ve followed this blog for long, you know I am an advocate of finding your own path when it comes to publishing. Some writers have no qualms going the indie route. They don’t shy away from having to make sure they find good editors and proofreaders, good cover designers, etc. Others would rather focus just on writing and choose to go the traditional route, whether it is with one of the larger traditional publishers or with a small press. What path you take is one only you can choose. However, it is imperative for you to keep track of what is happening in the industry so you can make an informed decision about what is best for you.

Part of that is keeping track of sales. Not just your sales but overall industry trends. For the last several years, we’ve been hearing traditional publishers declare that they are rebounding from the loss of sales when e-books first became popular. We’ve heard about the way print sales are coming back. We’ve been treated to stories about how more readers are turning away from e-books. We’ve even seen stories that try to warn us away from e-books because of the evils of screen time.

Except, a close study of the hard facts prove this so-called rebound isn’t nearly as impressive as the trads would have us believe. Author Earnings has been stripping away the rhetoric for several years now. A quick look at the latest report shows that while the trads are still making more money, their sales are shrinking. There will come a point, sooner rather than later, when that decrease in sales will start to seriously impact their bottom line.

Oh, wait, that has already started happening. Not that we will see the trads admitting it. When a company or industry loses 10% of its sales one year to the next, that is usually an indication something is wrong. That is exactly what happened last year in traditional publishing. It lost 10% of its e-book sales. In 2016, trad publishing sold 180 million e-book units. That number dropped to 162 million in 2017. That is a pretty substantial drop. Yet, traditional publishing denies there is a problem. Instead, it spouts the old mantra that it simply means readers are turning back to print.

Nope. At least not according to Jonathan Stolper, former SVP for Neilsen Book. According to Stolper that drop in number of units sold comes down to one simple factor: the price of e-books. Whether traditional publishers want to admit it or not, their readers — their customers — aren’t idiots. They understand the economics involved in an e-book vs. print books. They don’t buy that it takes almost as much money to produce and e-book as it does a print book, especially not when the print book is being produced at the same time as the e-book. An e-books doesn’t have to be re-edited. It doesn’t have to have a new cover designed. There are no storage and transportation costs. Yet traditional publishers continue to try to tell us an e-book costs them as much as a “real” book.

Except we know better. We understand what they are doing. They are trying to save their failing print divisions by sacrificing their e-book divisions. In other words, traditional publishers are still trying to bring back the buggy whip while the rest of us are looking for our aircars. Does this mean traditional publishing will disappear? Not in the short term. But it does mean we will continue to see imprints disappear, orphaning who knows how many authors and their books in the process. It may mean seeing one, or more, of the Big 5 being absorbed by a competitor. After all, it hasn’t been that long since the Big 5 were the Big 6.

So what are readers buying if they aren’t buying the expensive traditionally publishing e-books? They are buying indie produced e-books. According to Jeff Bezos, Amazon had at least 1,000 indie authors earning $100,000 or more in 2017. How many traditionally publishing authors making that amount were there that year? The more important question is this: if e-books are a fading fad, why and how did so many indie authors manage to make that much money in a single year?

The answer is simple. Unlike what the trads are telling us, indie authors are professionals who take pride in their work. They make sure to put out the best product they can. Unlike trads, they price their work for the market. When you look at the number of units sold, indie produced e-books far outweigh the traditionally produced ones. The pendulum is swinging and not in traditional publishing’s favor.

There is another factor to consider, both as an author and as a reader, when it comes to books. That fact is time. How long does it take from the moment an author finishes the final version of a book and it manages to go on sale? For an indie, it depends on whether they have a set publishing schedule, what sort of promo they do, etc. I know very few indies who have to wait much more than a month from the time they figuratively, if not literally, type -90- at the end of their manuscript to when they pull the plug on publishing their book. Depending on the speed an author has in writing a book and how quickly they get back editorial comments, an author can easily put out several books — or more — a year. They aren’t limited to waiting for a publication slot to open like they do with traditional publishing.

We’ve heard stories about how a book might be a year or more in the publisher’s hands before it sees the light of day. The Passive Voice pointed out a situation where Macmillan, a major publisher, has had a book since 2016 and it has yet to hit the shelves. In fact, it won’t until January 2019. While this wouldn’t normally stand out to me, this particular book does because it has a built in audience, a very large built in audience. The author has used Wattpad to fine tune the manuscript. It currently has more than 900,000 reads. And yet Macmillan has not pushed to have the book come out sooner than 2019.


When you have something you can see tangible proof it has a good chance of succeeding, why are you dragging your feet and not bringing it out just as soon as you can?

That, to me, indicates there is something broken in the industry. Something they should be able to see but they don’t.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying “do your research and decide which route works best for you.” But, if you want to see your book for sale in less than a year, don’t look at going with any of the large publishers. It is a rare book indeed that comes out quickly from them. There are alternatives if you don’t want to go indie but do your research. Find out what their turnaround time is. Look at other books they’ve put out and see if they are well edited, have good looking covers that signal genre. Look at what sort of promo, if any, they do. Then weigh that, along with their royalty rates, against giving up full control (and taking on full responsibility) for your work.

But don’t fall for the propaganda coming out of the mouths of the Big 5 publishers. Look at the facts and figures yourselves and make an informed decision. For me, indie and small press is the way to go and that means I need to get back to work.

Until later!


  1. Looking at the indie route hard core right now. Signed up for KDP and will be talking to an “editor” this week. As well working on a pen name which in my case is needed due to a certain level of possible confusion. I am hoping to have a couple stories ready to go by end of month. Just need to think about cover art….

    1. Before settling on an editor, there are a couple of things I’d recommend you do. Not only compare their rates with the rates of other editors out there but make sure they think of editing as the same thing you do. Too many out there call themselves content editors when they are, at best, copy editors. Don’t pay content editing rates unless you are sure they are a good content editor. That means asking for references and seeing before and after examples of their work. It can be just an excerpt but should be enough to give you an idea of what they contributed to the final product. Finally, make sure the editor is familiar with the rules and tropes of your genre and sub-genre. Someone who is a good fantasy editor might not be a good sf editor. A good mystery editor doesn’t necessarily make a good romance editor, etc. I have worked on projects where I’ve had to untangle problems caused by “editors” who didn’t know the genre. It’s no fun and it proves that while a good editor can make a work better, a bad one can kill a work.

      1. Thanks for the advice. I have someone in mind that will probably work for me. Have to talk to them first about stuff. I will be going “cheap” here and I am just looking at copy editing really. I know she has worked on a couple published books already so there’s that. Situation for me right now is finances.

      2. Amen to that Amanda.
        A while back I did a full up copy edit on a well known published author’s latest work after I and several others beta read it. When we were done it was in my humble opinion print ready. Off it went to the traditional publisher who dumped it in the lap of one of their senior editors who sat on the manuscript for over six months then proceeded to rip it to shreds.
        Thing is, from his comments it was more than obvious that he himself had barely scanned the piece, supposition was that he had farmed the edit job out to either an intern or one of his creative writing class students. They even managed to get the names of critical characters confused in their critique. Of course the whole kerfuffle caused the book to miss a critical print delivery and delayed release by several months. Sales naturally suffered.
        Which obviously had to have been the author’s fault.
        Will note that the beta reads and my copy edit were done as favors for a good and close friend, so the old saw “you get what you pay for” isn’t necessarily always true.

        1. My best beta reader / content editor is a close friend who, although she does not write herself, has an amazing ability not only to spot when something isn’t working but also why it isn’t working and how to fix it. And I get this service almost for free. (Okay, I do have to listen to what the cat cardiologist said about her cat, but it’s free material, right? Who knew there were cat cardiologists?)

    2. Paladin,

      What’s involved in signing up for KDP? Is there a link?

      I’m also thinking about it pretty seriously and want to start researching what I need to do besides write the book.

  2. A number of years back, I ran across what happened to one of those buggy whip manufacturers. They used their braiding machines to start manufacturing high-test fishing line. In short, adapt or die.

    1. “interesting” is a link. It doesn’t show up looking like one in my browser, though. FYI.

      1. Interesting indeed. And another great accomplishment for Mr. Trump–apparently, if a non-“bigot” had been elected, the Wise Left would still be covering for black warmongers and slave traders.

    2. Added to my wish-list. That might be worth adding to my class reading assignments (excerpts only.)

  3. The time frame from ‘hit ‘the end” to ‘I’m making real money’ can be years in trad publishing. From the time I send in a book ‘on deadline’ to when it is published is a year. I get an advance on it, I’m a ‘professional’ author, but because my house is ‘capital short’ the advance is often less than what I get on royalties. And royalties come in a year to a year and a half after the book is published. (Usually a year and a half.)

    Thus from the point I hit ‘send’ to the publisher (if the book is on time) to the point I get royalties is about two to two and a half years.

    This is referred to as ‘publishing time.’

    The delay in royalties has always been there. The ‘it has to be more or less complete a year out’ is relatively recent. ‘We need more time to do the sales.’ Which is odd since what with the internet and computers and stuff, most stuff has sped up.

    I’ve been warning about the dangers to trad publishing for decades. But it still dinosaurs along. (Much of this is not due to ‘my’ house, Baen, but due to who they distribute through.)

    1. First of all, allow me a moment to fangirl and SQUEEE!

      Now that’s out of my system, I have to agree with you about the problems the distribution setup has on Baen. I will also say that most of the time when I talk about the problems plaguing traditional publishing, I’m not talking about Baen. It has long been an innovator in the industry. Unfortunately, too many laughed at Jim Baen when he started talking about — and then selling — e-books.

      I will also admit that it’s always confounded me how publishers can and will push out books they view as “timely” — and find publishing slots for them, usually at the expense of a mid-lister — and yet they can’t or won’t speed up the road to publication. With today’s tech, there is no real reason for the delay to be a long as it is now.

      I won’t “squee” again, but I will say “thanks” for dropping by!

  4. A quick nit and a point that I don’t see addressed anywhere.

    The nit. There are storage and transmission costs for e-books, but they are extremely small, per unit. But quite large for the infrastructure to safely and securely store and manage the electronic files that make up all the individual components of the e-book and the final version of the e-book. But nowhere near the cost of printing, binding, shipping, storing, etc of physical books. But taking the entire infrastructure into account it is not an inconsiderable sum.

    The thing I don’t recall ever seeing anywhere is that e-books have the potential to be making money pretty much forever. Once they are ready for sale they can be kept for sale forever because there are no additional costs such as reprinting, shipping, etc. So any given book that might have been popular enough to make money for, say, 6 months in the physical world, but not enough to justify reprinting and all could easily continuing selling for generations on end simply by being 1’s and 0’s in a file amongst many thousands of files, all of which can be instantly available to anyone that wants them. Surely this increase in low cost sales opportunities must have some earning potential for publishers, channel providers, and authors.

    1. There’s also no physical inventory to find storage space for, or to have taxed as “carried inventory”. That’s a thing in the physical world, but I doubt the IRS has caught up to that implication for the electronic world.

      For a related example, the last time I looked, all the development costs for a given software product are depreciated in 3 years. After that, the IRS considers any income as pure profit.

    2. I will add a related point. Because the books can be “in print” forever, there are no more orphaned series where the author says why bother continuing because new readers cannot get the original books of the series anymore and so many of them will not buy the current book. More than one series that I enjoyed died this way, but no more.

      1. scott2harrison,

        Yes and no. Many authors will continue a series if there is enough interest, assuming they can get the rights back from the original publisher. That is not always a guarantee, especially if that publisher holds the e-book rights. This may become less of an issue as contract terms are updated to reflect the changes in publishing but, until they are, too many series will continue to be dropped until the author manages to get all rights to it back from the publisher.

        1. Hadn’t thought of that. Thanks for the expansion. (Bloody contracts, grumble grumble).

    3. rccjr,

      The problem is, you are splitting the infrastructure between e-books and print and publishers don’t have to. The same equipment that stores the digital files for print books are used to store — and transmit — e-books. Why? Because there are very few publishers these days who actually print their own books. So they prepare the set-up files and then transmit them to the distributor. That is basically the same thing they do for e-books. At most, they have to have different software but, in reality, they don’t. Or they shouldn’t — with the exception of DRM which is nothing more than an insult to their readers.

      1. Yes, if they are smart, Amanda. They can minimize their costs by keeping their books in a format that can be easily converted for various purposes (printing, Amazon, pdf, whatnot), and run it through the conversion for just-in-time transmission.

        1. Most of them still use InDesign for page and ebook formatting. Some have shifted to Vellum, which is infinitely cheaper than InDesign and much easier to use. Others — and this is probably a much higher number than it used to be — outsource all the conversions to the folks who used to work directly for the publisher. To the best of my knowledge, they can upload the same basic source file to each of the online retailers. The only difference will be active links to store/products and that is something Vellum can handle for them with less than five minutes of setup time.

    4. This was the point I wanted to make. There *are* storage costs, but they are up-front, and decrease (up to a point) on a per-book basis up to the limit of your available storage. (Then, of course, the cost increases momentarily to bump the limit, decreasing again as the newly available space fills up.)

      The one possible limitation is when a format is deprecated. Then there is a cost to convert your inventory. It should be a small per-unit cost, though – if you know what you’re doing. (Which might exclude some large portion of the trads.)

  5. This discussion always reminds me of one of my favorite movies. To paraphrase, “I am an independent author-publisher. I named the dog Indie.”

    Kim Headlee, author
    Dawnflight, first edition mass-market paperback, Simon & Schuster, 1999;
    Liberty, first edition trade paperback, writing as Kimberly Iverson, HQN Books, 2006;
    King Arthur’s Sister in Washington’s Court by Mark Twain as channeled by Kim Iverson Headlee, Lucky Bat Books (a service provider for author-publishers), 2014;
    and all my other titles, 2013 to present, published under my own imprint, Pendragon Cove Press.

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