From time to time, I’m asked whether I think a writer should publish their book as an indie or try to go the traditional route. Depending on who it is, I might temper my response a little. By that, I mean I will tell them the decision is theirs to make. Then I ask them why they consider going the traditional route. Almost every time, the answer is the same: they want to get into bookstores. You know me. So you know my follow-up question is to ask them where the closest bookstore is, when the last time was they were in the store and how many books a year do they buy from there. Almost always, you can see the lightbulb go off over their head as they consider the question.
And that is the first place where reality is biting traditional publishing. It still focuses too much of its marketing and business plans on brick and mortar stores. Worse, it does so on the big chain stores. The problem is there aren’t many of those left. Borders is gone. Bookstop is gone. Waldens is gone. B&N is circling the drain. Yet publishers continue to focus on physical books and placing them in the book bookstores instead of lowering prices, negotiating better contracts, etc., with the locally owned indie bookstores. I don’t know about you, but when buying a hard cover book costs $25 or more, I’m not going to buy it unless it is by someone I collect. And, let me tell you, the number of those authors has lowered to only one or two from more than a dozen a decade ago.
But that is my bitch as a reader. Books cost too much from traditional publishers. Most of those publishers aren’t putting out what I want to read. Even when they do, because of the limits of their publication schedule, they aren’t giving me new books in a series often enough. It is ridiculous to wait years between series entries now.
As a writer, however, my concern multiplies. Dean Wesley Smith gives eight reasons why writers should stay away from traditional publishing. (Bold, italicized text quoted from the linked article.)
They take all your copyright for the life of your work, and often will buy your characters and worlds if you are not super careful. Trust me, it’s not just the big publishers who do this. Several years ago, a friend came to me after receiving a contract for an anthology he submitted a story to. The contract would have prevented him from writing anything that included any of the characters, even historical figures, the city (London), even the timeframe. Needless to say, I told him to run from the contract as fast as he could. When the editor of the anthology asked why he wouldn’t sign, my friend explained. The editor told him not to worry. He’d let him have his characters, etc., any time he wanted. All he had to do was ask. But–and here is the kicker–the editor wouldn’t give him that reassurance in writing. Thankfully, my friend say, “thanks, but no thanks” and ran in the opposite direction.
You need a book agent to deal with them. As Dean points out, those agents will also, quite often, take your copyright for life. Add to that they will continue to get a percentage of anything your earn for that title, even years after they have quit doing anything to help you re: the book. While there are a few traditional publishers that don’t require and agent to get through the door, those publishers are few and far between. What’s happened over the last decade or so is that agents have become the gatekeepers for traditional publishing. If you don’t write what they want, if you don’t rewrite to their specs, you aren’t going to get through their front door and if you don’t, your manuscript won’t be considered by publishers.
You will make no more sales than you could publishing the book indie, and actually in a few short years your indie sales will pass any possible traditional publishing sales. This is especially true if, as an indie writer, you put even al little work into promotion. Why? Because traditional publishers are in the attrition game. Take 99% of the titles published by traditional publishers and you won’t find them on the shelves more than six weeks or so after publication. In many cases, they won’t be there after three weeks. Yet publishers continue to push and focus on in-store sales of print books.
As an indie, you might not get your books into the brick and mortar stores, but you can and should keep your titles “in print” until you decide to update or rebrand them. But, it means you need to periodically go back and add new links to your already published books to your new books. (makes not to practice what I preach) The bottom line is that as Indies, we can use our backlist for promos, lowering prices and even doing giveaways to drive sales.
They will price your book so high that most fans won’t be able to afford it, and will not get your work out around the world either. See my earlier comment about the price of books. Also, the last time I made the rounds looking for an agent, many of them wanted to know my plans for promoting my work. Some of the questions asked included wanting to know my contacts with librarians, local bookstores and even the media. Hmmm, if the agents are asking that of potential clients, the implication is they expect those clients to do the majority of their own promotion because–duh–publishers aren’t going to. If you take a moment to think about it, you’ll see why. When is the last time you saw a book for anyone but Martin or one of the other mega-bestsellers advertised on TV or heard an ad on the radio? How about in the print media? You might, if you’re lucky, see notice of an author appearance. The sad truth is, unless you are a best seller or have been tagged as the newest “big deal”, you will shoulder the promotion of your book all by your lonesome. Publishers aren’t going to do a frigging thing to help.
Your book is produce to a traditional publisher, meaning that after a month or so they no longer care…. See my comment above about shelf life of a book. Now consider this. That month or so doesn’t give you time to get real traction for you book, especially if you aren’t a promotion maven. Word of mouth is just starting to get around. But it is too late. The book is no longer on the shelves, The buyer for the bookstore or chain will look at the sales during that short period of time and use those numbers to decide how many copies of your next book, if any, they will buy. Is there any wonder why so few books actually earn out their advances? The system is stacked against the author.
It takes forever to sell a book to traditional publishing, often if you count the agent time, rewriting time, and publishing time, three to five years from writing the book to it being published. Yep. Even after you get your foot in the door and have a track record with a publisher, you’re lucky if your book can go from your agent’s hands to the shelves in less than a year. This also means you are limited in the number of books you can write and sell because some publishers still have clauses that prevent you from going indie. Oh, the clauses aren’t quite that blatant. They are cloaked as “right of first refusal” clauses. but the language can be so broad and vague the publisher can sit on the proposed new book, even one not in the same series as what is published,
You must write what they want you to write, not what you want to write. If there is a trend, they will tell you to change your book to fit the trend or write to the trend. Forget about the fact by the time you do and your book is published, that trend will be over and a new one in its place. But it goes beyond writing to the trend. When Fifty Shades of Grey hit it big, publishers pulled entire lines to recover them to look like the 50 Shades books. Publication dates were delayed, losing pre-orders in the process, to do this. I know authors who found themselves cut loose by their publishers after that because their books, books caught up in this delay, sold badly and the publisher didn’t want to take a risk on them again. Forget the fact the publishers were to blame for deciding to rebrand, usually badly, the books and, in the process, lost the pre-orders. Forget the fact these books all looked so much alike it was difficult to tell if you’d already read it or not. Publishers weren’t going to take responsibility for their own actions. That left the author to pay the price–well, the author and their fans.
On a personal note, when I was first shopping Nocturnal Origins, the editor for an imprint for one of the Big 5, showed interest. But then I got an email back from them. They had a few “suggestions” for me. They wanted me to rewrite the book, changing it from third person limited POV to first person. Cutout the scenes from anyone’s point of view but the main character. Oh, and add sex. No, it wasn’t a paranormal romance book. It was urban fantasy. It was the first book in the series. There wasn’t even romance hinted at, at least not strongly. Better yet, if I took the time to do all this–and it wouldn’t be a quick fix–there was still no guarantee they’d accept the book. Thank you but no.
You lose all control of your book. You have no say on the cover. You have no control over any promotion, beyond what you do yourself. You have to rely on the publisher to edit and then accept your responses to the edits–assuming you even get that much from them. You have no control over pricing, where the book is sold, etc.
I recommend you wander over to Dean’s site and read the entire post. Heck, if you haven’t already put his blog on your “to read list”, do so.
There are reasons to go traditional, at least for some people. But, if you’re considering it, go into it with your eyes open. Do your homework and get yourself an IP attorney to go over any contract offered, by an agent or by a publisher, before signing it. Get any promises, assertions, assurances, etc., in writing. Gone are the days when a handshake was good enough.
Featured image via Pixabay.