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Reality bites, at least where traditional publishing is concerned

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.

26 Comments
  1. This is exactly why I stopped trying the traditional publishing route after my second book – there was just no future in it that I could see, and I hated-hated-hated with the passion of a thousand burning suns the thought of losing control over everything about my books and characters.
    I’d rather be an indy, and hire the talent to do covers, publicity, etc. That way, they would work for me, have loyalty to me and my interests, instead of to some amorphous Big Publisher and theirs.

    December 11, 2018
    • Origins convinced me to go indie and give up the traditional route. Between the one editor wanting to change the POV, and the genre basically, an agent asking for three totally different rewrites (again without guaranteeing representation) and another editor sitting on the book for months, I gave up and decided it was time to take control.

      December 11, 2018
      • TRX #

        > three totally different rewrites

        “Dance, monkey! Dance!”

        December 11, 2018
        • This monkey danced twice and then went “WTF?” and said no more dancing without showing me the money.

          December 11, 2018
    • Mary #

      I sold short stories, but the length of time finding an agent finally persuaded me. (I had only tried a few, but it was obvious how long it could take.)

      December 11, 2018
    • I heard a couple of horror stories, but one that hit me hard was one where they (A big publisher) approached a moderately successful author and wanted to ‘publish the series’ but the author read the contract – which effectively stole the universe, characters, copyright, and allowed them to give it to someone else to write in if they wanted, no money to the original author. And any other media resulting from the series would not profit the author but publisher only.

      “No, thank you” is the polite version of the response.

      December 12, 2018
      • I’ve seen some of those contracts as well and have without hesitation told those considering signing to run fast in the opposite direction.

        December 12, 2018
        • Mary #

          SFWA reported once contracts that gave the agent the right to a commission whenever the author sold any rights in perpetuity

          And there the regular horror stories of Writer Beware
          https://accrispin.blogspot.com/

          Plus of course when we did Atlanta Nights, on advice of counsel, the hoax was not carried through signing the contract.

          December 12, 2018
  2. I did trad-pub for non-fiction. There are some similarities (academic presses are NOT the Big 5, but there’s some overlap), and yes, I did a fair amount of marketing. Me being me, giving talks about my second most favorite subject to a group of interested people at a museum is fun. Hand-selling, going door-to-door to bookstores, buying ad space? No. And the contract was educational.

    For fiction, it’s Indie all the way for me. Yes, there’s a big thrill to see my book in a real bookstore, but there’s also a big thrill to see the deposit in my account every month from long-tail sales. (I think long-tail sales tie with freedom of character/setting/subject in terms of advantages for the Indie writer.)

    December 11, 2018
    • TonyT #

      Yup, I was thinking about how trad pub might vary in the different areas…from my POV as a software developer, I’d say that the tradpub software publishers seem a lot more pro-active. The books can be expensive, but there are sales, used books, and online access. And although searching, blogs, etc are great, they are no substitute for a good in-depth book for learning something new.

      To give some examples, I can pick up used programming books for way less than ebook pricing. Manning does frequent sales (often 40% to 50%), includes e-books (unlocked PDF, Kindle, ePub) if you buy the print book, and has a flexible on-line access (similar to KU) program. Manning’s books are usually very high quality.

      Packt’s quality is more variable, but they do frequent $5 and $10 e-book sales, and do on-line access to all their books. O’Reilly was an early on-line access promoter.

      OTOH, there’s education publishing….

      December 11, 2018
      • TonyT #

        Minor nit: Packt & O’Reilly have programs similar to KU. Manning’s program is more flexible. I haven’t checked on others (such as Apress).

        December 11, 2018
        • Sandman29 #

          Packt also gives one free ebook every 24 hours, in multiple formats.

          December 11, 2018
    • TXRed, exactly. I’d go traditional for non-fiction, at least in the beginning. But the way bookstores stock fiction these days, it isn’t worth giving up so much control, not to mention money, for it. Nope, indie all the way for this gal unless someone comes up with an offer I can’t turn down.

      December 11, 2018
      • Plus there’s still the “publish or perish – but publish only with an academic press or traditional publisher” factor.

        December 11, 2018
  3. Uncle Lar #

    Another thing you lose with trad pub is visibility into actual performance of your book. You are at the mercy of their accounting department, and must trust what little data they choose to pass along to you. And should a miracle occur and the book earns out, the pittance which is your share of the proceeds gets sent to you pretty much if and when they feel like. Unlike the Zon where your 70% gets direct deposited to your bank account one month following the actual sale.
    One additional note there, even as an indie author if you use a POD such as Ingram Spark for your print books they will hold your earnings from Amazon or B&N for an additional 90 days. Supposedly that’s to allow for possible returns, but by pure coincidence it also gives the business the use of your money for that same 90 days. A little something bankers used to call float.

    December 11, 2018
    • It’s even more than that, Uncle Lar. If you go trad and you have an agent, the check/deposit/whatever, will usually go directly to the agent to be dispersed to you AFTER they get their cut. So that six month or a year or however long it takes the publisher to pay royalties and make an accounting of what you sold is delayed even further. I want to see what my sales trends are on a regular basis. Not wait until months after the trend and then try to figure out why something worked or didn’t, why a book sold weldor tanked, especially since I had no control over any of it once it was in the publisher’s hands.

      December 11, 2018
  4. The time factor was the deal killer for me. I’m no spring chicken, so the idea of waiting years before my first novel saw print (assuming it made it past the slush pile readers) had zero appeal for me. In the time it would have taken to get one trad novel to print, I wrote and published seven. Low as the odds of success are, being able to publish as fast as you can write gives you a lot more opportunities to find an audience.

    December 11, 2018
    • I totally agree and that was a large part of my decision to go indie. Sure, there’s still one publisher I would consider signing with, depending on the contract terms. But for the rest of them, thanks but no thanks.

      December 11, 2018
  5. Zsuzsa #

    Speaking of B&N, I was in there yesterday, and…yikes! I used to say that it had turned into Waldenbooks with a Hallmark store attached. Now, it’s evolved into a KB Toys with a tiny book section near the back. I saw singing elephants, a rather nifty-looking set of stacking rings, and bunch of xylophones, but I never did find the book I was planning to buy, and I didn’t want to try to fish a sales associate out of the pile of rubber ducks in order to ask about it.

    I will have to go back, though. I have a whole pile of B&N Gift Cards, and I think I need to divest myself of those ASAP. Perhaps my daughter would enjoy the “My First Safari” toy that was on the shelf next to the singing elephants.

    December 11, 2018
    • That’s how it was the last time I was in. Books had been odd to the rear of the store. The selection was limited, and that’s putting it nicely. If I wanted something that wasn’t either a best seller or part of a “hit series” or TV knock-off, I couldn’t find it. But if I wanted toys or knick-knacks or non-book related items, I could find it there. Nope, not my bookstore any longer.

      December 11, 2018
  6. David Lang #

    I just got an Amazon notification of a new book from an author I have read heavily (a couple feet of bookshelf space for his books), then I saw the price, $14.99 for kindle.

    so much for that author, I’d been considering re-buying the series in e-book (I have several copies of some of his books due to not being organized enough to find one book in the series when re-reading it as a new book came out). But at these sorts of prices, I’ll reluctantly give up on this author until prices become sane.

    December 11, 2018
    • Over at PG’s place someone coined the term “whale math” to describe the numerical contortions the Traditional Publishers go through in order to show how well they are doing. “E-book sales are down! Print revenue is up and e-books are just a phase.” Well, if you price e-books at more than paperbacks, and in some cases more than hard-back, yes, fewer people will buy your e-books. And coloring books are printed, yes. After that… “Success! We lost less money this year than last year. Things are going great!” Whale math.

      December 11, 2018
      • Do not get me started on the mental gymnastics and sheer lying they do to try to get readers to think e-books 1) aren’t a viable medium and 2) cost more to publish than print books.

        December 11, 2018
    • David, I checked Amazon earlier to see if an author I have followed for years had their newest up for pre-order yet. It was there but it had a price tag well beyond my upper limit for fiction. So it is a pass. IF I remember to check back when the book finally comes out in MMPB, I will. Maybe by then the e-book price will be reasonable. Or at least as reasonable as most trad publishers get these days.

      December 11, 2018
  7. Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
    Being a control freak, my desire to self-publish over traditional publishing has always been firmly in place. Amazing to live with the possibility of doing just that without having to resort to utilizing an expensive company to do all of that for you.

    December 11, 2018
    • Thanks for the reblog.

      It is amazing–and wonderful–that we have the option of bypassing the trads and writing what we want.

      December 11, 2018

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