Challenge,  publishing

One Way To Go…

Of Two Major Directions…

As I wrote last night, new fiction writers (because we are in the middle of a distribution and form transition) are torn between two paths. A lot of old timers (not me or Kris) spread the gospel of how they broke into publishing in the 1980s or 1990s or early 2000,s. And new writers should do the same.

But now the writers who have gone indie publishing outnumber the traditional fiction writers and are making a lot more money (recent survey) and so the new writers wanting to enter the field of fiction writing are torn. Both sides seem valid.

And the myths on both sides are horrid.

So tonight I’m going to outline how it would go with the traditional path, being as fair as I can possibly be, and tomorrow night I will outline how it would go on the indie path and all the troubles and good things there as well.

Traditional Path…

Being prolific is frowned upon and you need to be focused intently on one book or one series as you head onto the path. For a lot of want-to-be writers, this really fits their mind set.

You have to then jump through all the hoops these days to get an agent that handles fiction to look at your book. (major learning curve) More than likely there will be rewriting to try to make your book fit with an agent.

If an agent shows interest (at this point years might have passed), they will have you rewrite it to better suit some market and after you do that they might send it out to a few editors. (you will be excited)

If an editor likes your book, it will be taken to a publishing meeting to see if the editor can get your book bought. (Again, maybe another year will pass in this process.)

Your book, if bought, will be scheduled out nine months or a year or more. (You have sold a book as it is called and you will be dancing.) You will get a contract through your agent that will buy all rights for the life of the copyright. You can’t do anything about this contract. You will sell audio, movie, everything.

You will get advance payments spread over three payments. Signing, turn-in, and publication are normal. It might be four or five or more payments if your advance against earnings is high.

You will then rewrite the same book again to editorial request (yes, even though they bought a finished book) and that will get the turn-in payment triggered.

You will be expected to promote your own book. They no longer do that for anyone but the big names, and often not them anymore.  Your book might find a few bookstores (not a lot of them left) and if you are lucky will get into B&N.

Yes, you will promote your own book and be expected to, often under your contract.)

It will be on the shelf for about six weeks if lucky, then be pulled. From the start of the process to your book hitting the stands might be four or five years, again if things go well.

You will have no control over the cover, the sales copy, anything. You sold all rights.

If the book is a regular sf book, or a fantasy, it might do a thousand copies on initial ship, but then that does not count for returns. Your book might get a few reviews, but very few.

More than likely you sold a second book in the same contract. You will be required to finish it by a certain date and it will come out about one year after the first one, again if you are lucky. If the first one did poorly for no fault of your own (bad cover, bad sales copy, up against another major similar book), there is a good chance your second book will be cancelled. Or just published in a few hundred copy run and then killed.

Your books will remain in stories as overpriced ebooks. Every six months pennies will be subtracted from your advance repayment, and you can see the flood of paper returns being accounted for.

If the books did poorly, you will not be able to sell another book under that name or in that series. So you will change your name and write something different. Same process only with luck your agent will still be interested in you and returning your phone calls.

Even if the book did poorly, you will never get your rights back.

In these last ten to fifteen years of the traditional big-five publishing world, is there any chance you might make a living and have books really explode? Sure. But there are a lot more major lottery winners around the country every year than books that do that. A lot more.

And if your book gots excitement up front, you might get a $200,000 advance on two books. Eight payments (four for each book) will be spread over four years minus 15% for the agent. For most, that is not a living wage from that spread over four years (do the math).

So you will need to be writing and selling to deadline more books every year to make a living. And in this modern world, every book has to do better than the last or they will just cut you.

There are writers still making a living in traditional publishing. But just not many compared to the thousands and thousands there were when I broke in. And remember, at this point their are only five publishers remaining. Sure, there are second level publishers, but they are having the same issues.

The myths about traditional publishing are tough. One myth is that they will take care of you, but they do not. Another is that your agent is your friend. They are not. Another myth is that if you have a book published by traditional publishing, the rest of your books will sell better. They do not.

But since this is the era of big paper publishing we are coming out of, a lot of young writers really want to be “validated” by traditional publishing. I guess that is a valid goal, but to me it is not worth losing the copyright of a book or books or an entire series to buy that validation. And the cost of years and years of work and shattered dreams.

And in the end, no one cares if you have been validated or not.

So if the new writers I saw at Writers of the Future last week head to traditional publishing, with luck we will see their first novels by 2028, if we happen to be in the right store in the right week looking in the right place.

I know I missed a ton of details in this summary of the traditional fiction path. I will do some posts later talking about sales percentages of each path.

Tomorrow the indie path presented in the same way.


  • Harvey Stanbrouigh

    And don’t forget WHY tradpubs want “all rights or nothing.” Even if they never publish your book, it still goes on their spreadsheet as an asset where it is valuated and adds $$$ to their bottom line. That’s value the writer should keep in his/her own pocket.

    • dwsmith

      Exactly right, Harvey, but sadly young writers do not begin to understand the true value of IP. They think if they get a $5,000 advance, that is the value of the copyright for that book. Sigh… Of course, on a corporate spreadsheet, the value of that same book could be from $150,000 to a half million or more. And the corporations can depreciate that property and do.

      And IP depreciation continues on forever. Say a corporation took a 30 year depreciation on the $150,000 asset. At the end of 30 years the value of the IP would remain the same and the depreciation would just continue. The fun of IP.

  • Philip

    I love how you tear apart the myths!

    A lot of the financial components you mention are hiding in plain sight. For example, go check out big name authors you love–not the biggest of the big like King or Rowling or even Michael Connelly–but decent selling, award winning, buzz worthy authors and you’ll see they all have day jobs. Usually journalists or academics. Or, they appear to be a full time author but they mention a spouse in a high salary job (corporate lawyer, exec, etc). Do this exercise and you may be stunned.

    I wont name names, but recently there was a GoFundMe campaign for a well known, admired horror author who was battling an illness yet had no health insurance! This guy is a household name in horror and was in that position.

    It’s sad. And this isn’t the WGA in Hollywood. No one will be fighting for your rights in NYC.

    I say this all the time, but I’m an attorney specializing in contracts and it blows my mind that literary agents are not attorneys or even the fact they work under several conflicts of interest (they negotiate an agreement where signing directly results in personal monetary gains, they represent multiple clients in the same genre effectively pitting one client against another, and they act as a fiduciary holding an author’s finances, etc).

    • Sarah Stegall

      Philip, that last paragraph so succinctly sums up the real problems with agents! Thanks. I recently got into a (polite) argument at a writing conference with a traditionally published author of some note who was enthusiastically telling new writers to get an agent. She denied everything you said. I wish I’d had your clear statement readily to hand:

      “…literary agents are not attorneys … they work under several conflicts of interest (they negotiate an agreement where signing directly results in personal monetary gains, they represent multiple clients in the same genre effectively pitting one client against another, and they act as a fiduciary holding an author’s finances, etc).”

      Thanks again.

  • Kristi N.

    I’m confused (which is nothing new). I know how much managers love their reports, and they have to be seeing reduced cash flow even as their asset values increase year over year. Middle management has to be getting increased pressure to boost the revenue, but all I ever see is layoffs and cost cutting. Business 101 is that you can’t cut your way to prosperity. I also see a rigid adherence to a waterfall process–manuscript in, book out–without any agile applications at all.

    The corporations who own the publishing houses are familiar with licensing and trademarks in their other business ventures. They have the brain power to evolve and they have the economic pressure to do so. But they aren’t, at least as far as outside observers can tell. Why not?

    I guess what I’m asking is why, if they can see the declines in market share, in cash flow, especially year after year, that the publishing houses aren’t scrambling to innovate. They know information is being accessed and consumed in different ways. They know the market is splintering into preference niches. But they are only moving to consolidate what little they have, squash competition, and sit on their gold hoard that is melting away.

    • dwsmith

      Kristi, I learned a long, long time ago to never ask sane and good business questions around traditional publishing companies.

      What they do makes no sense and never has on a good business scale. Even the judge in the Simon and Schuster case asked those kinds of questions and got stupidity in return.

      Other than a valuation on a balance sheet, traditional publishers have no idea at all what IP they own or even what to do with it and not one person in the entire industry can move that fact.