Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Some Reasons To Avoid Traditional Publishing

There Are So Many…

I mentioned that I had taught at a wonderful writer’s seminar called Superstars. Put on by Kevin Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, Eric Flint, Dave Farland, Brandon Sanderson, and a fantastic staff. I was a guest instructor on the writing side. I had a blast and the conference ran perfectly from my perspective.

There were also industry guests like Mark Coker from Smashwords, a New York agent, some editors, and other fun people.

The conference tries to help everyone and I was, of course, on the indie publishing side of things, even though I have published over a hundred novels with traditional publishers. The conference really does attempt to keep it balanced between both sides of the publishing world.

Because of that, there were many, many young writers focused on the traditional path and I didn’t say much at all to change any minds. I didn’t feel like it was my place to be honest.  I presented some indie sides of things. But it is every writer’s job to take the information they can find and pick their own path.

I came away from that kind of exposure to those young writers with stars in their eyes and agents in their sights with a bunch of reminders how much things have changed.

So I thought, just for fun here, I would list some reasons I believe are important to know to avoid traditional publishers. These are my opinions, so take that as you will.


No matter what you do in traditional publishing, if you go begging to them with a tin cup in your hand, you will get a contract that will take all rights to your book for the life of the contract and there is little to nothing you can do about it if you are set on that path.

You have no bargaining power at all and they want all rights to the IP for their accounting bottom line.


You lose all control of your work. Complete loss. Your agent will take some of your control from you, the publisher the rest. They flat don’t want you in the process.

And they can publish the book or not publish the book. It will not matter with the modern standard contract. And they can put any cover they want on it and do a crap job of copyediting or in some cases not even read the book.


Unless you get a mega-contract with upwards of mid-six-figures per book, they won’t do much promotion at all. Oh, sure, they will put it in their catalog and maybe list you for some e-arcs through some ABA program (that you could get into as an indie publisher).  You will be expected to do what promotion is going to be done yourself, just as you would do as an indie author.


Your book will be off sale (except for electronic) and forgotten within two months of publication. The traditional publisher must keep up the churn and you are just more meat into the water.  There will be no follow-up promotion, redoing of bad covers, nothing that you would do for yourself as an indie publisher.

And remember, you have sold them the book for life of the copyright, which means 70 years past your death. In other words, in two months after publication, that book you sweated over is dead.


You will be giving your agent 15% of all money you should get for making a few phone calls and looking at a contract that is illegal for them to negotiate because they are not lawyers. At Superstars I asked the agent on a panel I was on if they split payments and he just looked at me like I had grown a second head. I had to explain it to him that splitting payments meant that the author got directly from the publisher 85% and a copy of the paperwork and the agent got directly from the publisher 15% and a copy of the same paperwork.

After I explained it he said no, they don’t do that. So think that through. You are giving an unlicensed person you don’t know all your money and all the paperwork tracing that money and then just hoping they will send you some. Yeah, that’s a good idea. But going traditional, that’s what all those writers will do without thinking about it.


And this one just shocked me the most. One writer I talked to had been working on the same project with an agent for THREE YEARS. No sale, nothing yet at all. And the writer was happy about that.

I published at least forty novels and many other books in those same three years.

I had forgotten the extreme time it takes in traditional publishing. Wow.


So those are some major things I observed on my adventure into the real world of publishing.

Writers willingly want to give all rights to their book away, lose all control, let agents steal from them, just to have their book published for a few months and then tossed away while they wonder what happened and why they can’t sell another book.

This traditional publishing system just flat kills writers. I don’t even want to mention the levels of rejection by gatekeepers these poor folks go through to even get to the point they can give away their book in a contract.

Watching the traditional side just made me shudder. And thank my lucky stars that indie publishing came along when it did.


  • Kate Pavelle

    Thank you for reminding me, Dean, only a day after I’ve been eyeing the fact that a friend has several series by McMillan.
    FYI the same thing goes for translations. After negotiating terms with a foreign company for 1 language, I got a boilerplate that wanted all languages, all format known and unknown, etc. I challenged it, they didn’t respond, I pulled out. Then the translator who had been my main contact and a former founder of that company quit, because this had been the last straw for her.
    Next step: Decide on whether we can afford to pay for the translation as indie or work out time-cap royalty split deal. It’s worth a try.

    • dwsmith


      Watch the friend over the next few years. Sadly that friend will wake up in a few years and wonder why they can’t sell another book. And I have no idea who you are talking about. Just that is the pattern that is being repeated over and over and over. And it is only getting worse.

  • Kessie

    Ah, I wondered how long it would take you to come out and talk about how bad traditional publishing is. I’ve been hoping you would. 😀

    Frankly, you’ve given me a very bad attitude about publishing. I’m currently submitting to a small press, mostly so I can see what their contract looks like. If it’s a total rights grab, I plan to walk. I can hire an editor and buy a cover for way less hassle than losing my rights would be.

  • Cynthia Lee

    I had a writing friend who at the time had been rewriting her YA novel for her agent for a year and a half. I told her that was incredibly arrogant and presumptuous on the part of her agent. The agent has taken over a year of this poor writer’s life, not to mention all the damage to the writer’s peace of mind. This poor writer was miserable rewriting her book. She was making changes that she didn’t really want to make. But her agent was big-time and well-known and the writer didn’t want to have to go back to the querying trenches.

    That’s a year and a half that this poor writer will never get back.

    That’s time she could have spent with her family or doing anything, really, that made her happy. Being miserable at something you are supposed to love affects your family life, your self-image, your energy level and it will greatly damage your calm. It’s hard on the writer, hard on the writer’s family, friends and children.

    Unfortunately, after I told her that her agent was misguided, at best, she stopped talking to me.


    • dwsmith

      Which is why I said little at conference other than just general information. When a person has an idea about publishing, it becomes like a religious belief and by going against their religion, you lose them as a friend. Sad, but alas, true. With publishing, even very smart people in business tend to lose their minds.

    • James F. Brown

      That’s a year and a half that this poor writer will never get back.

      So sad. Money comes in; money goes out. We can always get more money. But the hours, minutes, and seconds of our lives, once gone, can NEVER be recaputured. Time is our most precious, unrecoverable asset. And now your “friend” has cut off ties with you. Well, some friend. Your friendship with her is obviously not worth much to her. And neither will whatever royalties she gets will be worth much, either. 🙁

  • JM

    I think I know the answer, but I’ll ask anyway.

    That is obviously the Big 5 (or 6. or 4. or whatever). There are a lot of small- to mid-sized presses out there publishing books. Do you know if they are doing the same thing? Or is there still wiggle room there? And even if there’s wiggle room, if Little Friendly Press lets itself get acquired by Big 5 Press, what then?

    I ask because I attended a convention this past weekend which had editors from a few non-Big-5 publishers who said a lot of the same things: get an agent, rewrite your work a lot before submitting, how to promote yourself, etc.

    (side note: weird quirk on your website – the name and email in the “Leave a Reply” section are pre-filled with the last person who entered their information on it. This has been happening for days, but I just realized no one had probably told you about it.)

    • dwsmith

      Small presses or mid-sized presses are very individual, so you have to do the research on them and talk with some of their other authors. They can range from total scams to friend to writer presses like WMG and Wordfire. Caution on Sourcebooks. They have turned ugly. Baen is great for the most part. Kensington leans more toward the traditional side than the indie side, but they are shifting. And so on.

  • Vera Soroka

    I see a lot in the YA community who strive for the same thing as their mentors. They want the kind of career that they see them have and it almost gives a glamourous façade. They don’t understand it was a bit different when they started out. So, they have to learn the hard way instead of doing their homework. There is nothing you can do.

    • dwsmith

      Yup, I know that Vera. If a person hasn’t gotten to the spot in their life when logic and a willingness to listen kicks in, not a thing anyone can do. But Kris and I and others are around when a writer finally does get to that spot. Most don’t, but the few that do are the ones Kris and I and other professionals love to work with and help forward.

  • topaz

    I had a blast reading this article.
    It sounds a lot like your “killing the sacred cows of ..”-articles and books of you. I learned a lot of them, especially what not to do. Together with Kris’ book “Contracts and Dealbreakers” – which first was was “**** I can’t believe this” to me – I learned a lot.
    After finishing her book I checked on the publicly available standard agreements in my country, and well, knowing what to look for, they were as ugly and whole IP grabbing, as Kris and you wrote. I didn’t find the nastier things but after finding those, I am now convinced they would come up later for sure.
    That was my wake up moment. From that moment onward I never submitted again a story to a contest where it says, the story will be published in an anthology and the winner gets a standard agreement. Nope. Never gona happen again.
    Many thanks to you and your wife.

    • dwsmith

      Great, Topaz. Yeah, those contests can sometimes just be a rights grab. With the way IP evaluation is headed these days, this is only going to get worse. Entire businesses can be built on just owning (and never really publishing) IP. Scary.

  • Sheila G

    But, Dean, don’t forget the validation! Won’t someone think of the validation? I mean, how else are you going to look down your nose at all your friends who are publishing their own books and making money? Hmphf. At least they don’t have an Agent and a Contract! So much better to have validation. /sarcasm

  • David Cole

    Oh, but you weren’t at all shy during the VIP dinner about warning the table away from tradpub… *grin*

    During the meet-and-greet lunch, the rest of my table (and its author guest) were vocally, though politely, opposed to my desire to self-publish. It was a good conversation, all in all, and I tried to represent the indie position by asking myself, “What would Dean say?” It reminded me how easily we fall prey to survivorship bias, and how important it is to keep our eyes on our goals, particularly when you’re seeking to exploit the long tail– doing it all yourself requires patience during long periods of apparent failure, but stick with it long enough and you’ll be exposed to a black-swan breakout that more than makes up for the drought. The alternative is getting consistent breadcrumbs for a little while and then nothing when you find you can’t sell at all any more.

    KJA calls it “The Popcorn Theory of Success,” Nassim Taleb calls it “antifragile optionality and convexity;” either way, it’s what to shoot for, even if it is nerve-wracking to constantly remind yourself that volatility is a good thing and you’re not in the business for a steady, smooth payout, but rather for the intense bursts that fill up your bank account.

    One of my fellows at the table observed that the indie publishers who have been successful have largely been the ones who were traditionally published prior, to which I replied, “Of course! It takes ten or fifteen years, minimum, to even approach mastery of a skill, and fifteen years ago there was only vanity publishing; even ten years ago, modern self-pub was just starting up. It shouldn’t surprise us that successful authors in the present day, whatever their current publishing style is, got their starts in trad-pub. Let’s give it fifteen more years and then talk again.”

    • dwsmith

      David, pretty much exactly. And the early starters who did have success in indie who started in indie are pretty much gone. It is an area of business that is maturing just as writers mature in their skills.

      The nifty thing about indie is that we get to practice and make some money on our practice out there with readers, just as musicians get to practice by doing gigs in bars. We might not find many readers early on, but we are at least out there and working on our craft.

  • RK Thorne

    I usually just lurk but I can’t help but comment. David, that statement that “the indie publishers who have been successful have largely been the ones who were traditionally published prior,” is entirely untrue. I actually can’t think of examples that support that — in fact, quite the opposite. Whether you want to talk about more established indies (Buroker? Anderle?) or the crop of young ones I consider myself a part of, most of the people I know earning a full-time living indie publishing started out that way from the get go.

    Maybe it’s just the circles I run in, but I say… Don’t fall prey to that person’s confirmation bias. That statement is “largely” not even true. <3

    • David Cole

      Well, I certainly have no statistical data one way or another, and as Dean has observed on numerous occasions, it’s impossible to tell just by looking at surface details whether a particular writer is making a living– you’d need to go deep into the business, and a sensible businessman is going to be wary of allowing outsiders such a deep look. Since I don’t even know how you’d begin (dis)confirming the claim rigorously, ultimately I don’t have a dog in the fight. The claim seems to make sense; that’s about as far as my investment in it goes.

      The fight I in which I did have a dog, however, was whether, if it’s true, it says anything about the viability of indie publishing– which it clearly wouldn’t. “Let’s take as granted that many currently successful indie authors were formerly trad-pubbed; XYZ line of reasoning leads me to respond, ‘So what?'” is a great way to call into question the core assumptions that some people will use for dismissing indie as a second-best option.

      By the way, RK, good on you and your fellows for making it happen. For a tyro like me, hearing that it can be done– that indie publishing, with sufficient dedication and effort, can be parleyed into a full-time career– provides important motivation, so thanks for coming out of lurker mode.

  • Philip

    Dean, this is great stuff here. Your point about agents is spot-on. I’m an attorney (and have the six figures in student loans to prove it), so there’s no way I’m letting a non attorney advise me on contractual terms. That’s just plain stupid.

    I think the only viable traditional publishing route is for short stories. Ellery Queen, etc. Your thoughts?

    • dwsmith

      Philip, I agree. Traditional on the short fiction side is great. Good contracts on all the standard places, and great advertising for your indie work. So well worth the time for traditional short fiction markets.

      And sadly, I have known attorneys who let agents negotiate traditional contracts for them because that is how it is done and the attorney thinks they don’t know traditional book publishing contracts. Total bunk, of course, since publishing contracts are just so stupid in traditional publishing, a normal attorney won’t recognize. Not kidding.

    • Samus

      My day job is reviewing contracts to make sure they meet certain (pretty simple) requirements. I’m not an attorney, and it amazes me how confused some of the non-attorneys I talk to about these contracts get with simple instructions like, “It needs to correctly name both parties” or “It needs to be clear about when it ends.” And these are usually pretty high-level people in their companies who probably make much more than me and have their company’s actual interests on the line. It’s just boggling.

  • Michael J Lawrence

    I wonder why we don’t have somebody like the WGA. If you write for T.V. or movies, there is an organization that is actually representing your rights and maintaining standards of attribution and payments. Agency for residuals, too. There is some sort of “guild” out there for print writers, but they don’t seem to do anything for writers looking for their first contract. I have a hard time understanding why there is some formal advocacy for script writers, but not novel writers. Any thoughts on that?

    • dwsmith

      Lots of reasons, actually. Fiction writers are independent contractors and thus any kind of real organization would break all kinds of laws. And then you have the issue that the writer’s organizations really don’t represent the new world of writers, but have a vested interest in maintaining the old way of doing things. And then you have the issue of writers making crap up for a living and not being able to tell the difference between fiction and real life business. All those reasons and others are why I never join any writer’s organization. They are a waste of time. Period.