Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Stay Away From Traditional Book Publishing

Yes, I Know That is a Dream for Many…

But it is a horrid (and I mean horrid beyond words) path for writers now in 2018.

But Dean, how can you say that? You first published with traditional publishing, right? Yes, I sold my first novel in 1987 and did my last work for them in 2008. I did 106 books (that I can remember) through traditional big-five book publishing. I am pretty convinced that even by my  math, most of that was last century.

Let me repeat that. Last century. You know, dial phones hooked to a wall with cords, no internet, no email. That century.

Yet traditional book publishing hasn’t changed in the slightest from those old dial-up days and writers still want to work with them. Stuns me.

We are almost to 2019 and times do change. I know some of you who had dreams of publishing in traditional big-five publishing have had the dream since last century when they were the only game in town. It is time to change that dream and get moving with your writing. Go buy a smart phone, in other words.

Why tonight on this topic? Because I sadly saw not one, but two comments today from writers with this old thinking. One writer was on their fifth draft and ready to send off the manuscript to an agent after working on it for six years. I wrote about 70 different books in the last six years. Another writer’s comment was that they were on their second rewrite from an agent.


So just to preach to the choir here (for the most part) and maybe make a few people angry who still have the fairy-dust dream of being anointed by a gatekeeper in a windowless office in a big corporation in New York, I thought I would just quickly list eight major reasons to avoid traditional book publishing. (Traditional short fiction publishers are great, for the most part. No issue with them. I am talking big-five book publishers.)

Reason One…

— 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. You can’t negotiate with them on this, especially if you went begging to them with your tin cup manuscript in your hand.)

Reason Two…

— You need a book agent to deal with them. Book agents really are equal to dial-up phones, or better put, pay phones that take your money and never make a connection. (You got to be really old, meaning you had to live in the 1970s to remember that.)  Book agents will also take your copyright if not careful, and also your money. A very large percentage of them are scams these days.

Reason Three…

— 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. And you will not be able to trust the traditional publisher’s royalty statements every six months. Their accounting systems are also stuck back in dial-up phone land. Not kidding.

Reason Four…

— 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.

Reason Five…

— Your book is produce to a traditional publisher, meaning that after a month or so they no longer care, to them your book has spoiled, and they will do nothing to promote your book after that point, if they promoted it at all ahead of publication.

Reason Six…

— 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. You sell a book tomorrow to traditional and B&N goes down before your book is published, you are done. Chances are your book will never be published, but they will own and keep all the rights to it anyway. (You signed the contract, sorry.)

Reason Seven…

You must write what they want you to write, not what you want to write. And also, you must write slower, do fewer books, and often contracts will keep you from writing for anyone else in any genre and any series. Not kidding.

Reason Eight…

The biggest reason for me. You lose all control of your book. And maybe all of your writing depending on the contract you sign. They put a bad cover on your book, a bad blurb, and give you a bad copyeditor and there is not one thing you can do to change that. Nothing. You have no control at all.


Now, I am sure folks can come up with dozens more reasons to stay away from the big traditional book publishers. But for me I needed to just list these tonight because I sure couldn’t say anything to those poor souls lost in the myth and the rewriting and the desire for fairy dust to be sprinkled on their book by a faceless being in New York.

This really is almost 2019. Too bad so many writers still love dial phones hooked by a long cord to a wall. And heaven help you if you try to hand them a smart phone.





  • Linda Maye Adams

    When I made the break, it was harder than I thought. All of have been to a bookstore and enjoyed going through the shelves to find a new writer we want to read or look for a book by one we love to read. All that feeling makes it hard to think about change…and indie really is a change. The idea of a gatekeeper is a safety net. It says, “They thought I’m good enough!” because a lot of people don’t have that confidence. With indie, you skip that step and put the story out for the world to see. Some of the comments I’ve seen from writers that terrifies them. Revision is a safety net, because they can always go back and feel like they’re making the story better.

    I made the shift from traditional publishing for several reasons. One was how long it took before publishing even happened. You sent it to an agent for a year, or more. If you get interest, it gets shopped to a publisher…probably another year, during which editors can change, marketing can change. The result is at least 2-3 years before the book sees the light of day. And they tell us “We want fresh and knew. But your book has be like an existing one.” That is insane! How can a book be fresh and knew if it’s like an existing one. The final nail was length. I may get longer as I write more (now that I’ve hit a few much needed skill areas), but if I write a novella length story, I probably can’t see it anywhere unless I add to the word count and ruin the story.

    The publishers really need to change their system. They can get a non-fiction book out in a very short period of time and promote it like crazy to get sales…but a novel takes years just to get published…and meanwhile the indie’s are getting books out as fast as they can write, get copy edits, and get covers.

    • Janine

      I find that interesting. Imagine if a non-fiction book about Hurricane Sandy were just getting published now…people would have forgotten about it (unless it’s linked to this year’s hurricanes). Especially with attention spans being so short.

      An indie author I’ve grown to love just released a trilogy and a novella in the span of seven weeks, and let me tell you, it’s high quality stuff. She also released a fourth novel and co written two more this year. That’s seven books! You can see the same story from a lot of indies. Yet we are seeing the same thing from the old guard, 2-3 of pre debut hype and I’m like “when can I read it?” Sometimes, I forget all about a book because of this. I’m trying to remember about some book I heard about two years ago, and I’m not even sure it’s out yet!

  • Philip

    All those legal and financial reasons are reason enough. But for me, I’m almost 40 and just started writing seriously a couple years ago, and my concern is I don’t want to wait a decade to have one lousy book out. I want to be prolific and write in a lot of different genres. I want to catch up, in a sense, to where I could have been.

    I think the value of being traditionally published is itself a myth. I know this because I sometimes still feel the pangs of temptation to pitch an agent. Why? Because I remember the old days of phones you discuss — remember having to answer the house phone with no caller ID? You were rolling the dice every time because I didn’t know if it was your crazy uncle on the line! (Side note: this is why these whippersnappers today don’t know how to talk to people, they didn’t have that battle training). Anyway, I grew up reading traditionally published authors, so it was THE way to be a pro writer. That can be hard to shake, but your blog and books help break it down. There’s a part of us who think we’re going to make $100+ million like Stephen King if only we get one big book deal.

    Here’s another example of creative freedom with being indie: nowadays, a lot of NYC editors and agents want “diverse” books, the definition of which changes daily. If your book isn’t PC or trendy, then they don’t want it. Sorry, but I like, among other genres, old school noir and hardboiled mystery. Books with “dames” and “broads” and violence and booze and not nice words.

    • Janine

      I know of an author that was published with the Big 5 that had his book censored/rejected by NYC editors because it wasn’t PC enough. They terminated his contract, but thankfully got the rights to his books back after going indie, they are selling better than ever and he’s writing even more books to this day.

      It’s one of the reasons why I’m indie publishing. I keep telling the people in my group this, since my stories deal with some topics in a controversial manner (where it might upset the PC crowd) and fear the same thing that happened to him to me, but worse. Many of my writer friends that are pursing agents keep saying “no, NYC won’t censor your book, you’re paranoid”. Even after I tell them the story. I’m right to be paranoid, based on the facts and horror stories I’ve read and heard here and elsewhere. Losing all my rights and control to a bunch of people that I will never meet? No thanks.

      I also find it odd that there’s a section of the indie base that still desires an agent and traditional publishing deal, and I’m wondering, ‘why’? Then again, they might be enamored with the fame or feel it’s the only way to be a legitimate writer. I occasionally have that too, but quickly remind myself of the high price of that fame.

  • E. R. Paskey

    I have a good friend who is still stuck in this dream. She thinks that because a family member has a connection to a big name author she’ll be able to get in touch with a major agent and sell her book traditionally. She also says she’s focused more on the quality of her writing than on producing lots of books and making money. (That’s another ball of wax, obviously.)

    There isn’t much I can say at this point. I’ve tried and all of it slides off like she’s made of Teflon. So I just smile, nod, and keep writing, publishing, and learning.

    I understand the dream, I really do. The problem is that I also understand the reality of today’s publishing world. :/

    • Linda Maye Adams

      That’s like my former cowriter. We were in Washington, DC, which is a dead zone for writing fiction and general creativity. He was convinced first that a romance writer friend could get a foot in the door for us for the thriller we were writing (the romance writer was vehemently anti-gun and, well, it was a thriller. That didn’t end well).

      Then he thought we could network with an agent at a local writing conference and sell the book that way. She enjoyed talking to us, had a blast, and rejected the submission.

      Then he became convinced that the only way we could get the book published was if he networked to the right person.

      Nothing was ever in there about the actual writing…

      • dwsmith

        Linda, yup, the writing tends to be forgotten by so many in traditional, while in indie it is up front for all but the promotional-focused few. I like the writing being the important thing. (grin)

  • Cora

    My Scam-O-Meter went off a number of years ago at a conference. Someone I was chatting with was over the moon. He had a “great” meeting with the agent everyone wanted. This agent had read his manuscript and wanted rewrites. The writer was overjoyed to then pay thousands of dollars to a book doctor that the agent recommended. Who just happened to be the agents wife. I don’t think this guy’s books ever saw the light of day. This was when I swore I’d never go to an agent. The indie world makes it a lot easier to keep my promise to myself.

    • dwsmith

      That was Don Maass. That scam is still running I think because he and his wife never run out of poor baby writers with a dream of talking on a dial-up phone.

      • Sarah Hoyt

        Good Lord. Is that what he’s doing these days? Why am I not surprised.
        (Suppresses swear words.) In pre-history when he was my agent I did a rewrite he demanded (on a pre-sold) book, or he WOULD NOT send it in.
        Of all my books, that one is STILL my lousiest seller.

      • William Barton

        I had several “big name” agents during my traditional publishing career (1973 – 2009), including Maass, and most were worse than useless. In fact, I sold most of my books over the transome. I’m not making as much money indie as I did from trad, but I’m writing better books.

        • dwsmith

          William, yup I had an agent from 1987 to 2005 and I sold all of my own books. That’s right, my agent never sold a book for me out of 106 titles in traditional. Mind-numbingly stupid when I look back on it. As I have always said, I was a sucker for the same myths everyone else buys into. But for some reason I have survived most of them and now can try to warm others. And I am making far more money on just my writing now than I did many years in traditional. Took some years to get here.

  • Edward Perez

    Excellent points Dean.
    I have published my own book and now currently writing book 2.
    A lot of young authors on twitter are posting proudly of their signings with agents and publishers. And it saddens me they still believe in this route. (they most likely have not read your posts or any other authors who lecture on the importance of indie publishing)
    Sometimes I feel as if maybe I’m not a valid author because I chose to not go the traditional route. That maybe my book is not good enough and I need validation from the so called experts. But then I realize I have control over my story. And if my story is good, it will find it’s audience. And I like (love) my stories. I’m entertaining myself. Ha!
    I’m in this for the long haul. I’ve got a full-time job and write when I’m not working and if my writing turns into something I could concentrate full time and quit my job. AWESOME!
    If not, Oh well. I’m still going to write my stories.
    Thank you for the inspiration and sharing your knowledge.
    And by the way this reply has not been edited. Ha! 1st draft.

  • James F. Brown

    All too often, a person’s “dream” can turn into a nightmare. Going with Trad Pub (and their carnivorous contracts) is probably a sure-fire way to wind up living the nightmare instead of the dream.

  • James F. Brown

    “Now, I am sure folks can come up with dozens more reasons to stay away from the big traditional book publishers. “

    The money. To quote Deep Throat, “Follow the money.” Or lack thereof… 🙁

  • Eli

    Dean, thanks for this. I’m just getting back into writing, with a goal of publishing in the near future. Currently all the advice I’m getting on Twitter is find an agent and go traditional, since there’s a free-for-all agent pitch happening on twitter this week. So glad I picked up the Storybundle with your books last month and found my way here. I think you’ve saved me from making huge mistakes later on.

  • allynh

    I’ve been reading through Barry N. Malzberg again. His book of essays, The Bend at the End of the Road, just came out so I pulled out, Breakfast in the Ruins, as well.

    His chapter in Breakfast, Some Notes on the Lone Wolf, talk about him writing ten books in 1973 for a brand new series. That he had done similar numbers before, and saw no problem.

    1970 – 14 books
    1971 – 12 books
    1972 – 9 books

    The stories of the industry are heart breaking as always. What those guys could have done if they had access to the current technology for Indy publishing books. Yet, as you say, people are still trapped in that thinking.

    What will happen when B&N goes away. Here in Santa Fe we have no real bookstores any more. It may take a generation that does not grow up going to bookstores before they let go of the Trad Myth.

  • Jason M

    Choir member here. (raises timid finger)

    At age 21, I viewed a tradpub deal as a semi-obstacle to success — for some of the reasons you’ve mentioned — and not as a goddamned coronation. After all, it was the only game in town. Thank God I never got a seat at that table, but then again I didn’t try all that hard.

    Now, at 43, I am very, very glad that the publishing world has realigned itself and given me the chance to have an independent writing career. Over fifty projects and counting, under both my own pen name and as a ghost.

  • Mary Kennedy

    I wish I could say this to a friend of mine. She just got a deal with a Big 5 publisher, a two book deal for the book she wrote three or four years ago now and another unnamed book. A big enough deal that it was in Publisher’s Weekly. And even while I congratulated her, I wanted to beg her not to do this. I wanted that when she signed with her agent 2 years ago. But I can’t say that, because she’d never believe me; this is, after all, how you become a real writer.

    Her book is due out in 2020. As slow as I write (my 400 words a day), I’m willing to put money on my book coming out first.

    • dwsmith

      Mary, you can’t say anything, just hope she is one of the lottery winners who makes it past book two or three. And then be ready to help, without recriminations, when her career with the traditional publisher collapses and she needs to learn indie or stop writing. That’s when you can help her. But that is five to eight years off, sadly, for all the books this writer will not write in that period of time.

  • Janine

    Dean, perfect timing for this post, since there’s a big twitter pitch event going on today. And I realized a few things.

    First, agents and publishers, while they say they want ‘original’ stories, actually want ‘the same, but different’. For YA SFF (which is my primary genre right now), a teen girl that discovers they are supernatural and finds a love interest (or two) and now has to battle evil with no experience and find out their close ones are liars, all taken super seriously, with little to no humor. Bonus points if you can put a ‘message’ or two in it. My current project diverts quite a bit from the formula (no romance is a big one), and without making major changes, it’s probably a no-sell to traditional publishing. And even if it were to sell, I would have to make changes that I wouldn’t like because someone in New York decided it was more marketable to change the story. That’s if it’s not rejected altogether and at that point, you’re screwed since you signed your rights away.

    Second, so many of my fellow writer friends encourage me to try to get an agent because it’s how it’s done and look at indie publishing as too hard or that nobody will read it. Only one group I hang out with seems to be okay with me going indie due to what I explained above (they are indies). I’m a control freak and I want to know everything was my call, not someone else’s. I spent too many years kowtowing my writing to the demands of others and it suffered. I want to write and publish at my pace, and I think waiting a year or more for the next book (due to publication schedules) is odd in a world where other media is getting published at that pace or faster. Plus, waiting until 2024 to see my book published does not appeal to me.

    Talking about the price, some teens have recently mentioned that the price of YA books are becoming prohibitive for the targeted groups and seem more appealing for adult readers (that’s for another day), and $10 ebooks is still the standard, which I think is too high when I can sometimes get the physical copy for less.

  • emmiD

    Life is weird. In the 80s and 90s I was so focused on getting an agent, selling a book to the trade. I thought, “Get published, and the world is mine.”

    Then my world got all f**ked. My mother declined into dementia, and I was her primary caregiver. I don’t regret any single day, but it was hard and tragic every dang slogging step.

    Go forward to ‘09, and I’m finally writing again, tinkering mostly, just for me. I sent a book around to agents, got the same message: we like the story/ protagonist/ writing but …. so I stopped sending and continued writing for me.

    I finally realized what was going on with the ebook revolution in 2013, but I didn’t really get disciplined with my writing until a year later. I published 4 books in 2015 and haven’t looked back.

    I have lessons still to learn—keeping bum in chair is one, not getting distracted from the primary project is another, but I’m happier with my self-pubbed writing

    The NaNoWriMo newbies have bought into the myths. I cringed when I heard them dream. I cringed more when I heard one long term wannabe (in a local writing seminar) tell a couple of writers to take out a loan, scrap the day job, and finish their MS and send to a publisher, that they would definitely get a contract. No, just no. She wasn’t published herself and she was telling them to do this! And other newbies scribbled down her advice.

    I aimed the two young men at your website but doubt they listened to me. After all, what could I possibly know?

    I decided then to listen only to pros.

    That’s when I also realized I had mercifully escaped the critique group trap, first because of the job and then my mom.

    Like I said, life is weird. I could be a “couple of pubbed books wonder”, bitter about lost chances, angry at my loss of control over my writing. Instead I am happily writing new stories.

    Basically, this is a rant as well as a realization of great gratitude to the providence that delayed my success in writing.

    Thank you, Dean (and Kris), for keeping reality at the forefront.

    Feel free to pass on this post, delete or shorten at will.

      • dwsmith

        I agree, for the most part. But I tend to learn a lot from the writers here and that take classes by the questions everyone asks. So I am learning from authors of all levels, but on advice on how to do something, yes, listen to the people who are farther down the road you want to walk if they walked the same road that is possible today. Traditional publishing is not a possible road today as it was when I came in. That is the key.

  • Tammy

    Hi Dean, great insights as usual- Could you talk sometime about the small press market? Also to avoid? Can they really offer anything nowadays? Thanks.

    • dwsmith

      A small press is a press run by usually one person. You can do what any small press can do, if not more, and easily and keep all the money. Plus, when you start your publishing name, you have started a small press. So do it yourself. In other words, there is no reason in book publishing these days to not control it all.

    • Chong Go

      As Dean said, small presses tend to be run by one person. Guess what happens if they get sick? Or suffer from depression? Or develop an addiction? Or screw up *your* taxes?

      A passionate publisher can be a lot of fun to work with, but that stops when they stop returning your calls, when you can’t find out when your manuscript will be published, or when your royalty checks seem smaller than they should. All the while they are holding the license to your copyright and (usually) that world and characters that you created. This is extra fun when they’re being sued and your books (and essentially copyrights) are considered assets by the court or the IRS. Say goodbye to being able to do anything else with those for *years.*

      • Tammy

        You’re totally right. Run by one person or, sometime even worst: a married couple (this is oddly common). I can imagine what can happen with someone’s books if they break up! Actually I know some guys that run a press by themselves (besides a day job) and are clearly overworked, sometimes even running on medication in order to sleep or wake up.

        • Chong Go

          Ugh. Can you imagine getting your books caught up in a split of assets fight?! I guess that since it’s only one or two people, any bad thing that can happen with an agent can happen with a small press. Like someone’s clueless nephew inheriting the publisher!

    • Sarah Hoyt

      I can see only one use for small presses (and have answered this question countless times, including clueless friends asking me why I don’t publish with x y z who “is doing so well” for his/her writers): anthologies. Anthologies seem to work as cross promoting tools. I.e. get in one with all your friends, and you get a few of each other’s fans.
      But as Dean said, short story market is a different ball game. (And I’ll admit I’m a short story whore. I write one for anyone who asks. Weirdly, it also tends to pay even in small press, as much as it did in trad, just royalties instead of upfront.)

      • dwsmith

        I think short fiction is critical to an indie career because it adds in not only more cash streams, but give you a ton of opportunities for promotion and people discovering your work. So I’m with you, I love writing short fiction.

        Price them at $2.99, Sarah. Unless very short, then drop to 99 cents. Keep the price solid on most short stories. You will be stunned at the income over time of someone of your writing skill.

        • David Cole

          Thanks to both of you. I tend to have a grand old time sprawling my way through 100k-150k novels but love to pull out the “But I’m terrible at short stories” excuse for not working on short fiction, so it’s inspiring and invigorating to be reminded of the importance of developing different skills.

          Speaking of someone of Sarah’s skill, I’d just like to register the fact that I loved every single story in “So Little And So Light,” and have taken those pieces to heart as examples of fiction that’s both fantastic and short.

        • dwsmith

          Nope, never unless it is a major charity thing. My bottom line is 5 cents per word. Not worth my time otherwise.

    • SB

      Someone in a club I’m in decided to become a small publisher. I think another member is her editor, not too sure. Naturally she has a lot of other club members kissing up. I never tried to impress her because I don’t like her personality and more importantly, every single one of her books looks like she did the cover herself in Microsoft Word with the first picture she found in google image search blown up 400%. Unless you have a solid background in graphics don’t ever do your own covers.

      • dwsmith

        SB, don’t agree on the cover part. If you spend the time and care and can do research, anyone can do their own covers and make them look professional. It is not rocket science. What you found with that small press person is someone too lazy to care about quality. To figure out what is quality, simply do research in the genre you are writing in, look at a few hundred covers, pick a few that you really like and that look professional, spend some time learning InDesign (with tutorials) and them imitate. It is scary simple in in workshops we used to do we had writers with no art experience at all doing professional covers in a day or two. Learning InDesign is key one. Second doing the research. Third, imitate covers you like.

        • J.A. Marlow

          A second on the “imitate covers you like.” If you find examples of covers you really like in your genre and subgenres, use the concept as a template to do your own. It’s a fantastic way to learn. You don’t have to design a cover in a vacuum. Research and practice in cover art and design are just as important as in the act of writing itself. This isn’t rocket science. Have confidence in yourself. You can do it!

          • Sarah Hoyt

            Yep. My covers are a mixed bag, as the first ones I was learning and haven’t changed them yet. BUT in general my best ones are “find good covers in genre” and “steal composition.”

            On the way there I’ve got more or less proficient in DAZ 3D and use art background (years of lessons) to make them look “non rendered.”

            BIGGEST issues are things where the covers are mostly indie (Jane Austen fanfic and/or historic mysteries before twentieth century) and wildly inconsistent. Still trying to figure those out.

        • dwsmith

          Thanks, Sarah. And don’t hesitate in writing me if you have questions on indie. You or Dan need to learn how to do your own covers, first off. That opens a ton of things. And suddenly short stories start making you money, but you need to do your own covers and active, exciting blurbs without plot. Have fun with this new path. I have zero doubt you will do great.

  • Harvey Stanbrough

    Howdy, Dean,

    I’m understanding more and more the point you made to me long ago in response to an email I sent you: Paraphrased, you wrote, “If you try to convince writers to abandon the search for an agent and actually BE a writer, you’re spinning your wheels. It’s a complete waste of time.”

    I write an (almost) daily Journal in which I talk regularly about putting time in the chair, WITD, cycling, staying away from agents and trad pubs and others who want to insert themselves in your stories, and a variety of other topics.

    I also know I’m talking mostly to the choir, but that’s all right. To make the Journal more valuable to them, I also regularly list links to other valid sources of information in an “Of Interest” section. Some even enjoy following my numbers as my characters churn out story after story, mostly novels these days.

    Mine is kind of an over-the-back-fence chat with friends, and I enjoy chatting with friends.

    As to the others, I have to remind myself they have their own path to walk, their own trips and falls to experience. I hope for them that someday they’ll develop a non-lemming sense of self-worth, get tired of waiting for someone else to validate their existence, and finally veer off the well-trodden path.

    A quote from Raymond Chandler: “Most critical writing is drivel and half of it is dishonest. It is a short cut to oblivion, anyway. Thinking in terms of ideas destroys the power to think in terms of emotions and sensations.”


  • Janine

    Something I’ve been thinking about lately: I notice that there’s an anti-Amazon rhetoric going around, especially towards those who are highly in favor of traditional publishing. And I’m not just talking about legitimate concerns. It’s to the point where they avoid Amazon anything and will tell their followers online to do whatever they can to buy from an indie bookstore. I know you own some indie bookstores and how important they are, but let me tell you, it’s hard to get an indie book sometimes into these types of stores and if you don’t live in a big city, it can be cost prohibitive to buy a book, easily spend $40 on a single book. Do you think this might be a factor in why some go towards traditional publishing?

    • dwsmith

      I doubt it. It’s just a dream for many with nightmare consequences. What makes me sad is that very few survive. If there was a trail for these folks into traditional and then back out in ten years into a healthy writing life, I wouldn’t fight it so hard, but sadly, for all but a few who are lucky or are exceptions, the path into traditional is a one-way-and-dead-end road. But I made it out, so it is possible, and I know of a number of other traditional published writers with indie careers now who have made it out as well. So it is possible to go in there and come out. Possible, but so is winning the lottery. And I feel like I won the lottery by escaping.

      • David

        We have all won. Certainly.

        Giddy laugh. We control our goals. Our writing, design. covers, blurbs, pricing, distribution, promos, ads, websites.

        Readers control their end of the experience.

        Entertainment win and win. Such fun.

      • Robert W. Franson

        Escaping … more like traditional indifferent neglect in my case: effectively abandonment. So my eventual decision to escape was easy, and accomplishing it with legal help not so bad as it might have been. So now I see a path forward again.

        I appreciate your thoughtful and helpful advice.

  • Bob Cohn

    Thank you for your thoughts. I like to write. I have an MS. Sadly, it’s neither a romance or a mystery. I guess its Myth/Fantasy. I have a second one in the same genre (whatever that is) underway.

    I like writing, and I have been unsuccessful with sales and promotion. I don’t like it, I don’t feel I know anything about it, and I don’t trust myself to do it on my own. If I’m going to do it at all, I need guidance. (Do this. And this. Now change that and do this. no, don’t stop, do it again. No, this way.) I have some of the personal tools, but not the technological ones, and very limited resources.

    Those facts, discoveries, and realizations have impelled me toward traditional rather than independent publishing. I’d welcome any further thoughts on a comparison of the two.

    • dwsmith

      Bob, it can all be learned and does not have to cost much if anything at all. You just have fear from looking into the unknown. Google is your friend these days with a ton of this stuff. As well as great blogs out there like Johanna Penn, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, the Passive Voice and others that will lead you to other good advice.

      It will take you years and years to get into traditional publishing with just one book for a small advance IF YOU ARE LUCKY. In that same amount of time you could learn all of this, take control of everything, write a dozen books, and have your work already out.

      And don’t even bother promoting much until you have about 20 books out. Mostly a waste of time. So you have a ton of time to learn. You just got to get past the fear.

      • freddie

        And don’t even bother promoting much until you have about 20 books out.

        I didn’t discover a favorite indie author until she had ~20 books out. I’d decided to take a chance on a 99c omnibus of three novels, devoured it, and then came racing back for more. While I was price conscious with that omnibus, I wasn’t with the other books. $5.99 x 3? $4.99 x 4? not a problem, just keep downloading.

        Now, I get alerts when she’s published new books and scoop them up without a thought. There have been a few (to me) clunkers, but so far she’s hitting 90%.

        • dwsmith

          And that is exactly how it works. If all that author had was one other book when you found her, you would have forgotten her by now. The amount of work for you to read and the ability to find her because she had enough stuff out is the key to discoverability.

  • eprivate

    Thanks for sharing the information and your experience. Very timely and invaluable for us newbs.

    Just started and it has been a little more than a year. Four books of series published on that giant store which shall not be named. Guess what? The four books, published at different dates in the last 16 months, sold the equivalent of about 25,000 copies. The very first book is now at roughly 11,000 copies. I doubt if I get those figures from being with a tradpub. People can believe those figures or not, it doesn’t matter. I am prohibited anyway from giving exact figures or showing the details of the sales of my books.

    • dwsmith

      If you are indie published, why are you prohibited from exact figures? You are in control of your own work, so my guess is you went to a small press of some sort. Good luck with that.

  • Brad Carl

    God Bless You for writing this. So true. I’ve never been traditionally published and have not had the hankering too for ALL of these reasons, and then some.

    Bottom line, it seems to be an ego-thing. Many of these writers that are living in the past simply want to be able to tell people that they are a “published author.” Well, guess what? So am I. And I bet I make more money than you do from my books, too.

    To each their own, right? But it boggles my mind that people are still grasping at that straw.

    • dwsmith

      To them, Brad, it’s not a straw. It is everything. How they are published is far, far more important than writing and telling good stories. If writing and getting work to readers and having fun telling stories was important, they would never go to traditional publishing. So yup, all ego. They only care about how the book is published, not anything else. Scary but true.

  • Jay

    I get all this. It all makes sense to me. But here is my question: does indie publishing mean you need a large social media presence and/or active blog? These always seem like the unspoken assumption about self publishing.

    I’ve had extremely bad experiences online (death threats, abuse, etc.). I don’t want to subject myself to that again, and honestly I’m not ‘good’ at social media even if I was willing.

    If I want to write but don’t want to expose myself online, or am not good at the social media game, am I just screwed?

    • dwsmith

      Oh, heavens, no, Jay. I don’t do twitter even though someone tells me I have an account and followers, and I am on Facebook all of five minutes a day if that. And no one goes to Facebook to buy books.

      So heavens, no. If it was required, I would be toast. Most authors have no social media presence at all and flat don’t care. You will need a web page where readers can find your books and such, but you sure don’t need to blog.

      • Uncle Lar

        I would argue that as an indie author you very much do need a social media presence, but that it involves the word of mouth that your fan base generates, not necessarily your own personal involvement beyond that web page with a listing of your books and links to purchase.

        • dwsmith

          Yes, fan base is one thing. Agree. But so many writers, me included, don’t do well on social media as it is thought of with things like Facebook. Twitter and such. And honestly, for many of us, it is a fearful thing to have writers tell us all the time we MUST do that. Nope, what we need to do is simply write fun and entertaining books and get them out. The next book is always the best promotion. Old but true cliche.

    • Linda Maye Adams

      I felt a lot of the same way when I took Kristen Lamb’s We are not alone course. It was on how to find your audience with your blog. I struggled a lot with that (or at least I thought I did at the time). Everyone was supposed to cheer each on and visit each other’s pages. Guess who’s they dropped first? Yup. It was humiliating. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was likely because I was trying to avoid writing posts. Six months later, they were all dropping off blogs because it was taking time away from their writing (as in, they were laboring over blog posts for hours, revising them, and probably waiting until the last minute to do all this).

      I don’t do much in social media either. I hate Twitter. It’s like being in a cocktail party and introvert me wants to leave now. And I did get a threat from a possible terrorist on Twitter! (I’m a Desert Storm vet and I posted a link to a Desert Storm article). I reported that to the appropriate places and blocked him. But most of my social media is on my website and my blog. I have a newsletter, too, with all of 3 subscribers (got to start somewhere!).

      For marketing, I’m experimenting with a non-fiction book for February release. I picked the title by doing Amazon keywords. The February date coincides with the release of a book on the same topic from a traditional publisher. I’m hoping that it’ll show up below his and readers will buy both (tempting them with a .99 price to the $12 price of his ebook). I’m also planning for a fiction release so I can see if I can get some reviews. Planning releases is new for me. I usually just tossed them up and went off, but I’m now following my instincts that I need to do something more.

      The marketing and social media presence is really about what you are comfortable and have time to do.

  • Heather

    Very true blog post 🙂 A couple more reasons to not work in tradpub (based on my experience):

    -If you want to touch base with the designer, copy editor, marketing team, etc…you can’t. You have to go through your editor, who may or may not relay the message. You editor is the middle man—it’s very inefficient. The editor should edit, not be the product manager.
    -speaking of inefficiency, it takes 12-18 months after acceptance to be published. That cray.
    -Traditional publishing is pretty unethical. (I’m young, so I don’t know if it’s always been like this.) My friend has a small-press editor who needed money for her wedding, so she used his royalties. He still hasn’t seen that money. My big traditional publisher, I discovered, laundered the NYT bestseller list to get my name on there. Yikes. I can’t work with dishonest people.

    I went indie with this last book and loved it. We all live and learn ?

    • dwsmith

      Heather, yup, both happen all the time and has for years. Especially with small press and agents on the money stuff. Get your money coming directly to you from the publisher, not through your agent. And where agents really rip you off is on overseas sales. Make sure you get all your expected royalty reports from every overseas publisher if you have those sales. The money stops at the agency simply because the author doesn’t know about what is owed.

      And working the Times list is normal, which is why even though I have been on the Times list a bunch of times, I call myself a USA Today Bestseller because the USA Today list is clean. Times list is all fake but gets all the attention. It has always been that way, sadly. Just exactly like walking into a B&N and seeing the #1-20 lists of books on end-caps. The publishers buy all those spots, the higher the number, the more it costs.

      And yes, indie publishers can do the same thing. But there is no point and no return on investment to do so, which is why a lot of us indies who know how to play the B&N games don’t bother.

  • Jeremy Kester

    It’s that control reason that does it for me. I may never become a big selling indie writer, but to have that control, to know that if I fail, I fail on my terms is important to me. I don’t need that magic fairy dust, the fun of the writing is enough for me. Thanks for this post!

  • Brad R. Torgersen

    Pricing on e-books especially is where I think Trad Pub shoots itself in the foot. Paging through any category’s Top 100 on Amazon shows that most indie authors are jockeying in the realm beneath $5, while it’s not uncommon for Trad Pub to peg e-books at $8 or $10 or even $12 to $14 — or more! — for an electronic book which has to somehow compete with the other books. All priced far lower. I saw this with my new Trad Pub release just this past week. A Star-Wheeled Sky had a good run at its e-book categories, and I’ve got a large enough pool of extant fans that I know my paper and Audible sales will be fairly good too. But it’s hard to notch up into the Top 20 when the e-book is as much as a Mass Market Paperback, and MMPs are now running almost ten bucks. Most prospective buyers really have to trust you, to plunk out that much cash on an e-book. Trad Pub seems to be assuming that this unrealistic pricing model can be maintained indefinitely. While Barnes & Noble shows increasing signs of major restructuring and/or store closure. Definitely a weird time to be working in Trad Pub. Anyone not paying attention to indie, is doing himself (or herself) a disservice. I just wish Amazon wasn’t the single point of failure for 90% of indie careers.

    • dwsmith

      If Amazon is a single point for anyone, they are doing it wrong. Most longer-term indie writers I know make about 30% of their money from Amazon. At WMG we are less than that, actually.

      I shout constantly about the dangers of KU and depending on it. But that shout has been ignored for the most part, at least at the moment.

  • Shirleen Davies

    Love your post!
    I’m asked all the time about why I went Indie from the start. My answer is always the same:
    Ownership of my work, creative control, and money…money…money.

    Then again, it may have been easier for me to go this route after a ton of years in business. I had no qualms about learning what I’d need to do and delegating to competent professionals for cover design, editiing, proofreading, and format conversions.

    I do differ on the subject of social media. Most indies I know do have a FB author page, and the successful ones use FB Groups to pimp each series. I have three groups and they’re all active. It takes about 20 minutes at week (yea, a week) to manage them. Not a big investment of time. I don’t care much about Twitter, like Pinterest for fun, and am learning about Instagram, but very slowly.

    Again, a great post. Thanks!

  • HGS

    Hi Dean — Thank you for posting this. I’ve asked you this before, but it’s been almost a year (and we know how things can change drastically in less than a year): When you say “traditional publishing,” does that include some of the big audiobook publishers? With their contracts, are they more like the short fiction publishers (writer-friendly) or more like the big-five book publishers (screw the writer)?

    • dwsmith

      With any contract, you need to be careful, but with the big audio companies, they tend to be exclusive but time limited. And from the contracts I have seen, they are reasonable for the most part, not grabbing rights they don’t need. But still approach with caution, give them what they need and nothing more. And make sure they are time-limited.

      Time-limited in a snap-back sense, meaning after a certain time the rights automatically revert. In the big five traditional publishing, the limitations clauses are no longer limitations and are called “claw-back” which means you must go begging and try to claw them out. Never sign a claw-back contract. Only snap-back. Automatic reversion. No big five traditional publisher will give that to you, sadly. But audio publishers that is the norm. Same with most good short fiction publishers.

  • Sigrid Heath

    Thank you for this. I’ll turn 72 at the end of January. Right around then, I’ll be publishing my first novel. I’m doing it absolutely, unapologetically, very happily indie. I’ve spent several years on it, working between other lives, learning the craft as I go, driven to tell this story (19th century, American West, two female protagonists). At first I wanted that wall phone. But I literally don’t have the time, and am not interested in ceding any degree of control. It’s going to be a fine book, and I have more stories to tell.

    • dwsmith

      Wonderful, Sigrid. Keep having fun telling stories. I am only a couple years younger than you and I feel like I am just getting started as well.

  • Margaret R Brazear

    Some forty years ago, I sent a 50,000 word manuscript off to a publisher. These were the days of typewriters, carbon paper and typewriter rubbers. If you changed a couple of lines, the whole thing had to be retyped and renumbered.

    I had a nice letter in reply, saying nice idea, but not for us. Perhaps it is not such a bad thing to have a serious aversion to rejection, as I never sent another ms off again. Then I discovered kdp and retyped that manuscript (it was a carbon copy) and published it. It has some great reviews and some wonderful comments from other, successful authors. I now have thirty books published; I haven’t made a fortune, but that’s ok. If I decide to change something, add a character or two, decide it will be better in third person instead of first, I have only myself to ask.

    When I pointed out a particularly glowing review to my daughter and son-in-law, he said: ‘you’ll soon get a proper publisher’ – I told him, why would I want one of those? Less control, less output and less money. That’s the problem. Other people’s perceptions, those who think every trad published author is earning J.K. Rowling or Stephen King type money.

    New authors still think trad or vanity is the only way to go. I found out by accident, when I got one of Amazon’s book recommendations. One of them was about self publishing and I read the look inside cynically thinking some idiot was trying to recoup the money he had paid to a vanity. I was wrong.

    Recently someone sent a newspaper article to a friend of mine about a local author who was doing a book signing in the local school; it was intended to say: ‘hey, look, she’s got a proper publisher’. In fact, when I looked up the ‘proper’ publisher, I discovered it was a vanity. She could have published herself and spent the money on advertising.

    There is not enough visibility of kdp and when I speak of it, almost always the first question is: ‘how much does it cost?’

    There are still bloggers and the like writing about how a book that only takes a couple of months to write can’t be any good, ignoring the fact that with word processors it’s all much quicker. I tend to think the opposite myself. So glad to read a sensible article about these dinosaurs.

  • J. L. Parker

    Sorry to be a lone dissenter, here, but Indie publishing isn’t as wonderful as you make it sound. Yes, you can write whatever you want and put it up for sale online. But good luck getting anyone to notice it without a huge investment in time and money. (5 minutes a day on FB isn’t going to hack it.) Before that, a good book needs to be edited. Really. Decent editors cost money (though they’re worth it.) Then there’s the cost of a good cover.

    If all you want is your words in print that your friends and family can read, then go for it. Enjoy. But if you want your book available in book stores and libraries as well as online, to get credible reviews (not just from friends) and be eligible for traditional awards, you’re going to have to go the traditional route.

    • dwsmith

      I let this through for the sole reason to show everyone here the kinds of myth-filled posts and comments I get. I wouldn’t be able to count all the myths J.L Parker spouted I’m afraid.

      And thus, this kind of thing is why I normally don’t let these kind of comments through. But J.L. was at least not insulting toward me or any of you. Just frighteningly lost in myths.

      So let me take just one minute to point them out. #1, it takes no money to get discoverability. And no amount on social media either. Just write good stories and get enough of them out there and the sales slowly rise over time. And if you edit a book (by some story doctor) you lose what makes your book good, your voice, your originality. You should copyedit it for typos and such, that’s it.

      And covers you can learn to do yourself. It takes time, but once you understand how to steady and imitate good covers, and have inDesign, you can do covers yourself in a hour or so and for a few bucks in art. All professional.

      And any indie can and does get their books into bookstores all the time. Just takes a simple understanding of the distribution system through Ingrams and B&T and a membership in ABA to get word out to bookstores your book exists. Easy, actually. Usually not worth indie time and energy, but stupidly easy to do. Traditional book publishers do not have fairy dust to sprinkle on books to go into bookstores. Indies do it all the time, plus we can sell off our own sites as well.

      So folks, don’t be mean to J.L. He was polite. Just lost.

      • Elise Stone

        I’d never be mean to J.L., since you and I have had a couple of not-pretty disagreements in the past. In fact, it’s taking a lot for me to post this at all, but there was one phrase in his post that I had to respond to.

        “be eligible for traditional awards”

        Six or seven years ago, a local writer gave a talk on “The Road to Publication” at our Sisters in Crime chapter. He was fresh from winning a best first novel award at one of the larger mystery conventions (and full of himself, but that’s another topic). Eventually, the question came up as to why he’d decided to go the traditional route rather than indie publish.

        His response: “I want to have it all.”

        Having it all, in his definition, meant hobnobbing with the big name authors and winning the Edgar and all the trappings of having written. (He eventually moved back to LA because my city didn’t have any of those big names.)

        Last year (or maybe two years ago), some other comment about awards reminded me of him and it struck me that I hadn’t heard about any books by him in a very long time. I searched the internet and discovered that the only thing he had published since the third book in the series that included the award-winner was as co-author of some unknown’s biography.

        Apparently, the award didn’t get him past his initial three-book contract. And he wasn’t motivated enough to go indie. I might not have an award on my shelf, but I do have nine published novels on mine. I’m happy with that.

        • dwsmith

          Good post, Elise. Thank you.

          And also note, most awards these days include indie and small press published stories and books. In fact, a WMG Published story by Dave Hendrickson recently won the Derringer Award for best short story and then was republished in the Best American Mystery Stories. WMG Publishing stories regularly get nominated and are on ballots for awards. So again the thinking of indie published stories can’t win awards is just flat silly these days.

  • Harvey Stanbrough

    For J. L., I can also say recently a LOT of my fiction and nonfiction sales have been through Biblioteca and other library resources. And all of my books are indie published. (My first two nonfiction books were traditionally published. The best deal I got back then was a 10% royalty and a short run. I’ll never go back.)

    Today, I get royalty statements every month (minimum 70%). I get about 1/4 of my writing income through Amazon, about 1/4 (currently) through library sales, and the other half from booksellers both in America and around the world through Kobo, B&N, Apple, Tolino, Overdrive and others.

    So it’s not only possible but actually happening, even as dozens or hundreds or thousands of would-be writers sit on their hands waiting for a traditional contract.

  • Linda Maye Adams

    For JL: Many writers come in with one book and take years to write the next. It’s very hard getting sales for only one book because the writer constantly has to seek NEW readers. Readers who enjoy the book don’t have anything else they can buy, so they go off and find other books. Whereas, I discovered an indie writer this year and really enjoyed the book I bought–and she had 20 more, which I bought all. And I subscribed to her on Amazon so I could get, and the next one in the series when it came out.

    Contrary to Harvey above, I don’t have a lot of sales, though I get some each month–from about 40 titles–and I did land a book in StoryBundle. I’m hoping to change the sales by some strategic thinking about when I release books and focusing more on longer fiction. For example, I’ve written a non-fiction book that I’m going to release in late January. The title is an Amazon keyword, so people will land on it when they search for those words. It’s also coming out at the same time as a book from a traditional publisher on the same title, and that’s likely to turn into a best seller. If my book appears below his, maybe people will buy it at the same time as his. But the biggest thing–get more novels in my series out. People cannot buy more of my books if I haven’t written them.