On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: Some Perspective On 2012

Interestingly enough, 2012 was the first seemingly stable year in the new normal we are all living in the publishing industry. 

Does that mean that nothing changed? Of course not. Some things changed, but not like 2009-2011.

And some things will continue to change. But when you step back and look at the business in general, the changes in 2012 were pretty minor and predictable and normal.

So just for fun, I thought I would go over what I consider the fairly major changes in publishing that happened so far in 2012.

And try to give a little perspective from the advantage of watching and living inside of publishing for thirty-five years now.

Traditional Publishing

In 2012, traditional publishers were in a normal state of flux. They cut warehouses and printing costs as a reaction to reduction of print sales. That move has been expected for decades. They are adding in more ways to get books into electronic editions where more profit-per-unit-sale lives. Just normal “run to the money” thinking of all publishers.

A number of them are in lawsuits with the DOJ over agency pricing, but all the short-term repercussions of that suit are already worked into the systems. So nothing new. We eventually return to the old system that worked just fine for many, many decades.

Traditional publishers have already started the expected cutting of book lines and mergers. They are also starting new book lines. This will happen at both large and small scales. Smaller publishers will continue to grow into the areas left behind and become big publishers over the years. This has been the nature of publishing for longer than any of us have been alive, so nothing new there at all.

And following the trend that started three or four years ago, they are working to tie down as many writers’ books as possible, and control as many rights. So their contracts in 2012 overall continued to become less and less writer friendly.

So for the most part, traditional publishers are just on cruise control and doing fine.

Traditional publishing “impact events” that might happen in the near future…

— The US or European courts start messing with the “First Sale” doctrine of copyright law. There are a bunch of cases in courts right now around the world that could cause all sorts of issues with big publishers and small and indie publishers as well, depending on the rulings. Right now, electronic books are not sold, they are licensed. (The person buying the book license has no rights to do anything with the book except read it.) But if the courts rule that an electronic book sale is an actual “sale” and “First Sale” applies, then things will shift dramatically in many, many areas. (The very least of which is “used electronic books.”) There are other aspects of “first sale” rulings coming as well that could affect international sales.

— Traditional publishers catch a clue and go vertical, meaning opening stores and selling direct to customers instead of direct to the distribution chain only. That will shift everything, but so far I see no major publisher doing that at all, or even talking seriously about it, even with the distribution chain shrinking and moving to a more direct-to-customer approach in many other areas. They will be forced to face this new sales world at some point, but it might be years.

Indie Publishing

More and more writers, both new and established, moved to indie publishing in 2012. Or more accurately, electronic publishing of their own work. Very, very few indie publishers bother with paper editions, even though sales of electronic books are around the 25% of all trade sales number, with the remaining amounts being paper.

And many US indie publishers also stay with just one bookstore, (Amazon) which has around 55-60% of the US market now of electronic books sold in 2012 and very little percentage overseas outside a few countries.

So the indie publishing movement near the end of 2012 is still in some flux, as it should be after only three or so years in this new electronic-added world. Many writers are doing books or backlist titles themselves, but at the same time indie publishing is seeing the early adaptors starting to get discouraged and dropping out.

Again, this is nothing new in publishing. To make a career in publishing, you have to be ready for a long haul, often over decades. Most writers who went indie two years ago didn’t want to do that, didn’t find the “gold” they were promised after a ton of wasted promotion efforts, and have stopped. Nothing unusual at all. Writers starting off and then quitting was always the way it was even when I came into publishing back in the dark ages. Nothing different. But now it’s not quitting after fifty rejections, it’s quitting after three books up and very few sales.

At the end of 2012 we are also seeing a rise in larger indie presses and indie distributors. No surprise there. There is a need and gaps to fill as traditional and mid-range publishers shift around. Again, this movement to fill a void has been standard in publishing over the decades.

In 2012, indie publishers had to grapple with Kindle Select and the value of that system. I doubt it will have much impact going forward.

Indie publishing got a huge gift from Kobo with the opening of their direct portal.

Smashwords, the largest distributor of indie work, got faster and cleared out a bunch of bugs in 2012, but still have a horrid accounting system that will eventually drive all but the erotica authors away. But it seems from the outside that Smashwords clearly had a good year even though the Kobo move had to really have hurt them.

During 2012, indie publishing also got to experience (for the first time) the normal fluctuations of publishing seasons, since the explosion of electronic sales no longer masked the standard ups and downs of the publishing sales cycles. This, of course, drove a ton of beginning indie writers (who watch every sale) completely nuts and sent off waves of conspiracy theories.

Also in 2012, the early adaptor price of 99 cent ebooks caused that price range to become a no-mans’ land for most regular book buyers who came into the market last fall and Christmas. That helped indie writers make more money by getting their prices up just under traditional publishers electronic prices.

During 2012, indie publishing also got a huge gift and allowed indie writers to easily go international. IBooks is in over 50 countries, Kobo is even more, B&N electronic got a foot into England, and Amazon expanded to both India and Japan in a very limited fashion.  And both the major POD distributors, CreateSpace and LightningSource are selling in Europe.

Also, the world is one more year farther away from the stigma that used to be attached to self-publishing your own work. There are still idiots out there holding on to that old belief, but they are few and far between and have no power to influence anything.

Indie publishing “impact events” that might happen in the near future…

— See the comment above about “First Sale” court cases. Major impact if that goes in a number of different directions for indie publishing. We can only wait and see.

— A rise of major indie publisher distributors… When indie publishers ban together for paper books, they can easily get their books into any major box store. This will take a few years to develop fully, and there will be fits and starts and some distributor failures, but watch it. It will be very large very shortly.

— The Kobo move into indie bookstores. This is huge and mostly behind the scenes so far. Kobo is running free classes for indie bookstore owners on how to profit from selling electronic books. And through the ABA (American Booksellers Association), Kobo will be putting Kobo reading devices on consignment into most major indie bookstores. Kobo is the next major player because they are both international and will be vertical, allowing electronic books to be sold through cash registers in brick and mortar bookstores. They also, with the merger with a company from Japan, have very deep pockets and money to spend. Watch this one closely. Kobo selling electronic through brick-and-mortar bookstores is a world-changer if it works. We’ll get a glimpse of it starting up in 2013.


Agents had a horrid year in 2012 and the future does not look bright for an area of publishing that, for the most part, seems to have outlived its value. Many agents, ignoring any hope of pretending to be an actual “agent” under agency law, opened up their own publishing arms to take care of writers too lazy or afraid to do electronic backlist publishing themselves. Many other agents just turned themselves into scams to make a living off of taking writers’ money.

There are still a ton of great agents out there, but often they work for agencies that have sticky-finger issues with client’s money.

Agents started spreading the myth in 2011 and increased the push in 2012 that writers needed agents to sell movie deals and overseas deals. A total myth, of course, in this new world of world-wide email. But it helped agents feel relevant to focus on an area that before was only a sidelight for them.

And the traditional publishers still have on their guidelines that you need an agent to sell a book, even though most smart writers have figured out that guideline is just a tissue paper roadblock to ignore. Just like the old “no unsolicited manuscripts” was when I came in.

Also, with traditional publishing contracts getting so nasty over the last four years as publishers made rights grabs, agents can’t negotiate a contract anymore. They are not lawyers. These days you need an IP attorney familiar with publishing contracts to even get close to a decent contract.

This area is the buggy whip area of publishing and I sure can’t see much that will save most agents over the next decade or so.

Agent “impact events” that might happen in the near future…

— Many large traditional publishers are in the process of setting up direct submission systems. Because of the draconian contracts that take all rights from writers, it is in traditional publishers’ best interests to get as many books headed their way as possible and not stopped by agents. Electronic submissions systems direct to traditional publishers (already going in a number of smaller genre lines) will put the final coffin nail in the agent world. This is happening fast in many major companies and you will start seeing these new systems appear in late 2013 and the year beyond. And that will start killing the “you need an agent to be published” myth.


For writers, 2012 has just been another great year in the second golden age of fiction. Writers, both new and old-timers like me, have discovered indie publishing. Many writers are working both sides of the fence just fine, as I am. And as my wife is. But now we don’t have to wait on late contracts, late payments, and agents if we don’t want.

And the strange or cross-genre work we produce now can get to readers.

2012 was a year that started to prove that being able to sit in a chair and produce is a valuable skill in writing once again, just as it was in the first golden age of fiction in the 1930s and 1940s.  Readers want more books and stories from favorite authors and don’t understand the “only one book per year” thinking of traditional publishers.

Writers can now get direct feedback at times from readers, something that was almost impossible under the old system.

But in 2012, there was also a split between writers, people who write, and authors, people who have written and like to promote. A ton of myths have sprung up around promotion and what works and what doesn’t. We’ve had some of those discussions here as well. This silliness will continue.

But thankfully, the war between traditionally published writers and indie writers started to sputter in 2012, flared up a few times, and then mostly just vanished as more traditional writers started to work their backlist into indie. There are still a few idiots on the traditional side who flat haven’t bothered to get their heads out of dark places and look around, but they will go away with time. And there are the hotheads on the indie side who look down on traditional published writers. They are usually beginning writers afraid of the larger world.

The main word I heard this last year from writers was “freedom.” It seems that suddenly we all feel free to write what we want, not what we think some editor and sales force might like. That’s great fun and really became a clear force in 2012.

We also have the freedom to not take bad contracts from traditional publishers if we don’t want. That’s a fantastic bargaining chip in a negotiation, so smart writers gained power over the last year. And now writers who care about their work have an option.

“Control” was a word I also heard a great deal from writers in 2012. Control of covers, control of the proofing, control of the quality, control of the rights. All that control became very important and part of many conversations for writers this year. And that is, let me simply say, fantastic!! I expect those conversations to continue and increase in the coming years.

So writers (with all the changes becoming normal) gained control and freedom. 2012 was a year for writers to try to figure out what each of us wanted to do with that new control and that new freedom. Every writer is different and every writer this last year seemed to react in a very different way. It’s going to be great fun to see how those two words keep pushing the conversations over 2013.

Control and freedom. A real golden age in writing for writers.

Writer “impact events” that might happen in the near future.

— See the discussion about the “first sale” under traditional publishing above. I have no idea how that’s going to be ruled on in all the different cases, but it’s important to writers. Watch the cases, folks. I will try to report on the important ones here.

— Scams are going to take out more and more writers in the coming years. The scams that take writers’ money are becoming so thick it’s hard to tell the good players from the scammers. From “publishers” willing for a percentage fee to put your book up to “editors” willing for a fee to read a writer’s work to “agents” willing for a percentage fee to help you try to sell your book. And so much more. A lot of writers will lose their dreams or a number of books or at least a lot of money before this trend calms down again. It has gotten beyond ugly and I see it only getting worse before it gets better.

— Writers are going to lose all rights to millions of books (traditional publisher’s rights grabs and writers signing something because they feel desperate).  Many writers will be sued by publishers and publishers will be sued by writers as more and more writers try to break out of horrid contracts they signed.  The writers will lose most of the cases because they signed the contracts. Over the next five years a lot of case law will be built on all this. And most of it won’t favor the writers I’m afraid.


2012 was the first “new normal” year we have been through. Publishing sales trends have now applied to indie press work, and a vast majority of established writers are moving some backlist or all of their work to their own press.

Traditional publishing is going along just fine, taking and controlling more and more book rights from poorly represented writers who don’t know what they are signing. Traditional publishers face some major changes, but not in the near future. Profits right now are solid in almost all the major corporations’ quarterly reports. But they will be faced with more and more writers turning away from bad contracts. A few of the smaller imprints and publishers and a few editors might start the process of pulling that trend back. But it will take years.

Writers are not used to the “control” and “freedom” concepts just yet. Old myths die very, very hard. So agents will keep taking advantage of new writers, and new writers will continue to sell all rights to their novels for next to nothing.

When boiled down, it is a game of control here at the end of 2012.

— Traditional publishers want to control all rights and the writers that work for them.

— Agents feel their control and place in the industry slipping away.

— And writers are learning how to use the control and freedom they have gained over the last few years.

But even with all that, 2012 has been a pretty stable year. I have a hunch that unless one of the major impact events actually happen, 2013 will be about the same.

And that’s great fun.

Stay tuned.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

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