On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: The Death of an Indie Writer’s Career

K.W. Jeter and I, on a recent post, had a discussion that started with me misunderstanding something he was saying. And when we finished, I figured that the topic might be something that most new indie publishers just don’t have the perspective to understand.

So let me try to give a little perspective and maybe save your writing and publishing life.


In traditional publishing, in the past, writers that hang around for a few decades tended to get jaded about new writers coming in. We would try to help the ones that had the drive and a light in their eyes, but mostly we just watched the new writers come and go.

The old grind of submissions, rejections, a few sales, no real money, more rejections, and stupid agent and publishing business myths caused many, many writers to fail either early or after three to five novels. The writer would just vanish and then one day someone would ask “What ever happened to…” But mostly, sadly, we just didn’t notice that the writer had gone back to the real world.

Just this last week a writer of a few books made news for some vague reason by announcing she was going back to teaching instead of writing. Both Kris and I went, “Why is that news?”

It happens all the time and it has happened for as long as this business has existed. I couldn’t begin to list the hundreds and hundreds of well-published writers who have vanished just since I came into publishing. And those are the well-published ones. That doesn’t even take into account the ones that sold one or two stories and walked away.

Walking Away Can Be A Good Thing

I am not saying walking away is a bad thing. Not in the slightest.

I walked away from professional golf, architecture, and law, to name just three of my former possible careers. I have a degree in architecture and worked as an architect for all of ten months before walking away. I went to three years of law school and walked away before my last test my last semester. I was a golf professional for many years and now haven’t played much golf in years except for fun and dinner on the line.

Sometimes, when you realize something isn’t right for you, walking away is the best decision. Especially from bad jobs or bad relationships. Life is too short.

I’ve walked away from writing three times, but just kept coming back. Sometimes you have to walk away from something to reset, get perspective, and just recharge.

So nothing wrong with walking away for the right reasons.

That, in fact, is the secret to having a long career that people remember. You walk away and quit all you want. Or get pounded down by the business. But you stand back up. You just keep coming back.

So Now Comes Indie Publishing

With indie publishing, we have gained a freedom we didn’t have before.

When traditional publishing gave up their monopoly on distribution to readers and stores, writers gained the freedom to publish and get readers to maybe buy stories and books that might not have ever seen the light of day.

This is a good thing and a bad thing and a neutral thing.

(The stupidity of “poisoning the well” thinking just drives me nuts and I’m not going into it here. It shows (by the person uttering such garbage) a complete lack of understanding of the business and how readers pick books and of the size of the publishing industry worldwide. So please don’t bring it up again. They said the same thing about poisoning the internet a while back (as Camille pointed out) and the internet seems to work fine still.)

The Good Things

—Readers can find stories that they never would have found before. Readers can find niche stories that never would have been published because of lack of large enough audience.

—Readers can find new writers with unique voices that could not get through the traditional tightness of sales, sales, sales thinking.

—Writers can make money almost from moment one on a story or book. More writers will be making a living writing fiction. More writers will become very rich.

—Short stories are coming back strong.

—Writing fast will again be a good thing and not limited by publishing schedules.

—Quality storytelling will be important.

—Writers will understand all the aspects of publishing, from values of covers, to writing blurbs, to promotion that works and doesn’t work.

All good, and much more.

The Neutral

—The same courage will be needed to publish a book as it took to mail a book.  Same learning curves and time and fear, just different knowledge.

—Time to success or failure is the same. It used to take a long time for a book to get bought and make any money for the writer. That is the same in most cases indie publishing. Sales early are always slow and discouraging, just as rejection slips were.

—First pages, great writing, and great promotion either in submission packages or in your published book do exactly the same thing. And bad ones also stop sales just as effectively.

The Bad

The bad is pretty much the same as it was in traditional publishing, the problems just show up differently.

—A writer thinks one or two novels will make them rich and famous. Old days rejection or a small sale stopped this thinking and sent the writer packing. New world the writer publishes the book electronically and makes only a few sales. Exactly the same.

—Writers have no one to blame. With editor rejections, writers could blame the stupid editors or the system. With indie publishing, there is no one to blame. And new writers hate and can’t seem to take responsibility for the fact that maybe their book just doesn’t attract readers. Now they blame it on the noise or their price or something else just as silly. Rejections by editors made it easy. Rejection by readers is another matter. And it hurts worse, actually.

—Sales and success take time to build. In traditional publishing, a new writer counted rejection slips over months or years, sometimes for many of us, into the hundreds and hundreds of rejections. Now writers who don’t know or understand the time publishing takes, watch Kindle sales every day and wonder why they are only making a few sales. Traditional publishing forced writers to be patient. Indie publishing writers haven’t learned that yet and many never will.

—The learning curve to publish a book seems harder than mailing a manuscript to the correct editor. It really isn’t, but it seems harder. And that perception stops many, many writers who don’t even know where to start.

There are more bad things, but let me just leave it at those major ones.

A Good and Bad Thing

—Writers have choices now.  That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. In the days of traditional publishing only, a writer pretty much had one path to follow to get in the door and get his writing bought and distributed to readers. The details varied, but the path was clear. We had to deal with the publishing system and have agents.

Now, even to sell to traditional publishing houses we don’t need agents, can use IP lawyers for contracts, and can even send editors already published books. We can now indie publish or go traditional or go both. All writers have many choices now, and that’s a good thing, but also a bad thing in knowing which choice to make. And there are no right answers. And that makes it harder.

How To Survive

Writers today need to learn a few things that were taught in the process of trying to break into traditional publishing.

— Sales take time.

— Learning how to write quality stories takes time.

— No one knows what will sell or not sell at any moment to readers.

— Everything takes time, but the writing must always come first.

— You must always strive to keep learning, both about business and about craft.

— You must become a business person and take responsibility for your own business decisions. And take control as well.

The Death of an Indie Writer’s Career

So let me illustrate by example how this will go these days.

— Indie writer gets all excited about writing, has written a novel or two or five and a few short stories. Hates the idea of going to traditional publishers. Too much work, not enough control even though they have no real idea what any of that really means.

—Indie writer becomes an indie publisher, reads blogs like this one and Konrath and others who say it can be done. So they go learn how to do it. (In reading my blogs or early Konrath blogs or others, the indie publisher in his or her excitement only pays attention to the success cases and not the math of slow growth.)

— Indie publisher gets up a book, watches the numbers, does lots of blogging, Twitter, Facebook, and sells ten or twenty copies in the first month and is discouraged. (Indie Publisher does not do the math of how much money they would make at that pace over ten years, or even consider the book might grow in sales if there were more books up.)

— Indie publisher puts up another book or two, sales remain about the same. (Indie publisher only watches Kindle because they believe that’s the entire world instead of waiting and totaling numbers six or eight months later from the entire world of sales and then figuring that might increase or remain the same for ten years.)

— Indie publisher panics, lowers price of novels to 99 cents, gets a few more sales, does more blogging and Twitter and Facebook instead of writing more. Nothing helps.

— Indie publisher doesn’t think that maybe their stories are not up to levels yet that will sell, or that their blurb sucks, or their cover doesn’t work. They just keep trying to promote, which does nothing to help. (That’s like whipping a dead horse to get it to run faster. A dead book is a dead book. Leave it alone and move on. Let it sell its five copies per month.)

— Indie publisher runs out of time and patience and since they haven’t been writing, they see no hope.  Their first check is $25.00.

— Indie publisher gives up and walks away, telling all their friends you can’t make any money in indie publishing unless you are lucky.

Not one word about not being a good enough writer, not one word about how their own stories just didn’t interest people because they had just two characters talking in a white room in their openings. Not one word of taking responsibility for their own slow start. Or that slow starts are normal in publishing.

This is already happening all the time. And honestly, that worries me a little. Normally a writer got discouraged after a couple dozen rejections that took a year or more. Now a writer can come in, try it, and quit in less than a few months. That time difference often allowed a writer in the old system to learn something new and keep going. Not any more.

So How To Avoid This Death?

— Think Long Term.

A novel selling twenty copies around the world for $4.99 will make you $35.00 per month, $420.00 per year, $4,200 in ten years.  If you got a $5,000 advance from a traditional publisher with an agent, you would lose your book rights for at least that long and make  $4,250 spread over three years.

— Keep Writing.

If you have ten novels selling ten copies, you make $350.00 per month, $4,200 per year, and $42,000 in ten years.

— Set Pricing.

Price your novel at a decent price like $3.99 or $4.99 or $5.99 and leave it alone.

— Stop Checking Numbers.

Check your sales numbers once a month. Let them alone, focus on producing more books and writing more books.

—Stop Comparing Yourself to Joe Konrath or John Locke.

They are on the fringes, just as you can’t compare your sales in traditional publishing to Nora Roberts or Stephen King. If you stay in long enough, you might become one with sales like them, but not early on.

—Keep Learning.

All your focus in the early years should be on learning. Writing and publishing and business. You can’t stop learning. And all your early stuff just consider good practice and if you make money on it, great, be happy.

— Celebrate Every Sale.

A reader thought your book was good enough to pay for. Trust me, that’s the highest compliment you can get. Period.


This new age of indie publishing gives all of us writers a wonderful opportunity. It lets us write what we want, when we want, and sell it how we want.

But this new world, just as the old one, also has a lot of land mines that can send you spinning away from your dream.

Those of us who have been around don’t even notice when a young writer vanishes. It is so common as to be sad.

Set your goal to not be one of them.

And keep having fun.



Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean