On Writing,  publishing,  Topic of the Night

The New World of Publishing: The Real Price of Traditional Publishing

Authors Pay a High Price for Traditional Publishing.

This new world of publishing now allows authors to make many publishing choices after they finish a book. That’s a great thing compared to just ten years ago.

Now an author can go the old traditional route, they can go full indie and do everything. Or they can publish somewhere in the middle, taking responsibility for all the work, but hiring out parts, or all of the tasks needed to be done.

A thousand choices in the process now. And that’s a very, very good thing for authors in the abstract.

But all choices have costs. This post is about the costs of going traditional with your novel.

First, a little about my route to this point.

For my first 40 years in publishing, I chased only traditional and made my living through traditional publishing for over two decades and hundreds of short stories and over a hundred traditionally published novels.

Then back in the gold rush days of electronic publishing in 2009-2011, I stopped traditional publishing and did everything myself (except copyediting). I got out and into book form over 200 titles under a business name.

Since that point, I changed back to the middle ground and pretty much hire everything done except for the covers and paper formatting on Smith’s Monthly. I still do all that myself because I enjoy it.

On all the rest, I sell my work to WMG Publishing (a mid-sized press I helped start) and let them do the work. But I maintain control of how the product goes out and the look.

As the possible publishing choices have become more and more obvious to many, many authors (at least those without heads stuck deeply in the sand on one side or the another), a nasty problem with traditional publishing has cropped up.  Many writers talk about this new problem, but very few newer writers listen.

So this blog is just one more attempt to help a few writers from making some ugly mistakes with traditional publishing.

The Big Traditional Publishing Change

As electronic books came into a true reality over the last six or so years (ignoring the 15 years of sputtering before that), traditional publishers started to adjust to meet the new world. It does not seem like they did from the outside, but they have in many, many ways. And are still adjusting.

And as indie publishing ate into the sales numbers of the traditional publishers and their authors, and discoverability became an issue for traditional publishers just as it always was for indie authors, traditional publishers had to adjust even more.

No traditional publisher would survive in 2015 with only paper books and their old trade channels. Most traditional publishers now say that electronic is from 20-35% of their entire income. They work on 5% margins with high overhead. They would not survive in any form that we know without electronic income and low author costs for that electronic income. So because traditional publishers needed to, they have adjusted in many ways.

Two Major Adjustments that Hurt Authors

First adjustment: Author advances against royalties went down almost across the board.

A standard genre advance is now in the $3,000 range. A lead list title can get a little more, but inside most genres, advances for all but the major bestsellers are now far under $10,000 for most books.

Second adjustment: Contract terms changed to “life of copyright” and reversion clauses became useless.

In the last two years I have seen a couple dozen author contracts from various traditional houses. “Life of Copyright” is always a non-negotiable contract term in the United States if you are a normal-level writer.

This is very new and did not exist without a working reversion clause before this new electronic revolution. Now reversion clauses (meaning there is a point you can try to get your book back) are either gone or pointless.

(Major 1% bestsellers and overseas and small press publishers will often have term limits in contracts, usually around 7 years.  I have seen overseas contracts and small press contracts and been told by a few 1% writers that they have term limits.)

But all the rest of us (the other 99%) if we sell to a major traditional publisher, will sell life-of-copyright to a novel and NOT BE ABLE TO GET IT BACK.

And if you are a new writer going begging to traditional publishing with your manuscript in hand like a tin cup, the contract will have even more nasty stuff including nasty do-not-compete clauses that won’t allow you to write anything else. All for no real money.

Now I could go on and on about the illusionary “support” traditional publishers and agents say they give writers, but anyone who has dealt with that system for any length of time knows that’s just gotten worse as well in the last ten years. Far, far worse. So I’m going to skip that sink-hole for this blog and just talk about the real costs of selling a book to a traditional publisher.

Here Come Some Numbers

Yes, there are numbers involved here.

The “life of a copyright” at the moment in the US is the life of the author plus 70 years.

An example: I finish the book I am working on. I am 65 years of age. Say I live another 30 years to 95. Then add 70 years and the life of the copyright for the novel I just finished will be 100 years.

That’s what the “Life of Copyright” term in a contract means.

That’s right, your great-grandkids might be able to get your book back that you sold for a few thousand in one hundred years or so. But at that point the book will drop into the public domain and not be worth anything to them.

At the moment (and I say “at the moment” for a reason), there is a copyright exemption where the artist can get their work back in thirty-five years no matter the contract, if the artist jumps through some timely hoops.

Corporations are working to get this exemption taken out. Wonder why…

But here, in 2015, the exemption still exists. So I’m going to use 35 years for the math.

Most young writers selling to New York have no idea of life-plus-70-years, or even what 35 years even means. They just want to be anointed with publisher fairy dust and have someone else do the work and make all the decisions. They want no responsibility for their own work.

Most new writers never take a long-term approach. But we will pretend for the sake of this math that the new writers learn copyright along the way after signing a traditional contract and that 35 year reversion clause in the law stays in place.

So using 35 years and a $5,000 advance (decent these days), traditional publishing is buying your book from you for the lofty sum of $142.00 per year.

And you will never see another dime thanks to the very low royalty rates and such things as “high discount sales” plus standard publishing accounting practices.

And remember that traditional publishers will treat your book like produce, if they notice they bought it at all. The book will be on the stands for a week or so and then gone, returns in paper destroyed as the traditional publisher moves on to the next book.

And then your book will drop into high-priced electronic oblivion because to the publisher, that book is now just a property asset on their accounting ledger.

Oh, Wait! I Forgot the Gardener

If you go traditional and believe in all the hype, you will find an agent (I call them gardeners.) So for a few phone calls and for handling your money (if you are really, really sadly stupid), the gardener get 15% for life-of-contract as well. 15% of your property (think house (property) when thinking copyright) for a few hours work in the yard.

So your $5,000 decent genre advance is now $4,250 and your yearly value you will get for your property for 35 years is about $121.50.

And for those of you who are indie, realize these poor traditionally published writers CAN DO NOTHING ABOUT THIS.

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

For a writer who kept control of their property and was indie published, if a book is selling at the level of about 3 per month, the writer would push it some, or write more in the series, or write some short stories to boost it, or do a Bookbub, or who knows what…. Writers are in control.

So What Does An Indie Writer Need to Do to Make the Soaring Sum of $121.50 per year a Traditionally Published Writer Makes?

(Some math. I’ll be quick.)

$4.99 cover price of indie book x 70% = $3.50 per sale. (approximate)

$121.50 divided by $3.50 = 35 sales per year or about 3 per month across all platforms. (Not even counting paper copies.)

That’s right, to equal the amount made by a decent genre sale to a traditional publisher, an indie publisher must sell 35 copies per year.

And who knows, maybe ten years after the book was first published, the indie author redoes a cover and the book takes off, or the timing in the culture is right and the book takes off. If that happens, indie writers make all the money.

Can’t happen in traditional because your book in ten years is long forgotten and only an accounting number in a ledger. And chances are the traditional publisher has forgotten to send you even the royalty statements.

The Overall Math

Instead of going down into the monthly sales, I want to stay on the large number to look at this from another side.

$4,250 income on a decent traditional genre sale (total after the money you paid to your gardener.)

Say you have a book that came out about a year or so ago now. And for almost a year it has sold steadily at about 40 copies per month average across all sites in all forms. Say it is in electronic at $5.99, paper at $12.99 and audio just over $6.00.

Say you make an average of $3.50 per sale across all platforms. So in one year you would have made about…

$3.50 x 480 copies is about $1,700.

Then, say you do a BookBud or get in a good book bundle and jack the sales for a short term way up. It does not take many.

In one year at that rate (with a boost that the writer controls) you could have made on one book more than traditional publishing could have paid for a decent advance on that same book.

And that book is a long, long ways from bestseller status, or how many sales many indie writers report.

One year down, thirty-four more years of earnings to go on that book. (Remember, if you sold it to traditional, you would not get it back any sooner than 35 years.)

Do all books do that well? Some do a ton better, many, especially early on in a career, do not. But back to the first number.  Many books do sell 35 copies a year. 

Either way, the writer has the control and the freedom to give the book a boost if the writer wants.

At any point into the future.

Why? Because the writer still owns and controls his books.

The writer owns the copyright.

Remember this one clear fact of modern traditional publishing…

When you sell to traditional novel publishing, you no longer own your own work.

You sold it for “life of copyright” terms, meaning the traditional publisher owns everything you gave them, and in most contracts I have seen, that’s everything.

And if you or your heirs are not smart in 35 years, you have completely lost the work.

All because you wanted to be anointed  with trade publishing magic fairy dust and turned you into a “real author.” (Whatever the heck that means.)

The Real Price of Traditional Publishing

So many writers over the years have called their novels “their babies” or “their children.”

Yet these same authors will take that baby and sell it for next to nothing and then wave goodbye as the baby goes away forever. The baby then gets dressed up for a few months by its new parent, after which the the baby is tossed in a dark corner without food to survive for decades on its own.

You want to use that analogy for your work, think it through and don’t lose control of what happens to your baby.

Now, with indie publishing, you can keep that kid at home. Sure, sometimes kids cost some money to maintain and dress and help grow. You can keep helping your child mature and grow and earn expenses back. You can control the outcome of that kid’s life and who the kid impacts.

And maybe even get the kid to pay rent and buy some food.

The real price of traditional publishing is total loss of control over your work.

“Life of copyright” is seventy years after you are gone. That’s a long, long time.

Think it through before you go chasing the magic fairy dust of a traditional publisher anointment. You will pay a very high price.

Actually, your baby, your novel, will pay the price, and all you will be able to do is watch.

And cry.



  • Blank

    In the last 8 months I’ve seen two contracts my wife was offered. They both contained this:
    “5. Grant of Exclusive Rights
    Author grants Publisher exclusive rights to the Work, unless this agreement is terminated for any
    reason, for the full term of all copyrights throughout the world, in all languages, forms, versions,
    editions, and written or printed media now and hereafter known. Publisher’s exclusive rights
    include, without limitation, the right to reproduce, publish, display, distribute, sell and license
    copies of the Work, in whole or in part, and to license and authorize others to do so. Author may,
    with Publisher’s consent, license other parties to reproduce, display, perform, distribute and
    sell copies of the Work, so long as such copies are not directly competitive with Publisher’s.
    Publisher shall also have the right to edit, revise and abridge the Work, subject to Author’s
    approval with respect to style and literary content thereof, which approval shall not be
    unreasonably withheld.”

    I am so glad we went to a lawyer to find out that it really did mean they got everything, for ever. The non compete was similar. I’m not that thick but so nearly walked under a truck without noticing. I am grateful for the business lesson it provided. If you are dumb enough to sign without knowing precisely what you’re signing you deserve the reaming. No matter how much you like the person you are dealing with they are not your friend, it is just business.

    • dwsmith

      Wow, can’t even begin to tell you how many things are wrong in that clause. Wow, just wow. Very smart getting to a lawyer, and who understands that clause takes everything, and lets them do with it as they want, including rewriting. Great job!

  • Michaele Lockhart

    Thanks. This is excellent. It should be required reading for all writers today, at least for any conscientious writer whom we care about. Even the small independent traditional presses (non-New York) are putting the thumbscrews to their authors. I know. I’ve been traditionally published and small independent press published, folks. What DWS says is true–the absolute gospel truth. Furthermore, now that publishers have awakened to the real benefits of e-publishing + their print books, there is no chance whatsoever of keeping your eBook rights. Thanks again.

    • dwsmith

      Exactly, Michaele. Ebooks rights being held out is not possible these days. Just doesn’t fly for any traditional publisher.

  • Chong Go

    One of the galling things about those non-compete clauses is that the publisher now owns the world you created. You can’t publish anything involving it without the publisher’s permission, and they have the right to buy that work *at whatever price they decide!* If you refuse to sell at that price, it doesn’t get published. Anywhere.

    • dwsmith

      Yeah, saw two contracts with that level of noncompete in them. Scary to say the least, especially when you are selling a book for a few thousand.

    • Kate Pavelle

      I got a book returned from a publisher with a request for a rewrite, with some specific suggestions. Kris was really great in helping me formulate a strategy as to whether or not I’d do this. I figured I’d do the rewrite, get my tiny little advance, and move on to my indie stuff.
      And then I got to read Dean’s post, and the Author’s Earnings report, and I thought, but WAIT. They just let me off the hook! They have the right of first refusal for anything with these characters, and they refused.
      How about, hmmm… how about I just launch it as a stand-alone?
      Yeah… and now the hard part: finding the right cover art!
      (Thank you Kris, I’ll look at their suggestions and consider them. Thank you Dean, yet another step to build a workable backlist.)
      As to the loss of advance? I have stuff to sell, folks. I can make up the cash shortfall by letting go of some of my collections 🙂

      • dwsmith

        Exactly, Kate. Congrats on realizing you have choices and looking at what is best for you. Both short term and long term.

  • David Mack

    While many traditional-publishing contracts these days contain “life of copyright” clauses, those don’t transfer ownership of the copyright — the publisher does not own one’s work. It merely specifies that the rights they have been granted in the contract will persist while the work remains under copyright.

    At the same time, under separate clauses, most modern contracts — if negotiated properly by a knowledgeable author or agent — will also contain termination/reversion clauses specifying the conditions whereby the author or his/her assigned agents can request the reversion of all rights. The “life of copyright” clause has no effect on the rights of authors to request reversion of their publishing rights, so long as they remember to include appropriate terms elsewhere in the contract.

    • dwsmith

      Agree, David, but most authors are having a horrid time with those reversion clauses. And the publishers are making them pretty much useless. Especially with “in print” clauses referring to electronic and POD editions. Almost impossible for any normal range author to negotiate without some clout. And impossible to get the book back in that case even when it is basically not selling.

      • Scott Boone

        Further, in addition to a workable reversion clause that specifies minimum levels of ongoing electronic sales, the grant of rights clause also needs to be limited by a condition precedent – namely, publication of the work. In other words, no rights are transferred under the contract unless the publisher actually does its part and publishes the book within a short defined time period.

        • dwsmith

          Exactly, Scott. I have a friend who is in that mess. No book, no rights, no publication because he signed a contract that did not say anything about publication of the work. Lawyers are going to fight that one, but I have a hunch it will not be pretty. Or cheap. (grin)

          As far as the limited levels of sales, not just “on sale” limits, that also needs to be backed up with automatic. At the moment, at least in the ones I have seen, a lower level of sales only allows the author to “ask” for their rights back and the publisher can cure. Which allows for all sorts of issues again. Needs to be automatic. And yeah, good luck getting any of this at lower levels of advances.

          And my point of this wasn’t to get down into the hundreds of really ugly contract problems in publishing contracts. PG and you and others have done it far better than I ever could. I just wanted the newer writers to understand that they often sell a book and it’s gone. They lose control completely. And going begging to a New York house will not give you any clout in any contract negotiation. And begging is exactly what these new writers are doing because they flat don’t know any better. The myths of traditional publishing fairy dust is strong.

  • Geri Jeter

    Dean — Can they actually enforce those “noncompete” clauses? Isn’t that some form of restraint of trade? Also, I heard that the Life of Copyright is being challenged in the courts based on the fact that this type of contract violates the “in perpetuity” restrictions. Thoughts?

    • dwsmith

      Life of contract has been ruled numbers of times to be a valid end date on a contract because it has an exact termination date. I would hope a few challenges to that would win, but so far none have, and sadly, I doubt publishers would pay any attention even if it was challenged. (Bankruptcy clauses anyone?) And yes, I know of two writers who had noncompete clauses enforced. Not pretty and again expensive for the writer to fight.

      I would never sign a contract with any term I thought didn’t matter and that I could break. Fighting with corporate lawyers is not worth the strain.

  • Jamie Lake

    Don’t forget, after the gardener takes their share, then you have to pay Uncle Sam about 30-40% of that money and pay for your own publicity and marketing and somehow live on that. Not worth it. Been there, done that. If you publish traditionally, it has to be for some other benefit than wanting to make a living such as “credibility” and spinning that into other opportunities.

  • Regina Duke

    I have never been happier to thumb through a two-inch stack of rejection letters from agents and publishers. Yay! Thank you all for rejecting me! I am loving my indie status, and my books earn a LOT more than $121 a year. 😀

  • Edward Punales


    As someone who has only ever done indie publishing, this one was an eye opener. Really great stuff, but I still have a question.

    Suppose a traditional publishing company became interested in buying one of my books. Is it worth it to try and negotiate a good contract, or is such a thing a hopeless endeavor, and I should just go indie in all circumstances?

    • dwsmith

      Edward, only answer would be “it depends.” If a publisher (major publisher) comes to you, chances are you are selling a lot of copies. In that case you have real track record and know the amount of money you would need to give them your book for a certain term. And if the offer was high enough (meaning into six figures at least) then you would have some clout to negotiate a set term on the contract.

      But chances are if you are selling well, they won’t be able to offer you enough to compensate for the lost income. Remember, they have massive overhead that has to be accounted for.

  • Bruce


    Thank you for a straightforward article that quickly gets to the heart of the matter. I wish that everyone looking into writing a book for publishing, or those who already wrote one, or those who are shopping theirs around would read it.

  • Darryl

    Anecdotally large publishers are now resisting granting reversion rights. And, of course, this is supported by simple common sense. One very fundamental change now that EBooks have come into their own is that there is absolutely no need for a book to go out of “print”. Ever. All of these works are now assets which can make money for the publisher far into the future with no significant costs and no need for promotion. Even a small amount per year adds up over a lot of books. In the past, an out of print book had little or no real value to a publisher unless they did have plans for a reprint. Any upside was speculative, and Publishers with no plans to reprint would often agree to revert. Not any more. You sign a contract saying life of copyright, that is what it is going to be, unless you are prepared to pay at least a commercial value and probably more. Dean’s quote, “that In the last two years I have seen a couple dozen author contracts from various traditional houses. “Life of Copyright” is always a non-negotiable contract term in the United States if you are a normal-level writer.” rings true. Your “Baby” becomes an asset on the balance sheet of a very large corporation, which will not and probably cannot or at least should not sell it for less than a full commercial value. Woe betide the publisher who lets that unspectacular Ya Vampire novel revert when the next Twilight is published and starts the craze all over again.

    For any author, lack of a reasonable reversion clause should be a deal breaker. If you do enter into such a contract, be realistic. Not only will you almost certainly not get your book back. LIkely your children and possibly even Grandchildren will not see it either. If you are prepared for this to, say, establish yourself with a publisher, though I don’t know why you would want to, at least review it on a book by book basis. It really makes no sense.

    In my many years as a lawyer I saw many industries which attracted groups of specialised lawyers. Players in these industries invariably hate dealing with other lawyers and will often attempt to disparage and discredit them. This is usually because the specialist lawyers have become so used to the various practices and contractual terms common in the industry that they don’t blink an eye at clauses that turn a non-industry lawyers hair white. In many cases terrible clauses have become standard and non-negotiable in these industries, and to be fair the better of these industry lawyers will explain the unfairness and leave the decision to the client. I never had the pleasure of advising an author on a publishing contract, but the apparently standard terms certainly would turn my hair white!

    • dwsmith


      Spot on the money. I showed a standard publishing contract that was sent to me by a friend to a couple lawyer friends (not writers and not in the industry) and both just were appalled. One friend is a judge and he laughed and said he would love to get something like that in front of his bench. The problem is that to get in front of a judge like that, it takes money and a writer willing to fight a contract they signed. Settlements are usually the run far before a judge can rule on some term or another.

  • Juli Monroe

    Wow! Just wow. Every year I’ve been a fiction author (except for my first where I published in December), I’ve beaten the 35 a year number with each of my books. I’m not happy with my sales and want them to increase significantly, but it’s eye opening to think I’m making more than I would if I had “won” the traditional publishing lottery. This is one time I’m so glad I didn’t play.

  • Jeremy

    Why doesn’t Lee Child self publish? Or Michael Connelly? They seem like very bright guys, and they obviously know how to tell a story.

    If you say that they were established before the e-book revolution we’re now living in, then do you believe they’d self publish today if they were just starting out?

    You make good points in this article. But there must be a reason so many great writers, who sell a lot of books, stick with traditional publishers, and gladly share 15% with their agents.


    • dwsmith

      Jeremy, it is called power or clout. No bestseller (unless they have a lawyer dumber than a post) signs life of copyright contracts. Never, ever. They have the ability to negotiate and the power to make the publisher give in on these kinds of things. But as I said, the other 99% of us have no power unless the sale is very large, meaning well into six figures. That kind of offer means the publisher wants it and the author and his or her attorney can negotiate.

      So they are getting far more in royalties, far more money, and are treated like gold and don’t lose their copyright. Why would they leave?

      But even with that, many have. With more going every day. On The Passive Voice just yesterday a major bestseller after 16 years just moved. So it is happening, but the publishers care about the top sellers. Those top sellers can release a book and change the entire corporation’s stock prices. But the rest of us, we get the scraps off the table they are willing to toss us. That’s why many, many of us say no thanks.

      • Jeremy

        Fair enough, concerning power and clout. But it’s not like Child had any of that when he published KILLING FLOOR.

        Everyone starts at the bottom. Every bestselling, traditionally published author was a nobody in the beginning…and yet, it worked out for them. Power and clout not required.

        So my question is, what’s so different about a Lee Child, or a Michael Connelly, that it MADE sense for them to traditionally publish, before they powerful and could negotiate better terms?

        • dwsmith

          Jeremy, they both started back when there was no choice. It was either traditional publishing or nothing. And contracts and everything were a ton better back last century. I know, I signed fifty or sixty of them. Life of copyright is something new. Before it was simple out of print clauses and reversion clauses that made sense. Everything has changed since this guys started, and since I started. Everything.

          • Jeremy

            I appreciate you humoring me, Dean, and I respect your experience.

            But if you’re correct that everything has changed about traditional publishing, then it stands to reason that there will *never* be another Lee Child / Stephen King / Gillian Flynn / BigName Bestseller after the current crop of bestselling authors die off.

            Something tells me, though, there will be.

            Do you really think that no one starting out today will become the next big bestseller by going traditional?

          • dwsmith

            Well, I would never say never. But honestly, the path will be very different. Lee Child,and the others you mentioned, plus most others such as James Patterson and Clive Cussler and so on all grew into bestsellers. Traditional publishing as it stands now makes it almost impossible for that old system to work. Not all the way impossible, but almost.

            But traditional publishers are now looking for the instant bestseller. The corporation thinking is that sudden money is better than slow growth money. So sure, there will be sudden bestsellers. But from that first or second bestseller, the road gets really crazy and most of those writers will be tossed away. I have heard from more bestselling friends than I want to think about the fact that their advances have been cut to one-tenth of what they were being offered before. Many have retired, some are moving as they clean up old contracts, to indie.

            The really smart ones are setting up their own publishing companies and hiring help to work for them because they can afford it.

            And remember, in the old days there used to be a hundred or more publishers who could compete. Now there are five, so if an author has problem with a publisher, there is no place to jump. And computer sales numbers stick with author names now and in the old days, no computer tracking, so actual sales numbers meant little, only hype and growth meant anything back then.

            But that said, look what John Scalzi did over his last few books. And he was scary smart to lock his publisher into a ten plus book contract for a ton of money. That way he has a little freedom for sales to vary. But they can still cut him lose at any time and not pay him the last of that monster contract if something goes wrong.

            I think the Scalzi model will be the most likely model in this modern world to build major bestsellers. He started off indie, sold a couple books to New York, had both of them take off in sales, won an award or two, and has a very, very active social media visibility. And he is scary smart at business.

            That pretty much is what is needed these days to make it in traditional. The old days are gone.

            The key is never give away copyright for any reason on original work.

  • Mit Sandru

    This is the new reality, for the writers who don’t know any better or don’t want to try anything else. The only thing a Trad-pub can offer to a new author is access to bookstores for selling paper books. If readers don’t buy books in bookstores, but on Amazon, even that edge is gone. When it comes to eBooks they offer no advantage at all to the new author. The problem for the new Trad-pub’s Authors and Indie Authors is discoverability. We are in a flood of authors and books, and it doesn’t matter if you are a Trad-Author or Indie Author we all float the same and we’re on our own. Except Indie Authors keep their copyrights.

  • Jayne

    I’ve got a book rattling around in my head and would never dream of going “traditional.” Just. no.

    I’m hearing Ed Sheeran in my head right now talking about when he would go ’round to radio stations about his music and they would ask him what he could do for them. Now they’re begging him to come ’round. His song “You Need Me Man, I Don’t Need You sums it up.

  • J.R. Murdock

    And how many authors will read this, understand it all, still go after that big publishing contract and THEN complain that they ‘priced my baby too hjgh’. Uh, no. It isn’t your baby any more. You are just the author and the publisher can do almost anything they want for as long as they want while preventing you from doing anything about it.

    I signed a deal for one book with a small press. One page contract. Revision after 3 years unless we choose to extend. Royalty split only (no advance). I am quite happy with the deal as there is also no ‘no compete clause’.

    As for big authors staying with big publishers, I am confident they are not only laid well, but get a far better deal than any of us will ever see. They are well taken care of and have no desire to stray from their leash. They’ve grown fat and happy in the publishing teat.

  • Katherine

    I always said I would consider trad if an offer came, but most likely go indie. This post killed that last little bit of pro-trad I had in me.

    Okay, if I can get a Howey or Scalzi sort of deal, then maybe. But otherwise no. That copyright clause is just gruesome.

    There are still a lot of people who think going trad makes your work legitimate somehow. I don’t see how any entity who uses clauses like that can legitimise anything.

    • dwsmith

      And the fact that these trade companies now own the scam vanity publishers that David Graham talks about in his blogs.

      It has certainly switched over the years for me. I used to be excited for someone who came to me and told me they had sold a book traditional. Now the last few years I can’t find it in me to even respond much at all because I feel sorry for them. Sad, but alas, true. They got their dream and to do so made a giant mistake in the contract and for their work.

      Now for Scalzi, that was exciting to see how he played his publisher like a violin. Fun to see an author do that. That now excites me for the author, even if I don’t know the author. I have never had the pleasure, that I remember, of meeting Scalzi. I stopped going to many conventions about the time he came in.

  • J. D. Brink

    On a strangely related tangent:

    I just browsed through Clive Barker’s newest book, The Scarlet Gospels. I’ve been a Clive Barker fan since middle school and when I saw that this book involved two of my favorite Barker characters, I decided to see what other readers were saying about it. I generally don’t read the 5-stars, but am more interested in the 3- to 1-star reviews (kind of ironic coming from a young, new-world writer, eh?). And for this book, there were quite a lot of those low-rated reviews.

    Common themes were the sense that a lot of what must have been the best material could have been hacked out of the book by an editor, that someone else other than Barker might have been brought in to rewrite much of said book, and that the end result was a huge disappointment.

    If those conspiracy theories are correct, could even Clive Barker be subject to the crappy contracts and cookie-cutter factory approach that is removing what is unique and making book the same? It’s like finding out someone of great importance has been replaced by a pod person, but not knowing for how long or where the real man has been taken. And if they could get him, they could get any of us.

    Frightening. And very, very sad.

    • dwsmith

      J.D., very possible. You just never know what kind of pressure a writer is under to stay with a publishing house these days. But also, it is possible Clive wrote exactly the book he wanted to write and no one touched it and some readers make up things to explain why his book didn’t work for them.

      No way of knowing. My money is on Clive just writing what he wanted to write. I don’t think he caves to silly pressure very often. (grin)

  • Mackay Bell

    Dean, right on as always. In addition to your math about how very few sales it would take for a self-published writer to do better on a book than with a traditional deal, there is also the issue of time wasted. All the time wasted writing submission letters and being rejected by traditional publishing is completely lost. Can’t be recovered. And given how slowly traditional publishers move, even if a writer accepts the financial hit, the two year process of waiting for a book to get published, is also thrown away. (And possibly more, if the publisher demands silly rewrites.)

    The writer of even a low selling book can quickly move on. If they continue to write and write, and one of their books really connects, their entire back catalogue instantly becomes more valuable. All that time spent on low selling books can suddenly pay off again, and possibly even better than when they first put them out.

  • Larry Bonham

    Dean is so right here. We see so many authors who have no clue as to what they are letting themselves in for when they deal with the Big Five houses and agents. True lambs before the slaughter. It pays to do your homework and either seek out the smaller, author focused houses or jump in with both feet and go indie.

  • Rachel Funk Heller

    Aloha Dean,
    This is fantastic! I’m so glad that when I showed my friend “the gardner” an early version of “The Writer’s Coloring Book” he said no publisher would pick it up as it has so many graphics. I told him I knew that, I just wanted to see his reaction. He said if you end up with 1,0000 facebook fans or twitter followers, down the road you might be able to approach someone. I went ahead and did everything myself: all the graphics, the layout, the cover, but got professionals to do the editing. I couldn’t be happier. I love how the book turned out, and writers are telling me they are finding the exercises helpful. Next month at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, I will be on a panel titled, “Getting Real About Self Publising.” This post is going on my handout of “must reads for writers.” Thank you!!!

    • dwsmith

      Rachel, have fun on the panel. Glad the article helped. And congratulations on the book. That’s way cool.

  • Lois Simenson

    The way you explained what actually happens with traditional publishing is the best I have read. Thank you for making it so understandable. I attended a writers’ conference a few weeks ago in Alaska, and some Lower 48 publishers, editors, and literary agents were almost discouraging us to pursue the BIG 5, unless we had the ‘best novel ever.’ They said they wanted to give us ‘reality’ and not candy-coat anything. They still have thousands of writers in their never-ending slush piles. You don’t have to tell me twice. My regional writing friends ALL told me to go Indie or with our local publishers. THANK YOU!

    • dwsmith

      You are more than welcome, Lois. The key is to keep having fun. And never give or sell life of copyright.

  • Janice Dembosky

    I am grateful for this article. Writing was my passion but not my profession. (I was a teacher, wife, mother.) But now and then I’d put out my “tin cup” and go begging for an agent, already having been told that having a “gardner” would give me an air of respectability. The gardners I approached were too busy, wouldn’t read a word and told me they preferred already published authors. So I gave up, piled the manuscripts into a dusty drawer and just kept writing for my own amusement. Finally retired, I decided to self-publish with Amazon’s CrearteSpace (paperback) and KDP for the 3-format. Amazon finds ways to screw authors too–such as paying royalties on e-books not for the sale of the book but for number of pages read–but, for the most part, I am in control and I like it this way. I have made mistakes, but there’s plenty of don’t-do-this or watch-out-for-this advice out there, and I do learn. After the first two weeks, my book has sold about 200 copies with both formats combined. Yes, I’m making peanuts, but I have almost reached the 50-reviews magic number where Amazon algorithms kick in, so we’ll see what happens. I know I have the luxury of not needing books sales to feed anything but my ego, but I still care about being known as the author of a “good book.” Writing the sequel now, I have been wondering if I should try once again to kiss the derriere of a gardner, but your article here has shored up my desire to remain independent. Thanks. I never was good at kissing asses.

    • dwsmith

      Janice, if you don’t put your book in Kindle Unlimited, but instead just publish it through their regular program which is Kindle Direct Publishing, they just give you 70% of the sale of each book. And if you do that, then you can also load your book to B&N, Kobo, and Smashwords to get it to other places as well and get more readers buying your work.

      Never put work on Kindle Unlimited only. Horrid for writers, worse than traditional almost. Stay with KDP, B&N, Kobo, and Smashwords and CreateSpace for paper.

      And keep having fun.

  • Lisa

    Very interesting read. I am just getting ready to self-publish my first book after deciding I didn’t want to hand a traditional publisher my hard work so that they could make most of the money off it. Do you mind it I repost this on my on blog?

  • Steve

    Hi, thanks for a really great and informed article which I enjoyed immensely and has given me a lot to think about. My problem is this I am a new author who think (like many before me I know) Im just about to finish the next best selling thriller. Have I really? Well naturally I don’t know, but how do I find out? who do I submit it to. Everyone has great opinions and I am a virgin, I just don’t want to be a raped virgin. I would really appreciate some help here, if my effort is any good, and I think it is, who should I trust and where should I sent it?

    Thanks for any help or support

    • dwsmith


      I couldn’t begin to tell you where to send a first novel to. That’s up to you to do the research and decide for yourself which path you want to take.

      There are a thousand web sites out there that tell you how to go into traditional publishing. Just use the advice that sounds right to you and ignore the rest. And there are a thousand web sites on how to be an indie publisher. And if you want to start down that road of starting your own business, then at the top of my blog read the posts titled “Think Like a Publisher” and that will give you at least a foundation.

      Past that, go to local writer’s conferences, listen to the people who are a long ways down a road that you want to walk. Never listen to those who have never done it. Those are scammers.

      But mostly, keep writing. Chances are, if you are like most, your first “sold” novel will be your fourth or fifth written novel. This is an international business. You are like a freshman in college and wanting to practice law. It takes time to learn publishing, but the only way to do it is to keep writing and start learning and finding what works for you. No writer is the same. Good luck and have fun.

  • Anita

    Wow. Great article. You really blew the illusion for me on traditional publishing! Screw that!!! I now plan to self publish.
    Thanks for clearing up that big mystery!

  • Fig

    On one reply above you list several indie/ebook outlets (smashwords, createspace, etc.) but you don’t mention BookBaby. Can you offer an opinion about them? I have a novel ready to go, including cover art. This was a terrific post. In my prior life I traditionally published non-fiction and remember the “reasonable” contracts you referred to.

    • dwsmith

      Run, run fast and hard from them. They are a way to make money from writers.

      You can do all of what they offer yourself, or hire it done piecemeal for a ton less than their $1,800 package, which is only the start of what they will scam from you. And get it to the same places as you could do on your own.

      Run, do not walk away, and hose down your computer just for going there.