On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: The World is Not Ending

Lately the conversation among writers and editors and some publishers is very two-sided. Either the world of publishing will completely change in the next few years or everything will stay the same (and just some new stuff will get added in).

For traditional publishers, my belief of what will happen is closer to the second: Not much will change except for more tightening and a few of the weaker publishers going down. But that said, I think for SOME writers the first option is coming to pass: Everything will completely change. And already has started to.

Yeah, that makes sense…not.

So let me see if I can, in this world of fast changes, justify the crazy position that both sides are correct depending on what side of the coin you are looking at the changes from.

If you haven’t read the last chapter of this series, about books being produce, please do. You can get it right here.

For traditional publishers, books have been and will remain produce. They will buy lots and lots of books from an ever-churning pool of authors. The publishers will focus on a release date of the book where the hope is a lot of copies will sell very quickly, then when that date has faded into the past, the book will be basically tossed out, reverted back to the author, considered worthless to the publisher if it is not selling some magic number of copies set by a computer buried in some bunker somewhere. Or at least it seems like that. (Actually, computers do set reprints of a book depending on the speed and number of books leaving the warehouse.)

Three areas of publishing will be treated differently by publishers and always have been: Long-term bestsellers, top-selling young adult titles, and some mystery series. Those books will still be considered produce, but won’t be tossed away so easily when the sales drop.

In traditional publishing, all profit and loss calculations are based on this book-as-produce (or book-as-event) model. I don’t see this model changing even if electronic books get to 50% of the market. Publishers will still treat books as produce and electronic books as just another delivery system. Publishers will have troubles in other areas, and bookstores will be in a mess, but all-in-all, the traditional thinking will remain the same. Books are produce to be sold quickly and then ignored.

However, for some authors, everything is changing. In the past authors would write a novel or story and then work to find a publisher to publish it. If the story or novel didn’t sell, or once the publisher was finished publishing the book or story, the author would have to be lucky to have the story or novel remain in current print in any fashion. I have a number of fine stories I sold in 1984 that no one has seen in twenty-six years and couldn’t find them if they tried. Not to mention the hundreds of stories and books I have published since 1984. In the produce model of publishing, for me to try to resell those old stories made no sense because they had “used” their value. And with my level of name, no publisher would even look at any of them.

In the produce model of publishing, a story ONLY has value in 99% of the cases if it is fresh and first-time published.

But now, with electronic publishing and the unlimited shelf space in electronic publishing stores, every story a writer has published has growing value. In the new way of looking at things, a story isn’t a piece of produce ready to rot when published. Nope. Now it’s a seed that can grow for decades and produce for decades. For the author.

Young adult publishers understand this to a degree. Some of the young adult backlist for the classic books have been making publishers money for decades.  Bestsellers with many books out understand this because publishers reissue and repackage their books. But for 99% of all authors, publishers don’t think of a book as a possible long-term cash flow stream and wouldn’t know how to set up a new profit and loss calculation to use that long term thinking. All books are calculated on the produce model.

But for authors, the opposite is starting to happen.

In electronic publishing, book sales grow slowly, often starting out with only a couple sales per month, then maybe only one the next month, then five the following, then seven, then five, then ten, and so on and so on.  Slow growth over a period of time as readers find it, as more readers take on electronic reading, as word-of-mouth spreads about the book. And this trend can last for decades, pouring money into an author’s pocket.

Small publishers, often started by writers, are also starting to understand this thinking and are jumping like crazy to get a small slice of this long term money from authors by helping authors get their work into all the various places for readers to find.

Ack!!  Here comes some math, so hang on.


For both examples I going to assume the same book in quality and author. And under both examples the book will sell 10,000 copies.

Example #1: Produce model.

Book is published as an event as a trade paperback. It will ship at upwards of 15,000 copies and sell 10,000 copies in the final end after returns. Author advance was $15,000. Book does not earn out.

Almost all copies are sold in the first four months and by the end of one year the book can only be found through special orders and in electronic edition that is forgotten by all but the author. Sales will have gone from a river to a minor trickle, under the amount needed to keep the book in print by traditional publisher standards.

Now, if publishers gave the rights back to authors at the end of that year, all would be great, but of course they don’t. It will often take upwards of ten years to get the rights back, and if you aren’t careful in your contract with your reversion and/or sunset clause, you may never get the rights back, since under a bad contract publishers can keep a book in POD trickling along at five copies a year and not have it be out of print.

Example #2: Small publisher or author-as-publisher model.

Budget for publishing a book under $200.00. A large part of that budget going to a friend to proof and the rest to CreateSpace or InDesign premium programs. Author/small publisher does the cover, uses free photo or art, and formats the book themselves. All easy tasks these days.

The book is launched in ALL the different electronic outlets such as Amazon, iBook, B&N, and so on, plus a POD version. I assume the small publisher (author as publisher) can start off averaging about one sale per day over ALL the different outlets cumulative. (365 sales in the first year…Not Konrath’s numbers, that’s for sure.) That rate in this example would slightly grow over the years as more and more people turned to electronic reading of books and also more outlets for sales sprang up. (Right now we have about 10 major electronic sales outlets and dozens more smaller online stores. Not counting how for almost free you can get a trade paperback out to most stores. And not counting the sales off your own web site.)

Example #1: Produce method gets 10,000 readers in a few months and then the book vanishes. And publisher has it locked up under contract for a decade.

Example #2: Small publisher model gets 10,000 readers over ten to twelve years (selling about one a day or so total across dozens of outlets with a slight increase after years). And continues onward.

How about a quick look at the money involved.

Example #1: In the traditional publisher model the advance for a 10,000 sale book in trade paperback would be about $15,000 for basic rights tied up for at least a decade.  That’s all the author will ever make and it will be paid out ahead of publication for the most part in the advance.

Example #2: The new model book will bring in the author an average of $4.00 conservatively per book sale. (Retail $5.99 electronic price, $15.99 trade paper price.)  10,000 sales would then get the author about $40,000 over the ten years. And again, the book is still gaining speed at that point and will keep earning.

Conclusion: Same book. $15,000 for the produce model, book has vanished in a few months.  $40,000 over a much longer period for the new model, book still easy to find and buy and still finding readers.

New York traditional publishers are not going to change their model. They will tighten and they will use the electronic publishing and maybe even, in a decade or so, give more of a focus to POD forms of publishing. But their business model of books as events, as produce, will not change. And authors going with traditional publishers need to understand that fact.

But what happens if traditional publishers do change some and keep books electronically in print and paying royalties to the author? Won’t the author earn the same amount that way?

Simple answer: NOT EVEN CLOSE.

Math warning! Book done by publisher in the second year is selling for the same amount as the author would put it up for electronically: $5.99 (not likely to be that low, but we’ll go there.)

Right now authors are lucky to get 25% of the net of what a publisher gets for electronic books. But with the new 9th Circuit decision of electronic books being a license instead of a sale, let us assume that number goes to 50% which is a standard license share in most contracts.

So publisher gets $4.00, writer gets $2.00 minus 30 cents for the agent, so writer gets $1.70, and of course, that has to go against the advance first until that is paid off, and then won’t be paid for three months after a six month accounting, which is months after the Kindle or iPad accountings are done.

And remember the publisher won’t be sending the book to all the new stores springing up online, and new devices. Why not? Because they have enough new books to cover those. And with produce thinking, THEY DON’T WANT TO DISTRACT FROM THE NEW BOOKS.  The older book will hit the top few outlets and then be forgotten by everyone but the author.

So if you are hoping for your traditional publisher to catch on to this, don’t hold your breath. And as they slowly climb on board, remember their focus is their current produce, not your dead and rotted book from last year.

Now authors have options.

We can sell our work to New York publishers to get the better market penetration that their systems offer, the big event push, or we can small publish our own book to get the long term cash flow and more money in the long run.

Or we can do both, one book into traditional publishing, one into smaller publishing. (Yeah, being fast and prolific in this modern world is going to help.)


What writers suddenly have with this wonderful new world is Options.

Before this last year, you either sold it or you didn’t. You were held hostage by a bad agent or you weren’t. Books and stories that were considered hard sells (or were not in a current fad) filled file cabinets. Writers would let years of work be wasted.

Nope, not any more. We now have Options!!

Now everything we write, every book we finish, if not picked up by a traditional publisher, can still earn money for us. Maybe only a few bucks here and there, but a ton better than the manuscript sitting in drawer.

My Opinion: Having even a small numbers of readers finding my work is better than no readers.

Now to the biggest question of all:

Will most writers even learn enough to use the new options?

Nope. Remember, we’re talking about the same writers who want an agent to take care of them, who believe that learning business is a bad thing because they are an artist. You actually think the writers who got angry at my Killing Sacred Cow series are going to jump into this new world of publishing? Of course not. And they will actively look down their noses at any writer doing this. Be warned.

A number of us were talking a week ago about this topic and my conclusion is that less than 5% of all authors will even begin to understand this new side of publishing. But a lot of us who have been around for a long time, who have a huge inventory, who have books that were hard sells and didn’t get into the system, are jumping for joy.  Readers can now find us and all of our old work yet again.

So, what am I suggesting a writer should do?


That’s the key. Balance and long term thinking. Am I going to stop sending books to traditional publishers? Nope. Working on one now, actually. And to be deadly honest, I have fifteen different novel projects on editor’s desks in New York as I type this. In four genres. So I am clearly not giving up on traditional produce publishing.

But will I also do original novels in the new model?  You bet.

Again, balance. If you are smart and open your mind to the new world of publishing, no writing will ever again go to waste for any author. And the 5% of us who understand this new world and are opened minded enough to use both New York traditional publishing and the new model will have the best of both worlds. And we will have the huge advantage over the writers only staying with traditional publishing, because more readers can find our work, all of our work, at any time of the day or night.

And we will have the huge advantage over just self-published or small-published writers because we will be using the tools traditional publishing offers to promote our smaller books as well as out traditionally published books.

The 5% of us who know how to keep this new world of publishing balanced will reap huge rewards because we have the best of both worlds.

This really is the best time in history to be a writer.

Wow, I love this new world.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery full of my writing got a lot more valuable lately and this article is now part of the inventory of that bakery.

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

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

Thanks, Dean