On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: Top 10 Reasons Why I Would Never Publish Traditionally

Got an interesting question last week when sitting having dinner with an old friend. He wanted to know why I said I would never go back to publishing novels with traditional major publishers.

Now over dinner, with my friend having no background in what was happening in publishing, that question because impossible to answer. So I muttered something about bad contracts and moved on.

Now understand, I published over a hundred novels with traditional novel publishers and made my living doing that for a few decades. So why not now? What changed?

The industry changed, that’s what. Traditional publishing is flat not what it was when I was selling books to it a decade ago. Not even close.

Let me go through my personal process here on what changed for me and give you my ten reasons. Now granted, each reason opens up its own can of worms. But for this article, I just sort of went light over each of them.

Note: I have no problem at all with publishing with traditional short fiction magazines. They are different in all ways. So this article is about me and traditional novel publishers.

Where to start?

Reason #10… How about I start with time? I am in my mid-sixties, and back when I was selling novels under a bunch of names to traditional publishers, I thought nothing of waiting two years to see a novel in print. In fact, the time was so long between finishing the novel and seeing it in print, I normally had just forgotten about the book and written another ten novels.

So traditional publishers taking so long is just not something I want to deal with anymore at my age. When I finish a novel now, in about a month it has been proofed and formatted and cover done and is in print in Smith’s Monthly and two months after that it is in print standalone so readers can find it. I like that.

Reason #9… Editing. If I sold a book to a New York traditional publisher, I would be stuck with an editor who hadn’t yet been born when I started selling novels. And this “editor” would need to try to tell me how to “improve” my book because the editor would feel that it was his or her job.

I am flat not interested in working with someone on my book who hasn’t learned as much as I have forgotten about storytelling. Once again my life is too short.

Reason #8… In traditional publishing, copyediting is farmed out just as indie writers farm out copyediting. The difference is that I control who I hire to copyedit my books and in traditional publishing I don’t. I can’t begin to tell you how many days and weeks I wasted fighting a bad copyedit.

With my work in indie publishing, I hire and pay for copyediting of my work through WMG Publishing and I like the copyeditors working there. And they treat my work with respect. They are not copyeditors who want-to-be writers who think I can’t write, so I need to be rewritten. Now granted, my writing is far, far from perfect, but it is a ton better than some want-to-be copyeditor’s writing. Every day.

Reason #7… Reversion clauses in contracts. If traditional publishers had a sunset clause in their contracts for say seven years, I would consider putting up with other issues at times. But trade publishers don’t.

A reversion clause is when you can get your book back from a publisher. In modern contracts, that does not exist in any real way.

So say I sold a science fiction novel to a genre publisher for a $10,000 advance. (I will under modern copyright law and standard genre midlist contracts, get my book back in 35 years no matter what the contract says.)  So that means my book, if it does not earn out, will bring me in about $285 per year average, all paid in the first three years as advance payments of about $3,333.33 each.

Say I indie publish my book and make the electronic price at $5.99 which means I get $4.00 a sale. And say for most paper sales I get $4.00 a sale as well, and say for audio I get $4.00 a sale (to make this math easy.)

So at those rates, to make the same amount of money I would make from New York, I would need to sell 71 copies of that book in some form or another each year for 35 years.

In other words, to make the same amount of money as a $10,000 advance, my indie book would need to sell about 2,500 copies over 35 years. I had indie novels published last year that sold more copies in that by a ways. Wow, how stupid money-wise would I have been to have sold them to traditional publishing?

And that’s assuming I got a $10,000 contract. Holy crap is that high these days. Back in the days I was working for traditional publishers, I very seldom did a book for under $25,000. Yet in genre these days, $10,000 per book is high.

Reason #6… Non-compete in contracts.  Seriously, why would a publisher put this in a contract? As much as I write, I could never, ever sign one of these. I have no idea why any writer signs these clauses. But writers do.

Reason #5… Life of copyright terms of contracts.  Again, this means 35 years if you know copyright, which almost every writer reading this does not. (See reversion clause part above.)

Reason #4… Money. I can make a ton more money writing and indie publishing my novels and stories than I ever could or did with traditional publishing.

Reason #3… I can get my books out to far, far, far more places and into more stores and more countries around the world as an indie publisher than I ever could through a traditional publisher.

Reason #2... Control. In indie publishing, for good or bad, I have a measure of control. Instead of some bored editor writing the blurb for the sales force, or some “let’s-try-him-out” artist doing a cover, I get to write my own blurbs and either do or approve my own covers.

No control in traditional publishing at all for 99% of all writers. The top 1% might have some control, but none of the rest of us do. Traditional publishers just don’t have time to give us that control in any measure.

And the top reason, the most important reason of them all…

Reason #1… I can write what I want, when I want, at any length I want, on any topic I want, in any cross-genre I want.

It is called “freedom” for those of you in traditional publishing. In fiction-writer land, it is heaven and a great dinner when you are hungry all wrapped into one.


For me, there is no chance in hell I would ever even send a novel to a traditional publisher as long as the publishing landscape is what it is at the moment.

Now, understand that I have some writer friends who sell novels to traditional publishers. And for one of them, I actually understand the reasons.

But sadly, most writers pick traditional publishers for two reasons that don’t come into play in my life. They go traditional because of ego and fear. And ego and fear are often wrapped together.

I have no fear about writing or indie publishing. I love writing, but I sure don’t think my work is anything special that needs to be anointed with a magic editor-and-sales-force wand in New York. I’ve been in those offices and there is nothing magical about them in any way. Just desks and cubicles and overworked good people who are fighting the good fight in a bad corporate system.

And trust me, if I had ego, I wouldn’t have written so many media books. Or ghosted for writers who couldn’t do their own books.

So I feel no pull to the lure of the traditional publishing Siren Song.

I’m a writer. I love to write. And now, thanks to this wonderful indie world, I don’t have to put up with all the crap from traditional publishers. And I make more money this way as well, which honestly sort of surprises me.

That’s my top ten reasons why I would never sign a traditional publishing contract.

Have fun with the writing. I sure do.


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  • Tim

    I really enjoyed your thoughts on traditional publishing. I was strongly considering going the traditional route and I’ve been fighting myself on it for the past 4 years. After reading your article I’ve decided to stick with indie. Do you have any tips on getting over your fears of rejection from bookstores or how to get your book into bookstores?

    • dwsmith

      Tim, just check back through the older blogs here and you will see a number of posts on how to do it. We used to do a six week major workshop that contained that information and cut it. We do have a lecture on the basics of doing so. And as I said, I have talked about it numbers of times. I think under the tab Killing the Sacred Cows I have a link also.

      But this new world, remember “bookstores” are about 70% electronic. Meaning you can sell paper books over the internet and a lot of stores do just that, such as Amazon, B&N and so on. Sure you can get your books on shelves, no issue, but many decide it’s not worth the extra effort because it is so easy to get books into electronic bookstores.