Challenge,  publishing

The True End of Trade Publishing…

At Least As Anyone Knows It…

Trade publishing is what I call traditional publishing. The reason for the word “trade,” very, very, VERY simply put, is that the publishers don’t sell directly to readers, they sell into the trades. The trades in publishing are a distribution system that is an old-fashioned channel to get books from an old-fashioned printing presses to warehouses to distributors to bookstores and then into the hands of readers.

(By the way, three of the major trade printers have filed for bankruptcy or shut down. That is another really bad sign that causes books to be extremely delayed.)

Trade publishers do not care about readers and in the last twenty-plus years have stopped caring about writers as well. All they care about is numbers. No real humans exist at either end of that trade distribution route as far as trade publishers are concerned.

Trade publishing has been getting pounded by Amazon selling online direction to customers, by indie publishing, by small presses, but until the pandemic, which shut a ton of bookstores, it was holding on with basically five major conglomerates owning all the major publishers and selling most of their books down the trade lines to Amazon.

And they were holding on with creative accounting and on the backs of writers too lost in the myths to not give them all rights to their IP.

But the pandemic moved just about everything DTC (direct to customer) and online. Trade channels got twisted, shut down, altered in far too many ways to detail here. Trade publishers can’t think DTC. Again, they do not care about writers or readers. (I know, damned hard for indie publishers to even grasp, but go ahead, sell a book to New York and see who is expected to do all the reader promotion…)

So now, it was announced that the big five is about to become the big four, with three of them really not counting much. Simon and Schuster announced that it was going to be sold to Penguin/Random House. That would put well past 50% of all trade books sold under one company… Bertelsmann.

Of course, how Bertelsmann plans to get that purchase approved is by counting Indie Publishing as part of the industry for the first time ever. Or some such nonsense. But if this goes through, trade publishing is effectively crippled and it will be a shell of its former self, not even counting the problems coming with the end of the pandemic and bookstores and printers and warehouses.

Kris and I have been warning now for a time this kind of collapse was coming. (Dont’ worry, they will still get the authors to chew up, no doubt about that. The myth of stupidity is strong for many authors.) But trade publishing, with any kind of real diversity and competition is over.

All diversity and competition is out in the indie and small press publishing world now.

And indie publishing is continuing to grow and flourish as writers take over all aspects of control of their own work, and keep the IP value.

Trade publishing is sputtering, eating itself, having trouble printing its books, pricing electronic books so high they don’t sell, having trouble with costs of warehouses, increasing shipping costs, and high overheads in New York City. And they are totally lost when it comes to what consumers really want.

But wow do they talk a great game, those that are left.

And one last point that I can’t help but jump on as I normally do. Agents. They will only have one or two points to sell a book, they will make a lot less money as advances for themselves and their authors go down hard because no competition to drive advances up. The few trade publishers left can set any price they want. And most agents that stay alive in a couple years will do so by theft of their author’s money.

I always used to call agents the warts on the butt of publishing. But over the last ten years I changed that description from warts to leaches. Problem is, now there is less and less blood to suck to stay alive, so in a few years we will see a vast die-off of those blood-suckers.

Watch to see how Bertelsmann gets this purchase through anti-trust. And if it does go through, just listen for the death knell of trade publishing. It’s years are almost over.





  • Ann

    Now that Disney has set the precedent that when buying existing book contracts, they only buy the asset not the liability, no author in S&S will receive any royalty in the future.

    • dwsmith

      That is still to be tested in court, Ann. But you have one thing wrong about traditional publishing. Royalties are a thing of last century. Sure, they say there will be, but that is now like saying a Hollywood movie will make a profit. If you get profit points, you are a fool in Hollywood. They are called “monkey points.” That is how royalties are now in Traditional Publishing. The only money you will get is the advance.

      Note, Foster wrote that book for Disney LAST CENTURY. And like a few of our books, it has been earning royalties for thirty or forty years. That never happens anymore.

  • James Mendur

    And for those looking for inspiration on doing it yourself, here’s a video I ran across this week of Henry Rollins talking about how he did self-publishing starting off in the 1980s, before the internet. He’s very self-deprecating about his talent and skill but he also pushes forward regardless.

    “I’m making my own book company. Stop me. I dare you.”

    • John Meaney

      I knew Henry Rollins had self-published, but hadn’t seen this clip or known the full story. Made me smile. The epitome of just stepping forward and taking action.

      Since Dean writes about exercise, I can’t resist mention Rollins’ famous essay on lifting weights: it’s called “Iron and soul” and for me it holds a deep truth.

      (Although I may be on my own here, unless perhaps Vincent Zandri happens to be around…)

      • Vincent Zandri

        I’m here John, just a little late to the party. Been too long since I chimed in for a little DWS wisdom. Couldn’t agree more, with Covid we’re witnessing not the gradual destruction of trade publishing, but the rapid destruction. I still use a hybrid model whereby I use some trade and independent presses like Oceanview Publishing, Thomas & Mercer, and Down & Out to publish some of my stuff, but most of my series are strictly indie and will be for the duration. This year I will put out two books per month, one way or another. One of the reasons I still use publishers is to get the advance, the trade reviews, and the attention of the occasional Hollywood producer. That’s about all it’s good for. I read a stat last week or so (I forget where) that stated one indie bookstore per week is presently going OOB. Is that possible? Methinks it is, sadly. Okay, time to hit the bricks for a quick run, then it’s bi’s and tri’s day. “Iron and Soul” indeed!!!

  • Philip

    Aside from contractual obligations, what’s stopping some of the big name authors from going indie? Did they work out sweetheart deals or do they get such huge advances that royalties don’t matter as much? I know of come big time stand up comedians who went indie for their video specials and made massive amounts of profits. I gotta think one of the huge traditional names could post something in ebook and it would crush it.

    • dwsmith

      Brandon Sanderson just did a multi-million kickstarter on a reprint edition and he was stunned, had no idea, and he is a friend of Kevin’s and has done some indie publishing. He had no idea that his traditional publishing fans could move and he could do it. Philip, you questions assumes knowledge on the part of the major bestsellers, whose money has dropped by 1/10th and more.They do not know and don’t know how to listen, sadly.

  • Julie

    One of my favourite authors – the ones whose new books I buy without even bothering to read the backs – went indie a few years ago (which I first realised because I noticed the same formatting error that Word makes for me when closing a quote after an em-dash!).

    He came back after a big gap, writing in the series he’d always written in, and he’s published regularly since. I hope it’s doing well for him, and that he’s telling his other pro friends.

    Lately, some of my favourite long-running authors, who are famous bestsellers and have been writing in their series for 20+ years, have been publishing books that I think have declined in quality. I expect they’re maybe bored with their characters but I do wonder also if it’s a question of being contracted to write 400-page books when their story idea only merits 300, or 200, or 50, or 30.

    I’d much rather read the stories they want to write, at their natural length, and I have a feeling that they’d like to write them.

    Another advantage for them to go indie!

    • John Meaney

      Off your main, cogent point, but sticking out to me: that little “feature” in MS Word with regard to quotes following em-dashes. You’ve probably worked out how to fix it, but just in case: I simply reflexively type in two double quotation marks after an em-dash, then delete the first.

      This also works for single quotation marks when you want to start a word with an apostrophe, e.g. ’em as an abbrevation for them. I see far too many ebooks whose authors and editors haven’t fixed this basic syntax error, and it throws me out of the story every single time.

      We’re indie, but we ain’t sloppy…

      Aside: here in the UK, the normal usage is single quotation marks for dialogue; I follow the US practice in this regard, but not in other points of syntax. (I can get very geeky on this!)

      The US editor of two of my traditionally published books (a good few years back) wanted American idiom and syntax for books that were already published in UK editions, and it was sensible for those particular books, so I volunteered to do that myself… and even though I’ve a good grasp of the syntax differences (e.g. commas before or after closing quotes… in the UK, it matters whether the quote is dialogue or simply a non-dialogue quotation), and I could have sworn I was “bilingual” in US/UK English, a few of the phrases I left in were picked up by the copy editor as very British.

      Of course, if you’re aiming to get the syntax right as you tell the story, it better be deep reflex and totally automatic; otherwise, it’s an exercise for afterwards. (It might work differently for you, but like Dean, I wouldn’t dream of running a spell check until the whole thing is finished.)

      I totally agree regarding the length of books, by the way.

  • James Palmer

    Good stuff, Dean. Well said. The only publishers that might survive will be the ones that employ only freelancers and have a direct relationship with readers. Baen does this very well, as do Tor and Orbit. The others, not so much.

    • dwsmith

      Tor won’t survive. It loses too much money and is dependent on a contract for Tom’s life. It is owned by McMillian and will get swept up in all the consolidation. Baen is a great company, small and lean and doing great, but their model is still into the trades with distribution agreements. They will need to switch their model some to more Direct to Reader to make it, but if anyone can do it, Toni at Baen can do it. And they have low enough overhead to handle moving part way at least. More than likely they already are.

  • Sheila

    Oh, won’t someone think of the validation! *sob*

    But, seriously, I get what you’re saying. I was sure this wouldn’t happen for a few more years yet, but I was wrong. Again. LOL Anyway, I see much more anguish in the future from writers who only want to have a “real” publisher, and total newbs thinking that all self publishing needs is to upload some dodgy manuscript and wait for those Kindle millions to roll in. Le sigh.

  • Peter Taylor

    I loved the control I had in producing a picture book the indie route, and another book printed and sold by a UK environment protection organisation. If you have a ready readership and want to spend vast amounts of time marketing, indie can be wonderful. However, the trade books I’ve had traditionally published have sold better and been much more beneficial overall, including financially.

    The trade publisher of a picture book paid a very famous illustrator at no cost to me and more than I could have afforded. I don’t think kickstarting would have been easy for a nobody like me. They got reviews in the best places – no help from me. They instantly sold the book to most public libraries in the country, and most school libraries. No marketing input from me. It was sold in physical bookstores – no help or grovelling from me. Years later, the government still keeps paying me annually for library copies held (in Australia…but other countries do the same). The lower royalty percentage has been more than compensated for by higher sales and well-paid speaking gigs in schools and libraries, which are part of my contribution to publicity. My reputation has been enhanced.

    For many authors, the paid speaking and workshops with book selling opportunities that result from trade publishing is more than the royalty payments. But that’s okay. Just add up the total income generated and relate it to the lack of financial imput and work involved in production, publicising and marketing the book.

    I also have a calligraphy business. After seeing my work, a trade publisher asked me to write a book on the subject for them. I asked an agent to negotiate the deal. They got me twice what the publisher initially offered – enough for a new car. If they’d been in the deal from the beginning, the agent said she’d have got enough for a luxury car rather than a Mazda 3. I needed a new car – so it was still a perfect deal. Don’t knock agents so hard! It’s not only about the money. The agent had the contract wording altered in my favour and penset booklets using the content all have my name on them – best advertising ever!

    The UK trade publisher of another calligraphy book employed two designers and created a sumptuous and far better designed full colour book than I enviaged and would have produced myself. It also enhances my reputation more than my own indie published book would have done. And I could never have afforded the production cost. Again, with no help from me, it was sold to most libraries in the UK and Australia. Library sales are a significant sales boost for any book and purchased at full price – not through Amazon – plus there are the annual government payments. Great advertising for me, attracting clients who want to pay to learn the craft.

    I believe there will always be physical bookstores, and no owner wants to process the separate accounts of thousands of authors. The stores will continue to mainly stock books supplied by traditional publishers through distributors. No matter what the royalty, I’ll take the sales and paid speaking opportunties generated!

    But I am planning on indie publishing again. I believe both routes have a place, and if you look at Publishers Weekly, there are plenty of traditional publishers doing deals every day, which is plenty who still have money and expectations of selling books that readers will enjoy.

    • dwsmith

      Peter, All sounds fine for short term. As long as you don’t care about ever owning the book or getting any more money from the books down the road, than that is your choice, as I say to every writer. My suggestion to you is keep your eyes open, wide open. Watch the agent like a hawk, when a check is due, make sure it comes direction to you from the publisher, not through your agent. Split fees, make sure you get all paperwork at the same time as your agent does. Any extra sales or out-of-country sales through the agent, make sure you know when every payment is coming from the publisher.

      Over the years I have shown that a little more money now is not worth the loss of long-term money, but your focus is on short term, clearly not long term. Again, your choice. Not one I teach. But I can’t say much because I spent ten years writing books I would never get another penny past the advance for. 106 novels to be honest, and I had an agent for 17 years and she and her company stole more money from me than I can imagine. So been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt. Hope you survive the “awakening” as I call it. But as long as you stay focused on only short term, you can keep the curtain pulled over the wizard a little longer. Good luck.

      • Peter Taylor

        Thanks for this feedback. Sorry to hear your agent didn’t work out.

        I/we have a choice – the author retains ownership and copyright of the book in a normal deal with a trade publisher, or sells the publisher copyright…for them to use the text in any way they wish. If this is for a book on woodworking and I describe how to make a particular joint, the joint formation is not copyright, just my description and photo. So even if I sell copyright, I can still write another book on the same subject, described differently. Selling copyright is far more lucrative than a normal deal – maybe four times the amount. By selling copyright, it’s a one-off significant payment, and no marketing or promotion is expected. This kind of book ofen sells through supermarkets.

        The author definitely retains copyright and owns the book in perpetuity in normal publishing deals and contracts. The author only assigns limited publishing rights to the traditional publisher for a given length of time, eg, printed version within one named country or region but not not ebook, audio or movie rights (unless the publisher is going to use them within a fixed time). Or if audio rights or similar are not used within two years, they return to the author. I’ve found an agent handy for establishing the clarity needed – non-professionals are easily bamboozled by contracts and say ‘yes’ when they shouldn’t. Agents insist the contract specifies exactly when all the rights return to the author, eg when less than 100 copies are sold in each of three consecutive calendar months (print or eBook). If worded favourably, that prevents the publisher creating eBooks that never go out of print, thereby keeping the rights. Then I can self publish the work when I have the rights back, if I wish to. I’ve books for which all rights have returned to me, and I may well self-publish them.

        All routes work for me if the offer or sums work out favourably.

        And I am over 70 🙂

        • dwsmith

          Peter, wow, are you still living in the myths of the 90’s. Sorry, but under no circumstance can an author, even major bestsellers, in 2020 retain ownership (read that control) of copyright with a major trade publisher for any project. Hell, they won’t even let you keep audio book rights anymore. They own it for the lifetime of the copyright. Period. They will have all kinds of scam clauses in the contract saying that under certain circumstances you can get your rights (control) back, but those will never happen. (That is called a “claw-back clause.”)

          What you are describing is often in overseas deals for translation sales. But even most of those have vanished in the last ten to fifteen years.

          And you do realize that even though you are my age, you are still very short-sighted since copyright lasts 50 or 70 years past your death. You’ll be dead and won’t care, I know, but your heirs will most certainly care. You gave away valuable income for them.

          So sorry, Peter, you are lost in the 1990s, where what you described in many ways still existed. But if you really believe your agent won’t rob you blind given the chance and that major trade publishers will just give you your rights back when you ask, you are delusional and that I can not allow to stand on this blog.

          Now, to everyone reading this, Peter has just spouted a lot of myths. Some are because he is working in nonfiction, some because he is overseas, from the sounds of it, because, more than likely, he is working with small press publishers. But in general, when dealing with the major five (soon to be four) publishers, what he has said is all myth. And sadly, as a few writers have discovered just recently, a few lower-level magazines are trying to pull the same stunts lately, scamming writers while pretending to offer short-term gains. And some small publishers, small presses who don’t seem to know better and wouldn’t know what to do with the rights they are grabbing, are joining in as well. So heads up, folks, if you are thinking of working with another publisher for any reason at all these days. And when in doubt, send me the contract. I won’t give legal advice but I will tell you what it says and means to you as a writer.