Challenge,  publishing

Traditional Book Publishers…

Why To Avoid At All Costs…

I am going to make this post simple and very clear. This will hurt some of you who still believe in the 1980’s myth of traditional publishing being the best path. I am not sorry.

First, a short story. Ten years ago I met a writer at a conference that was all excited about finishing a novel and getting the novel to an agent. (I had known this beginning writer from a few years before. Very promising writer.) A name writer at the conference who was still lost in traditional publishing had provided an introduction to this baby writer to an agent. Make note, THIS WAS TEN YEARS AGO. 2011.

Writer was rejected by the agent, so spent the next year rewriting the book for the agent to get another try. Agent rejected it again, but said it was better.

Writer spent the next year rewriting the same book for the agent.

Four years into the process the agent said the agent would represent the writer on the book if the writer rewrote it to the agent specs once again. Writer did, taking two more years and a couple more complete drafts.

Book never got sent to a publisher. Six years in the writer and agent decided to shelve the book and do something new. (I learned at that point about this and was shocked to discover the writer was happy about that.) Writer spent a year writing a new novel, agent had the writer rewrite it twice, taking two more years, right up to the pandemic. Agent told the writer they would have to wait now with the pandemic before the book could be submitted.

I just heard from the writer. TEN YEARS, no publisher has seen either book, all because the writer wants to chase the idea of being traditionally published. And even more frightening, the writer is NOT yet discouraged.

Sadly, this is not unusual at all. The myth of traditional book publishing is very strong.


1… You could write and be making money from dozens of indie published novels in the time it takes to get through the traditional publisher route with one book.

2… You will sell all copyright to your work for the life of the copyright. If you don’t know what this means, basically the book will never be yours again to control in any way. For your lifetime plus 50-70 years after your death for your heirs.

3… You will sign a contract that obligates you to that publisher for a future book, or many future books, and will be unable to write for yourself or others.

4… You will make one sum of money called an advance, usually less than you can make in a few years selling the same book indie, and that sum will be divided by at least three and paid out over at least three years. And agent fees will be taken from it.

5… If lightening struck and someone wanted to make your book into a movie or a game, you would get pennies, if that. And no credit.

6… Your book will be considered like spoiled fruit after a month or so by the publisher. It will still be for sale in electronic, but other writer’s books will get all the promotion, or at least what little they do.

7.. You will have no chance of ever making a living in traditional book publishing and more than likely you will be dropped after one or two books. It is a lottery win if you last longer than five books, all with small advances.  Except for a few of the top big names, only indie writers are making a living with fiction in 2021.

8… You will have no cover control and no control over what some idiot did to your words. None. Zero. Zip.

9… You will have an agent who has no license and will take your money and sometimes not pass it on to you. You won’t know and nothing you can do about it if they do since they will also have all the paperwork for that money as well. Your agent represents upwards of a hundred writers. They will not go to bat for you and risk those other hundred clients if something goes wrong with a publisher.

There are many, many more, but in general, very general, those nine should be enough.


1… Indie publishing is too expensive. Reality, I can publish a novel indie for around $5.00. And that is for the art.

2… I don’t know how to do my own covers. Reality, you can learn in a very short amount of time.

3… I need my book to be perfect, so I need an editor. Reality, anyone touching your work will dumb it down. Try being an artist and standing up for your own work, Never let anyone tell you how to write.

4… I can’t afford a copyeditor to find typos. Reality, if you have a local library or college, you can find volunteers to read your book for typos by putting a note on a bulletin board of some sort or another.

There are many more excuses as well, and wow do I get tired of hearing them.


Anyone who wants to be published by a traditional book publisher (or a small press that someone else owns) in 2021 needs to clear the last century thinking and join the rest of us in a post-pandemic world.

This applies only to novels. Short story magazines and publishers have joined this century.

Sorry about this post. I just go so disgusted hearing from this writer, I had to say something. And I have no worry the writer will be insulted reading this because the delusion is strong and the writer is convinced I am wrong, simple as that.

After all, I wrote 106 books for traditional publishers and gone past another 100 books indie. What do I know?



  • Chong Go

    What a nightmare. Like literally, the events of a bad fever dream. The worst part is, it’s likely a traditional publisher would barely have proof read the book if they were into the story.

  • Harvey

    I’m glad that writer emailed you. This is a truly great post. I’ve shared it widely, advised my readers to bookmark it so they can reread it from time to time, and added it to my Writers Resources on my website.

      • Martin

        Is this advice to be applied across the different genre of books? I’m a debut author writing and illustrating children’s bedtime story books and have been floating between the publisher/ agent vs self-publish.

        You didn’t mention marketing of your book. How easy/ hard is it to do so that you get the most exposure for your work?


        • dwsmith

          Martin, there is zero reason to spend any money on the first number of books you publish. Readers have no choice. But as you get past a dozen books and upwards of twenty, then doing marketing has value.

          Think of it this way. You have spent a ton of money promoting your new bakery, and you get some customers to come in. In the bakery you have one cookie and a couple doughnuts and otherwise all the shelves are empty. You have no inventory, so the customer takes one look around and turns and leaves and will never believe any promotion you do again in the future. Promoting too early loses you long-term customers, in other words.

          You can do the exact same promotion if you want as any traditional publisher, including getting your books into stores and the trade channels. Scary simple, just no point early on.

  • Joseph Cleary

    This is scary. The writer must believe that only traditionally published writers are ‘real writers’. I’m sure this isn’t a unique story.

    I when I think about spending ten years or serious writing, I envision 100 novels+, 500+ short stories, and a decent living. If I only wrote two novels in the next ten years, I’d still be thinking I need to get my butt in chair a lot more.

    Even more astounding is that this person knows you and has had conversations with you. What’s their point in talking to you? Trying to prove you wrong?

    • dwsmith

      Joseph, exactly. The writer I wrote about thinks they have been working hard because not only do they believe the myth of traditional publishers being the only real route, the writer believes the myth that rewriting makes books better instead of worse. So the writer has been happy to do all those rewrites. Wears the rewrites as badges of honor. I am not kidding. Brags about them.

  • Linda Maye Adams

    Sadly, I’ve seen writers who sign up with a scam agent saying, “I know this is a scammer, but it’s my chance to get published.” Yeesh.

    I suspect the writer got lulled into “the agent is interested in me! I can’t risk rocking that boat.”

    • dwsmith

      At first that was it exactly. Went around the conference telling anyone who would listen that they had so-and-so agent going to look at their book. All indie writers bit their lips and said nothing. I remember saying, “You sure you want to go that way?” (Remember, ten years ago was still in the early few years of indie.)

  • Kristi N.

    Excuse #3 stopped me for years. I thought I was free of it until I had a beta reader tell me I needed to dumb down my writing because it wasn’t like [insert popular author name here] and was too complicated. I fretted over it, thankfully couldn’t afford a developmental or content editor, and published anyway. I knew that author had dozens of books under her belt, knew she was light years ahead of me in terms of craft, and decided this was a journey and I’d get there. Eventually.

    I’m still self-conscious about leaving my fingerprints all over the story, but it’s my story. If I tried to make it perfectly like that author because of somebody’s opinion, all I would have is a poor mimeographed copy. And I would still be lost in those myths if I didn’t come here and listen to what you have to say. Some I can put into practice immediately, some I don’t know enough yet to see how it would work for me. But at least I’m learning, and maybe someday I will reach the point where people can enjoy the story and not see my clumsy craft.

    • dwsmith

      Why are you using “Beta readers” whatever the hell that is? Have one first reader you can trust to find a few typos. Otherwise, trust your own work.

      Indie writers have tried to explain “beta readers” to me and I find the concept so stupid for any artist, I can’t seem to grasp it. Why anyone would let anyone else into their writing is just beyond me.

      • Kristi N.

        That first book was the only one I used a beta reader for, and it was only because I bought into the myth about perfection. After I wrestled with her response, I finally understood what you were trying to teach us first stage writers. I don’t use them now, and I don’t say anything when others advocate teams of alpha, beta, or gamma readers.

        My story, my craft, my process. I get my validation now from telling the story, and finishing it, and publishing. And I owe you a debt for being honest about the process, otherwise I wouldn’t have found the courage to own my writing.

        • Cheryl

          Just discovering this concept in my young (old) writer’s life, having finished Dean’s book about a week ago. (Henceforth recommending to any writers I come across.)

          I have a lingering question/thought/consideration about the ‘beta’ readers that Kristi referred to. Leaving aside any messing with voice, story, etc. — I (and note I’m new-ish to this) find that I’ll have a bit that might confuse a reader, because I’ve not put that part of the story/description/whatever on the page and left it in my head … or occasionally something that jars the reader out of the story — and I appreciate the feedback on that.

          I’m totally down with not being slavishly attentive to others’ input, but I find value in the things I’ve mentioned.


          • Cheryl

            Hmm. I put the book title in brackets and it trimmed it out of my comment. I was referring to Dean’s book WRITING INTO THE DARK.

          • dwsmith

            No thoughts. As long as you believe that kind of thing, you will be hurting your own stories. But that is your choice to make.

      • Jim Moriarty

        Frankly Dean, I’m on the other side about Betas, esp if I’m branching into a new genre. I LOVE doing this for a living (and in case we ever bump into each other I’ll be buying you drinks till you pass out: your 50 Books advice years ago changed my life).

        I look upon my book as a product in a similar way an artisan at a high end craft show does. Since I’m trying to sell my beautifully written, complex and wonderful character’s adventure or whatev to someone, I do try to do a bit of market research. Something along the lines of ‘Whaddya think of this?’ and have a discussion with some trusted colleagues. My wife and I do this together and we’re each other’s Primo Supremo betas, but I’m not shy to pass my work on to someone else I trust.

        Big deal, one way or another. I consider myself a seasoned indie, and the bottom line is I’m happy w/my bottom line. For newer writers/part timers…yeah; I’d go w/ your advice though. Too many cooks can do more harm than good.

        • dwsmith

          Jim, all I know is beta readers have killed more writing careers than I can count because the writer lets them into his head in the next books and starts writing for them. So if they work for you, great. Just extreme caution.

  • Michael W Lucas

    Another expense: copyright registration fees are either $45 or $65, depending. You don’t have to register, but I’m a *real* fan of punitive damages.

    Unless you batch up a bunch of stuff, you can save money that way. I don’t batch up, I don’t have that kind of patience. 😉

    Still a better deal, mind you.

    • dwsmith

      Michael, don’t get into the weeds when trying to explain to someone that indie publishing isn’t expensive. The myth going around is that it costs thousands to indie publish a book. It costs $5 for a piece of art. The rest you can do yourself. And yes, you do not have to register your book because it is protected when you write it. So extra costs there.

      So stick with the $5 per book to fight the myth. Remember, beginning writers who think they need to be taken care of by traditional publishers look for any excuse. Don’t give it to them. They can learn registration when they actually have a book published, unlike that writer who I talked about who had yet, after ten years, have one book published.


    Dean, are short story contests that ask for an entry fee legit at all? Or should they be avoided.

  • J. Steven York

    Over the years, I’ve just seen so many writers screwed over by traditional publishers (and agents). Sometimes there’s malice there, but mostly, PUBLISHERS JUST DON’T CARE ABOUT THE INDIVIDUAL WRITER. Yes, your editor may be wonderful and supportive. I’ve had some awesome editors. But your contract is with your corportate masters, and your editor only has so much power, and may not choose to spend it on you. Bottom line is, their job is (reasonably) a higher priority than your book. ALWAYS.

    To the corporation, the individual author and book are cannon fodder, as disposable and replacable as a tissue. Just in the last month or so, I heard from a number of writers for a traditional publisher that was changing distributors.The unintended result of this was that ALL their authors had their preorders were canceled with a notice to the purchaser that the BOOK had been canceled. This, even though the book was immediately available for preorder from the new distributor. This is bad enough. Traditional books live or die on preorders these days (so do indie to some extent, but not to the extreme).

    But what is worse, is that I am SURE the publisher is not going to look at all those canceled preorders and say, “Our bad. We’ll take the low preordere into consideration when we’re looking at the balance sheet and talking about the next book. Nope. For sure, the authors will take the blame if they can’t somehow recover those preorders, and the won’t see another book, or the later books on their contracts may not receive a sales push, or may even be “published dead” and intentionally tanked before they ship. “Woopsi! Your traditional career is over and we did it. So sad.”

    Yes, indie authors can and do screw up. But you have control. You can fix it. Do it better. Slap on a new cover and rerelease the book in hopes of better preorders. Your mistakes will mostly go unnoticed and forgotten, and meanship, youre likely still selling some books and making some money. And you can KEEP making money and not just get tossed out like bruised apples.

    To repeat, PUBLISHERS DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU unless you are a huge celebrity or an established bestseller, and even then don’t expect them to had the slightest loyalty if your skyrocket falters a little. They’re already on to the “new thing.”

  • Zoe Cannon

    Shortly after I decided to indie publish, I saw a post by a writer who was ecstatic because she had just gotten a publishing deal after forty years of trying. Forty years! If I hadn’t already made my decision, that would have done it. Imagine how many books someone could publish in forty years.

    • dwsmith

      Over 200 each for both me and Kris. (grin) Actually in 35 years. But remember that Indie publishing has only existed now for about 12 years or so. The first 28 years would have had to be traditional publishing. But back in the 1980s and early 1990s it was not the same as it is now. That’s part of the problem, new writers hear what it was like 30 years ago instead of living in this century.

  • James Palmer

    Great advice as always, Dean. Especially about the editing. I know indie authors who spend thousands per book on editing. I’ve never had an edit where I didn’t find stuff they didn’t catch while fixing the errors they did find, and I’ve worked with some really good editors. That’s why I don’t pay for editing if I can help it. A good typo hunt is all you need.

    I only occasionally do my own covers though, but I don’t spend a lot. Knowing how design software works is one thing; knowing how different design elements and colors work together in a piece is quite another. I can whomp up a decent cover in Canva though, if I need to.

    • dwsmith

      James, design skills come from imitation of covers you like and that hit you as great and working. Then just imitate if in the same genre. It really is that simple.

  • B Litchfield

    One particular agent has books out on how to write a hot breakout novel. About 2-3 years of rewriting entailed. Better than ten years, but still sucks.

    Actually, around the 2011 timeframe, I was making good progress on my third novel and just quit. Just wasn’t up for all the polishing and rework ahead of me. Stumbled across Writing Into The Dark. Had never read or heard anything remotely like it. That’s what got me restarted. The idea that writing didn’t have to be drugery.

    On another note: the record for a short story that I’m aware of is six years of workshopping and revisions. Said story appeared in a literary journal. Author got good money based on word count. Hourly (or yearly) rate, not so much.

  • Stephen Greeley

    Dean, thank you for the article. It has me reconsidering my views on traditional publishing, but I have two questions: can you say something about the idea that a traditional publisher can market a book better than a self-publishing author?

    And two, did the fact that you first published a lot of books traditonally give you a market for your self-published books, something many authors trying to self-publish don’t have?

    • dwsmith

      First question, from those of us who know traditional publishing, makes me giggle. That is a myth and a bad one. Traditional publishing just puts books into the pipeline. Authors for traditional publishing do most of the work and make no money on it. Authors can do far, far better work on marketing than any huge publisher pumping books into a trade channel pipeline. Remember, promotion for traditional publishers isn’t to readers, it is to the trade channel. Nothing more.

      And your second question is flat, oh-my-god no!! In fact, as I was starting up indie, I had no novels at all, just like a beginning writer. And what I did have was a name that was known for one thing, media. So I thought long and hard about getting out of that mess by simply starting up a new name. When I started putting stuff up on Amazon, my new indie books were sometimes thirty pages deep behind media books that I would never see another penny from.

      In other words, I had to bury myself if I kept my real name. Kris asked me one day if I could do that, write enough over a ten year period to bury all the Star Trek and Men in Black and Spiderman novels? I said sure and she said, “Then why don’t you?”

      You still see some media books when you search my name, but not many anymore. I have buried myself. See why I don’t have much patience for writers who can’t even build a career without a major roadblock in their way. I built a major career with traditional under this name and then had to write almost another hundred novels just to bury my first career and build this second one.

      • Stephen Greeley

        Dean, consider me illuminated. I really did not expect either answer, and I am delightfully surprised. That having such success with traditional publishing was basically a hindrance to self-publishing . . . did not see that coming. Thank you.

        • dwsmith

          Yup, and I am not the only one who made the transition and had problems. You do some indie books, you get 70% and you want that, but readers buy your traditional books and you get nothing because you advance has not earned out and your new books are buried under the traditional books.Some traditional writers never figure that simple fact out and thus blame indie publishing for not being worth their time.

          • Stephen Greeley

            Well, you’re giving me much to consider. I’ve only made a few attempts at traditional publishing and had really not looked seriously into indie publishing, for some of the reasons you mentioned. I’m beginning to rethink that! Thanks again.