Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Why Am I So Against Traditional Publishing?

I Published 106 Novels Traditionally.

But that was a different time, different companies, different contracts, different level of respect for authors. I would be a distant and faint memory in writing now if not for indie publishing. Never would have continued to work in the current traditional publishing environment. Never.

So let me list a few reasons why I try to keep writers with dreams away from traditional publishers.


Most early-stage writers have a very, very short view of being a writer. They think that just selling a few short stories and then getting a novel sold to a major publisher will make their career. Nope. But that is impossible to teach that fact because it is a belief system, based on a dream.

Most writers who break into traditional publishing are done in two books. Maybe three if they are lucky. And when I say most, I would give a conservative guess of 95%, more than likely closer to 99%. A lot of writers are chewed up and spit out to get that one writer who sticks past three books. But even then, a ten or twenty book writer is often tossed aside if anything goes south along the way.

But that is impossible to tell an early-stage writer with the dream in their eyes of being a writer.

So these writers take the short view. And they do the following.

1… They sign with an agent who will more than likely keep more of their money than they are supposed to.

2… They sign horrible contracts that not only takes all their IP for the life of the copyright, but often leaves the young author liable for all kinds of lawsuits.

3… They are often forced by first an agent, then a baby editor, to rewrite the book until it is nothing close to their original intent. But alas, these early stage writers are thinking they are being helped and will fight you to the death if you tell them otherwise.

4… Most of these new writers are paid in the range of $3,000 to $20,000 per book, paid out in three segments over a two or three year period. After agent fees, a $10,000 contract can get an early stage author about $2,800 per year to live on. And that is finished in three years and they will never make another cent off their book for the rest of their lives because they sold all rights.

5… Traditional publishers will tell you what to write, when to write it, and if you don’t, you are done. You can’t change genres, or just write what you want. You must write to their needs at the moment and then if the book doesn’t sell, it will never be their fault, always the author’s fault.

6… The process of getting a book from “done” to an agent and then to a publisher and then finally into print can take from three years if lucky to five or six years or more if not so lucky. I know one writer who has rewritten a book four times and has been waiting for the magic publication for seven years now and counting. Sad. Think how many books the writer could have written and published indie in those seven years of writing and rewriting.


There is no long view in traditional publishing anymore. None.

When I first broke in back in 1987, there was a long view. You sold novels, they came out, you grew readers until you became a lead title of a line in a month, then if you could write bigger books, you “broke out” of the genre into bestseller numbers and you could live off your writing.

I lived off my writing back in those days from 1987 by being prolific, a slightly different path. I did not care about writing under my own name, and I wrote upwards of 18 novels in one year for seven different publishers under many pen names. I did that for over a decade, year in and year out. And I edited for New York and other companies as well.

But it is not possible to do that now. There were twenty or more major publishers when I broke in, now there are four. And a few mid-sized one that play as publishers.

There is also no loyalty now. When I came in, the editors and publishers were loyal to their authors. Now an author is nothing more than a number on a spread sheet and if the number doesn’t match what someone thinks it should be, that author is gone. That’s why they can fill the shelves these days with so many two-and-out authors.


The short view for indie is that you will do a lot of learning, pay a lot of money for workshops, books, conferences, and so on. You will do a ton of learning on how to write better stories, how to lay out books, how to do your own covers, and how to promote when you get to the right about of books published. And unless you are lucky, in the short term you will make coffee money and not much more.

But a lot of that can be done and behind you in the same about of time as a traditional writer will spend in the three to five years it will take to publish one book.

In fact, if you add up the money you will make from publishing your first book over the following five year period, most indie writers will make more than that new writer in traditional. And then the traditional money stops while the indie money on the same book just keeps on going and going, refreshed at times, and so on.

With indie, you own all your own copyright for the life of the copyright and unlike traditional publishing thinking, books don’t spoil. You can keep the books out to readers for a long, long time, changing covers, redoing blurbs, marketing them.

In the same time as it will take an traditional writer to be pushed aside, try to write something new, and be dropped by their agent and realize they will never be published traditionally again (usually about 7 really brutal, dream-shattering years), an indie writer who just writes at a decent speed can be making decent money. Some might even be making a living.

And with indie, the money can just keep on coming in if you are smart.

But you are in control. That is a good thing for most of us, a bad thing for a few.


With numbers of titles building up, licensing options now all around us, and the author in total control, the upside on indie is the sky and beyond. But you have to know business and learn everything along the way because you are in charge. You make all the decisions, it is your copyright.

Some indie authors have now come and gone. They set up a production schedule that was impossible to keep up, or put too much weight with money on the writing and thus bogged down and lost the fun of writing.

But many are making great money, continuing to have fun and write what they want. In fact, many of us indie writers now make far, far more money per year writing what we want when we want than all but a few of the very biggest traditional writer brand names.

One Last Comparison…


Traditional writers make from 6-8% from every sale, a little more on hardbacks. A lot less on heavily discounted books like at Walmart. So 6-8% is about average over all.

Traditional writers have to pay 15% of that to an agent. And often an agent holds more because traditional writers want to be taken care of and trust a stranger with all their money.

Indie writers make 70% of a sale. And closer to 25-40% on paper and hardbacks.

Indie writers get to keep all licensing money, translation money, audio money, and whatever comes in. (Traditional writers sell all rights these days, remember, so they get nothing from any of that. And if there is a sale outside the contract, the agent usually keeps a ton of the money without telling the author.)

Any wonder why I really push writers away from traditional publishing when I can?

I have lived in both worlds over the 40 years in this business. I watched traditional change and I was in the gold rush days of indie and watched it grow up.

So this was a long answer to the question as to why I am so against traditional publishing.


  • David Ai

    Totally agree and wouldn’t have it any different.

    Indie means that you do not have to rely on a lucky string of successes to achieve success. Don’t look at the outliers – look at your peers.

    (David, edited to take out other author’s names. I would rather not do that here. Thanks for the comment…Dean)

  • Ashley R Pollard

    True truth, unfortunately so many of my Tradpub friends are unable to move on. Sad.

  • Dave Hendrickson

    Even though in my case you were preaching to the choir, I’m bookmarking this post so I can send new writers to it when they ask me about the topic. You nailed it!

  • RD Meyer

    I once had that traditional dream, because that’s how it’s sold. Folks look to JK Rowling or Stephen King and think that’s the path. It took me a little bit to understand how rare that is, and how they struck gold more than 20 years ago. I also got hit in the face with the reality that most publishers only want to take on established authors with a proven record(so they won’t have to grow with them…it’s all about cash now), as well as most agents appearing to want to be writers without having to write the books themselves. I stopped following that path and am happier for it.

    • Michèle Laframboise

      It reminds me of the fan coming to your table: “Hey, I got this cool idea, you just have to write it and we split the profits…”

      It didn’t hit me that some agents are like this fan, with a writer slaving for them…

      • dwsmith

        But it is worse because the agent is playing on a writer’s dreams, promising them the moon while delivering the sewer.

  • Leah Cutter

    As you said, it’s a belief system that’s so firmly ingrained that a new writer won’t listen. Not to facts, not to reason, not to anything. They are firmly convinced that it will be different for them. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally learned to just walk away. I am bookmarking this page for the very, very few who might actually listen. Thanks for spelling it out so clearly.

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Leah. And yeah, walking away from someone with a ton of talent and drive but driving in the wrong direction is difficult. When I do that (which is more often than I care to think about), my only hope is that they will be back after traditional publishing chews them up and spits them out. Thanks for commet.

  • Michael Lucas

    I started off trad, moved to indie. And I sure wouldn’t be a full time writer without independent publishing. Not only is indie a whole much better on the business sense, one other thing I find truly vital about it:

    I’m free to be joyfully daft.

    If I have a ridiculous idea and want to try it? Sure, go ahead. I don’t have to Leap the Trad Publishing Hurdles, where I get over the agent and the editor and the board and the sales department. If the idea delights me enough that I want to put in the work to make it happen, it happens.

    Even those projects that commercially faceplant delight my hardcore fans, and tie them more tightly to me. And some of the Joyfully Daft ideas do really well.

    We are free to be our own ludicrous selves.

    • dwsmith

      Exactly, Michael. My bestselling series, Cold Poker Gang, would have never made it for a moment in traditional publishing. Now working on book #11. So I agree completely!!

        • dwsmith

          So do I, Mark. Right number of characters, slots for older actors of note, twisted plots. And Las Vegas. So thanks. Just a matter of time.

  • Cora

    I was scared away from traditional publishing simply by what I saw from agents at conferences. Business style scams left, right, and center. There appeared to be not a single fiduciary responsibility to the client enforced. And it didn’t appear that the publishers were any more honest or responsible. Again I saw this at a number of conferences and I just wasn’t willing to work with people like that.

    • dwsmith

      Cora, very smart.

      And you said the phrase “fiduciary responsibility” in the same sentence as book agent. Made me snort. By law in every state, they are supposed to follow those laws, but none of them ever do, and don’t even try. Many agents pay their rent and living and groceries out of the same accounts they put their client’s money in. That’s why threatening to do a forensic audit of an agent’s books will get immediate results.

  • Jonathan Brazee

    I am a hybrid writer with all my novels being self-published. I recently cashed a hefty check for the audio rights to a novel because, as you posted, I own all the rights to my works (the short stories after a specified period of time, and then I self-publish them, too, for a second round of earnings).

    I earn a very good living through self-publishing, something I never would have been able to do had I tried to make it as a traditional novelist.

  • Claudia

    The myths really have a lot of people in their grip. Today someone asked me how I make a living as a writer (fiction writer still in the early years, so I pay the bills with a day job as a copywriter). They wanted advice, so I helped as best as I could, but… turned out they didn’t want THAT advice.

    They’re determined to go the trad publishing route and won’t entertain the idea of self-publishing. It seems like a lot of people want the imagined prestige of being a “real” published author, regardless of the significant downsides of traditional publishing. I just kind of shrugged and wished that person well. Maybe someone can help them, but I guess it won’t be me.

    • dwsmith

      Claudia, it won’t be anyone until something snaps for them. I call it the “fairy dust” myth, that traditional publishers are going to sprinkle fairy dust on their book and make is special. So what you did is the best that anyone can do at the moment. Sadly. With luck, they will decide if they want the one special book or if they really are a writer who loves to write. Writers go indie, authors now days are traditional.

    • Janet

      I met a young girl at work who aspired to being an author. Everyone thought we’d have soooo much in common. Well, I soon found she had a very sniffy attitude towards indies. Fast forward a few years; I was able to leave my old job due to my indie sales while she was still sitting on a manuscript.

      • dwsmith

        Well done for you and sad for her. And the key is more than likely she is sitting on only one manuscript. That is common, those folks fear actually writing, so they have to stay where they feel one book will make their entire career. Of course, it won’t. But the myth is powerful. Actual writers have mostly moved to indie where they can be published and write what they want.

  • Kelby

    I just discovered you and Kris this past week and I’ve been binge-reading both your blogs since then, including the “Killing the Sacred Cows” posts!

    I had planned to go into trad publishing earlier this year, whenever I get my novel-in-progress done. Even before that, I’d seen a lot of writers on Twitter tell their stories of how their 20th or so query to an agent got rejected; and in the back of my mind I always thought “There HAS to be a better way to get an agent and get published than just sending query after query and sitting around crossing your fingers.”

    And more than once I saw people advocating for indie publishing and I *kinda* liked the idea. But I believed the same myths you talked about… “can’t make a living with fiction,” “you need an agent,” “you need somebody to critique your work before you put it out,” “trad publishers are better for writers,” etc. The Sacred Cow bubble is real, and it’s hard to pop!

    What really started changing my mind was stumbling on Kris’s “Learned Helplessness” article about the accountant that got arrested for stealing from Chuck Palahniuk’s agency… and her other two articles about it (and what agents REALLY do with their clients’ money) sealed the deal for me and the rest is history!

    I wish more writers would listen to both of you and save themselves a ton of headache and financial loss. But FWIW, you and Kris just convinced this budding writer to go indie! Thanks so much!

    • dwsmith

      Kelby, that’s super and great to hear. Now the key is to keep learning, soaking up knowledge, learning how to writer better stories, and have fun. Nice thing about indie is it isn’t about one book, it’s about writing and enjoying the process of writing and publishing.

      So have fun!

  • Lorri Moulton

    I run into this all the time. Don’t you want to be like J.B. Fletcher? LOL I am a huge fan of the actors and the show…but I’m very happy with self-publishing. It is a lot of work. And I love every minute of it. 🙂

  • Carolyn

    I did OK with trad publishing on a small scale — no agent so I worked directly with the business and editorial staff at small presses, who were ethical and pleasant people, and offered decent contracts. What turned me away from trad-pub was marketing. I hate doing all that kind of stuff and wanted a publisher so I wouldn’t have to. But they didn’t do it, either! Then why bother trad-publishing? All I was getting was the vanity stroke and coffee money. Now that I do everything myself, I still only get coffee money. But with my books perpetually available, I can take my time and work on different aspects of marketing in spurts when I whip up enthusiasm. I adjusted my dreams and expectations, chose to keep my day job and let writing and producing books continue to be a joy not a duty or a drag. I’m confident, though, that if I aligned my time, energies, and labors differently, I could indeed make money much better as an indie than a trad. The biggest plus of indie is you can make your own choices, for better or worse. That’s an important freedom.