Home » Big Publishing, Contracts, PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Self-Publishing » Traditional Publishing: What’s It Good For?

Traditional Publishing: What’s It Good For?

8 January 2016

From Jane Friedman:

When I first started working in publishing, no one questioned the value of a publisher.

Now they do.

When I tell nonfiction writers they need to demonstrate to the agent/editor they have a big enough platform—enough visibility—to sell books without the help of a publisher, they’ll ask, “What’s the publisher for then?”

When I tell fiction writers that their work needs to be compelling, polished, and ready for publication before they query, they’ll ask, “What’s the publisher for then?”

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG suggests an additional question for authors, “How much is a publisher going to cost me?”

PG suggests that analysis of the true cost of a publisher must consider that the publisher will be costing the author money for the rest of the author’s life plus 70 years under typical tradpub contracts.

PG almost created a spreadsheet comparing costs of publishing vs. self-publishing, but decided that would lead down an OCD rabbit hole where he would spend way too much time. If anyone wants to build a spreadsheet and sends PG a link, he’ll probably do another post.

Big Publishing, Contracts, PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Self-Publishing

40 Comments to “Traditional Publishing: What’s It Good For?”

  1. Now, I have Edwin Starr and Jackie Chan chanting in my head. Thanks, PG! 😆

  2. For the first timer or low to mid-lister you’d think it was a no brainer …

    Indie/self publishing costs: As much as you want to put into it for editing/cover/advertising — all of which are one-time payments, after earning that back the rest is pure profit.

    Trad publishing (after you or your agent gets them to notice you): You may or may not receive an advance — but no more until your book pays out. Your story no longer belongs to you, you have no say or control over editing/cover/advertising (or if any is actually done) nor how much it will sell for. When (if) your book pays out you will receive a small fraction of each sale (unless the e/book gets ‘deep discounted’) after the publisher takes the lion’s share and your agent gets their cut.

    And yeah, that song’s stuck in my head too, and it has the right answer … 😛

  3. When I tell nonfiction writers they need to demonstrate to the agent/editor they have a big enough platform—enough visibility—to sell books without the help of a publisher, they’ll ask, “What’s the publisher for then?”

    And if they have that platform, “What’s the agent for then?”

  4. One of the commenters over there is under the impression that authors get half the profit from a traditionally published book. Where did that come from?

    • THey’re in for a big surprise if they think that. From what I calculated, my husband’s trad non-fic publisher makes 9x more than hubby does for each sale, and probably a little more, since they pay 2x a year, meaning they get interest. So each 900 dollar check hubby gets is 9000+ for the publisher. He’s doing a third edition this year, but we’ve talked about whether it’s worth doing future updates. He’s thinking of just self-publishing his own series and see how that flies in the interim years before they ask for the next edition. It’s nice to get the two check per year, helps with bills, but he signed a contract without any publishing knowledge years and years ago, and I read it last year. Not very good and I asked him to request some changes (after reading stuff here and learning for the last 1.5 years). They agreed to two.

      And even if he doesn’t want to do a 4th ed, the contract states they can engage someone to revise it–take his work and update it. He kinda never really paid attention to that before and its implications. He’s thinking about it now, though.

      He knows now to have contracts checked out and not just sign blindly and trustingly that everything will be fine. 😀

      • I was never moderated before. PG, are you doing moderation this year as standard?

        • Miritika – I have WordPress set to moderate the first comment a visitor makes. If the first post is approved, everything else goes through unless something in the comment triggers the spam filter.

          I think you may have used a different user name before.

          Let me know if you have any further problems.

      • I’ve read elsewhere, can’t remember where, that it’s incorrect to think that because a book doesn’t earn out the advance the publisher didn’t make a profit. Most books make at least a tiny bit of money for the publisher.

        • You’re all using very large generalizations. Yes it’s true that if a book doesn’t earn out the advance that the publisher can still make money. But the size varies dramatically. Most books hopefully make money for the publisher or they wouldn’t be in existence. I don’t know where the numbers came from that said the publisher makes 9x what the author does.And Allen F mentions deep discounting of ebooks which to the best of my knowledge no major publisher would ever do. eBooks should not be deep discounted.

      • Miritika,
        Your husband’s situation is interesting, in so far as the contract reserves in the publisher a right to have someone else do the update. That, of course, isn’t free for the publisher to do. Perhaps it creates an opening for negotiation regarding compensation that should be paid your hubby next time he’s to do an update. Perhaps this was obvious. I share it just in case.

        • I’ll mention that to him, because you might have a point. Or they have such a roster of tech folks to pick from, they don’t care who does it. Who knows? But good to keep in mind for two or three years to come.

    • Lydia, they need to do a Google on what Harlequin authors are paid. I think Joe Konrath did an article or two on it. The tiny, tiny royalties and the corporate games that allow for even smaller-than-expected royalties.

    • Lydia, I popped over to read that comment. Erhm…

      -The publishers put up all the money and you get more than half the profit.
      Not only do you not get half the profit, as you pointed out, but most of the money they put up is necessary only under their publishing business model. (And it completely discounts the value of actually writing the work, identical for writers published by any means.)

      -Publishers know what sells.
      Publishers know what sells under their model. Harlequin knows what shifts 100,000 paperbacks. But the indie ebook explosion has revealed dozens of markets in all genres that don’t cater to the lowest common denominator but are healthy enough to support several working writers.

      -Distribution. Publishers can get your books into bookstores and non-bookstores.
      I’ll give her this one. Distributing dead trees to brick and mortar stores is traditional publishing’s strongest remaining unique selling point. But… When I go into my local large independent bookstore, large chain bookstore, or mega-store with a book section, I don’t see books by new authors or up and coming authors. I see the proven hit makers. And you don’t have to kill trees at all to make a living at writing these days. Once you have enough sales that a publisher approaches you for a paperback distribution contract, consider it, but we’re back to what is the value of a publisher for new authors.

      -Publishers provide coaching on your marketing efforts and access to Nielsen Bookscan.
      Coaching? Telling you what events to attend or hold at your own expense? Telling you how to set up contact lists? Telling you how to do the legwork yourself? Unless they pay for the marketing, there are lots of free resources out there that provide the same information. (They don’t cost you your rights, either.) And Nielsen is becoming less relevant as they continue to ignore change in the publishing industry (taken as the publication of written works, not just Nielsen’s client list.)

      -Publishers add gloss to a manuscript you thought was polished already.
      So hire an editor. It’s a one-time expense. As a new author you’re likely to get a more competent editor for hire (if you do your research) than you’re likely to be assigned by a publishing house. Even the big houses add typos, change the meaning of sentences, or alter the names of characters. Any manuscript should be at least 90% polished before it’s ever sent to a publisher or freelance editor. The publisher won’t waste their time, and you don’t want to waste your money. For a new author, if the story is good it will sell with less than perfect polishing. If the story isn’t good, perfect polishing won’t sell it. What is perfect polishing anyway?

      What bothers me about the comment is Jane Friedman replied with “All good points.” They aren’t. Except possibly distribution. But it can also be argued that the publishers’ distribution network is another case of valuable for an author with an established audience.

      There are reasons to choose either path, but I get upset when people suggest everything is milk and honey once a publisher offers you a contract.

      • Yes there was a lot wrong with that comment. I wish Jane Friedman had responded with more than just diplomacy. She should know better, since this is the digital expert Jane and not the agent Jane. Probably didn’t want to get into it I guess. Or she didn’t read the entire comment.

      • “For a new author, if the story is good it will sell with less than perfect polishing. If the story isn’t good, perfect polishing won’t sell it.”

        As a reader I strongly disagree, at least grammar and spelling should be correct. That is a large part of polishing for me and some authors (even known successful ones) could do with a strong editing hand.

        But I will not tolerate mistakes on every other page. Basic grammar and a lot of spelling can be checked with a program and most if not all word-processors should offer that, the errors which are not caught by these programs I can and will tolerate, if they are not too often.
        But these errors are reason enough to DNF now for me or/and a new author does not stand a chance with me, that I will get (buy or free) another book, unless the story is VERY good.

  5. It’s the ability to spread the word about your work’s existence at the right time to the right people that’s crazy-difficult. So far, most publishers are still better at doing that.

    And if they’re going to list your e-book for $11.99 or something similar they’d better not be just “still better,” but something akin to P.T. Barnum. It isn’t that that is horribly expensive, just that there’re a lot of books I’d like to read that are a lot less expensive.

    • The last Terry Pratchett book is $17.99 at the moment on the Canadian Kindle store. Nearly twice as expensive as any other Terry Pratchett book, presumably because it’s new and he’s dead. He’s going to be dead for a while. I can wait. Even though I own every other Terry Pratchett book on dead trees and as ebooks.

      • Wait for what? He may have passed away, but his estate/publisher still own everything, and will for a sad, long time.

        If I were his heir I’d wish all his books to be in Project Gutenberg yesterday.

        • If I were his heir, I’d have a copyright lawyer and auditor on retainer.

          • To be specific: I think his daughter has been writing with him for a while already. And on her own. So she may. She may also have an agent and publisher.

            I’m pretty sure Pratchett was the bestselling author in the UK, and highest earning, until a certain series of books by a certain young orphan with a lightning-bolt scar. I’d posit that Pratchett made a lot of pounds during his lifetime, and worked with his lawyers to try to leave a good portion of it to those he cared for, so that he could continue to provide for him even posthumously.

            Perhaps I was leaving too much to the imagination with my comment, but I’d be surprised if Pratchett’s heirs haven’t already profited greatly from his books and aren’t already set for life.

            As Gordon noted, his latest book is $17.99. How much of that goes to Pratchett’s heirs — if any of it? I mean, it’s likely already part of a greater deal, for which Pratchett was already paid, in which case that money has already been handled posthumously.

            I just find that sad.

            Personally, I’ve already arranged that everything I’ve ever written be available and free to anyone who wants it after I pass.

            • I have no idea how the $17.99 is split up. Can anyone tell is?

              I agree his heirs have probably made money from his books. If I were one of them, I’d have that lawyer and auditor on retainer so I could make more.

              Personally, I’ll try to set things up so my heirs can derive the maximum benefit from all my assets.

              That makes me happy.

  6. PG, I’d love to see that spreadsheet. So if you change your mind….

    • How about this?

      Trad pub ‘costs to the writer’:


      Self/indie pub ‘costs to the writer’, do-it-yourself-er:


      Self/indie pub ‘costs to the writer’, pay others for edit/cover:


      (more /\s if you pay for advertising …)

      YMMV as they say.

      • Exactly. It has to be a cost/benefits or con/pro thing. If the author thinks trad is better, go trad. If they can do the indie route affordably and want to hold on to all rights, go indie. Each route has drawbacks and benefits. Although I have seen a swell of midlist pals move towards indiedom, not all have and some do both as business decisions.

        Quality editing seems to be the biggest expense I see out there. That and good ads. But covers can be had for under 100 (decent ones, sometimes gorgeous ones for less than 200) and proofreading and formatting costs haved come down, too. But good editing is still hundreds to a few thou and an effective minimal ad is gonna be 500 or more.

        • Author Solutions price list might be a good approximation of what it costs a big publisher with all their associated overhead to perform each function.

    • I’d like to see it as well.

    • I’d love that OCD spreadsheet if anyone bites.

  7. “PG suggests an additional question for authors, “How much is a publisher going to cost me?””

    With a lot of my traditionally published friends, it seems a lot of the benefits of traditional publishing isn’t $ but the “cool” factor that comes with having an agent, getting a Kirkus review, or an article about their book or them in some mass media outlet. Some of these may not be available to those who go the indie route (or harder to obtain) but I’ll take the freedom to write what I want as fast as I want along with the monthly Amazon deposits over that.

    • I’m really cool myself, Abel, but I can’t get the electric company to accept payments in cool. 🙂

    • I don’t think this motivation can be underestimated. Not all writers are in it for the monetary reward. Some want fame, or acknowledgment from peers… and that’s far scarcer down the indie path than it is on the trad path, if you can get on it.

  8. PG suggests an additional question for authors, “How much is a publisher going to cost me?”

    This. Thisthisthisthisthis.

  9. As much as I often rail about the current state of the publishing industry and the ideologies of the pundits within it, it’s kind of great we’ve gone from “Why You Still Need a Traditional Publisher” to “Traditional Publishing: What’s It Good For?” in only a few years.

    • @ Will

      “Why You Still Need a Traditional Publisher”

      Is that a recent Writer’s Digest article? 😉

  10. Smart Debut Author

    Traditional Publishing: What’s It Good For?

    A laugh or two, nowadays.

  11. More than half the money, my backside .
    I wonder if this commentor also believes is that the US Is keeping aliens in area 51 .

  12. Ok, now that’s just taking it too far .

  13. Trade publishing is essentially casino gambling. Work yourself to exhaustion querying individuals (who can’t pay you) to sell your book to another individual who thinks they might be able to sell your book. Then you the writer (service provider) has to sign away rights to your product. Even then there’s no guarantee of return on investment for you or the publisher.

    Funny how the NY pundits scribble on about the indie “tsunami of crap” when we’ve probably all picked up a trade book that wasn’t very good. Makes you wonder how in the world it even got to the B&N shelf.

    To be fair, indie sales require some degree of luck. At least self publishing you retain rights and creative control.

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