Stay Away From Traditional Book Publishing

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From Dean Wesley Smith:

Yes, I Know That is a Dream for Many…

But it is a horrid (and I mean horrid beyond words) path for writers now in 2018.

But Dean, how can you say that? You first published with traditional publishing, right? Yes, I sold my first novel in 1987 and did my last work for them in 2008. I did 106 books (that I can remember) through traditional big-five book publishing. I am pretty convinced that even by my  math, most of that was last century.

Let me repeat that. Last century. You know, dial phones hooked to a wall with cords, no internet, no email. That century.

Yet traditional book publishing hasn’t changed in the slightest from those old dial-up days and writers still want to work with them. Stuns me.

. . . .

Reason One…

— They take all your copyright for the life of your work, and often will buy your characters and worlds if you are not super careful. You can’t negotiate with them on this, especially if you went begging to them with your tin cup manuscript in your hand.)

Reason Two…

— You need a book agent to deal with them. Book agents really are equal to dial-up phones, or better put, pay phones that take your money and never make a connection. (You got to be really old, meaning you had to live in the 1970s to remember that.)  Book agents will also take your copyright if not careful, and also your money. A very large percentage of them are scams these days.

Reason Three…

— You will make no more sales than you could publishing the book indie, and actually in a few short years your indie sales will pass any possible traditional publishing sales. And you will not be able to trust the traditional publisher’s royalty statements every six months. Their accounting systems are also stuck back in dial-up phone land. Not kidding.

. . . .

Reason Six…

— It takes forever to sell a book to traditional publishing, often if you count the agent time, rewriting time, and publishing time, three to five years from writing the book to it being published. You sell a book tomorrow to traditional and B&N goes down before your book is published, you are done. Chances are your book will never be published, but they will own and keep all the rights to it anyway. (You signed the contract, sorry.)

Reason Seven…

You must write what they want you to write, not what you want to write. And also, you must write slower, do fewer books, and often contracts will keep you from writing for anyone else in any genre and any series. Not kidding.

Link to the rest at Dean Wesley Smith

 PG will add another reason not to deal with traditional publishers because the milk of human kindness has gone a little sour in him due to the aggravating technical issues in his life: These days, publishers are packed with mediocrity.

Think about it – Does anybody with more than a thimbleful of business sense go to work at a traditional publisher in 2018? PG thinks not.

Is anyone who could be hired into another industry at about the same salary staying in publishing in 2018? Why would they?

Is there a bright tomorrow for traditional publishing?

Is smart money investing in publishers or bookstores or the supply chain that links the old-model book business together?

Does anyone quit Amazon to go to work at Random House?

PG will go lie down for awhile. 

25 thoughts on “Stay Away From Traditional Book Publishing”

  1. Reason Seven…

    You must write what they want you to write, not what you want to write. And also, you must write slower, do fewer books, and often contracts will keep you from writing for anyone else in any genre and any series. Not kidding.

    One of my favorite authors is Tanith Lee, and I was shocked (& appalled) to read that:

    The companies which Lee worked with for numerous years even refused to look at her proposals.[13] Smaller companies were publishing just a few of Lee’s works. The refusals did not stop her from writing and she had numerous novels and short stories which were just sitting in her cupboard.[13] Mail from fans even asked if she were dead because no new Lee works had been released.[13] Lee even tried changing her genre, but to no success. (fr Infogalactic)

    Imagine, as an author, that you’ve hit the big time: contract with trad pub! Everything’s going great, until they stop returning your calls. Latest manuscript? Can’t sell it to anyone, and you don’t know why, but you keep writing and filling drawers.

    • Ahh, Tanith Lee. I remember her being mentioned in a book I had as a teenager, on writing horror, fantasy & science fiction. She sounded intriguing, but she was one of many recommended authors who I never saw in stores back in the 90s(including canonical authors in those genres). I have three works by her; one appears in a 70s era anthology in which an old teacher of mine had a story. I’ve been saving it for a rainy day.

      I tracked down the interview cited at [13]: Realms of Fantasy interview with Tanith Lee.

      Q: Does the market these days let you do what you want? Are you able to write and sell the novels you want too?

      Lee: Until fairly recently the ‘market’ did let me do just that. In the beginning I seldom even had to offer a synopsis or proposal, either. … Now though most of the so-called big publishers are unwilling even to look at a proposal. They aren’t interested in seeing anything from me, not even those houses I’ve worked with for many years. Where any slight interest in my turning in a book exists, I find I must work inside certain defined formulae. And to me that’s one of the arch inspiration-stranglers. …

      More at the link. The “suits” are the suspected culprit, but she said that while she continues to write, as a sixty-something-year-old she doesn’t have time to wait on the big publishers. She did the interview in 2009. She died in 2015.

  2. In his last line PG mentions Random House. No, I suppose no one leaves Amazon to work there, but today’s Random House isn’t yesterday’s Random House. The old Random House might have been a fine place to work, half a century and more ago, when Bennett Cerf headed it.

    One of the most delightful autobiographies I ever read was Cerf’s “At Random.” Cerf (1898-1971) was co-founder of Random House. He might be remembered best for being a panelist on “What’s My Line?”, a long-running television show, and for his many books of jokes and puns.

    Ironically, although Cerf died in 1971, “At Random” wasn’t published until 1977. It wasn’t the kind of book that required much editorial work, the way some novels do, and I presume Cerf largely had the manuscript done before he died.

    So why did the autobiography take six years to see light? I have no idea, but maybe it was a subtle indication that Random House had begun to change once Cerf was gone.

    (I ought to mention a sour point: In 1961 Cerf and others founded the Famous Writers School, which went bankrupt in 1972, largely as a result of an exposé in “The Atlantic Monthly” by Jessica Mitford. She wrote about the correspondence school’s questionable business practices. At one time it had 65,000 students, and ads for it appeared at the backs of many magazines.)

    • Details on tbe Famous Writers School:

      “To enter the program, the course required students to submit aptitude tests, which were almost uniformly accepted. The advertisements implied that the celebrity faculty would evaluate the student’s tests, a statement that Bennett Cerf, a leader of the group, admitted was false.[3] Once a student’s test was accepted, they were sent a letter filled with praise, suggesting that “you couldn’t consider breaking into writing at a better time than today. Everything indicates that the demand for good prose is growing much faster than the supply of trained talent.” Mitford noted that the complete opposite was true at the time, and that “the average free-lance earns just over $3000 a year.”[3] Students were required to sign a contract with the school. Cerf noted that “once somebody has signed a contract with Famous Writers he can’t get out of it, but that’s true with every business in the country.”[3]

      Assignments were graded by a staff of fifty, including some well-respected free-lance writers. The comments they provided on students’ papers were described as “formulaic, often identical, responses”[1] and as “good as you’d get from a mediocre professor in a so-so creative writing program.”[4] The cost was also “about fifteen times” the cost of correspondence courses offered by universities.[1] Students who signed up for the course were provided with “four hefty ‘two-toned, buckram bound’ volumes with matching loose-leaf binders for the lessons.”[3]

      At the time of Mitford’s reporting, the school’s enrollment was 65,000 students, each of whom was paying $785 to $900 for the three-year course. Mitford reported a high dropout rate (between 66 and 90%), which she concluded was partly responsible for the school’s financial success.[3] The school employed about 800 salesmen throughout the country working on a “straight commission basis.” In 1970, about 2000 veterans were signed up for the program through the GI bill at the taxpayer’s expense.[3] ”

      Preying on Dreamers is a long-standing tradition in Tradpub.

        • The Famous Writers School was an offshoot of the Famous Artists School started in 1948 by Albert Dorne and Norman Rockwell. Readers of a certain age will recall their recruiting advertisements on matchbooks and the back covers of comic books. The Artists School survived the bankruptcy and continued in one form or another until 2016.

          • They were in the back of comic books, right next to the “Sell Grit,” and “XRay Vision Glasses.” I always wanted those goggles.

  3. Pointing out the obvious: not every last traditional publisher is a predator looking to fleece the unwary of their IP. There are have honorable players in the mix, publishers willing to do time-limited contracts, that don’t demand all possible and future rights, that don’t limit a writer’s ability to diversify, and pay adequate royalties, etc.

    The problem is two-fold: the good players are few and far between and they are unwilling to step forward and denounce the bad apples.

    There is simply no transparency in tradpub and the lack of transparency is intentional. As the UK Society of Authors has publicly stated there exists within tradpub a negotiation imbalance where the publishers know everything and the authors know next to nothing and are forced to negotiate their contracts indirectly, through agents that are effectively Black Boxes. The SOA, not (yet) willing to give up the business model of centuries past is reduced to begging their government to intervene. To no effect, so far.

    In the US, the Authors’ Guild, derisively mocked as the “Publishers’ Guild” for their past stances, is reduced to simply whining about the harm to their membership, again to no effect.

    As long as the honest p!ayers refuse to separate themselves from the bad apples, they will continue to be tarred by association. And as long as the lack of transparency persists, the only truly rational and informed solution to the negotiation imbalance is to not negotiate. It is a rigged game and the only sane answer to rigged games, be they dice or contract negotiation, is not to play.

    In past times, not-playing was not a viable option but today it is. Established tradpubbed authors are survivors of a rotten system and for most of them the negotiation fog of the Ancien Regime is all they know. To them, obscurity and predatory contracts are what they know, what they are used to, what they think of as “normal”. So they submit. And expect everybody else to submit. Some are willing to accept that the world has changed but they are few and far between and most just bemoan their increasingly poor outcomes.

    DWS and KKR haven’t given upon their fellow travelers but, if you look around you’ll notice that a lot of the “indie evangelists” have. Quite a few of the previously active ones have moved on to writing, addressing their own careers, accepted that some times all you can do is Live and Let Die.

    Smith and Rusch are still willing to fight against the establishment, trying to help as many as they can to break free and once free of the tradpub anchors, to learn how to navigate the new realm of Indie publishing. Yes, there is some money to be made there, but that by itself is a lesson; knowledge has value but ignorance, especially willful ignorance, is costly.

    Different people write for different reasons.
    Smith and Rusch make it clear their commercial efforts target a specific audience interested in long term, full time careers as authors. Not hobbyists, not part-timers, not validation seekers, and not those “just looking to get their ideas out”.

    Not all their suggestions will work for everybody but that doesn’t negate the truth or merit of what they say. One thing they make clear is that everybody has to figure out their own path, adopt what they think will work for them, commit whatever time and resources they are willing or able to commit. And above all, be willing to own the outcome.

    That doesn’t mean their suggestions aren’t useful to other audiences, though. Publishing is a business for clear-eyed adults. And clear eyed businessfolk take advantage of every resource they find even partially useful, even if its not intended for them.

    Smith and Rusch provide a useful service, pro bono. I see no reason to gripe or begrudge them their other, for-profit activities. I accept what they offer in the spirit in which it’s offered; they’ve been around and seen the lay of the land and are willing to share their view.

    How I use that information to navigate the minefield is up to me.

  4. “Evangelist” or not, all I really need to know is Reason One: taking control of a writer’s copyrights and stories, and characters, etc. I am deeply skeptical that the average writer is deliberately, knowingly signing up for that. I think they are simply looking for “validation” and assuming their agent will “take care of them,” and don’t find out the truth until it all goes horribly wrong (see LJ Smith’s saga). I want the drumbeat against tradpub contract practices beaten good and loud until a majority of writers wake up and smell the paper.**

    The reasons excerpted here (haven’t clicked the link to DWS’s site yet) are things anyone who has been paying attention can see is true with their own eyes, so it passes my “is that true?” test.

    Reason One: In a post linked by Passive Guy, Michael J. Sullivan explained why he’s no longer with his tradpublisher: they hated that he was keeping precious audio rights from them. Say “precious” in your best Gollum voice.

    Reason Two: Chuck Palahniuk most recently. Also linked at PV, I believe.

    Reason Three: Lois McMaster Bujold, who also mentioned Reason Seven.

    Reason Six: IIRC, antares mentioned once that Baen took soooo long to get back to him that Jerry Pournelle (?) suggested publishing on his own. Even a decade ago book publishers thought nothing of asking writers to wait six months to a year for a response. I hear it’s only gotten worse. And publishers had (or have; I no longer care) a rule that you couldn’t do simultaneous submissions. That’s before you even get the book published; it’s plausible that it can take longer once the edits are done. I can only justify putting up with that kind of wait time when humans routinely have eleventy-first birthdays. We’re not there yet.

    Reason Seven: See Nora Roberts, and search PG’s archives for authors burned by non-compete clauses. CJ Cherryh once explained she didn’t write more in a particular universe because the one publisher she was with didn’t want her doing work for a series still in print with a different publisher. As a reader I wanted more in that particular series…

    But Reason One looms large for me. If a publisher’s “industry standard” contracts are full of Gorgons, lamiae, and jabberwockies, you could buy a Vorpal Sword +5 (aka a lawyer) — but why bother doing business with someone who would give you such a contract to begin with? What’s the point?

    **apparently the smell is the scent of decaying paper, which somehow seems appropriate here.

    • “… and assuming their agent will “take care of them,” …”

      Oh, the agent will ‘take care of them’ all right, the agent will tell them to sign away the writer’s firstborn if that’s what’s in the contract – because that agent doesn’t make any money if the writer doesn’t sign!

      MYMV and all trad-pub and their agents get coal in their stockings (hey – at least they can burn it for heat. 😛 )

  5. DWS and KKK make their money by presenting themselves as self-publishing evangelists. It’s in their interest to play up the least desirable aspects of traditional publishing while presenting self-publishing as the road to riches. Some of their assertions here are questionable.

    • 1) Neither of them formally charges readers for the information they post on their websites regarding Indie publishing. Yes, they have donate buttons, but no reader is required to pay for reading their online articles–or, for that matter, to attend any of their classes. By my estimation, there’s plenty of free information on their websites to get an Indie author going without resorting to attending their classes.

      2) What, praytell, would a Tradpub company be willing to do for one of their authors that an Indie author can’t do as well as or better than the Trad company if they’re willing to put in a little effort? There are learning curves to both paths into being published, and there are also expenditures of time and money, to varying degrees.

      3) I think saying they’re “presenting self-publishing as the road to riches” is an exaggeration. As I see it, they’re pointing out that, if the author is willing to do a little extra work on their own (which they’d be doing anyway as a Tradpubbed author) to get their books out there, it’s likely they’ll earn a bit more for a longer period of time than they would by tradpubbing, especially if the Indie author CONTINUES PUTTING OUT BOOKS with greater frequency and more regularly than they’ll be permitted to produce for a Tradpub company.

      4) And, really, what about the current state of the entire publishing world are DWS and KKR saying that hasn’t also been presented here on TPV from other sources independent of DWS and KKR? All DWS has done here is restated the information in one article. With a bit of searching, other, independently written, articles will verify each and every point DWS has made in this post.

      5) He’s preaching to the choir. Clicking through to the actual post and reading the comments on it will illustrate that a number of the choir have attempted reasoning with Tradpub Seekers to no avail. People have to want to accept the advice offered–and employ it–in order for it to have any chance to work–or not–for them.

      • “What, praytell, would a Tradpub company be willing to do for one of their authors that an Indie author can’t do as well as or better than the Trad company if they’re willing to put in a little effort?”

        It depends. If we are talking about commercial genre fiction, it is unlikely that a traditional publisher can do better for an author than the author can do self-publishing. There are many other sorts of books for which traditional publishing is the better model.

    • Are you saying that you believe they are making most of their money off of teaching and providing education for those on the Indie path? And therefore that’s all they talk about?

  6. I tend to agree with the 8 reasons, but I also find every one of them seems a shade of gray too far for me.

    I’m reminded of an old Anthony Robbins example in one of his early tape programs. It was talking about how couples often fail to communicate because they give what they themselves want, not in the form of what the other person wants. So the example was about a couple where the wife sees love as expressed through words and would love a nice poem from her husband. Meanwhile the husband is more about food and actions, so he makes her a nice meal. So the wife is starving for love and affection which she only recognizes if she gets a poem, meanwhile the guy is killing himself showering her with all these elaborate meals. “You don’t love me apparently…what? I gave you all this amazing food.” He’s saying “I love you” as he would want to receive it, but she can’t hear it.

    That seems completely irrelevant perhaps, but it is to me the exact same for people who go traditional both as writers and as cogs in the publishing world. Some of them are quite good, smart, intelligent, creative, etc…but the only way they know how to get the love they crave / the respect they crave / the satisfaction they want is through this model that they idealize. It’s their love poem. Doesn’t matter if you can eat better as an indie, without their love poem, all the success in the other realm isn’t going to get rid of the feeling that they’re missing out on what they want.

    DWS and KKR are great for showing that when you make those decisions, there are business costs either way, and it is clear that they think any other decision is relatively stupid. But I think they sometimes forget that some authors are going to go that way not because they’re inept business people but rather because they see poetry in that model, and nothing but cupcakes in the alternatives. They can see they’re getting screwed, with rose coloured blinders, but they also see themselves “in publishing” and everything else “isn’t”.

    I think a much bigger challenge is even if someone is “good”, as a writer or as someone working for the publisher, there is no space for them to do anything else but use rotary dial phones and cords that tangle in their feet. You can’t break it from within, not even a little. And the model is limited.

    Or maybe it’s a chicken and egg thing rather than poetry and dinner recipes.


    • That sounds like Tony Robbins got some of that from The 5 Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman. Its an excellent read, and I highly recommend it to anyone, not just married couples.

      In a nutshell, the 5 love languages Dr. Chapman proposes are:

      Affirmation (Words of Encouragement)
      Acts of Service
      Gift Giving

      He proposes that while we can all experience love through any of the five, one or two of them will be dominant for us.

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