Crossover Deals from Self-Publishing to Traditional

As I have been saying for some time, the indie side of publishing will slowly become a major way into traditional publishing. And a way with power that allows a writer to negotiate a better contract.

But up until this morning I didn’t have any real evidence on that other than a few news articles about the large or different books that started indie and went traditional and a few friends it had happened to.

Then this morning Publishers Marketplace gave out their information about six figure deals in publishing that were reported to them. Combining nonfiction, children’s, and fiction, there were about 300 six figure deals reported to Publisher’s Marketplace. (There were a ton more, of course, since most deals are not reported.)

Then Publisher’s Marketplace followed with the line:

“As everyone knows, originally self-published books made for a number of high-profile crossover deals in 2012–though in total numbers, we recorded 45 such deals in all.”

Of the 300 or so six figure deals that were reported to them in 2012, 45 were from books that started off self-published.

Indie publishing is now a clear route in.

In fact, I see no reason now why every book shouldn’t start indie published first, even if the ultimate goal for the book is traditional.


— You don’t waste all the time waiting for editors and agents.
— You are making money, return on your time investment, right from the start.
— You have negotiating power when offered a traditional contract.
— You have information on sales when offered a traditional contract.

Welcome to 2013 and the new world of publishing.

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69 Responses to Crossover Deals from Self-Publishing to Traditional

  1. RD Meyer says:

    Hopefully, anyone who goes from indie to traditional with his or her work has done the analysis to ensure the monetary benefits are worth the control being given up. They very well might be, but jumping in without being sure can lead to regret down the line.

    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, yeah, spot on there. I also assume that writers will do the math before jumping.

    • I am one of the authors that switched to traditional with a six-figure deal. I did the calculations, and figured I would probably lose $200,000 – $250,000 (turns out that wasn’t the case but it was what I thought coming in) but I was willing to pay that price…and even if I had lost that money, I still think it would have been worth it.

      The important thing is to make sure your contracts can accommodate a hybrid model where some works are released through the traditional channel and others are self-published.

      • dwsmith says:

        Exactly spot on, Michael. The important aspect of jumping from indie to traditional is controlling all the outside projects and future projects. Traditional (at this point in time) will try to slow you down and control what you can put up. Don’t let them. Just sell them only the book and the rights they need. So great point, Michael. Thanks!

  2. Don’t you lose a little on your negotiating power because the publisher isn’t getting first publishing rights to your work? Or is that no longer as important as it used to be?

    • dwsmith says:

      Nope, not as important at all these days. It really never used to be except in short fiction magazines, where it still is important. But book publishers not so much.

      • Chong Go says:

        How concerned are traditional publishers that by going indie you’ve saturated the market or already sold enough that there aren’t enough sales left for a traditional edition to succeed?

        • dwsmith says:

          None. Their belief system is that they are better getting books out and marketing them. It’s why Amanda Hocking and others have been offered millions even though their books had already sold millions.

          The key is understanding how really, really large the market is and now it’s worldwide as well. Selling a few hundred thousand copies would not even dent the total market that traditional publishers look at with bestsellers.

          • Lee McAulay says:

            If you’ll permit, there’s a really great analysis of this (numbers! OMG are there numbers!) over on Steven Pressfield’s blog at
            He basically dissects the Fifty Shades trilogy success in terms of money, and the numbers are just staggering.

          • dwsmith says:

            Thanks, Lee. That blog just shows a tip of how much money is out there in this business.

          • Hugh Howey says:

            Steven’s breakdown in that blog post was inspired by a print-only deal I signed with Simon and Schuster. I believe it helps answer Christopher Wright’s question above about negotiating power. You have far *more* negotiating power with a self-published bestseller than you do with a promising manuscript. Publishers want the doubt and chance taken out of the equation. A proven seller does that. And as DWS points out, even if you’ve sold a million copies, there are another 5 million out there to sell. The publisher can grab a piece of that pie or watch another publishing house take it. It’s an easy choice.

          • dwsmith says:

            Exactly, Hugh. The more chance factors a publisher can take out of the equation, the happier they are, which is why we see so many clones of the latest vampire/wizard/sex craze. And spot on about any one imprint or publisher not wanting another to get what they could make money on.

          • Hugh wrote: “Publishers want the doubt and chance taken out of the equation. A proven seller does that. ”

            Same substance, difference phrasing, a friend of mine who spent years in business before writing always says that publishers all want to be the SECOND one to discover something sells, because being the FIRST implies risk, and publishers are so risk-adverse they’d much rather jump on a bandwagon of a hot trend than be first through the door with it.

            Since I have observed that to be repetitiously true during my 20+ years in the biz, I can see how that would readily translate into publishers being far more interested in a self-published bestselling book than in a promising manuscript. Same principle. And that would indeed give someone like Hugh more negotiating power, despite the book already having been out there selling.

        • This is precisely the argument that I met with at WorldCon last year. I was on a panel discussing self-publishing, and at the other end of the table sat a traditional publisher. His contention was that he would never sign a self-published book because all the “low hanging fruit”, i.e., easy sales, would have been made already. I thought there was a flaw in that argument when he made it, but I couldn’t find it. And in any event, whether that belief is actually true or not is irrelevant; what matters is how strongly that belief is held by trad publishers.

          • dwsmith says:

            Sarah, it is not held by traditional publishers, it is held by a few people inside of traditional publishing that have not caught up with 2013. There is a huge difference there. And the evidence is clear by how many traditional publishers now are buying indie books and paying good money for them.

            At some point the slow people inside a few companies that hold that old belief will either catch a clue or be pushed aside.

    • Nope, your bargaining position is actually stronger, because you already have income. I was able to get modifications to my contract that I wouldn’t have been able to if I hadn’t been self-published previously.

  3. Ramon Terrell says:

    Sounds like a win/win situation to me. We can just keep writing and having fun, make money and not worry about getting a publisher, and if one comes and makes an offer, we have a stronger position from which to negotiate with. We can stay indie, or take a traditional deal. Either way, we’re still selling books, and the only thing to worry about is staying on top of the industry and writing good books. I love it!

  4. Elisa Nuckle says:

    It’s funny, my husband and I were talking about this last night. He asked me why I didn’t want to go traditional first, and I explained why indie would be better initially and gave your exact reasons. It’s nice to know I wasn’t off base or insane, haha, because he asked for proof of this and I couldn’t give him anything solid. Now I can show him this article, and show it to any other of my writer friends that ask. I love your blog, and how much practical sense it makes. Keep on keeping on and have a great 2013!

  5. John Walters says:

    Concerning the comment above: it would seem to me that you don’t lose negotiating power when you have self publishing success but rather gain it, because you prove that you have something of value. You are negotiating from a position of power, not as an unknown entity but with proof of quality. And the wonderful thing is that if your product does have quality but it is not noticed right away, it can stay there on display, to perhaps be noticed in the future, while you create more quality products.

  6. What would be more interesting to me is how long it took the indies to get to those six-figure deals. A year? Two years?

    We all know there’s no such thing as overnight success. But I’d be fascinated to find out how long it took for the big winners to get there.

    • Well I can give you some of my data fwiw. I had an agent who had shopped the Riyria Revelations to all the fantasy imprints for about a year and she didn’t get any nibbles.

      So I switched to a small press. They put out the first book in Oct 2008 and I self published the next 4 books (#2 – #5) from April 2009 – Oct 2010. In Oct 2010 I approached New York again and out of 17 submissions got an answer from 7 (or 8 I forget) who expressed an immediate interest and had a six-figure pre-preemptive bid in 17 days. The books were released in Nov 2011 – Jan 2012). I’ve sold 250,000 copies in English as of December (70,000 self – 5 titles, and 180,000 traditional – 3 titles).

      • dwsmith says:

        Wonderful, Michael!! That’s the kind of stories I like to hear (except for all the rejections at first (grin)). Much appreciated for sharing here.

      • Jen Greyson says:

        Very cool, Michael. Congrats!

        I’m hoping to follow the same path with my fantasy series. Small press bringing out the first one in May.

    • Hugh Howey says:

      One year ago today, I was working in a bookstore and making $10 an hour. Over the course of the last year, I turned down a half dozen 6-figure offers and two 7-figure offers before finally getting the deal I wanted. I had been writing and self-publishing for three years, but the real success came practically overnight.

      It’s anecdotal, of course. Just one story among many.

  7. Celia Hayes says:

    I think that what this kind of story indicates is that traditional publishers (what I call ‘the literary-industrial complex’) are using the marketplace to screen the books they are taking on, rather than agents, or junior editors plowing through the slush-pile looking for the diamonds among the slush. An indy-book which has already demonstrated that it has appeal to a segment of the readership – well then, it might be a surer bet than an unpublished MS. The writer of an indy book has often already proved they can write an appealing story, chances are that it was already polished editorially, and the author already has proved somewhat adept at marketing.
    For myself, it would be a validation to get a nibble for one of my own books from a trad publisher, but I am not all that sure that I’d want to give up control – unless I were offered a simply huge amount of money, and even then it would be negotiable! I’d almost rather hire an editor, cover artist, formatter, publicist and accountant – who would all work directly for me and have my interests foremost, than take pot-luck with a traditional publisher whose in-house experts would owe a corporate allegiance.

    • “Literary-industrial complex.” I like this.

      I am stealing it. :D

    • Larry says:

      Right. Because it’s less risk for the acquisition editors. Easier for them to say no than to say yes to something unproven. They won’t lose their jobs by turning down something. They can lose their jobs if they say yes to enough flops. Decisions are fear-driven.

  8. What I would consider even more exciting news is deals like Hugh Howey and Bella Andre have signed, where they retain their digital rights in a traditional deal. I hope those become more commonplace as time goes by.

    • Hear hear! Brandon Sanderson is also doing print-only deals with his novellas. The problem is all three deals are with mega-sellers. Although I would love to get a similar deal, I don’t think I have the clout (sales) to receive the same type of treatment.

      • Hugh Howey says:

        My hope is that these deals will become more and more common. The dream is for US and UK publishers to sign deals more in line with foreign publishers (print and digital separate, terms of license, no restrictive clauses). I think it’ll happen once publishers begin competing with one another in areas beyond the size of the advance.

        Think about it: All publishers could offer to differentiate from one another in the past was up-front dollars. Now that authors can make very good livings on their own, publishers are having to offer freedoms and rights as incentives. That’s what’s changing the game right now. The hope is they become more comfortable signing these deals and more authors begin seeing them.

  9. Randy says:

    That news made my day.

  10. James H. says:

    Thanks, Dean! I discussed this with a new group just last night, full of prospective authors, and linked them to this post.

  11. Hugh Howey says:

    I made the argument in a writers’ forum a year ago that every book should start self-published, even if the hope was to have it traditionally published. If the book is bad, it’s still better to have it out there and not waste one’s time with query and rejection letters. And who knows? A bad book might gain the right audience or hit a nerve and take off.

    For a mediocre book, you’ll earn more in your lifetime self-published than you will from a $2,500 – $5,000 advance (minus commissions) when the latter route means 3-6 months spine-out on a bookshelf in dwindling bookstores before it becomes out of print.

    If you wrote a blockbuster, you’re still better off starting the self-published route. You might pocket seven figures in the run-up to landing a major deal. And you’ll have the leverage to get the contract you want. My agent and I turned down multiple 7-figure deals until we got a contract that gave us rights and benefits that very few authors enjoy.

    Even a year ago, it was impossible for me to conceive of a book that would be better off with a year spent in the pipeline rather than being for sale while the author concentrated on the next project. A year later, that advice looks downright prophetic (not just for me, but for the industry as a whole).

    The reaction to my post on this writers’ forum was something to behold, btw. I was attacked and vilified, called a moron, piled on by moderators and admins, and eventually banned. All for espousing the view that most writers would be better off not signing away the rights to their work. A year later, I still see a lot of bad advice handed out to aspiring writers, which is what makes this blog a true gem. Keep up the great work, DWS!

    • dwsmith says:

      Hugh, no surprise that a writer’s forum would be angry at you for that advice. At least no surprise to me considering some of the letters I’ve seen on some of my blogs over the last year or so. (grin) You hit a writer in their belief system and stand back. And heaven forbid you use logical business advice and logic. (grin)

      We actually were talking about some of this at a writer’s lunch today. The old thinking that “books spoil” is still solid in publishing, and honestly, after thirty-some years in traditional publishing, I still find myself lapsing into that old thinking as well.

      But books don’t spoil and can grow over time, a concept impossible for a traditional publisher to understand. Their accounting methods won’t allow them to think that way. But for indie publishers, we can put a book out, get a couple sales in the first month, and know it won’t matter given enough time as the book grows.

      I think it might be time for me to do another article on “books as fruit” thinking.

      Thanks for the comments, Hugh.

    • Celia Hayes says:

      My most best-selling book over time is my first, which I brought out in 2007 – a novel about a pioneer wagon train. I hardly bother with marketing it, since I have five out since then. But those books are more regional-apealing – while that first book just goes on, and on, and on. In a given month, usually about half to a third of digital sales are for that book.
      I had heard in a couple of indy-writer discussion groups, that word-of-mouth marketing takes about five years to really bear fruit in good sales. I’d guess, based on that and personal experience, that it takes at least that long to establish an indy book as a good, solid mid-list candidate with ongoing appeal.

    • Marc Cabot says:

      While of course books are either well-written or badly-written, our esteemed host has pointed out that what constitutes either is a subjective judgement, and more importantly, so long as a book is well-written in the objective senses (technically competent enough to be readable, consistent plot, believable characters) there is literally no accounting for taste. So the upside to self-publishing anything but a total train wreck of a book is that even though *YOU* may find it not-so-wonderful, that doesn’t mean that the market will agree. If we know anything about publishing, we know that what writers, agents, publishers and retailers think makes a sellable book, absent those technical minimums, is not particularly useful predictive information.

      In my own case, one of my short erotic novellas consistently outsells my others by a large margin, and I have *no idea why.* It’s the same genre, same basic sort of plot, I personally believe that the story is good but not noticeably superior to several other similar works, even the cover is consistent with my branding and to my eye serviceable but not in any apparent way more engaging. It beats the *Hell* out of me, and I find that very frustrating. If I could figure it out, I’d do more of that!

      • dwsmith says:

        As we all would, Marc. The great fun of publishing. No one has a clue what will sell and what won’t. And that’s why having an indie track record first is so attractive to traditional publishers.

    • J. Tanner says:

      Yeah, that was a less than stellar moment at that forum. Anyway…

      I think you’re mostly on target. Except for the mediocre book. I believe most will fall away well short of the low four figure advance they concievably could have recieved, (as will some well written books that fail to find an audience for reasons unknown.) There’re no guarantees and the odds favor failure regardless of path chosen. Most self-pub books are highly unlikely to make four figures in their lifetime based on their current sales trajectory and competition theoretically getting stiffer as time goes by.

      But I do agree with the more important point. That if you have a book that does find a large audience, you are in a much better position to parlay that into a trade deal that will a) dedicate enough resources to give you decent odds of trade success and b) give you enough negotiating power to avoid some of the onerous terms that often come with first time trade contracts.

    • I agree with absolutely everything you say. And banning anyone who says self is viable is common – I know many people who have been banned from Absolute Write’s water cooler for daring to consider that anything other than traditional is permissibile.

    • I know that forum and read a thread where you were attacked. That is no exaggeration; that place deserves some postmodern award… Lord of the Forum Flies or something. My blood pressure goes up if I spend any time there, so I’ve just closed that tab on my browser and swore (not for the first time) I won’t go back.

      You were a saint. I’m thrilled by your success and glad there are better places to hang out online (thanks Dean).

    • J M Brown says:

      First, I loved the Wool Omnibus.
      What forum was it that gave you all that grief? If you don’t want to name them, can you at least give your reasons for not telling us which one it was?

  12. Lisa Grace says:

    I see nothing but more of these deals coming to self-publishers. An acquisitions editor talking with my agent not so long ago said that “self-publishers are like cars on the highway. They’re already up and running. What we do is give them a bigger engine and more gas.”

    • dwsmith says:

      Wow, Lisa, that’s spot on.

    • Larry says:

      This is how the film industry has been working for many years. Snap up something great at Sundance or a lesser film festival, after the filmmakers took all the risk to make the film. All they need to do at that point is distribute.

  13. Pat McCraw says:

    Thanks, Dean. I totally agree. I am glad I came with my books into a time having the opportunity to publish via Amazon and CS without begging on publishers doors.

  14. Just wanted to say thanks, DWS. I’ve been reading a lot of Jack London lately because this indie thing is a gold rush and I’ve learned from JL that every good Yukoner needs a pan of sourdough and a good lead mush dog to make it. You’re both. Thanks a mil.

    • Roscoe says:

      It’s also worth noting that Jack London was an excellent businessman as well as a talented writer. He was one of the first celebrity writers in America, and when he wasn’t stumping for socialism he was selling Welch’s Grape Juice. He realized that new, cheaper printing and a spread in literacy among his peers would require a lot of short fiction to fill the magazines to come. In short, London made a lot of shrewd business decisions which, coupled with what Dean called “the ability to sit down and produce,” is what made his lifestyle as a professional writer possible.

  15. Hi Dean, I tweeted a link to this post earlier, highlighting the “45 six-figure self-pub deals out of 300″ part. Publishers Marketplace replied saying that 45 was the *total* number of self-pub deals, and about half of them were six figures. Still impressive, but thought you should know.

    This correction highlights something interesting though. Around 5,000 deals were reported to PM, and 300 of those were six figures (or around 6% of all deals). 45 deals for self-pubbers were reported, and half of those were six figures.

    Too small a sample size to draw radical conclusions, but interesting nonetheless.

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, David. And you are right, too small a sample, but sure an interesting new trend and one I was happy to have ANY data on to be honest. This is a logical step forward for publishing and I knew it was happening from having it happen to friends and the ones that hit the news, just hadn’t seen it in any number yet.

  16. allynh says:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but I would still like to see contracts that are one sheet of paper, with maybe two sides of writing, that is similar to a software license.

    When we would license Autodesk we would pay a flat fee for a set number of seats. If we didn’t use all of those seats, that was our problem. If we needed more we would pay for more.

    I would like to see a flat deal made rather than royalties. Where they pay a flat amount to “print” so many books, not pay me “after” they “sell” so many books.

    - Copyright is the right to copy. It is not a sell-right, or print-a-bunch-of-books-and-pulp-half-right, or sell-a-bunch-of-books-and-pay-me-when-they-feel-like-it-right. HA!

    Everybody has forgotten that.

    If they print a million copies and destroy them, that is their business not mine. But they have to pay me for those million copies first.

    By keeping the license agreement to one page, and clearly stated, they could ask for another million copies, pay the fee, and print the books.

    - In that way they are signing my contract, I’m not signing their contract.

    - They are a vendor just like any other vendor or service provider that we deal with in business.

    If they don’t want to do business, they can say “No”. HA!

    • dwsmith says:

      allynh, what you are suggesting is how it is done by many European publishers. And is perfectly reasonable. Chances are the contract, due to liability issues and such, would be longer than one page, but still it would be simple and short and what you suggest. Again, I’ve signed numbers of contracts like what you suggest with book publishers overseas. Things here have just gotten really screwed up, which is what we have been talking about here.

      But if you go in with power, you can get a decent contract if they want your work bad enough.

      The key is great storytelling. That is always the key. Readers find great stories if they are out there.

      • Hugh Howey says:

        Foreign publishing contracts are breathtaking for their simplicity and fairness.

      • Roscoe says:

        “Readers find great stories if they are out there.”

        And that, more than anything else, is why I’ve started tracking hours, reading up on the publishing business, and cranking out prose.

      • Nancy Beck says:

        This is why I’ve taken to heart your post on production – finally! Altho I haven’t set it up for the entire year, I at least have it set up thru April…and I’ve printed it out and taped it up in 2 prominent places so I can keep track of where I’m at & where I should be.

        I’m sure I’ll have to revise it, but that’s not a big deal.

        But I’m determined to be much more productive this year.

        Thanks to Michael & Hugh for coming on here…continued success! :-)

  17. Lara Martin says:

    I have a fantasy where a traditional publisher approaches me with a deal for my self-published work and I tell them, “I’ll sign whatever deal Hugh Howey signed.”

  18. Larry says:

    Six months ago, after she couldn’t sell a book – after two years trying – I said I was going to self-publish. She said that would “destroy my career.” I said, “and putting my manuscripts in a drawer will help my career?” Last week I showed her my web site and the work I’d done to launch the book – coming this week – and she said “congrats.” Even those tied to tradpub are starting to see the light.

  19. Ginny says:

    A year ago, I self published the first two books of a Middle Grade mystery series in the eBook format. I sent out an IContact release with the second book aimed at publishing companies. Two publishers contacted me, a small one for both print and digital and a larger company which deals with digital only. I chose the second but retained rights to publish print books elsewhere. The third eBook has now been released and I am ready to attempt connecting with a traditional publisher for print books. Is there such a company? And how do I word this in the IContact release? Do I say something like: “available for books in print”? I would appreciate any input from this site. Everyone here seems very informed on the subject of publishing.

    • dwsmith says:

      LOL, Ginny. Informed, well I think a better way of saying it would be opinionated. (grin)

      As for such a publisher, well, there are thousands and thousands of publishers out there. So many depends, no way to even think of answering your question. And honestly, I have no idea who or what IContact is but it screams warning to me.

      So I would keep writing and keep learning and having fun and let the publishers come to you. Or do the print yourself. Good luck.

  20. Rebecca says:

    Hi everyone :) I recently self-published a children’s book and now I would like to market it to a traditional publisher; unfortunately, I haven’t the time or money to promote it myself. I was wondering if any of you would have some suggestions on the letter I would write to the publishers, since it is not the usual pitch. Thanks for any input you may have, and thanks for all the great information I read above!

    • dwsmith says:

      Rebecca, you really need to read back over some of the previous posts I did this last year. (grin) But to answer your question, just send them a standard submissions package with a copy of the paper book in place of the sample chapters. Should work fine. And don’t ask for the book back, just send a #10 SASE along for a response.

      Good luck.

  21. Chelsea says:

    I am also one of those indie to traditional authors. I’d had several books out with moderate success, but then I released one that caught fire. Within three days of release, I had an agent and she wanted to go on submission. Not long after, I signed a two-book, six figure deal. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I felt that it was right for me at this point in my career. Someone asked about the time frame for getting these deals, so here’s mine:
    I started indie pubbing in February of 2012, and released my fifth book in September 2012. I got the agent in September, and my book deal in November. So it was FAST. I know of at least four or five others who also had deals that happened this fast. Agents (or their assistants) and publishers are trolling the Amazon and Barnes and Noble bestseller lists for new clients.

    The key is deciding what is best for the author as an individual. You really don’t know what you’re going to do until you’re in that situation and you have everything laid out. I knew I had the chance of losing money, which is why I started writing a new book ASAP if this whole thing didn’t work out. I see the traditional contract as an experiment.
    Having been on the indie side, and now working with the traditional side, I see the benefits of both, and I’ve learned from both. Knowing as much as I can will only make me better as a writer and make my career stronger. If that means I lose some money here and there, or have to give up a little control, I’m okay with that.

    I know of one indie to traditional author that self-published with the intent of selling enough to attract an agent and a book deal. This is the opposite of everything we’ve been told for YEARS. “Self-publishing will destroy your career” is no longer the case. Self-publishing is MAKING careers. I never would have been able to quite my day job and do this full time if I’d slogged through the slush pile for years.

    • dwsmith says:


      Thanks, and congratulations on the great success. You clearly wrote some fine books that fans loved. Well done. And thank you for sharing here and helping beat back the myths. Very much appreciated.

      Keep having fun.

  22. Tim Jennings says:

    I have a publishing company looking at my manuscript and is very interested. Hatchett Books/Grand Central Publishing is the leader but they are offering a digital deal. Im a neophyte to this. I was thinking of self publishing before traditional came into play but would it be beneficial to me for a Digital deal only? Will that take away from Paperback? THEY are very interested as well as another company. My genre is erotica. Any answers would be appreciated

    • dwsmith says:


      No right answer to be honest with you. Far, far too many factors like the details of the contract, the amount they are offering, and so on. What you negotiate and what you sign is everything. If they are only doing digital, you need to flat out ask them if you still have the paper rights.

      Go to Laura Resnick’s web site and look over her list of IP lawyers and get one to help you with any contract. But as far as deciding what to do, that’s up to you and would depend on what they are offering. Just don’t sign anything without a lawyer on board. Lawyers are not that expensive and will at least tell you what you are signing.

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