The New World of Publishing: Stop Submitting Manuscripts to Traditional Publishers

(Warning!!!  I am talking about novels only here, NOT short fiction… The short fiction markets play under other rules and are fine. The top magazines and anthologies don’t buy all rights or hold your rights forever. For example, at Fiction River, we ask for only a two month exclusive from the time of publication. Some of the Dell magazines ask for six months up to a year. All fair. So this discussion is only about novels and traditional novel publishers.)

David Farland did a balanced post on the question of when to be an indie writer or when to sell to traditional publishing. And as usual, I agree with much of what Dave said, although I could quibble on the thrillers. But I don’t feel he went far enough by a long ways. And he didn’t take into account modern publishing contracts for beginning writers. So read his post first and then read on here.

Dave broke apart the idea that some genres are better than others for indie publishing. He’s right, sort of. But the other genres are not bad for it either. I want to make that clear. He sort of left the opinion that indie publishing in some genres is bad. Some genres just have more electronic sales than others is all.

And if you are at the level of David Farland or any of the other writers he mentioned (all friends of mine as well), you have clout to negotiate a novel contract to get out of some of the horrid stuff publishers are putting in smaller-book contracts.

But most writers these days don’t have that kind of clout. I don’t.

And almost no new writer does. So it comes down to a choice of 1) Saying no to a contract with horrid terms or 2) taking a contract and losing all rights to your book forever for $5,000.00 or less. Without clout, you can’t negotiate anything of value.

Just to be clear…

Your clout is basically measured by the desire of the publisher for the project (or you as an author).

If the publisher really wants the project and you have other choices, (either indie or other publishers who want you or the project) you have the “clout” or ability to get terms in contracts changed.

The problem is that for most writers, the myth of being published by a traditional publisher is very strong, and agents are so bad, that a new writer with a first offer will sign just about any contract, giving the publisher basically all rights forever to their work. And worse, the new writer often signs a contract that restricts what they can write going into the future.

I don’t know about Dave, but Kris and I have seen a couple dozen of these horrid, lower-level contracts from our writing friends and students in just the last year or so. And no chance in hell would I have signed a one of them.

So who really understands the choice a writer must make with a contract?

Agents? Not a chance. Agents work for publishers these days (or worse yet, have become publishers themselves) and most agents have no legal training to even understand a modern contract and what it means.

Your Editor? Not a chance. See above.

Your local attorney? Not a chance. A local attorney wouldn’t even understand half of your publishing contract.

Your family or writer’s group? They are the worst, actually. They will push you to sign with all the congratulations, not understanding that you are signing away all your rights to your book and possibly future books. So you will be pressured to sign because you announced the sale before you saw the contract.

Will you have a clear understanding on your own? No. The myths are powerful. Far more than you ever realize until faced with the decision to sign or not sign. The pressure to think you “can live with it” is intense. So without real help, you will sign.

Your only hope for real help in understanding the contract you are offered is a national publishing IP attorney. And then the chances are the myths will overwhelm you anyway. You will think that hiring an attorney is too expensive or even if you did get one, you have no clout to change the terms of the contract. But at least a good publishing IP attorney will help you understand what you are giving away.

Yeah, it really is that ugly.

Young writers going into traditional publishing these days at low levels are screwed, plain and simple. It flat doesn’t matter which genre.

And that’s not even talking about what will happen on the second or third book when the first book doesn’t sell to expectations. That’s another level of ugly.

So in 2013, what is the system around the above “ugliness” if you want to have a book traditionally published?

Do both indie and traditional.

But not like David suggested in his column. I am suggesting you do both for every book in every genre.

Let me say this again. Do both with every book and right from the start.

Read the fine print in David’s column and notice that when one of his friends put up a book indie, traditional publishers came begging.

When a traditional publisher comes to you, hat in hand, begging for your book, you have the clout to get a good contract, good terms, and a good advance.

When you go begging to a publisher, hat in hand, they control because you have no clout and they don’t much care.  In 2013, that means you will be screwed. You may not know it for years, but you will be.

When you send a manuscript to an editor or an agent in hopes they will take you on, just imagine yourself standing there at the door, cup in hand, begging. And there is a very old cliche. “Beggars can’t be choosers.” You take what you are given or don’t take it. Ugly.

So my suggestion now, here in 2013, is to stop submitting unpublished novel manuscripts in any form to traditional publishers or agents.


Stop begging, folks. Stop knocking at their doors with your tin cup in hand hoping for someone to notice you.

Gain some pride.

Stop. Simply stop.

(I can hear it now…But…? But…? But…?)

What do I do?

You really want your novel to be published in traditional publishing??? You really think they can push more books for you into stores? You want to use them to increase your indie sales on your other books.

Fine, I’ll go with that. So what do you do?

Stop begging them to help you and gain control of your own career first.

No one respects a beggar, but business people do respect other business people.

So do the following…

1) Keep writing and continuing to learn how to write better stories.  Chances are your first or second or third written novel won’t be of any interest to anyone but a few family members and scattered readers. You must first learn how to tell a story at a professional level.

(Yeah, yeah, you worked hard on that first novel, rewrote it a dozen times, it has to be gold. Right? More than likely not. Move on and write the next book after indie publishing the first book. Keep working on learning how to tell a story.)

2) Learn how to indie publish your work. That means these days getting it both into electronic markets around the world and paper markets around the world. There are six billion blogs and articles on this, and I wrote some of them. How to get started is up under the “Think Like a Publisher” tab above.

3) Learn how to recognize or create good, professional covers. Learn how to write professional blurbs for your books. Make sure your books are proofed. And so on.

Yeah, there are learning curves. Get over it and get learning.

4) Keep writing, keep learning, and keep getting more work indie published.

So what about traditional publishing? When can I do that?

You are basically submitting your work for editors to see the moment you indie publish it.

If they are not coming to you, then you don’t have anything they want just yet. (You would have gotten rejected for years in the old system. Making a few bucks every month now is much, much better than those rejections.)

But you are a writer in a hurry. Fine. (I never met one that isn’t in a hurry for some reason.)

So here is what you do to make sure editors know your books exist right now:

1) Make 110% sure that your book is professional-looking. That your blurb and back-cover blurbs are top rate. That your interior layout looks professional.

2) Write a professional cover letter. In the letter you don’t beg, you inform them of the fact that your book is available and that it might fit their line.

3) Send the cover letter, a paper copy of your book, and a #10 SASE for an answer to an editor who edits a line of books similar to what you have published.

4) Keep writing more books.

If they contact you with an offer, take your sales numbers for a year on the book and multiply that by ten years. That should be the minimum advance you would accept. And them remember you don’t need them because your book is already out and selling.

Saying no should be easy under these circumstances. They must bring to the table something that will help you and your publishing business. And they must be willing to negotiate on contract terms.

Will traditional publishers do this? Yes. It’s happening all the time now.

Can they bring value to your publishing work? Sometimes, yes. But it will depend on the project.


Stop sending unsolicited novel manuscripts to book editors or agents. That is so last century.

Indie publish your work first, when it is finished.

Traditional book editors will see your book if it is something they find interesting. If you want an editor or a dozen editors to know about it quickly, send them a copy of the finished paper book. (If you want, put a code to a free electronic copy of the book in the cover letter, but still send the paper copy as well.)

Don’t expect responses, but do send the SASE. The goal of sending the books is to let editors know you are there. If there was anything remotely close in your book that might fit their line, they will watch for future books from you online, through your web site and other sources.

Then, when you have  a product (a book) a traditional editor thinks will make them some money and fit their line of books, you have some clout to negotiate a decent contract and some income to understand what the book would make for you if you didn’t sell it to a traditional publisher.

In other words, as I have been talking about for a long time here: You will have choices.

So stop going to agents and editors with your little tin cup in one hand and your unpublished manuscript in the other, begging them toss you a pittance while they rob you blind.

Gain some self-respect.

Take your career into your own hands and come into this new world.

That way, when a traditional publisher wants your work, you will be ready and can be a business partner in the project instead of a beggar at the door looking for crumbs.


Copyright © 2013 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime



This entry was posted in On Writing, publishing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

85 Responses to The New World of Publishing: Stop Submitting Manuscripts to Traditional Publishers

  1. Dayle says:

    I can’t tell you how many friends to whom I want to show this post. Great writers, every one of them. Stuck in the myths, every one of them. Sigh.

  2. Lee Allred says:

    The one service a traditional publisher can provide that I can’t replicate cheaper, better, and/or easier is publishing my novel in the mass market paperback format.

    Essentially then, what I’d be doing by going the traditional publisher route is contracting with a jobber to put out a mass market paperback version of my work and then sell it to retailers.

    Basically, they’re Zazzle or CafePress, only instead of printing up custom T-shirts traditional publishers print up mass market paperbacks.

    Looking at it from that perspective, traditional publisher contracts are for the birds.

    CafePress doesn’t try to own my T-shirt design in perpetuity and for every item of clothing existing or yet to be created. It doesn’t insist on putting out a dress shirt with my design a year before it gets around to printing up my t-shirt. It doesn’t lock me out of printing up different design with some other company with a non-compete clause. It doesn’t claim jump all movie rights or merchandizing rights or iPad app rights for my design.

    CafePress just prints up my t-shirt and markets it and we split the revenue. I keep ownership of my IP. They just print it.

    All I’m wanting from Traditional Book Publisher to do is to do the same: print up mass markets and shop them around to retailers.

    Traditional publishing has become a service industry, and thus like any other service industry (like agents), they work for you.

    It’s a paradigm shift they haven’t yet wrapped their minds around yet (like agents).

    • But Lee, Zazzle is doing one at a time, to order. We already have Print on Demand for that. There is no risk in this model.

      To do a mass market paperback, you have to take a risk. You have to preprint tens of thousands of copies on spec, warehouse them, and send out sales people to get the books in stores. Sometimes this will pay off, and sometimes it won’t. This method engages all the old problems — middle men, returns, remaindering. What we need publishers for (if we do at all, and I’m firmly in the indie camp myself), is to mitigate the big risks. To do that, we have to give them more of the pie to cover losses.

      I really think digital has replaced the mass market paperback for all but the uppermost tier of bestsellers.

    • dwsmith says:

      LOL, Lee. Completely agree.

  3. Vera Soroka says:

    This is a very good post but a lot of young writers would shake their head at you. They look up to their favorite author who is doing well and want to walk the same path they did and take their advice to heart. They have to find out the hard way when things don’t work out.
    I’m a erotic romance writer and fantasy writer and I choose to go indie. I don’t know what I would decide to do if they came to me. For now I’m not going to worry about it. I will just write and hone my craft with each book I write.

    • dwsmith says:

      Vera, the problem with “learning the hard way” is that in this new world, with new contracts, it often means the writer has signed away their right to even write anything. Not kidding. I have seen some horrid warranty and “do not compete” clauses these days. Learning the hard way can simply kill a career flat.

      • Joe Vasicek says:

        Dean, I thought you said in another blog post that this idea of anything “killing your career” is also a myth?

        • dwsmith says:

          Joe, it is, for the most part, but when you sign a contract stating that you will not write anything else, that pretty well ends your career. You will even have to fight, more than likely, in court, to get that released.

          • Joe Vasicek says:

            I’m confused. Why would a publisher put that in a contract if they ever hope to make money off of a writer? If the first five or so books by a writer generally don’t sell, and it takes time for them to build a career and grow an audience, why would a publisher take a one-time book and slip in a contract clause that basically forbids them from ever writing again?

            This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

          • dwsmith says:

            Joe, because in the same contract there is an option clause that says the publisher has the right to buy the next book by that author. Which then means the editor/publisher is in charge of what the author writes and how many times they try to fulfill that option clause, all the time barred from writing anything else without the permission of the publisher. Yes, writers sign these contracts every day.

            Again, as Passive Guy has said many times, publishing contracts are far, far from logical and draconian for writers. And over the last few years, since the indie revolution, they have gotten a ton worse. So looking for sense in publishing contracts is not “logical” as Spock would say.

          • dwsmith says:

            And Joe, remember that writers are not people or projects or anything of value to a publisher. They are just a widget, the person who produces the widget. Kris has done a number of blogs lately on this attitude from publishers.

            So you would be correct if publishers cared about writers in the slightest. But publishers are major international conglomerates. They could not give a toot about any one writer. Sadly.

            Which is why the idea of a major international conglomerate “nurturing” a writer is so damn funny to those of us who know how things really work.

          • Joe Vasicek says:

            Oh, I agree that it’s not “logical” to look for sense in these contracts. That’s a major reason why I’m no longer pursuing a traditional publishing deal. It just blows my mind that these publishers are so stupid. It’s like they’re trying desperately to put all the horrors of self-publishing back in Pandora’s box, or slaughtering their writers in the hopes of getting that golden manuscript egg out of them even faster. All of which is just shockingly stupid.

  4. New Publishing Plan

    All great advice, thank you. After about three years as an indie author I’ve realised how I set myself back. I published my novel then panicked when it didn’t sell. I promoted the hell out of my book online and never got any new writing done.

    This time (when I publish under a new pen name) I’m going to wait until I have three novels ready to go/publish at the same time. I’m also going to have a fourth completed novel listed as ‘Coming Soon’ on my website.

    After I publish the three books I will start work on a fifth book, thereby keeping my concentration focused on writing, rather than book promo. When my fifth novel is ready I will publish the forth and list the fifth as the ‘Coming Soon’ novel on my website.

    This is what I need to avoid getting caught up in book promo. It’s also a way for readers of my books to learn that my ‘Coming Soon’ book will be available every 3-4 weeks. Readers won’t know I’m writing books fast, behind the scenes. I’ll be practicing at bettering my writing skills. Also, by having a ‘Coming Soon’ novel waiting, I know I have to keep writing which will help me to avoid obsessing about promoting my one available book.


  5. Dean, what you say about traditional publishing has always made perfect sense to me. After discovering your blog I soon decided that if I ever get around to writing a novel (big “if” here, lol) I will self publish it.

    Many moons ago I worked for a commercial non-fiction publisher here in the UK, where I wrote articles for a flat fee, signing the most draconian contract imaginable. I was young and the fee was pretty fat so I certainly didn’t argue but I remember a much older, respected writer with non-fiction books to his name did have his lawyer creating a stink about it. I can’t remember exactly which part was the biggest problem for him but it might have been the “gagging” clause which demanded we not reveal that we’d worked on the project. There was much speculation in the office about why the gagging clause was there, the most popular view was that it was because the project was for the American market, and the parent publisher didn’t want customers to know it was all written by Brits. (grin) But whatever, every time I hear talk of horrible contracts I just remember those old ones and appreciate how bad they can be!

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Elinor. Yup, they can be bad. And the bad ones would never exist without writers lost in the myths and unwilling to say no to such horrid contracts. And worse yet, writers unwilling to learn or hire the correct help and instead trust someone with “agent” beside their name who just graduated from Vassar with an English degree. I have been stunned, flat stunned on the level of contracts lately.

  6. Norma Beishir says:

    I’ve already sent a link to this to every writer I know…and posted it on my writers’ group’s Facebook page. This is the best advice I’ve seen so far!

    • dwsmith says:

      Caution, Norma, this is going to make a lot of writers angry because it flies in the face of their dreams. It doesn’t stop their dreams, it just tells them it’s going to be work. So caution they don’t shoot the messenger. Have them come and fire at me instead. (grin)

  7. Seems like a sound, reasoned plan to me. Thanks for spelling it out, Dean. Sadly, I agree that many new writers won’t listen, but hey, that’s what experience is about, eh?

    The more I read, the less I want a traditional deal to begin with. I’ll just keep on doing my indie thing, trying to get better with each book and story.

    • dwsmith says:

      Sheila, don’t make any judgements on traditional up front. Just be warned and go into the relationship when it comes with some power and business thinking. And a good IP publishing attorney to help. (grin)

    • Jo says:

      You know I just don’t get why new writers wouldn’t listen to those with experience. I mean, I have misconceptions about tons of things because I lack sufficient experience.

      Maybe it comes with age and education or something, learning to admit you don’t know something and listen to those that do. Or maybe it’s about choosing the correct people to listen to, which is also something learned over time.

      All I know is I have no problem with indie publishing. Makes tons of sense. The option to do so is one of the larger reasons I started writing in the first place.

  8. Teri Babcock says:

    It’s just good business to negotiate terms for a product that has demonstrated value. Trying to negotiate the sale of something that hasn’t proven itself in any way yet, and get a good offer… good luck. Once there is some established value to a work, the owner/author has way more leverage and an actual bargaining position – or ‘clout’ as Dean puts it. And the buyer/trad publisher actually has faith that they will get a return on investment.

    Frankly for new authors, it’s far less risky for BOTH buyer and seller, if the work has a sales history before negotiations start. Yes, sales fluctuate, sometimes greatly, and there are many variables. But you’ll still know which ballpark you’re playing in. It gives the author/seller an appropriate position of strength from which to negotiate. It gives the buyer/trad publisher a bead on the actual value and whether a book is a fertile business opportunity for them and at what price.
    Of course, they’ll still take a risk on new and unproven talent, but they will treat those contracts like the high-risk experiments they are and pay accordingly.

    Anyway, thanks for another great post in what I have come to think of as the “Dean Quixote” series :)

    • dwsmith says:

      Exactly, Teri. Just good business to negotiate for a product that has demonstrated value. Exactly.

      But alas, good business and fiction writers seldom go hand-in-hand. (grin)

  9. Interesting post! If any UK authors are reading this, then the Society of Authors is well worth joining for publishing contract advice – I’ve found them very helpful.

  10. Jen Greyson says:

    The myth was incredibly incredibly strong for me. And I got a crappy contract in return (but thankfully will get the book back in 3 years). But I’m over the lure of traditional publishing and I’ve totally had my eyes open and yes, the contract for the next book in the series was even worse (a huge thanks to Kris for looking at it) but I didn’t sign it. I think the publisher thought they “had me” since it was for the second book in the series.

    Saying no made me feel empowered to take charge of my business and make smart decisions. Pretty sure I’ll still make some bad ones, but at least I’ll only have myself to blame.

    I’m free of the myth and figuring out the learning curve. Super grateful for people like you and Kris and Dave for paving the way.

  11. Judy Goodwin says:

    I try to steer writers to your blog and Kristine’s as well. Many don’t want to hear it, but I hope a few do. As for myself, I’m just plugging along on books #2 and #3. I send out my novellas or short stories to the top paying markets, then if they don’t sell, I self-publish them. I’m starting to sell a little more regularly now, even if it’s only coffee money.

    I’m just very happy to have inside news from those who have read these draconian contracts and understand what they mean.

  12. Teri Babcock says:

    I think the secret hope of being nurtured is part of what still drives people to seek a trad deal, even with the terrible contracts… and get an agent, even when they aren’t in a position – see Dean’s post here – to benefit from having one.

    Agent and publishing relationships are business relationships first. Their foundation is based on commerce and commercial opportunity, and everything else – including any mentoring/support that may or may not happen – is secondary to this primary intent.
    I think true nurturing comes from other writers – those who teach, those who mentor – and from certain friends and family. Nurturing frankly doesn’t pay very well, and sometimes not at all. Yet people are called to do it.

    I would love to see a blog post on the myths around nurturing writers, including, if you’re willing to say, who has nurtured you significantly over the years. I have a suspicion that it wasn’t your publisher, or your agent.

    • dwsmith says:

      LOL, Teri. My publisher or my agent nurturing? That would have been silly to me from day one.

      I had writers who helped me learn, which is why I teach, to pay forward. Algis Budrys, Harlan Ellison, Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, Jack Williamson, Fred Pohl and others. But their teaching me often consisted of a head-shaking look or a “don’t do that” or as Algis Budrsy said to me one fine day as he flipped a story in my direction, “You wrote it backwards.” And he expected me to figure it out.

      I have NO IDEA where this stupidity of thinking anyone in a business setting is going to be nurturing. As you said, this is a business, a commercial business. Someone might give a suggestion or two, but never nurture you by the idea of that word.

      And if anyone thinks this post was “nurturing” they really need to read it again. (grin) This was hard, cold business advice. If it makes you angry or “feel bad” that’s not my issue. Get over it and get back to learning.

  13. Joe Vasicek says:

    What I would give for a time machine so I could go back and repost this five years ago. I’d even do that before killing Hitler.

    Great post, Dean. Thanks.

  14. Roscoe says:

    I’m just lucky I caught you guys early in my writing career, before I had a chance to fall into any of those traps properly.

    I look forward into finding new traps to fall into. :P

  15. I do have a question, regarding the sending the books to editors. I read a blog (or it could have been a twitter-rant), I cannot for the life of me remember who it was, I want to say Colleen Lindsey but I could be wrong, who stated very firmly that the books that indi authors send in, go as far as the nearest trashcan, unread, un-looked at, and please don’t keep doing it. Waste of money, time, yada yada.

    I’ve never tried it (haven’t gotten there yet) but I’m curious how many indi authors have been able to get a worthy contract/publisher interest by doing that, seeing as the general consensus from the more traditional minded editors is ‘it will just get trashed’.

    Other than that, great post.

    • dwsmith says:

      Necia, they may not look at it if the editor is five years behind the times, and there are some. But trust me, no editor, no book person of any salt, throws away a book. It might not get looked at, but it gets put into the “library” or “free” shelf for people to take. So your book will do nothing but find you a fan, maybe in a used bookstore, maybe at a library sale.

      No editor actually trashes a book. Or they wouldn’t be editors. But they might not look at it.

      As far as that, my attitude is THEIR LOSS. Screw them. If they are too stupid to not even look at something that might be the next Harry Potter, they don’t belong in publishing. They may only glance at it before tossing it in the library pile, but in that glance it might catch their attention. And that’s all you are asking.

      You have to do your job and make your book professional looking.

      And if you have a publishing name like I suggest under Think Like a Publisher, your letter would say simply “The small press (blank) just put out my newest novel. I thought you might be interested in it for your line. (Blank) press would be glad to pull their edition down if you are interested.”

      So my ultimate point here is act like a professional and stop worrying about some gossip from an editor who has her head stuck up a dark place. Take chances. What do you have to lose by a few bucks in postage and book costs?

  16. Sarah Stegall says:

    I remember sitting on an indie publishing panel at WorldCon, and afterwards a member of the audience asked me how much I made as an indie published writer rather than a traditionally published one. (I could hear the sneer.) I told him my choice was not between indie publishing and trad publishing, it was between indie publishing and NO publishing. That’s the real argument for indie publishing. It’s not just the shitty contracts, it’s the fact that it is damned near IMPOSSIBLE to get past the doorkeepers. And now, who would want to? Even if you stormed the castle and got a publisher’s attention, you get screwed by the contract. So as far as I’m concerned, there’s no real argument. It’s indie or nothing.

    • dwsmith says:

      Sarah, it’s not storming the castle. That’s the kind of thinking I’m trying to change. It’s standing at the door with a tin cup begging for someone to give you a crumb.

  17. I have to be honest and say I don’t know if I can do this! I like working with smaller presses. I’m really not far enough along the learning curve to ensure professional editing in every case on my own, or well off enough to hire reputable editors, always buy great cover art, or distribute through all the various channels.

    I’m working on self-publishing on Amazon, which is going great, but I’m WAY behind on learning any other distribution channels. So I think I would prefer to keep a foot in both worlds. I feel so much safer sometimes working with publishers and not trying to do every single thing myself.

    But, I am careful about the contracts I sign, and the smaller presses do seem to do a better job there; I’ve never signed a non-compete clause, have 40 percent royalties, and can get my work back within a few years if I want it.

    Basically, I would be nervous about approaching a big publisher (if I had anything they wanted right now), but I feel okay about splitting my time between self-publishing and working with a small press right now.

    We shall see how that works for me. :)

    I will add that I feel much more in control of my writing now that I consider self-pub an option; I have you and J A Konrath’s blog to thank for that. Both have really helped free me up from some of my ingrained fears of self-pub. I now have more options, and options are always good! :)

  18. Dean… question for you… when your rights for your backlist titles reverted to you, did you get a letter from the publisher (or production company) saying the rights were now yours again? Or did you have to chase them down?

    I optioned a title, where the rights were given for three years, and if they developed it, then they would keep the rights. Just before the deadline, they sent a letter to say they were publishing it in another format, which they claimed was further development. However there was no evidence that this actually took place. I know this gets into legal battle zone, but who has the burden of proof as to whether any development took place? Is the writer able to assume that with a lack of tangible evidence, the rights have reverted? I’d like to “serve notice” and am curious if others have had to deal with similar situations.

    • dwsmith says:

      Carmen, get a lawyer. A publishing lawyer. He or she could help you straighten the mess out for very little money.

      As for rights reverted from book publishers, we had to hound them and hound them and then we got a letter reverting all rights, which went into the legal file with the contracts and such for that book. But that was in the old days. These days it will all depend on the contract you signed.

      Get a lawyer.

  19. Lissa says:

    As always, good stuff! I am relieved at your comment about indie publishing ALL genres. I love Dave but must admit to being a bit discouraged by the way he categorized self-pubbing for some of my favorite genres.

  20. Ken Talley says:

    Dean, What about the business of short stories? How should a writer use short stories in this new age of indie publishing? Traditional markets aren’t what they used to be in terms of numbers of outlets and opportunities, it seem to me. There are plenty of literary journals, but they don’t seem very welcoming to genre stories, they take forever to respond, and they don’t pay. There are anthologies out there, like Fiction River, but aren’t they mostly by invititation? So, use short stories on the writer’s “platform,” publish them via Amazon, keep sending them to traditional markets? Or what? Any suggestions? Thanks.

    • dwsmith says:

      Ken, my very next blog post is exactly on that topic. Exactly. So hold on a few days and I’ll give you a full answer.

    • Jason Stuart says:

      Ken, you’d actually be surprised, I think, at how many good venues there are now for “genre” fiction. Depending on your genre, there are anywhere from half a dozen and upwards of journals that publish our kind of stories. Without more info on what you write, I can only list some general pulp pushers, but here goes a shortlist:

      Plots With Guns
      Pulp Modern (print journal that pays pro rates)
      Shotgun Honey
      Frontier Tales
      All Due Respect
      Yellow Mama
      Beat to a Pulp
      Ellery Queen (prof paying slick magazine still found in many stores)
      The Western Online
      …. and many more if you do a little digging. I’ve left off half the ones I know because their titles escape me for the moment.

      And, then, of course, there’s my little rag on the web, Burnt Bridge, which publishes one story about every other month (working toward monthly) and we pay $50 per story and ask for no other rights besides internet/archival. You can immediately republish the story elsewhere after a month. We are also what I refer to as a “Branded Self-Publishing” platform for book titles. If you want more info on that, hit me up.

      Also, there are some great anthologies publishers out there that pay pro rates for stories that fit their bill. I sold a 2-page story to Woodlands Press for their “Hills of Fire” anthology for $80! Think what a 10 page would get! I know Comet Press, who I am considering for my next novel (they have strong distribution in stores–the golden nugget of indy publishing–and I am told they have very author-friendly contracts) puts out several anthologies and pays pro rates for stories.

      At any rate, Dean’s forthcoming blog will likely give much more detail, and if I am incorrect anywhere here, he may aid with more info.

  21. Roscoe says:

    Dean -

    I know your position on writers doing marketing (“Don’t.”) but I was wondering if you were planning on going into more marketing and promotion stuff for indie publishers in the new edition? You talked about submitting flyers to bookstores in the 2012 edition, but not much else.

    • dwsmith says:

      Roscoe, Things are changing and the key is doing the correct promotion. In fact, I’m doing an entire 6 week online workshop starting in August with the title promotion. And Kris and I and WMG Publishing over the next year will be doing more things. Correct things to help readers become aware of the books.

      Right now, on my web site, for example, there isn’t one link on any book to anyplace it could be bought. That has become silly. And will changes as I slowly revamp the site over the summer.

      So yes, promotion by writers is a bad thing. Especially if you are published traditional. I stand by that. But when you put on the publisher hat, meaning publish some of your own stuff, set up your own publishing company, there are some time-effective things that can be done in this new world.

  22. Joel Richards says:

    I’ve done one novel, “Pindharee” (Tor) back in the print era. (I’m overwhelmingly a short fiction writer–stories in Asimov’s this year and one coming up in Analog). Anyhow, after a couple of years of royalty statements showing no new sales, I wrote Tor stating that I wanted to buy a few copies as per my contract at the writer’s discount. They replied that none were available. I wrote back that I considered the book out of print, and–again–as per my contract, that the rights had reverted to me. I got no further response. I now consider the rights mine should I ever want to self publish the book again, and would be willing to defend challenges based on this correspondence.

    It probably will never come that. For one thing, Tor is highly reputable and has always behaved decently towards me. Nonetheless, I =do= have this correspondence. You newer writers may want to consider this course of action.

    • Oooh! I hope that works! I hope you’ll self-publish it, too. A writer I know had a publisher go out of business, and he hasn’t put out the ebook copy on his own yet. Which hurts, because it’s brilliant and has the reviews and readers to prove it. Just…ah. I’d like to see him succeed, you know? And it’s good to have out ebook copies these days. I’ve pretty much switched to ebooks, for my reading matter.

    • Jo says:

      Joel don’t you think you are setting yourself up for a legal battle here? Win or lose those are expensive and stressful.

      • Joel Richards says:

        Don’t think it’ll come to that, Jo. I’m not planning for now on an ebook edition, and the novel was published twenty years ago. It is now most certainly out of print.

        However, when requests for reversion/clarification closer to the time of publication meet with no response, it’s not a bad idea IMO to show and document effort by the writer to clarify status. It sure can’t hurt.

  23. Eric Stocklassa says:

    The amounts of hate-mail you get for a post like that must be staggering.
    Thank you for doing this!

    • dwsmith says:

      So far no one has really yelled at me on this one. I think the reason is this. Indie writers will shrug and say, “I might try that at some point.” Traditional writers will look at all the work I am suggesting they learn and turn away and send to another agent. So no real hate mail to get on this one. (grin)

    • dwsmith says:

      Feel free. But make sure you get the location and my name right, since it’s better that people come to me to throw rocks. (grin)

  24. Just received my final legal bill today for my literary lawyer’s work on my latest contract negotiation with my publisher. So, in view of this post by Dean, I did some math.

    Although I had previously made most of my book sales without an agent, anyhow, a little over 6 years ago I made a conscious decision to quit the author-agent business model due to my consistently bad (indeed, appalling and atrocious) experiences with agent after agent after agent after agent over the years–and I am specifically speaking of reputable, well-known, legitimate agents with impressive client lists, not charlatans and scam artists. Having made this deliberate, conscious decision, I also decided to retain a literary lawyer for my contract negotiations.

    I submit my books, field offers and rejections, and negotiate the broad strokes of an offer: advance money, number of books, deadlines, etc. (I do this on the basis of experience, market knowledge, and market research.) My attorney then steps in to review the first draft of the contract and, from there, negotiates it into the final draft. Sometimes, as recently, we’re working with a previously-negotiated first draft, so she just suggests a few tweaks. In the recent negotiation, all tweaks were agreed to within 24-48 hours, and the final draft was approved in email form by all parties 2-3 days later. In initial negotiations over a publisher’s basic boilerplate, negotiations take much longer and involve a lot of back-and-forth and discussion.

    Anyhow, since I just got the bill and saw this post, here’s some sobering math. In the 6 years since I quit the agent-author business model and started using a literary lawyer for contractual review and negotiations, I am selling more books than I was selling before, I’m making better advances than I was before, I’m MUCH HAPPIER in my profession than I was before, my response times are shorter than they were with agents handling my business, and…

    AND the difference between the legal bills I have paid to my attorney for more skilled negotiation of my contracts than I was getting with literary agents, compared to what I WOULD have paid in commission on these same deals if an agent had represented me, is $34,000.

    I’d have paid an agent $34,000 -more- for the exact same career I’ve had in the past 6 years than I -have- paid my attorney. And speaking from experience, my contracts wouldn’t be as good.

    (Speaking from experience, nor would my advances and my response times be as good, and I wouldn’t be making as many sales. As I’ve said before, a key problem I had with agent after agent was that they wouldn’t send out my work–so even when agented, I had to make a number of my book sales myself… and THEN had to pay 15% commission on them! Because that’s Just The Way It Was Done. I argued against it (which really pissed off my agents and is among the various reasons there was so much friction between us), but I kept doing it, because That Was The Business. (facepalm))

    • dwsmith says:

      Wow, thanks, Laura, for the math and numbers. As I would have expected and our same basic result with our stuff here. A ton, and I do mean a ton cheaper with IP publishing lawyers than agents. (That’s right, folks, agents are much, much more expensive than lawyers.)

      And I also have to second what Laura said about selling more and making more money without an agent. Yes, yes, we know that is in the face of the myth, but it is so true. We make a ton more sales, both regular and overseas and Hollywood without an agent in the mix than when we had an agent. That part actually startled me when it started happening because I had no idea how much our agents were blocking deals.

      Thanks, Laura, for the great math.

  25. This is such a great post. I’m working on self-publishing a five book series (two books out so far) and have been thinking about this very thing – submitting the published books to editors I’ve met and who gave me favorable responses in the past (even while rejecting me). I’m especially interested in finding a German publisher who would be willing to work with me on translation of the books into German because that’s where a huge part of my potential audience is (the series takes place mostly in Germany). So I’ve also made a list of those houses who publish the kind of books that I write and who do in-house translation (at least they say this on their websites). The only thing holding me back is I don’t know quite how to couch the approach yet other than sending them a cover letter with copies of both printed books and suggesting that if they are interested, that we should talk.

    Have you had experience with this kind of thing or do the international publishers seek you out for translations?

    Just going away now to sign up for the Promotions workshop. :-)

    • dwsmith says:

      Sharon, these days, only because we have so much at the moment and don’t have the time, we let them find us for translations. And it happens fairly regularly, more than it did when we had agents, that’s for sure.

      However, that said, I sure can’t see any problem with taking a paper copy of your book, do a nice cover letter saying basically that you like what they do and that maybe your book might be on interest to them because it might fit, and then send it to them. Don’t send a SASE, just give them your e-mail address to contact you if they are interested. You have nothing to lose at all except some minor costs of a copy of the book and the flat rate Priority Mail postage.

  26. Jeannie says:

    Well said. I’ve been watching Indies for years and I’m really to the point where I believe agents, who once thought they were giving us a gift, need to understand who they work for. The gatekeepers of publishing have lost their gate. Its wide open now and there’s no reason not to go Indie. My books may not be perfect but people like them and (so far!) say nice things.
    I just want to tell my stories and going Indie has taken the pressure off so I can just enjoy the ride.
    Great post. Thank you!

  27. Great post, and I agree with you totally. If you can make a name for yourself indie publishing, the agents will be falling over themselves for your signature.

    Hasn’t quite happened to me, yet, though two have shown a fleeting interest. Maybe next year…

    • dwsmith says:

      Alan, I never said a word about agents. Avoid all agents at all costs. And if you don’t, you’ll be saying to me that you wish you had listened in five years. I was talking about editors and publishers. Agents can’t buy books, can’t write you checks. Stay away from them and if one comes knocking, RUN!!!!!!

  28. Merita King says:

    I agree with everything in this article. When I wrote my first novel, I did what I thought was the thing to do, I touted it to agents and cried at every rejection letter. Then I learned about self publishing and began to educate myself about how to do it. I was scared but somewhere deep inside I just knew I had to get my work out there. I’ve just self published my sixth space opera novel and would very probably turn down an offer from a trad publisher now, if one were to appear. I like self publishing and I’m proud that I’ve done everything apart from the cover art, and even then I designed it, my cover art guy just brought my design into being. I constantly educate myself by reading articles and looking stuff up that I’m not sure of, from the meaning of words to how to lay out headers and footers for print and everything in between. I’m always looking for ways to make my vocabulary more sophisticated and I can often be found in an online thesaurus looking at synonyms. The only drag is the non stop and thankless task of trying to promote and market my products. I don’t sell a huge amount, there is too much out there, a lot of it trash, and I’m not a confident saleswoman. I could not imagine not writing; it is my meaning for living now and I’m good at it and will not stop self publishing. The trad house can go jump as far as I’m concerned.

    • dwsmith says:

      Merita, a friend of mine came up with a great saying about promotion and all that. WIBBOW… Which stands for Would I Be Better Off Writing?

      And I sure wouldn’t worry about vocabulary. I figure if I can’t spell it, the word’s too big for most people. Remember, writers are entertainers, not people who show off their big words.

      And always remember taste when you say “A lot of it out there is trash…” Trash to you, maybe, but to others gold. Your opinion is good for you, but you will always be better served to not put down other writers.

      Just a couple suggestions… Keep up the great battle and having fun with the writing.

  29. Great article Dean. I agree with the main bulk of your argument, and it got me thinking so much, I wrote a post about my terrible experence with publishers. Love to have you take a look and let me know your oppinion on it. Thanks again for the great read!

    • dwsmith says:

      Author Paul Yoder, realize that at least you get your book back in three years. If that contract had been with a larger publisher, you never would see it again, ever. So you got lucky there at least.

  30. Loved the article. The more authors I talk to, the more I realize every path is going to be different for every author. Some can self publish multiple books a year a make a good living at it, some can traditionally publish several books a year and make a good living at it. On the other hand, most who self publish OR traditionally publish make a little money at it. I say try the one that sounds better to you, and if it doesn’t work out like you hoped, go the other route. Gratefully (though sometimes frustratingly), there are so many options that if you persist at trying many things for long enough, something, or more likely a few things will pull you through.

    I quite my job five months ago to do writing and music full time. I’m traditionally published with my books (well, 2 out of 3 of them, though I’ve not pushed my self pubbed book), and completely indie published with my music. My music outsells my books about ten to one (in dollar amounts), but neither is earning enough yet to pay all the bills.

    While I’m sure there are many things an author can do to ruin his/her career, I don’t think it’s likely to happen as the result of trying various ideas and allowing some of those ideas to fail.

    One thing seems to be consistent throughout: the authors who succeed in this game are those who learn to fail, persist, learn, adjust, progress, fail, persist, learn, adjust, progress, etc. and keep at it indefinitely. There’s no easy route. There may not even be a best route. But we didn’t get into this game because we thought it would be easy, or because we knew best. We got into it because we love it. We love to write, and we do what what it takes to keep writing.

    • dwsmith says:

      Chas, I couldn’t agree more. Well said and thanks!

      And you said: “While I’m sure there are many things an author can do to ruin his/her career, I don’t think it’s likely to happen as the result of trying various ideas and allowing some of those ideas to fail.”

      Wow, do I agree with that. Failing is a part of this business. As Kris often says, makes no difference at all how many times you fail, just how many times you stand back up.”


  31. This is such a brilliant piece – thank you for writing it! I wonder when this will finally overtake the traditional publishing myth in people’s minds? Awareness is definitely growing but the lure of the traditional contract is still strong (I wonder if this has to do with our society’s bias to being ‘chosen’, exacerbated by reality tv talent shows… love the ‘choose yourself vibe of this piece).

    BTW for a slightly different angle on the same topic, I am traditionally published with a mainstream publisher for non-fiction, but only got that by a) writing a lot for years (consistently publishing to my newsletter list every week, blogging etc) and b) creating a situation where I had options (ie: I was approached and asked to write the book, I didn’t approach them). More to the point, I didn’t feel I needed them to take the first steps (eg: I knew I would have made more from self but chose trad because of my other goals around my writing which in the non-fiction world are easier to achieve with a trad publisher).

    All of that is to say… when you actually ‘pick yourself’ as it were, do the work and all that, traditional publishing becomes just one of your MANY options, not the only one (and not always the best one).

    Just a thought from across the genres :)

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Marianne, much appreciated. And I agree completely, when you are doing it yourself, traditional just becomes an option for some projects.

      I love the freedom options bring. (grin)

  32. Jon Karoll says:

    This is scary and is making me think ahead while I’m about halfway done with my books. I’m just curious, does this apply to every publisher? Even the big guys?

    • dwsmith says:

      Jon, this applies to all the big guys, actually. Sometimes with a smaller press you can get better contracts, but never with large publishers unless you have something they want. You go begging to them and they take you for all your worth I’m afraid.

      Sadly, the days of gentlemen publishers are long, long gone.

  33. As a previously traditionally published author of almost 11 books — all of which were taking out-of-print (OP) by the NY Big-5, and which have been put back in print as Indie ebooks/Trade Paper — I’d say don’t even bother to go to traditional publishing. Being accepted by an agent or publisher is not validation that your work is good writing: it merely means they think they can sell your work; an agent to a publisher, and the editor to the public. It neither happens quickly enough, you get dropped by agent, or if book is already sold, taken OP.

    However, you have absolutely nothing to lose by going Indie from the start (except a small Advance, smaller the more unknown you are as an author). Traditional publishing Houses have always kept their eye on self-published authors, and they obviously still do. Amanda Hocking is a case in point, who, after making $2M in a year from Amazon as an Indie author, received a $5M contract from a traditional NY House for her next series. So self-publish (or if you’ve been previously traditionally published and know the business well, Indie publish). You’ll do a little more work in terms of the design, and you may need some marketing help with the title and cover (since that’s what editors do for authors), but you’ll do the promotion & publicity yourself. 99% of traditionally published authors do (even Joyce Carol Oates has her own private manager and publicist, but with her $200K+ salary from Princeton alone, she can afford it: how many of the rest of us can?) Don’t think you can claim that your book is a “bestseller” without the sales figures to back it up, however. NY’s not stupid. They want your book to make money off you, not because they think you’re going to win awards, prizes, or critical acclaim (I know: I’ve won all that, for multiple books, and the Advances got lower, not higher; the next books were harder to sell since I kept changing topics/genres; and the books still got taken OP as soon as they’d earned their modest Advances. And I was asked to pay for my own book tours – this was in the days before Social Media, ebooks, etc.)

    If your book(s) do well and make money, then NY agents/editors/publishers will seek you out — as they always have — so they can have a piece of your money-pie. Not because they think your book is any good. You then can have a choice of going traditional (losing all control whatsoever & still doing all the promo yourself in return for an Advance, which is the only money you’ll ever get) or staying Indie and keeping control of your product.

    My advice: Go Indie, maintain control, and work like the devil, because you’d have to do that in traditional publishing anyway, but you’d give up all control and be giving money to an agent, who, yes, does work for the publisher because that’s who’s giving the agent the money (to pass on to you after subtracting his 10-20% commission).

    Good luck. The market has never been better for Indie and self-published authors. Write great stories, put out high quality product, market the hell out of yourself and your books while developing relationships with readers, and then get to work on your next Indie book. If NY ever comes calling, good for you. If it doesn’t, then you haven’t lost anything.

  34. I agree there are some egregious things in contracts and having leverage to get them modified important. For my own first contract, the non-compete and publicity clauses were so bad that I couldn’t sign as is. It took me months and months of negotiations to get them adjusted.

    But even if you have all the leverage in the world I don’t think you can do anything about:

    * Life of copyright (with reversion levels set so low that it’s ridiculous) If my book is only earning $9 a week is that actually supposed to be considered “in print”? It is by the contracts I’ve seen ($500 per year)

    * 25%/75% ebook royalty share.

    Even the million dollar sellers aren’t seeing movement on such things. The only light at the end of the tunnel is print-only deals (which are so rare, and only given to people with astronomical sales) but if you can get one then those two issues are essentially moot as “out of print” in a print-only world is easy to reach/determine.

    • dwsmith says:

      Michael, oh, sure they are. All the time. On Life of Copyright, I’ve seen many bestsellers just go with ten year contracts with renewable terms. No bestseller goes with the old speed limits, which is what you described.

      And bestsellers are getting a bunch more than 25% of net on ebooks.

      But you are right, at lower levels, you’ll never get that. Ever. But you are wrong about writers not getting that at upper levels. Way wrong.

      And for those of you wondering what Michael is so concerned about in the revision clause when when you have a “life of copyright” contract, the reversion clause is what allows you to get your book back from the publisher before 35 years. (If you know copyright law, you can get it at 35 years, but who wants a publisher to sit on their book for that long?) He’s talking about what is called a “speed limit” in general terms, meaning your book has to sell at such and so speed, determined in the contract, or it won’t be deemed out of print. The problem, as Michael said, is that publishers are setting that so low, your book is lost to you forever (or 35 years if you know copyright, but if you signed that bad a contract, chances are you don’t know copyright either.)

      But Michael, if they want your book enough, trust me, they will give you set time limit contracts, higher e-book rates, or paper only deals. Happening all the time, now, but not to authors who go begging to New York to buy their books. New York has to come to you. You have to be able to negotiate with them on a level footing. Only desire to make money on their part will cause that to happen.

  35. Alex Stargazer says:

    And them remember you don’t need them because your book is already out and selling.

    I believe you meant then. Otherwise, great article. I wish I read it sooner.

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