Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Only 300 Writers Make a Living

This myth is so solid, I hear it repeated over and over again. And just today, a person I follow on Twitter repeated it yet again, sending all her followers to a web site that had some writer say simply “There are only about 200 or 300 writers making a living at fiction.” With nothing at all to back up the statement or even a second thought about what that statement meant if true.

The number is total and complete hogwash. I’m going to lay out some facts. And I will use math and other ugly arguments to show you that this number is a total and complete myth. And I hope to maybe dive a little into why this myth persists. Why beginning writers need it. So hang on. This myth is as ugly as it is stupid.

Before I go anywhere, there was an article in Publisher’s Weekly tracking the top book sales in 2009. For hardcover fiction, they list about 138 books down to 100,00 copies in hardback, for mass market the book had to sell above 500 thousand copies to even get mentioned, and trade paperbacks are added at certain levels. Go take a look at the article on Publisher’s Weekly and then read on.

Now, if you took a hard look at those numbers and authors, you would realize that even with the same author having more than one book on the lists, there are around 300 different names on those fiction lists. I am not on that list anywhere, neither is Kris or any number of writer friends who make their living writing fiction.

For the moment, let me leave that point and back up.

What is making a living?

For the longest time, I considered making a living at fiction at making more than $100,000 per year. Then in three or four workshops, I started talking to writers about reality. The writers’ reality and the amount it would take for them to “make a living.”

Most of the writers I talked to thought they would quit their day job if they were making fifty to sixty thousand a year with their writing. A number said that their spouse earned half their income, so they only needed thirty or forty thousand a years to make it happen.

After taking that poll for a number of workshops, I decided that six figures wasn’t required for “making a living” at fiction writing. Which just added in a lot more writers into the mix.

But for this discussion, lets just leave the number at one hundred thousand a year from your writing. Math is simpler. And besides, hard to argue with that number as a decent living in these recession times.

Right now, most new writers are saying, “Oh, I wish.” Yup, I would have to in my early days.

In the chapter FICTION WRITERS CAN’T MAKE A LIVING I talked about the Magic Bakery and talked about a theory where this 200 or 300 number comes from. So please right now go read that again and then come back, because now I’m going to jump off of some of those points. (And in the actual book this chapter will follow that chapter.)

Okay, now to that ugly math I promised above.

In the summary of book sales from 2009 in Publisher’s Weekly, the bottom book in Hardcover they listed had sold 100,099 copies.

So, the author makes on average 10% on each book sold (allowing for discount schedules and other contract things) and the book is priced at $25.00 (for easy math), the author makes $2.50 per book. 100,000 books equals $250,000. (Remember, that’s the very bottom PW figured was worth reporting.)

And it was for JUST THE HARDBACK. Now, if you went to the previous chapter on this topic and read about how a book or story works in the magic bakery, you will understand that this figures does not count any other income source for this one book. Paperback, audio, ePub, overseas sales to other countries, and so on and so on. And don’t even think about the money for possible movie options.

So bottom line, any author on that list from Publisher’s Weekly summary is making a LOT of money per book, far, far in excess of $100,000 per year.

On one book.

If you count all the different authors on those lists, which I did not exactly, but at a glance I can tell there are at least 300 different authors who made those lists. Some more than once. (See why the top brand name authors hit the Forbes Top Income Earners lists?)

Okay, so we’ve dealt now with the 300 top authors in fiction. But what about all the rest of us.

Or what about the fifty to one hundred writers who only sold between 80,000 and 100,000 hardbacks and didn’t make the list? Or what about those hundreds and hundreds of poor writers who only sold in the area of 30,000 copies in hardback and can only dream about that top list?

Let’s take one of them, shall we, and do that ugly math.

Same 10%, same $25 price, so author gets $2.50 per book. Author “ONLY” sells 30,000 copies in hardback, author only makes $75,000 in HARDBACK . Again, not counting all the other sales like paperback and overseas and so on. Again, we are back over six figures for that one book easily. Hundreds and hundreds more writers pile into the total number of writers who make a living.

I am still not included.

So, what about the writers who are more normal in publishing then the folks playing at the top levels? How do we make a living? How do us “working writers” do it who haven’t hit with any big books, or books that even sell 30,000 in hardback?

Actually, pretty simply. We write a lot more.

Back to the ugly math.

Say a writer does a small genre book. Books sells nicely at 20,000 copies in paperback actually sold. Writer got a $8,000 advance for the book. $6 book at 6% is .36 cents per book. Income is $7,200 so writer gets no more money than the advance, but publisher is happy and writer sells another book to them, or two or three.

So writer can do four books a year and makes $32,000 on just the advances from those books. (Now, remember that magic bakery?) Maybe not the second year at this pace, or the third, but at some point the author will have built up enough inventory that more things are popping. At four years, the author will have 16 novels finished. Overseas sales happen on a couple of them, audio sales happen every year on a couple of others, maybe a small option on one of them from Hollywood, rights reverted on two and the books are now selling on Kindle and other income sources directly to the writers.

And the pace just builds up. As each year goes by, more and more factors in the magic bakery kick in until at one point you find yourself doing just fine.

That’s the group I’m included in.

But understand I’m a lot faster than four books a year. I write across genres, I ghost novels for writers, I write a ton of short fiction as well. I make money on all of that as well with my little magic bakery.

Am I unusual? Oh, of course not. There are far more writers like me than writers on that big Publisher’s Weekly list. Or playing in the big books just under the list. In fact, the majority of writers who make their living at fiction seldom, if ever make that yearly list. Granted, those brand names on that list get all the press, but the thousands of us just working along do just fine and dandy.


Bowker reported that last year (2009) there were 75,000 publishers.

Bowker reported that last year (2009) there were 47,541 NEW books published through standard fiction publishers. (Not counting POD at all.)

Bowker reported last year (2009) that three were 29,438 new young adult books published.

(Get the full report here.)

That means that EVERY DAY through normal major publishers there were 213 regular fiction and young adult fiction novels published. (47,541 plus 29,438 divided by 365 days.)

Every day.

Let me repeat that one more time to let it sink in. 213 NEW FICTION TITLES EVERY DAY.

Ugly math: If a writer could manage four books a year, it would take OVER 19,000 writers doing four books a year just to fill what was published last year.

19,000 writers doing four books a year. Or 38,000 writers doing two books a year.

Yup, there are only 300 writers making a living writing fiction. SNORT! Anyone who repeats that number is just too stupid to do a simple Google search to find the real truth.

(And also Bowker announced there were about 250,000 POD books done as well in 2009, but they didn’t break then down as to how many were fiction.)

Still don’t believe the numbers? Want a test as to how many fiction writers there really are with your own two eyes?

Walk into a Barnes and Noble superstore and stand just inside the door and look around. Realize that most of those books you are seeing in that store will be replaced by the “turn” in less than a month. And the ones up front will change daily or weekly.

Now simply start picking up books and see if you recognize the author name. Up front you’ll find the brand names and the folks who are on that big list. But at the new release table how many names do you recognize?

Then walk the aisle of the romance section, the mystery section, the science fiction section, and then go to big section, the “fiction” section. Your eye will be drawn to the big names scattered in there, but look between them and the thousands of authors with books there THAT month. Most of their books will be replaced within the month by the same number of new books coming in by a different thousand authors.

And B&N can’t begin to carry every one of the six thousand new books in fiction being put out every month between adult fiction and young adult.

The truth: The publishing industry is a huge machine that needs product.

I have no clue how many thousands and thousands of fiction books a standard superstore holds, but if there were only 300 major authors making their living and writing one or two books a year, those shelves would be pretty empty, those stores soon out of business.

So, why do I think this silly number, this stupid myth gets repeated over and over?

My opinion only. (No math, no study behind this opinion.) Two reasons. First, I think it’s fear that causes this myth. And it works like this:

New Writer is afraid to actually take a chance and write and practice and put work out there in the real world. And if there are only 300 people making a living at writing, it is therefore impossible to do and so why should I even try.

In other words, those who hold that silly myth and repeat it need the excuse it gives them for there own lack of trying.

Second reason: Ego. New writer writes a book, sends it to an agent, no agent likes it, so therefore IT’S HARD to get published, and that has to be because there are only 300 people doing it. It CAN’T be the new writer’s fault, it can’t be because the writer can’t write well enough to even get into the 77,000 new fiction books being published in a year. It can’t be because no one who could actually publish the book has even seen it because of a myth the writer believes in with agents. It has to be someone else’s fault because the writer thinks their very first book is brilliant. Ego.

Well, no excuse. Over 200 new fiction books a day are put out by major publishers in JUST THIS COUNTRY alone. You stop making excuses and get past the myths and get your skill levels up and do four books a year, after a few years you are making a living. And if you write something that hits bigger for you and you end up on that Publisher’s Weekly list, you are pretty rich by most standards.

That only 300 people make a living at writing fiction is the stupidest and most destructive myth outside of the agent myths. Time to get past your fear and your own ego and chase your dream of making a living at fiction.

There are a very, very large number of us doing just that. After all, someone has to fill those shelves every month.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, having it made, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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136 Responses to Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Only 300 Writers Make a Living

  1. “How does a new writer develop such a dislike for a system without ever taking part in the system?”

    Well, what I have always seen spread far and wide at conferences, in writing groups and orgs that invite me to speak, and for the past decade on the internet is that aspiring writers hate the idea of having to pony up to enter one of the most competitive professions there is. They want it to be easy. They DON’T WANT to sit in slushpiles, wait a long time for responses, receive rejections, write MSs they can’t sell, spend years working up to a good income level as a writer, etc. They want the fulfillment of their writing aspirations to be EASY, FAST, and IMMEDIATELY GRATIFYING.

    Which very, very rarely occurs in a profession as competitive and demanding as this one. So people who’ve never even entered the profession (and people who have never even made a serious attempt to enter it) revile it, dismiss it, whatever. And now that there is indeed an easy, fast, and immediately gratifying way to exercise their writing aspirations, they also declare that the professional publishing industry is a dinosaur or on its way out, or a lesser choice, etc.

    “I am by far the most successful writer out of that class. Why? Because I wanted it more than any of the others, that’s why.”

    And that’s pretty much what it always comes down to. Something that simple—who wants it the most, works the hardest, never quits trying.

    A writing career is FAR more about will and perseverance, drive and desire, FAR more about getting up off the matt over and over again than it is about talent (let alone luck). And MOST people who think they want a writing career don’t want to do what it takes to have one, because they want the fulfillment of their own writing aspirations to be easy, fast, and immediately gratifying.

    I don’t care who uploads their books to Kindle or POD format to get gratification. What does it matter to me? But I do get rather tired of assertions that doing that is in some way comparable to what I do professionally. To me, it comes across very much like someone telling me what a successful actor he’d be if only his stage fright weren’t so severe that he won’t even audition.

  2. RE this renewed “pace” discussion—I only write two books a year or less. Two books/year is a tough pace for me, but it’s my pace now because my publisher emphatically wants two books/year from me in order to achieve its sales goals for my work. The market is so competitive that that’s the release schedule their very-experienced sales force says we’ll need to have a shot at taking this series to the market level that my publisher has established (with my enthusiastic agreement) as our target.

    I make a living on two books/year. If my publisher’s goals are achieved (or indeed, even just by making strides toward those goals), my living will further improve.

    I am working on a goal of increasing my pace, to be steady, reliable, and comfortable at two books a year. Hence my consultations with an experienced writing coach who’s exploring new habits and process experiments to help me increase my pace.

    My pace is not based on how many words I can slap down on a page against a ticking clock. I write slowly. I rewrite more than I write. And I THINK a lot. The stories I write are (for me, at least) complicated and require lots of thought—which sometimes holds me up for days before I figure out how to make something work. These books also require a modest amount of on-site research and a very LARGE amount of reading-research, which also consumes time. And the books I’m currently writing are 100K-110K per year.

    So for me, that’s a very full load. I’m struggling to do two books/year. If I can reach a point where that’s a comfortable pace for myself (which I am working on), I’ll stop there and be happy happy happy to have reached it. I have no interest in trying to write more than 2 books per year.

    RATHER, my interest is and has always been in getting PAID MORE PER BOOK. And that’s a goal I don’t see being discussed here.

    My current advance level is such that I can make a comfortable living on two books per year. My current advance level when I started –out-, 22 years ago, was not quite 1/8 of my current advance level. I didn’t start out making what I make now, I worked up to it over the years, as one does in almost any profession. And I have goals for continuing to increase my per-book advance level.

  3. “And the books I’m currently writing are 100K-110K per year.”

    Er, per BOOK, I meant.

  4. BTW, RE setting a goal of being paid more per book, as a way of increasing income, in addition to what I’ve described above (i.e. my publisher has set ambitious sales goals but says I’ll need two books/year to have a good shot at achieving those goals; better sales means bigger advances and more royalties and subrights earnings–so I am currently pursuing my more-money-per-book goal by trying to increase my pace enough to write two books/year comfortable and well), there’s a very wide variety of strategies a writer can work on to try to increase her advance level.

    None of them are GUARANTEED. There are no guarantees. This is a highly competitive profession, after all.

    But here’s a guest blog I did about some strategies pursued by smart writers which did work for them:

  5. Rebecca says:

    What a fantastic, lively discussion. I’ve really enjoyed reading all the comments, thanks to all.

    Dean wrote: “We hope to be announcing next year’s workshops (yes, we are doing some more) in a month or so.”

    I saw this buried up above and just wanted to give it a shout out. Hooray! I want to attend the Marketing Workshop but the one this October interferes with other plans. I’m thrilled to hear the possibility of more next year!

  6. Zoe Winters says:

    Hey Dean,

    Totally agree with you about “you can switch to a pen name” IF something goes wrong. Maybe you should write a myth about that because people get REALLY up in arms about how you’ll “ruin your shot at EVER having a traditional publisher if you self-pub and fail.” And not even just self-pub, but there is this myth that floats around of if you do ANYTHING wrong… you are done. Forever. And that’s just silly.

    Make up a new name, write something else, and keep going.

    Also, I LOVE the rewriting part. That obviously a difference in temperament/process and I can totally see what you’re saying about speed and enjoyment of the writing process. I forget that most people don’t love rewriting/editing. I do.

    I don’t think I have a hatred for the system so much as for the fact that so many people just don’t respect anyone doing anything differently. Sure, lots of crap gets self-pubbed, no denying that. But people who publish their rough drafts aren’t the same as people who CARE and strive for quality. I know I still have growing to do as a writer (and the day I think I don’t will be a bad day indeed because we can always get better). But still. I guess I find it frustrating because people tried to naysay me out of it.

    If I’d listened I’d be miserable. I understand the rewards available in it. I understand what I’m giving up. But to “me” the trade-off is worth it. I know self-pub isn’t right for all or even most people, but I hate to think about people being unhappy doing what everybody else told them to do, when they could have done what they wanted to do instead.

    Though, I guess the counterargument is that the person who can’t rise above the naysayer would just give up at the first roadblock anyway.

    As to your question (and sorry I wrote you a novel before I even got to it!) I am REALLY independent in a lot of ways. I don’t like to work for other people. I’ve had 33 jobs. Zoe does not play well with authority. Zoe doesn’t like being told what to do. I’m willing to risk falling on my face, learning from it, and figuring out how to rise above it, rather than give up control to my own stuff. It’s just a personality wiring.

    It’s kind of how Laura feels about agents. I realize she had personal experience with agents, BUT I don’t have to stick my finger in a light socket to know it’s going to not be pleasant. Given the fact that in many ways she and I seem to have a similar temperament, her views regarding agents pretty much reflects how I feel about it.

    I’m just a control freak basically. And I’m willing to sacrifice any perceived benefit from giving up that control to do things my way. If I never rise any higher than I am right now, I’ll still be happy because I have readers who love what I’m writing and I love what I’m doing.

    It’s really not about any myths. I WOULDN’T have control of my cover, or my title, or a myriad number of other things with a trad publisher that I want control over. (I know you have a counterargument to this.) I didn’t get rejected and it hurt my crybaby feelings. 😛 I just wasn’t happy doing things that way.

    When I was at the fork in the road, trying to decide, the one thing I couldn’t get away from is that if I didn’t go indie I’d never find out what I could do on my own. And I wanted to find out. It’s not so much just about “rejecting” trad publishing. (That’s sort of a side effect that comes along with bumping up against the stigma of self-pub). It was about “embracing” the DIY ethic and deciding that if comic book creators, video game creators, music makers, and filmmakers could be indie and be respected for their work, it was absolutely STUPID that an indie author couldn’t do the same.

    I want people to be able to be indie authors without being spit on. Because not everybody wants the same freaking things in life.

    You are correct obviously that people with good contracts get some control and the more power they have the more power they gain control wise, BUT… most authors don’t seem to have that “great” of contracts or a way to get a great contract since they constantly complain about this or that.

    You may call it “paying your dues.” But that’s the great thing about owning your own business and being the boss, you pay dues, but you pay them on your terms, not under the authority of another.

    The one thing you can’t argue with me on is ebook pricing. I do NOT like how publishers are handling digital. And a small epub who is actually doing it right, can’t do more for me than *I* can do for me. Pricing my own product is a matter of control I’m not willing to give up.

    I also need to be able to track my sales so I can see what promos are working and what promos aren’t working. Having 18 months of radio silence where I have no clue what the hell is going on with my sales, is a vacuum I don’t want to live in.

    I can’t work for other people. Every time I do it ends in apocalypse. I don’t want a “good working condition with someone else in charge.” I want ME in charge.

    I understand the trade-offs I’ve made, and I accept them.

    Looking forward to the new chapters! And I totally agree with you on the talent myth. But the others you know I’m going to be like “yeah but…” on. 😛

    Also, Hi Alastair!

  7. Zoe Winters says:

    OMG. I just hit the post button and it’s waiting moderation but I CRINGE over how long that reply was. Sorry for the epic verbosity.

    • dwsmith says:

      Zoe, no problem about length at all. Great stuff for discussions. Thanks.

      And Laura, thanks for posting how you write, which I think is critical here to make sure writers reading this understand there is no one RIGHT way, just your way. You and I have different writing methods, no question. And guess what, it works for both of us, which has to be great news out there for anyone listening.

      The key is to not get settled in on one way before you start selling. If you stuff is not selling, you haven’t yet found your right method, no matter how “comfortable” it feels to you. Push the edges, experiment, and when you hit on some method that creates stories that sells, try it again. And so on. That’s what the early years of writing are all about. I bothers me hearing new writers tell me they know how they write when they have never tried another way. I always want to ask them if they are selling and if not, then clearly their method isn’t working.

      And yes, Laura, I agree that as time goes on, we tend to get more money per book, and also we have more inventory which can earn us money along the way. The problem for newer professionals is that they start getting the 10 k per book, two books a year, and think that’s what it’s always going to be and give up. We were all on that spot in the road. Those of us who didn’t give up at that point are the ones making more money now.

      As for speed, well you all know where I sit on that. Just on the opposite fence of Laura. I am frighteningly lazy and thus have never reached my full potential with writing. My best year was 11 novels, last year I wrote two. Working on the second one this year right now. My fastest novel was a western in one of the series that I did the 60,000 words in 6 days. I wrote one Star Trek book in seven days that has sold just over 3/4 million copies and it went right into print first draft. I wrote the original novel I did with Jonathan Frakes in seven days to fit the cover that Tor already had done and was needing to ship, but didn’t have an interior to go inside the cover. I was hired because I was known to be able to do an original book with publishable quality fast. That one was 80,000 words.

      But I like to spend about two months on a book. That feels comfortable for me because, as I said, I’m lazy, like to play on eBay, like to do blog posts, like to spend time in junk shops, like to play poker. But when I am writing, I tend to do five pages an hour. Doesn’t matter if I am under deadline or just screwing around, it’s always five pages an hour. (about 1,250 words) Sometimes I even work two hours a day. Tough life, I know, but someone has to do this.

      Thanks, everyone, for the great discussion. Great stuff.

  8. Alastair, one thing that may be an issue with that plan is the non-competition clause you’d have in a contract with a publisher. They pretty much always request seeing your next book. So if you get a traditional contract, it might be a problem to just epub your second work. I don’t know enough about this to say, but you should look check into that. I know Joe mentioned that as an issue on his blog just recently.

    Using a pen name for the epub *might* get around that, but then again, it might open you up to legal problems, and it might not be legit at all, so I don’t think that’s likely to be the right solution.

    If you really want to do both, I wonder if epubbing the first would be the right way to go. Then if your numbers and reviews are good, it might help you sell the second book.

    • dwsmith says:

      Moses, nope, doesn’t work that way.

      The “option” clause in a normal book contract gives the publisher the right to see your next book INSIDE THAT GENRE, IN THAT SERIES, UNDER THAT SAME NAME. Nothing more. God, if it did what you suggested, none of us would make much money except the bestsellers.

      Of course, authors have been stupid enough to sign contracts that do what you suggest, and then you hear them complaining that the publisher screwed them. When they signed it. Option clauses are easily negotiated down to very, very pointed books, only in the series of the first book, only in the same subgenre, only under the same author name.

  9. Thanks Dean. Granted, I don’t know the ins and outs of the option clause like you do, but when I heard Eric Flint explain it at a seminar, it sounded like it’s extremely hard to negotiate your way out of the option the publisher has to look first at your next book under your name in that genre. If it’s _only_ within the same series, though, then that clause is not as strong as I thought it might be. I don’t think that’s what I was told by others, though.

    • dwsmith says:

      Actually, in reality, the option clause is very, very easy to negotiate in almost all contracts. It’s critically important to an author’s income stream and as Laura detailed out, it takes a number of different roads. But if an author signs a bad option clause, they only have themselves to blame for it.

      “Bad option clause” is simply a clause that restricts an author outside of the need of the publisher for the next book in the same series or world in the same subgenre. No need for a publisher to do that, no need for an author to sign it. Very easy to negotiate to the right position. Unlike electronic rights, there is no monetary gain to the publisher by not negotiating.

      • dwsmith says:

        By the way, Zoe, and all of us, did you see the news this morning that Barnes and Noble will start this fall offering self-publishing electronic books for their and Nook pub devices. It is called PubIt and more details coming later in the summer.

        So like getting something on Kindle, you’ll be able to do the same with Pubit to the B&N distribution souces.

        That’s huge and yet another income stream for all of us.

  10. “the non-competition clause you’d have in a contract with a publisher. They pretty much always request seeing your next book. So if you get a traditional contract, it might be a problem to just epub your second work. ”

    Er, no, though this is one of the common misconceptions about contracts among people who don’t understand the business.

    An OPTION clause means you have to show the next specified book project to the same publisher. An option clause can be written in many ways. A good one, for example, would say that I have to show the next Esther Diamond novel to DAW Books, and that they’ve got 30 days thereafter to make me an offer, after which time, if they don’t respond or if I don’t like their offer, I can show the book to other houses. (Additional permutations may involve a “matching” or “topping” clause, or may specify that the clock on my submission can only start ticking after D&A of the final book on the previous contract, etc.) A -bad- option clause (which an aspiring writer or bad agent might leave in a contract) would say something like, I have to show my next fantasy novel to the publisher; that’s very broad and limits what other submissions I can make until/before fulfilling that clause. A TERRIBLE clause would say simply my “next book.” A bad clause would also fail to severely limit how long the publisher gets to make up its mind before I’m free to submit elsewhere.

    A no-compete clause has nothing whatsoever to do with this. Although no-compete clauses are in many book contracts, their primary role is in nonfiction, where subject matter is the key selling point. (By contrast, -execution-, NOT subject matter, is the key selling point of fiction.) If I’ve sold a guidebook for beginning scuba divers exploring the reefs of Belize to Random House, then my no-compete clause prevents me from selling ANOTHER book to Penguin which is -also- a guidebook for beginning scuba divers exploring the reefs of Belize. One such narrowly-targeted nonfiction book by me clearly damages a publisher’s sales of another such narrowly-targeted book also by me on the identical subject.

    Whereas, if I’m selling a sword-and-sorcery series to Tor, I only even have to -show- them a separate sword-and-sorcery series I’m pitching if I’ve got a bad option clause. And whether I don’t have to submit it there, or whether I submit it and they don’t like it, the no-compete clause IN NO WAY affects my right to sell the new sword-and-sorcery series elsewhere, while the old S&S series is still in print at Tor (or, indeed, while I’m still writing new S&S books for them). This is precisely why you see so many novelists writing books in the same genre for two different houses; we CAN. Indeed, I could even sell a book in the -same- S&S series to another house if Tor rejected it. (It’s unlikely that I’d be able to, since very few houses want to pick up a stray book in a series that’s being published elsewhere. But my inability to sell such a book elsewhere would be governed by the market decisions of other houses, NOT by the no-compete clause in a Tor contract.)

  11. This is a nice blog post on the option clause from BookEnds, LLC.

    I guess it’s a matter of negotiating on that clause, whether or not the “next book” is just your next book in your genre, or whether it’s the next book in your _series_ (among other things).

    It sounds like it could be an issue, then, if Alastair wanted to write under his name for his second work (for epubbing) and had an option clause with his first book contract that required him to give his publisher the first option on the next book in his genre.

    • dwsmith says:

      Moses, yes, THEN it would be a problem, depending on the Option clause in the first book contract. But why would anyone want to do that? (grin)

  12. “I think is critical here to make sure writers reading this understand there is no one RIGHT way, just your way. ”

    Indeed. Exactly as Mary Jo Putney (with multiple New York Times bestsellers and multiple award winning-books) was saying on her Word Wenches blog a few days ago, part of being a Real Writer is finding out what works for YOURSELF in terms of process, because there is no Right Way, no one-size-fits-all solution, no Secret Handshake or actual answer about How To Write A Book Well.

  13. Moses, if I get an offer (and contract) on the first before the second is ready to e-publish, I’ll be a very happy camper, and play it as it lies from there. I just don’t think trad pub moves that fast. (I’m not starting from scratch; the second already has 50k words written. I’ve got 15k of outline and scenes for a third. The second is same universe but totally different characters and 40-50 years earlier, the third is a different sub-genre. It might make more sense to e-pub the third and hold on to the second as part of a package with the first.)

    If not, a clause like that is moot because it would no longer be my next book but my previous book. Although I’d probably be happy to sell them the e-rights as well as the paper rights if they wanted it enough.

    • dwsmith says:

      Alastair, also, as a second book, or third, there is a good chance a publisher won’t care about a self-pub edition at all. Not in the same scope as they deal with. And one new way of coming into New York publishing that hasn’t got there yet, but happens occasionally is that a publisher will pick up a self-published book that shows some legs.

      There are a few writers who think that self-publishing will be the slush pile of the future, and that’s how publisher’s will find a lot of their new stuff. Interesting theory, way too early on that to speculate.

  14. Zoe Winters says:


    Re: B&N Self-pubbing, YES! I saw it and I am SO excited. I’m going to blog about it on the Indie Reader bog. Right now I’m going through Smashwords for B&N, but the ability to track my sales on B&N and perhaps have more control over search terms and my description page like I have on Amazon Kindle is so exciting to me. I can’t wait! I signed up to be notified when it’s ready. It seems like every day there is a new opportunity for me to jump on.

    • dwsmith says:

      Interesting, Zoe, but sights like Smashwords and Fictionwise and the like are publishers as well, just like in New York. They decide where your book goes and how much you get of their cut. Same as a New York publisher. Thought you didn’t like that model? What do you see as the difference. Very confused there.

      If you go direct to Kindle and do the work you are the publisher, this new direct to PubIt for B&N will be the same as Kindle. Schribd is the same for downloads. But Smashwords and Fictionwise are publishers who take a percentage of what you get off of Kindle. Just like New York publishers. Exactly, only without the tight restrictions.

  15. Incidentally, there are ways around even (some) bad contract clauses. For example, a well known SF writing duo (names omitted because it’s not important and I might screw up some details) invited a third author in on a book to side-step a contractual obligation that applied only to the duo, not the trio. (They did ultimately fulfill their contract, of course – that out-of-contractual-sequence book may have been a favor to another publisher.)

  16. Good point, Dean. As I recall, Tor picked up Scalzi’s Old Man’s War because of the response when he self-pubbed it on his website.

  17. Jeff Baerveldt says:


    OK, I’m a little lost here. Maybe I haven’t read all the comments as closely as I should have.

    My understanding is once I write a book, I send it off to NY publishers. I start with the big publishers first, work my way down to smaller presses until accepted.

    Where does the Kindle, the Nook, and other ebooks fit into this scheme?

    I would assume that putting a book in eformat is something the publisher would do … but maybe I’m wrong.


    • dwsmith says:

      Jeff, nope, you are right. That’s what I call the “traditional” model and so far, for 97% of all books produced, that’s the way it works.

      And yes, you are correct that in your contract with a major publisher, you will sell them electronic rights and they will put the books up on the different sights and you will get a percentage of that money back through your contract agreement.

      However, the world is changing and there are a number of writers experimenting with Print on Demand (POD) self-publishing and electronic publishing. And the electronic is easy and wonderful for backlist, meaning stories already publishing in books or magazines. Gives them a new life and new income streams for the writers.

      Also you hear all over the web writers like Zoe who have a belief system that self-publishing is the way for them because of some control issue or hatred of New York for one reason or another. At the moment, no statistics back up the value of going that way very hard, besides a few exceptions widely quoted like Konrath. However, it is VERY exciting for all of us working in the business, and I am on a list with many bestsellers from every genre and keeping up on this stuff and doing experiments in it is a major topic.

      Things are moving at light speed for an industry that usually takes decades for even small changes. So stay tuned. Right now and for the future big publishing will still be the best game in town. But smaller games are springing up and are fun to watch and play in.

  18. Dean, I’m glad to hear the option clause is easier to negotiate than I previously thought. And thanks Laura for explaining some more about it and the no-compete clause (which I initially confused the names of).

    The PubIt move by B&N is yet another exploding bomb in the opening up of the e-market to indie authors this year. By the summer, it’ll be an absolute cinch to get ebooks onto Kindle, iBooks, B&N, and other locations for royalties around 60-70%.

    I look at all of that and think, wow, authors have two very legitimate publishing options these days. I think the developments are great for authors and readers. Not sure about for publishers per se, but what a liberating time to be a writer.

    I hope we’re getting to the point where writers can respect whatever paths other writers take to reach their readers and earn a living. I don’t think it takes anything away from traditionally published authors to have viable new avenues opening up. It’s all about getting paid to tell stories, right? We can all play together in the same sandbox.

  19. I have to say, Dean, a site like Smashwords is totally different than NY. Smashwords doesn’t reject any books submitted to them, they take absolutely no control over the work and have no input on it (perhaps a blessing or a curse), and they pay 85% royalties to authors for ebooks sold on their site. For starters :-)

    Smashwords is significant because they are one of the eight vehicles you can use to get into the iBookstore, and IIRC, you end up with a 60% royalty rate when going via Smashwords to iBooks.

    Whether or not you want to be a fully independent author is a huge question, but now there are some fascinating options out there.

    • dwsmith says:

      Moses, I agree with the no control, and the direct sales are fine and dandy if the books sell on their site. No issue.

      But ibooks give a royalty rate to Smashwords for each book sold and then Smashwords takes its share of that percentage. I don’t have the exact percentage here in front of me, but I’ve worked with Fictionwise for a long time because they were the only game in town for a while and a story sold on Kindle through Fictionwise (they don’t do that anymore) got Fictionwise 35% and then Fictionwise passed on something like 35% or 50% of that money, so by the time it reached the author, there were only pennies left. Same as New York.

      Publishers with standards and publishers without standards are still publishers.

  20. “Actually, in reality, the option clause is very, very easy to negotiate in almost all contracts.”

    Indeed. In fact, I’ve only ever had trouble getting exactly the phrasing I want on ONE option clause, and that was strictly and specifically because of (naturally) a literary agent. An agent “negotiated” a weak option clause in a contract of mine, and balked when I asked the agent to go back and fix this oversight. By then, I was so exhausted and demoralizing from fighting about so MANY things with this agent, I didn’t have the energy to keep fighting about this, too, and I wound up signing the contract.

    That was a mistake and I regret it. It’s also the only weak option clause I’ve ever signed. I’ve never had trouble getting a good one myself.

    An option clause is rarely an attempt to “tie up” a writer in some way. Mostly, it’s a show of good faith. PUblishing’s VERY competitive, there is always another writer easy to take your place, and a good pairing of author/editor/publisher matters. So, in most cases, if an author is really unhappy at a publishing house and wants to leave, most houses will let you go.

    Mind you, you can’t just walk away and sell an option book elsewhere WITHOUT PERMISSION. That’s breach of contract. If you want out of an option, you have to do it PROPERLY. One standard way is to send a publisher a proposal for a book you know they won’t buy (and, in most cases, a book you have no intention of writing for anyone else, either), and also telling them (to make sure your feint works) that you’ll eb tripling your advance level for this masterpiece.

    Another way, more straightforward (but a little too bridge-burning for some people) is to phone up your publisher and say: “Hi. I’m so unhappy here. This really hasn’t worked out well for either of us. We’re not well suited. I don’t want to write for you anymore, and I have the distinct impression that my departire won’t break your heart. So how about being a sport and letting me out of my option clause?”

    In general, publishers don’t intend to (and have no need to) shackle a writer with the option clause. The only time it -is- a shackle if it the writer’s books are VERY lucrative for that house. Then the house has a serious investment in the writer and a serious profit-motive for keeping the writer. For example, a writer I knew wanted to leave a publishing house that wasn’t doing enough for this writer’s books. Another house thought so, too, came along, and tried to buy the writer away, offering roughly triple what the writing was making, as well as a lot of marketing and publishing perks that the writer wasn’t getting. However, the writer was a VERY profitable writer for the firstlhouse, and they realized that if THEY would just put in a little more effort (as the other house was prepared to do), they could push the writer’s sales over into INCREDIBLY profitable territory. So they invoked the “topping” clause in their option clause, whereby they managed to keep the writer–who by then WANTED to leave–by offering an advance even higher than the much-higher advance being offered by their competitor. And thus the terms of the option clause were used to keep captive a writer who wanted to leave. (And, in fact, despite that moment of competitive resolve, the first publisher did NOT do anything differently after all, and sales still didn’t grow. So the author left anyhow after that contract; and, at the next house, where a lot more was done for the next book, the writer made the hc NYT list.)

    But, like I said, something like that only happens if a writer already has a serious level of success, if the writer’s sales are good enough that, rather than the writer competing for a publishing slot, publishers now compete to acquire the writer.

    Mostly, the option clause is just sort of a good-faith way of clarifying that you and the publisher hope for a long future together and will try to do another deal together when this one is over.

  21. Jeff Baerveldt says:

    Thanks, Dean, that makes a lot of sense.

    I would think a writer like JA Konrath is an exception that proves the rule (whatever that means). I mean, he made it the traditional way, still has an agent, still is selling to NY publishers (at least I think he is).

    My understanding is that he’s self-publishing his unpublished work on Kindle. That make a hell of a lot of sense.

    It’s one thing, is it not, for an established writer like Konrath, or Scott Nicholson, or yourself, to self-publish in ebook form, but something VERY different from someone like myself, right?

    • dwsmith says:

      Jeff, not really that different, actually. What is slowly becoming a truth is that quality climbs through the “noise” of the internet and finds readers. An author has to have a web site, have social networks, that sort of thing, but the quality of a story will bring the readers. Crap doesn’t sell and will sink and go away.

      So if Konrath and Nicholson and me can write quality stories because we’ve been around and had more practice, then yes it will make a difference. But a great new writer writing quality work will soon have that quality pull them to readers. Nature of the “noise” everyone talks about on the web.

  22. Zoe Winters says:


    Smashwords isn’t really a “publisher” so much as a publishing platform and distributor. I maintain all control over my work when I use Smashwords. I don’t “sell them rights” and certainly not exclusive rights. Fictionwise isn’t a publisher either. It’s an ebookstore/distributor, same as Smashwords.

    In what way does Smashwords or Fictionwise act as publishers? Do they do editing? No. Do they do cover art? No. Do they market your work for you? No. (no more than any other bookseller.) Do they assign your work an ISBN? Fictionwise… no. The publisher assigns the ISBN.

    Smashwords does have an option where they can be “technically listed as your publisher” so you can get a free ISBN. But it’s all semantics. On Smashwords I use my own ISBNs. So that doesn’t apply to me.

    *I* am a publisher.

    Because if I was doing the exact same things for someone else that I do for me, I’d be called a publisher. I own my own ISBNs. I have a publishing company name. I make sure the cover art, editing, marketing, etc. gets done. The bizarre idea that in any other industry a business can be the creator of it’s own product “except” in publishing which is mystical and magical, is something I don’t accept.

    If your argument is that Smashwords and Fictionwise are “just like publishers” you aren’t doing your argument for publishers and all their benefits any favors.

    And I don’t have “hatred” for NY. I don’t hate the player, I hate the game. 😛 Even then, hate is a strong word. I’m more like really annoyed and slightly disgruntled.

    Kindle takes a cut too. So you’re now trying to say Kindle is a publisher?

    I don’t think you’re really that confused on the issue. Smashwords doesn’t do ANYTHING a publisher does. What they do is what a DISTRIBUTOR does.

    Baker and Taylor and Ingram are ALSO distributors. They take a percentage of money to list you in their catalog and distribute you to booksellers and such.

    If Smashwords is a publisher so is Ingram.

    • dwsmith says:

      Okay, Zoe, whatever you say. Your belief system and information has an interesting twist to it, but if it works for you, it works.

      By the way, you never sell anything to any publisher. (A huge myth pushed by those who do not understand copyright.) You license use of a form through contracts, and let me think, oh, yeah, by agreeing to the agreements on Kindle and Smashwords and so on, (you know, that little button you click without reading that you agree to their terms) you are basically signing a contract with a license for use. But whatever you say, because I won’t argue the distinction anymore. If you have a problem with publishers and want to think that Smashwords and such are not publishers, be my guest.

      But truth be told for everyone else reading this, they are publishers. Just a slightly altered form, but still publishers.

      And where did you get the idea that publishers don’t have sub-publishers? Holy crap, of course they do, and you control in your contract with a New York publisher exactly what you will sell and won’t sell to which subrights publishers through your main publisher.

      Oh, yeah, kind of like on Smashwords opting out of some subrights publishers and staying in with others. But again, what do I know?

      Sorry for being so snarky, but hard to argue against your irrational thinking about publishers. And your lack of understanding as to how publishing works and what you even sell. You are spouting so many myths, it just scares me, especially coming from someone clearly as smart and driven as you are.

      Do you even understand copyright? Or exactly what you are selling on Kindle? Or any other source, for that matter?

      And this to everyone. Folks, if you don’t read those fine print contracts when you try to put something up on Kindle or Smashwords or the like, you really should understand what you are clicking away. Really.

      Now off to research once again those Smashword royalty rates, because even though their formatting is interesting, I want to use them.

  23. Zoe Winters says:

    Also, small publishers put books on Smashwords and Fictionwise. A publisher doesn’t have a publisher. That makes no sense.

  24. I need to keep an IV in me for these comments. My reader can’t keep up!

  25. Zoe Winters says:

    Oh… and I missed one thing, sorry. Smashwords doesn’t decide where your book goes. YOU decide. You can opt out of premium distribution and only put your book up on Smashwords if you like. Or you can choose to distribute to the iBookstore, but not Sony, etc.

    I opt out of using their distribution channel for Amazon because I deal directly with Amazon. And once I get to deal directly with B&N, I’ll opt out of distribution for Smashwords for there too.

    But major publishers use distributors too, such as Ingram. Using a distributor is just part of publishing.

  26. Dean, congrats for being one of the relative few who sees through the smokescreen misconception that JA Konrath has only done well via Kindle because he had a traditional publisher. If you follow Konrath’s blog, you’ll see that he’s debunked that common notion time and again, as have many other authors who post there with their own results. He’s also pointed out authors doing well on Kindle (or even better than him) who don’t even websites or blogs. A good book on Kindle with a low price, good cover, and good description, will sell on its own. You don’t even have to do much self-promotion, though obviously that doesn’t hurt.

    As for the royalties, I don’t know Fictionwise’s royalties, but IIRC, Smashwords pays authors 85% on books sold through their site, and authors get paid 60% royalties on books that sell on iBooks via Smashwords. Amazon paid 35% for a while, but starting June 30th, they are paying 70% to indies on ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99. And B&N’s PubIt must be somewhere around that 60-70% range (or close to it), because they say they are going to be “competitive” with the other major services. This is one way in which these new options are very much unlike NY.

    Of course, NY has its own tremendous advantages, as well.

    • dwsmith says:

      Moses, so you are telling me that say you put a book up on Smashwords for $3.00, you get 60% of that if it sells on iBooks?

      Or do you get 60% of what iBooks gives Smashwords? Huge, huge difference, and I read it as 60% of what they receive from iBooks platform. Guess I had better go back and read that a third time, huh? Because if you are right, then I’m happy. But not happy if I have to take 60% of 35% of $3.00 which would be 63 cents for a $3.00 book ($2.99) while on Kindle starting in July I would get $2.09 for the same sale.

      I will go do my research yet again and be back with you all. Sigh….I have read that stupid stuff twice and all their guidelines on submissions and FAQ questions. One more time into the silliness, but worth it if you are right, Moses. Sure hope you are.

  27. I’m just about positive about that, Dean. You, the author, make 60% of the list price if you upload your book to Smashwords and then the ebook sells on iBooks. On Amazon, it’s even better (70%, starting June 30th). PubIt must be similar.

    • dwsmith says:

      PubIt rates won’t be released for another few months and they won’t be up and running until the fall sometime.

      Yup, love Kindle rates at 70%. Going to research Smashwords now, not that I don’t believe you, but again I like knowing real details instead of hearing things secondhand. Back later.

  28. More good news for you then, Dean :-)

    This list on PubIt says that “Details on the compensation model (read: profit split) will be announced “in the coming weeks.'” So we should know about PubIt’s royalties soon.

    Also, here’s a blog post I wrote when the news came out about Smashwords/iBooks. It was right around the time that JA (Joe) Konrath was changing his mind on the viability of the indie route for a new author (first week of April, it looks like–ancient history now). I mention the 60% figure there, and I remember at the time reading some of the actual agreement that was posted by either Apple or Smashwords (I forget which) and double-checking that figure that way.

  29. Zoe Winters says:


    It’s not my “belief system.” I defined a distributor and a publisher. You just want to make distributors the same as publishers to prove some point about it’s “the same thing” and I somehow “have” a publisher. (If we want to get REALLY into semantics then technically everybody who publishes their own blog content is a “publisher” but that’s not the way most human beings define a publisher.)

    If you want to debate things on the merit of the argument, okay. If you want to agree to disagree, okay. But don’t brush me off as if word definitions are matters of opinion and my “belief system.”

    I really don’t know what you’re trying to prove. If you are trying to argue that Smashwords and Fictionwise are “publishers” then very clearly your definition and others’ definitions of what a publisher “does” or “is” are very different matters.

    It’s ultimately a game of semantics. What I’m doing is VERY different from signing a contract with a traditional publisher. (And yes, I read everybody’s fine print before I clicked any buttons.)

    I’m not sure what your goal or interest is in trying to make me “see the light.” Do you think if somehow you get me to agree that Smashwords is my publisher I’ll just say: “Oh, well I should just go try to find a NY publisher then instead of doing this silly indie thing?”

    Small publishers who use places like Smashwords and Kindle and such also have to license rights to put the content on the site. That doesn’t make Amazon the publisher of Samhain (an ebook publisher).

    But if it DOES make that so in the sense of sub-publishers… then who cares? That means I’m a publisher and doing what a publisher does. When an author goes the traditional way they are NOT a publisher.

    These are very different paths with very different levels of creative control.

    If *you* feel comfortable calling Smashwords my publisher, that doesn’t really change the fact that I am my publisher.

    I don’t think it very much matters if I know every piece of insider minutiae about how “publishing” works, outside of small publishing which is what I’m engaged in. It’s all just trivia to me. NY is irrelevant to me.

    Just like I don’t know all the inner workings of Carnegie hall, nor all the finer points of competing in the Olympics. Why SHOULD I spend tons of time researching something I don’t want to do just so I can spar with you at trivia?

    Thanks for the compliments on my drive and intelligence, even though it’s cloaked in “you’re so irrational and have tons of false beliefs.”

    A great many things in life are dependent on perspective, how each individual classes and organizes things in their head, opinion, belief, etc. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of views/beliefs that I or others would find irrational.

    But… It’s pretty offensive for you to ask if I even understand copyright. Is condescension a hobby? And is it completely necessary in this discussion because I can argue on that same level.

    I think we can both agree that publishing and how content is distributed and licensed is evolving. But I think it’s a bit silly to try to compare Smashwords with a NY publisher. No matter what the justification in doing so. It’s apples and oranges. And I think you know that.

    • dwsmith says:

      Nope, don’t know it, Zoe. Smashwords is a publisher by any definition.

      And yup, I publish my blogs on this web site, and these comments. Yup, makes me a publisher as well.

      And the reason I asked about copyright is that 99.9% of all writers, even early professional writers, don’t understand copyright and what they are licensing. Didn’t mean to be offensive, just thought I would ask, since my record is that no one knows it coming into writing. Most writers (clearly not you, don’t want to be offensive) believe that they sell their stories to publishers. Sorry, been teaching young professional writers for a decade now and have yet to find one who came in who knew copyright law or even understood copyright.

      But writers never sell stories to anyone unless you sign really, really bad contracts. You license your work for a use and resale by that publisher. Kindle is a form of publisher. You give them a story, sign a license agreement, and they put it up in their market for sale for a percentage. You control content and covers, sure, but they publish it.

      The reason I’m talking about this is to not let your statements stand to the hundreds and hundreds who read these posts. I am not trying to convince you of anything. I just won’t allow myths, stated as fact, to stand in comments on a chapter working to stop myths. And you express yourself so forcefully and direct, some people may take your statements as fact and they are not.

      I have no argument at all with your self-publishing program. Zero in fact and I look forward to watching how you do. And I don’t want to try to convince you to go anywhere you don’t want to go. Again, back to every writer being their own person, following their own path.

      So, when you say it’s silly to compare Smashwords to a New York publisher, I have to explain that no it’s not. One is just a new form of publisher. Nothing more.

      Control of content, you also say, is impossible in New York. That’s flat wrong of course. I had to make sure people understood that.

      So no disrespect or intent to convince you. But when you spout myths like they are facts, that’s what these posts are all about, and right here, in these comments, I have two choices. One, not let your comment through. Two, let it through and correct it for everyone else. I chose to make the points and in this instance, with your statements, show others how these myths work and how really nasty they are.

  30. Yeah, it’s all coming back to me now. Read the comments on my blog post for more on the royalty rate of Smashwords-to-iPad.

    • dwsmith says:

      Got it, Moses. Afraid I was right.

      “What does it cost to publish on Smashwords? It’s free to publish on Smashwords. There are no hidden fees. We earn our revenue by taking a cut of all net sales on the site. The cut is 15% of the net for sales at or on Stanza, 15% of the net proceeds from our retail partners, and 18.5% for sales that were originated by affiliate marketers. If your book is purchased via one of the major online retailers we distribute to, you can expect your royalty to be approximately 42 percent (or higher) of the suggested list price you determine.”

      Yup, thought it was a percentage of a percentage, and at least they are open about it. 42% is still pretty good. It’s that high because their 15% is pretty low.

      I think I will be putting stuff up on their site, as well as Kindle and PubIt and Scribd and the others. I can live with 42%.

      Also what’s nice is that it was announced today that the free books available in B&N when you are in store and have their Nook will also be available through their aps on phones and iPad. That’s kind of cool.

      Thanks for making me go look this up again, Moses. When I first read that I wasn’t that happy, but now that I look at it again, I’m okay with 42% to get directly to iPad and a few others.

  31. “I just won’t allow myths, stated as fact, to stand in comments on a chapter working to stop myths. And you express yourself so forcefully and direct, some people may take your statements as fact and they are not.”

    Well said, Dean. When misinformation is spouted on your blog, of COURSE you’ve got to correct it for the people reading the blog.

  32. Dean, it appears to be 60%.

    “9. How much does distribution to Apple cost you? Nothing. Like all Smashwords services, it’s free. We earn our income when your books sell. We will pay you 60% of the list price for all your sales.”

    That’s pulled from this link, which reproduces the email that Smashwords sent out when all of this was announced. This was in the comments on my link that I linked to above, fwiw.

    The link that you produced says that they pay 42% or higher. I think in the case of iPad, it’s higher, at 60%.

    • dwsmith says:

      By the way, I just did a front page post on WHAT IS A PUBLISHER that I hope settles some of the confusion.

      And I hit the little button that says “publish” and became a publisher by putting it on my blog.


      • dwsmith says:

        And thus ends the craziest day ever in these comments on these blogs.

        Great fun. Thanks, Zoe and Moses and Laura for some great fun. I’ve gotten a number of private e-mails tonight saying how much people learned just from the discussion. Thanks to you for writing me as well.

        And I am much more comfortable with Smashwords now, so stories starting that way this next week or so. Yeah! Thanks.

  33. I did another search to double-check. It is definitely 60%.

    “How to Publish Ebooks on the Apple iPad
    It’s quick, easy and FREE with Smashwords!
    Set your own price + earn 85% of the net proceeds for your book (60% list price for iPad books)”

    Here’s a comment in the comments section on the official Smashwords blog:

    “Any chance that B&N, Kobo, and Sony will switch to a royalty structure like Apple’s? Love the 60% so much more than the 42%.”

    So I guess when you go through Smashwords to get to B&N, Kobo, or Sony it’s 42%, but it’s 60% to iPad.

  34. Hey Dean, this appears to be the updated version of what you had quoted. They must’ve updated that paragraph recently:

    How are royalties calculated?

    Smashwords pays the author, or the author’s designated publisher, 85% of the net sales proceeds from the work. Estimated proceeds are clearly disclosed during the publish process in a pie chart, and are calculated as follows: (Sales price minus transaction fee) multiplied by .85 = proceeds to author/publisher. The royalty rate for affiliate sales is 70.5% net. For most retail distribution partners, Smashwords pays the author/publisher 85% of the net proceeds to Smashwords, which works out to 42% or more of the suggested list price you set for your book. These rates vary by retailer. Apple is 60% of retail price.

  35. Zoe Winters says:

    Hey Dean,

    If you’re defining publishers in that broad sense, then I agree with what you’re saying. Most people like to talk about “real publishers” vs. fake publishers, and wouldn’t define it as broadly as you do. I’m used to the lack of broader definition when discussing this with people.

    Most of the time when people in publishing are talking about having a publisher, they are talking about someone who assigns ISBNs, and controls most of the product packaging and marketing, as well as controls the price and where things will be distributed. That’s what a publisher does in the traditional terms of what we’re talking about.

    Most of what Smashwords does is more like what a distributor does.

    BUT, yes, if we’re going by the “people who publish a blog are a publisher” as in ANYONE who licenses or releases or posts content in any form or fashion is a publisher, then of course you’re right. (And actually if I wasn’t so used to having discussions where I have to haggle with people over who qualifies as a publisher, I probably would have been more on board to begin with. I think it was the fact that it was being conflated with how somehow it’s weird since I “hate” publishers.)

    And I understand your need to correct things you feel to be in error. It just seemed VERY condescending about the copyright issue. I’m a PUBLISHER, Dean. Maybe not a “big NY publisher,” but a publisher all the same (in the sense of how people usually define it). I’ve read the entire government copyright site.

    I know you are licensing rather than selling your rights outright to a publisher, unless it’s work for hire. “selling your rights” was a lazy form of shorthand communication that many people use. (And I SHOULDN’T use it, since it causes confusion.) I didn’t know you would be dissecting it later to prove what a ninny I was. But if you sold rights outright, authors wouldn’t have rights revert back to them so they could put their backlist on Kindle. So it’s pretty common sense that when I said “selling rights” I “meant” licensing. But I should have “said” licensing.

    I understand your need to not let a noob misunderstand things. I just thought you could have done it in a less condescending manner.

    You implied in more than one way that I’m an irrational little twit who was stupid enough to challenge you and that if all these myths and roadblocks weren’t holding me back, I wouldn’t be indie. But I’m pretty sure that whether or not you class me that way, I’m still going to succeed and we can have the discussion about whether or not I was inordinately held back by my “myths” at the end of my 10 year plan. (We’ve recently hit 1.5 for those keeping score at home.)

    Thanks for the discussion, and thanks for shifting it back to a more productive tone.

    If it was going to continue on in the same vein, I was going to bow out of the discussion because you can afford to snark and piss off readers. I can’t. I need every reader/fan I can get right now. I don’t have the luxury of alienating “any” readers who might otherwise have tried my fiction.

    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, heavens, all of us need every reader we can get. Nature of the beast.

      My decision with these chapters and this blog is to not worry too much about who I am making angry. I just try to tell the plain business truth. After being a writer for over 30 years, an editor on a number of jobs, a publisher at one point as well of a fairly large publishing house, and a person who has been working with new professionals now for a decade, I have a pretty clear sense of what’s happening and I make it my job (because it is) to stay up on everything I can.

      Do I have opinions from what I’ve seen over the years? Oh, heavens yes! But I do attempt to keep this level.

      All of us spout myths, me included, at times, but I often catch myself quickly these days. And myths are often just misunderstood communication. A writer is thinking one thing that’s clear, they say something that seems clear on the topic, the listener with a different set of basics, hears something just opposite of what the writer meant to tell them. And off they go happy, both sides, having no idea that the communication just didn’t work.

      So that’s one of the reasons I come down hard and firm in these comments when I think I hear a myth. I may be hearing it wrong, but in these chapters and comments about myths, I have to snap back hard or some poor person who is reading along, not really catching everything, catches the myth and then goes and says, “On Dean Wesley Smith’s site I read this!” And I have hurt them.

      My goal is not to hurt anyone, just help, by clearing out damaging myths. Nothing more, but nothing less.

      So, yup, at times, I get snarky. Nature of the beast I’m afraid. (grin) After all, I do write romance novels (under yet another name) and the characters in romance novels are often snarky.

  36. Zoe Winters says:

    Also, the phrase “to prove what a ninny I was” maybe needed a smiley after it cause otherwise it could be read “angry” and I was smiling when I typed it.

  37. I don’t want to get into an argument about semantics, but I’ll just point out that when even some of us newbies say “sell”, we’re using it as shorthand. If I “sell a story” to Analog, I know that really means I’m licensing first serial rights and some options on other rights. And actually, those first serial rights really are sold because — unlike reprint or various other rights — they are something that gets used up, thanks to that word “first”. (Although sure, if they’re geographically restricted, it only uses them up in the specified region.)

    (On the other hand even though I’m a newbie to fiction, I used to be a contributing editor at Byte Magazine, and that was so long ago I don’t remember how naive I might have been before that.)

    • dwsmith says:

      Agree, Alastair, the word “sold” has sadly replaced the term license in publishing, and thus the confusion to new writers coming in.

      But on your example, show me in copyright law where the term “first serial” is located? (trick question, of course it’s not in there.)

      All the things we license are just made up ways of slicing the pie. Sometimes they are made up by the magazine or publisher trying to figure out a way to describe what they need to use, often it’s the smart writer making it up to get more sales. No sale really restricts a future sale except in the needs of a specific market. To the writer, nothing has been lost or “sold.” Having a story appear in one market for a short time with a certain license might preclude the story from appearing in a similar magazine wanting similar rights, but nothing out of the story or the copyright is gone. Yeah, semantics, I know, but critically important.

  38. Quite right, Dean. When it comes down to it, “first serial” means whatever it’s defined to mean in the particular contract you signed. Which reinforces another point you keep making: always read (and understand) your contracts.

  39. Zoe Winters says:


    Thank you for clarifying this. I can totally appreciate and respect that. In the future I’ll try to “say what I mean and mean what I say.”

    Cause if you snark, I’ll snark back, and then it’ll get stupid, and then I look like a real jerk. (I already have a rep for being pretty combative, no need to make that worse!)

    Ha! You write romance too! (me too) And yes, there is NOTHING I love more than snarky banter. It’s one of the reasons I love the romance genre so much.

  40. Wow, did this thread ever explode.

    I think indie presses and authors have a better shot now than they’ve had in a long while, given the transformation of media, but at the same time I myself am not ready to go that road because I have no platform. If I had an existing audience — for any reason — I’d be tempted to hang up a “stories for sale” shingle on the web site and go into business. Alas, right now, such a move on my part would be greeted with chirping crickets.

    Besides, I see the publishing fortresses of New York as sort of a challenge. How many castle walls can I scale? How many Kings and Queens of the Houses can I dazzle with my lute and minstrel’s song? Enough to carry home a purse of gold? A chest of gold? Many chests of gold? It ought to be fun finding out. Others are still managing to do it, even in this depressed economy. And the tougher the competition, the sweeter the win.

    Regarding talent, I like very much what’s been said about talent vs. determination.

    I was listening to a story this morning — not sure if it’s apocryphal or not — about baseball player Marty Marion. According to the story, Marion had zero baseball talent while his best friend Johnny had loads of talent. Both of them played for a little Atlanta company team (pre-WWII) and when Johnny got called to the minors, he insisted Marty go with him. Eventually — and over the objections of many who thought Marty couldn’t last — Johnny convinced the St. Louis Cardinals to sign Marty and he both to one of the Cardinals’ minor-league farm teams.

    According to the story, Marty Marion eventually went to the majors and was a big star for the Cardinals during several World Series runs, while his friend Johnny never got out of the minors. Even though Johnny was, by all accounts, the far superior, far more talented player.

    So what happened? Again, according to story, Marty had more determination that Johnny. He was so determined in fact that he willed his way to baseball excellence. Talent wasn’t a factor. He improved his game from poor to passing to good to great, all through sheer determination. Now his legacy is written in baseball history. Johnny? Talented, but didn’t want it the way Marty wanted it. So Johnny didn’t last.

    Wanting it — seeing the goal and doing whatever it takes to get there — is a recurrent theme in virtually all competetive enterprise. Could be writing, or sports, or business, or any other kind of thing. Those who want it, find a way. Those who don’t want it, well, they find a way to take one of those off-ramps that Dean talked about. They grow tired of the “road” and they do something else. And talent never seems to be much of a factor, just a stubborn refusal to give up, combined with superior work ethic.

  41. Deborah says:

    Another for the “not sure if it’s true or not” story collection: I’ve seen it alleged that George Clooney has said in interviews, when asked how he became a star and what was his backup plan if he hadn’t, that he didn’t have a backup plan because a backup plan enabled people to back up.

    I always understood that to mean that determination and persistance do indeed win the day.

    As to traditional publishing vs. self publishing (NOT vanity publishing) most definitely to each her own. Just for me personally, I want to write, *not* market. I’m terrible at marketing. I send out my stuff, but I do sent it to NY publishers because I want to have their sales force behind my books.

  42. I don’t want to be nitpicky, but I cringe at the semantics of “the need for talent is a myth.” You need talent. The writers who are living off of their writing are all (or close enough to “all” that the word is still appropriate) talented people. In my opinion, what you should be saying is “the need for *innate* talent is a myth.”

    Dean, you said that when you started you had no talent. As hard to imagine as that is, I’ll take your word for it. But I know that you have talent now, I’ve read some of your work. That talent may not have been a “gift,” you might have had to scrape and claw for every shred of it, but you ended up with it. That baseball player Brad mentioned may not have started his career with talent, but he certainly ended with it. If he couldn’t field a grounder, he would not have been called up to the majors. Similarly, if you can’t string words together well enough to craft a good story, you aren’t going to make a living as a writer.

    I agree that determination, not innate talent, is what an aspiring writer needs out of the starting gate, but that’s because determination can be exchanged for talent over time.

    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, oh, looks like this upcoming talent myth blog is going to get some interesting responses. I haven’t even done it yet and already there’s talk.

      Let me make my case for talent, the concept of talent, being a very deadly myth, and then we can argue. (grin)

      • dwsmith says:

        By the way, the talent chapter should be up on Monday. I’m firing on a novel right now and need a part done this weekend, so can’t work much more on it until Sunday.

  43. Brad, I think you would enjoy the book Outliers by Malcome Gladwell. In it, he talks about the 10,000 hour rule and what it takes to become an “expert.” I love the book, because its a reminder to me that as long as I stay at it, and keep working hard (and smart), I’ll make it.

  44. Jim Rage says:

    I think this Sacred Cow post can be be summarized by one of Dean’s other nuggets:

    “Get out of your own way.”

    Which is something I still wrestle with from time to time, I’m sorry to say.

  45. Hey Dean, well just recently, it *was* 60%. Apple just increased it to 70%, according to this article, but you have to have a Mac with a relatively new OS to pull that off (grumbles).

    • dwsmith says:

      Moses, yup, finally got Smashwords all figured out and have five of Kris’s short stories up there, with a new one going up tonight. And a number of mine to follow this weekend. Still good percentages for authors. And when you put something up, they have three bar graphs showing you EXACTLY to the penny how much you will make on any sale through any source. Very clear and nice.

  46. This post is really, really great. I saw a reference to it on Joe Konrath’s blog, and I’m so glad I did.

    The fact is, that there are a lot of writers out there that are “making a good living.” Not a lot of blockbusters, I know, but there are a lot of us that make a living wage writing.

    It’s bullshit.

    Not everyone can write a bestseller, but anyone with even average writing skills can be a working writer, either writing non-fic, magazine and print work, and, yes, even fiction. You just have to keep plugging along. It took me three years. I quit my job and never looked back.

  47. Yes, I agree this post was absolutely excellent and heated but not out of controll.

    I think we have all dreamt even for a a minute or two about having the financial success of a Dan Brown or stephen King. But those are dreams not to be obsessed over.

    And there are many writers who have financial support from spouses, which allows them to write. And if they can bring in 30-40-50k or more and pay off the mortgage or raise a family then that might be how they define financial success.

    @Zoe Wow — you’ve really been in the thick of things of lately. Right in the middle of all the heated debates.

  48. JM says:

    Great article. Thanks for that.

  49. Cassie Barrett says:

    This is the single most inspiring post ever. This, and Kris’s post on perfection. It’s interesting to read-from my vantage point in 2013-how Dean and some of the commenters haven’t *fully* embraced e-publishing yet, even though he and Kris are huge advocates by 2012.

    If I could just get past my current mental plot block, I’d be able to get back to upping my word count. You guys are the ones inspiring me to get my stuff written and out there. Thank you for that.

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