Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The Myth of Security

Welcome back to slaughtering a few sacred cows. This one came clear to me over the last few days from so many writers saying how stunned they are that Barry Eisler turned down such a large deal to self-publish his own books. So before I continue into the Think Like a Publisher series, let me hack at a sacred cow.

To start, let me be clear on the myth I’m talking about right up front.

Myth: Selling to Traditional Publishing Means Safety and Security.

As a person who has been a freelance writer for over 25 years and sold my first short story in 1975, that just makes me laugh. But sadly, I believed it early on, and then came to understand that there was no other choice but the crap game I call traditional publishing if I wanted to be a full-time writer.

But safety and security in traditional publishing?  Never.

Yet I discovered over and over the last few days as Barry Eisler turned down a half-million dollar deal and Amanda Hocking, a young writer, is thinking of taking a deal, that the myth of security and safety in traditional publishing is as strong as ever. And being played up big time by traditional publishers as one of their advantages over indie or small publishing.

Security in publishing is a huge myth, a very large sacred cow. Hang on, this could get bloody.

Corporate America

Traditional publishing companies are, by nature, large corporations. Some people call the entire mess the “Big Six” but honestly, that’s both correct and wrong. Publishing companies are stand-alone businesses, often traded on a major stock exchanges. But they are (at the same time) often owned (meaning majority shares) by a larger publishing company above them, and so on up and up and up until worldwide there are basically six big conglomerates that have fingers in most large traditional publishing companies. Not all, but most.

However, the publishing corporations at lower levels are stand-alone businesses and do bid against each other for authors, even though they are owned by the same conglomerate in Germany or England.

Now, as with any corporation in business, each publishing company is profit driven. Each imprint inside of each publishing company must turn a profit regularly or be shut down.

And every author’s book must turn a profit or be cut. And often a book series that is growing, but not growing fast enough, is cut as well.

Now shove that profit-driven corporation into a situation where change can only happen slowly, layoffs have cut staff down to the point that people are working sixty to seventy hours for a small salary, and you have a structure for disaster when things shift quickly, as they are now with electronic distribution.

The Way It Is for Writers Now in Traditional Publishing

Publishing in its strange wisdom has taken the suppliers of the business product (writers) and made it almost impossible for any of the suppliers to get to the publishers. They refuse to look at new products and outsource their research and development to a group of people (agents) who are untrained and have no rules or structure.

The only way editors can get past this corporate restriction is play games with the rules. I can’t begin to tell you how many times editors have written good letters to writers about a book on a corporate stationary that says “Will Not Read Without An Agent.” Yet it is clear from the letter they read the manuscript.

In other words, it’s a very hostile environment for writers trying to supply new product to traditional publishing. Traditional publishing’s attitude has become (over the last ten years) “If you don’t like it, I’ll find a writer who does. There are always more stupid writers to take your place.”

And on top of that, traditional publishers, because of the lack of education of most writers in business, have come to treat writers who do get in the door like they are babies who can’t think for themselves and need their diapers changed. And writers over the last twenty years have come to expect this “take care of me” treatment and then wonder why they were dropped by their publisher or agent.

So once in the door, writers want to be taken care of, and thus don’t bother to learn the business or what is even being done for them.

And when dropped, the writers don’t have a clue what to do next because they have spent no time learning the business while in it.

Most writers are so stupid about the business they think they sell stories. (We don’t, we license copyright.)

And, of course, I won’t even go into the scams on writers by some publishers, some agents, and any book doctor who can convince a writer the writer needs help with typos. And now, of course, there are the agents willing to put up writer’s books electronically as a publisher would do and take a percentage. That is the next huge scam coming down the road.

And writers have let this happen because, to be honest, it happened slowly and writers have no central point of information. And some writers just liked being taken care of. I have heard recently the “more time to write” argument than I care to think about.

I always say silently to myself when I hear that: “More time to get screwed.”

Along Comes Indie Publishing

Pushed by numbers of writers who had gotten tired of being treated like children by traditional publishers, Indie Publishing has become a real possible alternate route for writers to deliver books to readers.

Of course, this was caused by the twenty-year growing revolution of electronic reading devices. Traditional publishing, being slow and fairly short-sighted in their monopoly, let other companies like Amazon and Apple and Sony develop and own the devices instead of having traditional publishers owning and controlling them.

And Amazon and Apple and Sony don’t care who supplies the product.

That oversight by traditional publishers suddenly opened the distribution doors for everyone. And traditional publishing in just the last few years lost their monopoly on the distribution of books. And traditional publishing now has no way to regain it.

So the question becomes for writers: “What can traditional publishing still offer me that I can’t do on my own? Or hire done?”

The answers to that question have been laughable so far.

One response by traditional publishing has been, “Oh, we are the gatekeeper.”  My response: Of a gate sitting in the middle of a desert with no fence on either side.

Or the great response by traditional defenders: “We provide editorial oversight.” That one makes me snort. Editorial oversight from an overworked young assistant editor out of Vassar and a copyeditor that I can hire cheaper.

So far, up until some traditional defenders started trotting out the security argument, that was all they had.

And what does traditional publishing want in exchange?

—Traditional publishing wants contracts writers can’t get out of in their lifetimes.

—Traditional publishing wants control of the writer’s work and future work.

—Traditional publishing wants 75% of all electronic sales.

—Traditional publishing wants the ability to wait years to getting around to publishing the book while money sits on the table.

And, oh, yeah, if a traditional publisher says in the contract they are going to pay you on signing and on publication, expect the check three months after both dates, if you are lucky. And don’t forget to take out the 15% for your agent that traditional publishers forced you to get before you could even submit to them.  And, oh, yeah, traditional publishing now wants world rights, meaning everything, and a percentage of all other sales from movies and gaming and audio. And, oh yeah, try to get a readable royalty statement that makes clear sense. I dare you.

So my question is now: Why should any smart writer give traditional publishing all that?

The answer: Not a clue. But my wager is that fewer and fewer smart writers going into the future will.

But traditional publishing will continue just fine, supplied by the writers who want to be taken care of. Writers who need the feeling “security.” Because, honestly, the “security argument” is the one that will convince more writers than any other.

Myth of Security

When traditional publishing was the only game in town, writers grew up dreaming that someday they would be published by a traditional publisher. There just was no other dream for writers other than the stigma of vanity press or having a university press take your book while you taught classes.

It has really only been two years, actually less than one year, since this new path for writers has really opened up. So the dreams of writers to be taken care of by a traditional publisher and an agent is still very, very real in most writer’s minds.

And honestly, the indie publishing path is not tested out yet. So there is no real evidence on the other side of the coin.

But for a moment, let me hack at the myth of security in traditional publishing.

Agent Security:

Most writers, as I discovered doing early chapters of Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing, think that “getting an agent” is a career advancement. Not sure why that is, to be honest, anymore than any business hiring an employee is a business advancement, but young writers over the last ten years have turned hiring an agent into a major thing.

And agents have led them to believe that, as if the agents were the gold standard for something. What that something might be, I have no clue. But to many writers, having an agent adds to their feeling of security.

The belief is that an agent can be trusted with all the writer’s money and will take care of the writer against all the bad stuff of publishing.

Sadly, with most “beliefs,” there is little hard facts from history to back up the belief. But agents sell that belief to writers as good as any backwoods revival preacher in a tent trying to make enough to get to the next town.

—Truth? An agent will drop you the instant you are not making them any money.

—Truth? Agents mostly work for publishers and protect their interests with the publisher over your interests, so when something is happening to you, your agent will usually side with the publisher.

—Truth? An agent will push you to sign contracts not in your best interest as a writer because not only do they then get paid, but they don’t really even know you or care about you. But they do know the editor who is a best friend and who they have lunch with once a week.

—Truth? You are only one of thirty to fifty clients and there is always someone else to take your place if you start asking them to do too much for their 15% of your money off into the future.

There is no security just because you “got” an agent. Sorry.

Publisher Security:

Getting an offer from a traditional publisher on a book is a very large deal, actually, both in writer dreams and in business terms. In writer terms it means a major publishing business thinks your writing and storytelling will sell copies. In business terms, it means you have found a distributor to get your work to readers. So those “dream realizations” by a publisher are important to writers.

But now, with the alternative path of indie publishing, the second part, the distribution part of that equation, is starting to become less and less important.

And in this new world, the writer must take less money, less control, for the sense that “somebody really likes me, they like me” that the offer from traditional publishing gets them.

Honestly, most beginning writers will take a traditionally published deal just for that reason alone. It also shows their family that their “little hobby” is for real.

All valid and important reasons, actually, but not good business reasons.

But there is no security in the deal.

There are a ton of ways a publisher can cancel the contract, and if the writer does something wrong, even the advance, which is a loan, will need to be repaid. I have seen first books on a two-book deal published completely dead, meaning it was printed and not even put into a publisher catalog. In other words, they did a hundred copies and called it done and cancelled the second book in the contract. (Don’t believe me. It has happened to me and it happened to my wife and most other long-term professionals I know. For example, I wrote eight short novels for one publisher, got paid, and the books never came out. They just cancelled it all and then shut down the imprint and went away.

Yeah, that’s security.

Say your book is expected to sell 50,000 copies but only sells 45,000.  And your next book sells only 40,000 copies. Now, understand, you have a book series that is selling to 40,000 readers, but the publisher will drop you like you are scum and the editor will stop taking your calls and then your agent will drop you. I’ve seen this happen at much higher levels as well. Expectations of a publisher are everything and you have no idea what those are and have no control over them.

In the last part of 1990s, the American distribution system basically imploded for the second time in history and mass market paperbacks sales took a 20% drop across the board. So what happened to the writers who, through no fault of their own, had books out or coming out at that point? They were let go. Or what happened to the writers with September releases in 2001 when no one was reading. Those writers were dropped for the most part.

Truth: Publishing is a bottom-line business. If your book does not sell to someone’s set expectations in a profit-and-loss statement done before you sold the book to them, you are out. Cold and simple.

No security. None. Sorry.

So a writer takes a traditional publishing deal feeling they have security, that they have made it. And guess what? Truth: Very, very few writers actually make it past those first two or three books. Sadly.

There is no real security in traditional publishing. Only false feelings of security.

Indie Publishing Security

I have a hunch this security belief in indie publishing is as much of a myth as the traditional publishing security. Sure, writers have control and we make more money per sale and we need less sales to make more money, but indie publishing is difficult at best and I highly doubt anyone would go into it for security, at least not at this point of the game.

Far, far too many unknown factors to still play out.

Indie Publishing means learning a new set of skills to combine with your writing and that is uncomfortable at best. It means taking the time away from the writing or it means hiring the right people in the right way.

And success in Indie Publishing is very, very difficult to measure. With traditional publishing, success is the contract and then the book coming out a year later. And, then, with luck, some decent sales.

With indie writers, success must often be measured in slow sales over years.

Writers are not normally people who like doing math, so the five sales a month on Kindle looks like failure to those types of writers. So they quit writing because traditional publishing seems too hard and no one buys their work when they put it up themselves, not realizing that five sales a month on Kindle really isn’t that bad. It is an indicator that around the world the book is selling even more per month and that given time, that sales level will build into a decent sales record.

But that long-term-thinking attitude is difficult at best to keep in focus. And certainly will not help anyone looking for security.

Getting a traditional publisher to put a stamp on you with a contract and book publication will give you a sense of security for at least a year or so. Until the hard truth slams into you. Or you learn how to be a long-term survivor and keep climbing back into the ring.


When the poor people who worked for Enron found themselves on the sidewalk, I found myself very happy I didn’t have a corporate job. Sure, I don’t mind not having some security in my life, but I felt bad, very bad for the people in large corporations who needed the belief that they had a job and it would last. And now this last recession has trained an entire generation that even working for big corporations and governments isn’t real security.

I don’t know what to tell those of you that feel you need security for one reason or another. It isn’t in publishing, that I know, but I also don’t know where it might be.

Indie Publishing, because you work for yourself, shows some promise of some low levels of security down the road, but it is far too early to tell. Traditional publishing, even though they claim to give security, can’t and won’t. Not the way the system is set up. But now, outside of publishing there is no real security either.

So my suggestion is very simple and what has worked for me and Kris and other professionals for a long time.

Find security in knowledge.

When you learn business and understand how publishing really works, there is a sense of security because you can handle anything tossed at you. And you often know it’s coming.

Kris and I seldom get surprised anymore by the business. Very seldom. We know how the business works, how the cash flow works, and other elements that make a seemingly insecure job very secure.

We marvel at how one day nothing seems to be working and a week later we can do no wrong. That’s always a marvel, but not a surprise. Why? Because that kind of change and cycle is just part of the business.

We know the business well enough to know the signs when a publishing company is about to go under.

We know the signs when one of our series is about to be dropped.

We can read business reports as well as the next person in publishing and we spend the time to follow it.

Knowing the business is a form of security. It doesn’t come quickly, but it can be learned easily.

I was surprised at the sudden explosion of indie publishing. I did not see it coming to be honest, but Kris did.  I was willfully ignorant of the changes and proud of my luddite status, up until two friends two years ago smacked me with a salted-in-the-shell peanut over a meal one night and got me paying attention.

And then I went out and as fast as I could got caught up. Because for me, the security comes in the knowledge.

So don’t think that just because you are an indie publisher and in control of your own covers that you have security. You don’t.

And don’t think that just because you sold a big book deal to a traditional publisher you have security. You don’t.

So maybe get the security from learning the business and enjoying the writing. For me, doing a job I love is the real reward.

And I love both the writing and the business of publishing in all its insanity.


Copyright ©  2011 Dean Wesley Smith


This is part of my writing income streams that help keep me secure. And, to be honest, it keeps me going on writing these chapters. And anyone who donates a little to the Magic Bakery tip jar, I will send a free electronic book of all these chapters combined when I am finished.

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter 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.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean

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