The New World of Publishing: No Balance

It should be clear to anyone following traditional publishing now that no traditional publisher will fail in 2012 when ebook sales hit the magic 25%. In fact, because of a number of factors, even with paper book sales declining, most traditional publishers are making more money every quarter. Not all, and there will be some major publishing failures coming up over the next five years. But most traditional publishers will just fly through this with profits.

The reason, of course, is that they are raking in high margins for every electronic book sold. And that, of course, is thanks to authors and their agents caving in and changing electronic royalties from the old 50% of cover to 25% of net.

So traditional publishing is not failing and indie publishing is here to stay for a number of decades at least. So authors now have a choice for each project.

But how does an author make a choice for any book or story? That’s the tough question.

With short fiction, I think the traditional magazines can play a huge roll for an indie writer. I talked about that in the article you can read called When to Mail Short Fiction to Traditional Publishers. So for each story, there is a real choice to make.

But novels are another matter.

When I looked at the choice for novels with hard numbers and facts, the weight always shifts to indie publishing. At least it shifts until you can get advances upwards of mid-six figures. Then a balance comes back to the table. But beneath that high level of advance, indie publishing wins every category.

That fact is going to make the new world of publishing very, very interesting for smart writers.

Another way of putting it is this: We are watching the midlist slowly shift to indie publishing.

It’s just starting, but it is happening.

Traditional vs Indie

So, over the last month I’ve been trying to write an article on balance between traditional and indie publishing.

The balance with short fiction is clear. Do both.

But with novels I can not find a balance.

See if you agree.

How about some hard numbers first?

(From here on, unless stated, I am talking about novels.)

The Numbers Only…

Traditional Publishing.

Electronic… after agent fees the author gets about 14-15% of the gross book price. (25% of 65-70% minus 15% of the balance.) In reality, for various reasons, royalty statements I have seen usually have the number closer to 10%. But for this I’ll stay with the 14% number.

Paper… author gets about 6-12% of cover price minus 15% for the agent. And depending on discount clauses which lower the amount an author gets by a great deal. (Discount clauses means that if a book sells at high discount to WalMart, you get less percentage or no percentage. Standard contract terms.)

Indie Publishing

Electronic…. No agent. Author gets an average of 65% across all sites of suggested retail price if the novel is priced correctly.

Paper…. No agent.  Author gets anywhere from 10% to 40% and up depending on sales channel and correct pricing structure.

So only looking at sheer numbers of profit per sale, indie publishing wins easily.

How About Sales Only?

Traditional Publishing.

For those of you who think that an advance from traditional publishing guarantees book sales, you are living in a myth I’m afraid. I got paid $15,000 for one book and it sold, at last royalty statement, 623 copies. And is now out of print, of course. On the flip side, I got paid a $25,000 advance on a novel and it has sold 1.32 million copies at last count. (Yeah, I’ve made some extra money on that one.)

But because a novel has sold to traditional publishing does not guarantee sales. That’s a myth. Period.

However, let’s look at some projected guesses that the traditional publisher’s sales departments make. They will tell you their guesses by the advance range they offer you for the book. Trust me, unless you get lucky like I did with one book out of over a hundred, you will not sell more than your advance indicates.

Very very round numbers: An advance of $10,000 means the publisher is planning on selling about 15,000 copies of your $7.99 mass market paperback and about 5,000 copies of your $6.99 electronic book. 20,000 copies approximately. (This number will vary widely depending on a hundred factors including genre, but go with me at the moment. You are getting 6% of cover in this calculation and 25% of net for electronic.)

I’m going to figure this over a ten-year period from the time you sold the book, not counting the time it took the book to sell.

If you signed a good contract, the book will come back to you at about that point. If you didn’t get good help on your contract, the publisher will keep your book for 35 years until you file to get it back under the 35-year reversion rule in copyright law. But for this exercise, let’s say 10 years. (A guy can dream can’t he?)

Summary. In ten years with traditional publishing, with a $10,000 advance, you will sell about 20,000 copies total (mostly in the first year or so after publication). That is again assuming your book is good and sells to expectations.

Indie Publishing

Same book. Assume a good cover, good blurbs, and a $6.99 cover price for electronic and $17.99 trade cover price. To sell 20,000 copies over ten years, you are going to have to sell 2,000 copies per year total across both states. Around the world. About 170 books per month.

(Honestly, for most indie publishers right now focused on Kindle Select and giving their book away for 99 cents, this number would be far, far too high. But for the smart indie publishers who price their books correctly and let things grow and just keep writing, 170 sales per month average over ten years is pretty small. Not at first, of course, when the writer only has a few titles, but over time as the writer keeps writing and putting out more, the early book will just keep selling.)

Also remember, your book will be in print for ten years under the indie side. If you sell it traditional, it will be out of print except for the electronic readers, after a year or so. So your book might catch fire and start selling like crazy in year six for the indie side, while for traditional, most books will be basically out of print and lost at year six.

How About The Money?

Traditional Publishing.

In the above example, in traditional publishing you will make the $10,000 minus agent costs. ($8,500 paid out in three chunks over two years or so.)

Indie Publishing.

Taking that same example above, the indie publisher will make about an average of $720 per month. (170 copies x $6.99 cover x 65%.)  Over the ten years the indie writer, selling the same 20,000 copies will make $86,000.

So, if you sell 20,000 copies traditional, you make $8,500.  If you sell 20,000 copies indie over the same ten years, you make $86,000.00

Ten times the amount!!!

In fact, by selling only 2,000 copies over ten years, (or about 17 copies across all sites and in paper per month), you will make about $75 per month or $9,000, which is more than you would have made traditionally.

Now Let’s Talk Ownership and Responsibility

Traditional Publishing

With traditional publishing, you must sign a contract licensing rights to your work to a publisher. If you have been following the blog and my wife’s blog,, then you know that contracts from publishers have gone purely evil.

And that’s to be expected. In the last two years, everything has been up in the air in publishing, so publishers, afraid of everything, made a grab for every right to every book they could get. And they made reversion clauses impossible to get out of and deal-breakers. Even some agents made rights grabs for author’s work in either offering to publish their books or in their agency clauses.

In other words, you sell a book now to a traditional publisher at a lower midlist level (under $100,000.00 advance) and you will have no chance of ever seeing the rights to your book back again for thirty-five years. And the publisher can decide to publish your work dead, or in a bad format, or with a bad cover, or with no proofing, and there is NOTHING you can do about it. Even lawsuits won’t get you out of a legal contract you signed.

My advice to writers over the last year or so has been to not sign any new traditional publishing contracts until all this dust settles. And honestly, from the contracts I am seeing, the dust is getting thicker and the rights grabs are getting worse, not better.

And if you think your agent can help you, or even negotiate one of these new forms of contracts, you are just flat dreaming. Even if you have an agent, hire an IP lawyer to help with the contract, and to tell you in real language what you are signing and what it really means. Agents can’t or won’t do that. They will often just tell you it’s industry standard and can’t be changed.

Well, screw industry standard. “Industry standard” should no longer mean that a writer must bend over and think of the Queen. (Yeah, I know, I mixed that, but you get the idea.)

Indie Publishing

Writers sell or license no rights. We are the publishers. We give no one a percentage of our money except for a distributor selling our books or a bookstore selling our books.

We don’t have to wait two years for a book to come out and then slow down to match a publishing schedule.

We don’t have to suffer through bad covers on our books. We can change them at any time. And we can hire good proofreaders who won’t screw up our books with a bad “house style.”

We don’t have books published dead.

We don’t have books go out of print unless we want them to.

And so on and so on…

In other words, in indie publishing, the writer does not give over control of his work to anyone.


With short fiction, I can see a real balance between traditional publishing and indie publishing. Both sides can go hand-in-hand and both sides help the writer’s work in different ways. Pay is good in traditional short fiction, contracts are good and give rights back quickly, often in less than a year.

With novels, until these rights-grab contracts stop and publishers start allowing authors to get their books back in five or seven or ten years, I can see no reason why any new writer or former mid-list writer should sign a traditional book contract.


I think writers, all fiction writers, need to start a new saying about traditional book publishing.

“We don’t need them. They need us.”

That said and with that attitude, here are my suggestions for what needs to be in a contract with a traditional publisher. (All general, no legal language. And no increased money over what a sales force thinks a book will sell.)

1) Contract must end at a certain date between five and ten years after publication. (Publication must be within one year of the signing of the contract.)  No “speed limit” thinking. Just a final date that the publisher either reverts all rights or makes an offer to buy the book again.

2) No contractual obligations to not write something. In other words, no do-not-compete clauses. Period. And no clauses that allow the publisher to be the only person to see the next work in the series. Make them prove to you that you want to keep working with them before you give them your next book. Remember, with indie publishing, you no longer need them. They need you.

3) Strict performance guidelines on the publisher side.  That means if they say a book will be available for sale on August 1st, it had better be available. Right now in most contracts, all the performance deadlines and repercussions are on the writer. That needs to be balanced.

4) All money and paperwork must be sent to the writer first. Period. No agency clauses in any contract. If a writer hires an employee such as an agent or lawyer, it is up to the writer to pay them. That is between the writer and agent or attorney. A third-party agreement does not belong in a publishing contract between a writer and a publisher.

I know, I know, all just basic business stuff. Basic to anyone not inside of publishing, but horrid to any publisher or agent or traditionally-published writer reading this. But my goal with this blog has always been to bring some basic business sense to writers.

Publishing is a business, after all.

My Statement About My Writing

After the last two years, after watching indie publishing grow, watching and helping WMG Publishing grow, I can’t imagine ever signing another traditional contract with the above terms in favor of the publisher. And right now no publisher would cave in on any of those terms. (Notice once again, I’m not asking for more money in any of those clauses. Just respect.)

I am not saying I will never publish another book with a traditional publisher. If the right offer comes along, with the right terms, or the right project in WFH with the right amount of money for my time, I might do another.

But right now, the math, the income, and the ugly traditional publishing book contracts makes me turn away after three decades.

But at the same time my writing is increasing speed. You will start seeing my original novels this spring and summer, including a new thriller, some Poker Boy novels, some young adult books, and even a new fantasy in the tradition of City Knights. Plus Dee W. Schofield has a novel done called Dust and Kisses and another half done called My Subway Martian Lover.

And I have some backlist novels that will get back into print as well. Finally.

And, of course, more challenge stories here.

All will be coming out from WMG Publishing, a company with good contracts and built by writers for writers.

So I am now no longer a balanced voice I’m afraid. I’ll sell short fiction to traditional publishing, but unless something very unusual happens, I’m an indie novel writer.

Honestly, I haven’t felt this free and happy about writing since the early 1980s.

And, as I have come to discover, I missed that feeling.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  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.

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56 Responses to The New World of Publishing: No Balance

  1. Vera Soroka says:

    You and your wife always seem to make me feel better about the decision of self publishing and that I’m not making a mistake by not going to agents and try and sell my stuff to the bigger publishing houses. I feel confindent in trying this myself. Thanks.

  2. Well this should be fun.

    I’ve been wondering how you were going to tackle this subject ever since you talked about it during the Workshop.

    And now, to sit back and enjoy to apoplexy. :)

    (runs off to make some popcorn)

  3. Jeff Ambrose says:

    So you finally finished this post! “No Balance” — I love it.

    Question: What’s the rationale for writers agreeing to take only 25% of net instead of 50% of cover? Even to someone not particuarly business inclined — like me! — it is pretty obvious that this is a raw deal.

    What did the publishers say/promise that would convince writers to sign this kind of contract?

    Or is this just another case of “writers are the stupidist people in the world”?

    • dwsmith says:

      Jeff, this is a case very similar to what happened with the agency pricing. Across the board publishers just changed, all at once. And NO ONE, no agent, no writer’s organization, no one fought them. They even sent out letters to writers saying this was their new terms and would they sign the additional to their old contract changing their terms. And writers signed.

      Kris and I shouted and shouted about this and, of course, never signed, and we even got rid of one agent when this came though because the agent forwarded the change of an old contract (where we had 50% of cover) with a suggestion we sign because “everyone else was doing it.” And “it is now standard practice.”

      It seems the vast majority of writers just felt it was more important to have their books in print with a traditional publisher than not sign something so stupid.

      Within one year it had moved from 50% of cover (which had been in contracts for over a decade) to 25% of net. In all publisher contracts. The DOJ should investigate that. But the handout from writers saved publishers. It’s something that a number of writers predicting the fall of traditional publishing did not notice or foresee.

      By the way, do the math on that. A $6.99 electronic book. 50% of cover is $3.50 to the author. Publisher would make about $1.00 on the sale. That’s about right. But with 25% of net going to the author, the author makes about $1.15 and the publisher makes about $3.40. Yeah, that was smart by the writers.

  4. I agree totally on the short stories. Submit them around, a sale is a quick hit of revenue, and the rights revert pretty quickly. Even giving a story away, for someone at my level of the game, builds an audience, ‘cred,’ and gives something to link to from a personal website. Simply put, ‘I’ve been published by some other rational adult and it’s not just an ego trip.’
    With novels, the turn-around time for a rejection just kills. Some make the simultaneous submissions all over the place to save time, and maybe it does. I’ve never been comfortable with it. But the point, which goes back to your post on pen names, is to submit your very best to the major publishers, and self-publish something if you think it will be difficult to place even at the best of times. If I dream of being known as an SF author, by all means I should submit SF, but writing and self-pubbing a mystery is an entirely separate activity. If a major publisher wants my book, I’m more than happy to change my pen name.
    Part of the problem is that my mind boggles at six-figure advances. It is inconceivable, and so therefore I hardly consider it a possibility these days.

    • dwsmith says:

      Louis, not even sure how to answer that. All I can say is that there seems to be some myths in there and a six-figure advance is low in this business. And simultaneous submissions are normal and fine WITH NOVELS but should never be done with short fiction.

  5. B.J. says:

    ‘traditional magazines can play a huge roll’

    Shouldn’t that be role?

    Besides that, this is a great article and well-timed too. Thank you!

  6. Joshua Kehe says:

    Thanks, Dean. I’ve been looking forward to hearing your thoughts on novel-length work. Kind of suspected this is what you’d say, but your clear reasoning (and use of maths) always makes your business posts worth reading. :)

    I guess one thing I’m still curious about is Kris’s concept of a “loss-leader” book — continuing to publish the occasional book in the traditional market as a means of publicizing your other, more profitable work. This is, of course, assuming that you write more than one or two books a year and can afford to sacrifice the income as advertising.

    Do you see this as still being a viable idea, or will the sales a writer makes to short fiction markets serve the same purpose just as well?

    • dwsmith says:

      Joshua, yes, I see the loss-leader working great in SHORT FICTION. Because of the shift in novel contracts over the last year or two, I can’t see doing a loss-leader into traditional NOVEL publishers anymore. A number of reasons. I write fast, but not that fast. Second, I can’t stomach giving my book to someone forever. Just not going to happen anymore unless I am hired to do a work-for-hire media project. (I doubt I will do any more of those, either, but alas, if I had been offered the book on the Avengers Movie, I would have taken it. (grin))

      Third, the time lag. Even if you sold a loss-leader novel now, it’s not going to appear for up to two years. Not much help. But short fiction is short in time to produce, good in return, quick publication, good contracts, and reaches a focused audience that likes what you are writing in general. Fantastic on the short fiction side. Not so much on the novels.

      So yes, I have changed on that. Kris, on the other hand, has given me permission to say that she has been trying to negotiate better contracts and publishers are digging in on stuff they never used to even think about. It has gotten far, far worse out there, folks, on the contracts side. So she is rethinking this on novels as well.

      Traditional novel publishers are just flat driving away any writer with a lick of business sense.

  7. R. E. Hunter says:

    Personally I would never sign a contract with anything other than reversion as soon as the book goes out of print. Why should they get to hold the rights and sit on them? Why do they even want to (reduced competition)? They either exploit them or return them.

    • dwsmith says:

      R.E., well, that makes good business sense, but alas in publishing business sense seems to be in short supply, both from the publisher’s side and the writer’s side. Most contracts these days will allow them to keep an electronic version of your book up to hold the rights, even though it has a bad scanned cover on it and they just scanned the interior of your paperback. A book like that can sit there, under your name for years, hurting your career because readers find it and think all your books will be that poorly done. Kris has one book like that in which Pocket Books just won’t release it, jammed it back into print with a scanned version of the mass market paperback into a $27.00 trade edition that is impossible to read, then used the same scans to do an eBook for a stupid price. All just so they don’t have to release the book under the old contract. I am not kidding. Why? Not a clue? Can we sue? Sure, but the contract is valid. There is nothing in any publishing contract holding the publisher to quality of product and design. There should be.

  8. Vera Soroka says:

    You and your wife make me feel better with my decision to self publish and not feel like I have to submit to an agent to get into one of those big publishing houses to feel like I’m a writer.
    I also don’t have the desire to hand over my writing career to someone to do as they may with.

  9. Steve Lewis says:

    Gonna admit, Dean, this post blew me away a just a little bit. I’ve come to similar conclusions myself and even told a few writer friends about them and have been told that I’m dreaming. And I was even as high on the money. I all the contract guidelines listed above except number three (didn’t think of that one), but on the money I said wouldn’t look at anything less than 50,000.

    I got told I was dreaming, arrogant, etc.

    Oh, well. Even if I am, so what? They’re my books. I’ll sell them at the price I want. (grin)

    But I’m glad to see that someone with as much experience and business savvy as yourself agrees with me.

    Also, glad to hear about the new novels coming out. I’ve been looking forward to a Poker Boy novel for years. Two quick questions: 1) Is the thriller novel The Poker Thriller? 2) Is the fantasy novel an actual City Knights novel or just in the same style? I loved All Eve’s Hallows and would love to see a sequel.

    Anyway, great article. Now, it’s back to the mines.

  10. Dean, thank you once again for stating things so clearly. I’m swayed by evidence arguments, not emotion, and you lay out the differences and say “you choose.”
    This is why I went with a startup publisher (for my mysteries, while putting out my story collections myself), because I could do things my way- with title, cover, release, price, and content control. I much prefer this to letting someone else have all the say.
    Had I continued the old way, I’d still be awaiting my first release. Instead, the last ten months have been a whirl- my second mystery is out from the publisher, with my third on the way, and I’ve been able to get 5 print story collections out as well (yes, backlist is wonderful!) I’m doing signings, TV, radio, personal appearances, and am connecting with a number of other writers. It’s been a wild ride, all because the publishing world changed, and we no longer have to settle for scraps from the NY traditional world. Viva La Revolution!

  11. You and Kris have provided a huge amount of sane, solid advice that’s helped me make many decisions and keep my business and writing head on straight as I headed down the Indie path.

    A few that stand out are ‘believe in yourself’ (Kris), ‘promoting by writing fiction’ (Kris & Dean), Author vs Writer (Dean), Magic Bakery (of course!), ‘books as produce’ (I think you’ve both blogged about that), pricing structure (Dean — still working on getting those to the right spot, due to iTunes publishing/pricing hiccups), and so much more.

    Early last year when I was wavering in my decision to go Indie, you affirmed that choice over and over as I read your posts about agents, etc.

    I really wish you both posted every day so you could continue to help smooth out the inevitable roller coaster aspects of the fiction writing life. 😉

    I hate to gush, but can’t help it. Thank you!

  12. Dean, I’m thrilled you’re having such a good time with this. I am too. =) Buckets of new work coming out this year. Last year I dipped a toe in and published a novel and a couple of shorts – this year, I’ve got multiple novels, more shorts, and a serial coming out.

    REALLY fun times. =) I got out of writing in the late 90s after my first experience with a trade publisher, because, frankly, it just wasn’t all that much fun. I still wrote, but not for publication. Wasn’t until I ran into your blog and Konrath’s blog back in October 2010 that things started opening back up for me.

    So thank you.

  13. camille says:

    My only problem with indie publishing is that the wonderful, exciting, fabulous freedom has shifted me into paralysis. I’m still in that popcorn kittens stage, but it’s sleepy cranky popcorn kittens.

    I absolutely would not trade it, though.

  14. This new world of publishing you describe is entirely inviting. I’m in!

    Thanks for your clear analysis. As a noob, I still get easily muddled by fast-talking snake-oil sorts, so I appreciate your intelligent and sane explanations.

    And, since I’m currently in the 3-titles-only stage, I love hearing about the good news of the 10-plus and 20-plus stages.

  15. Dean, you’re really making me think about indie publishing some of my short stories.

    I always trad pub them first, but because I don’t have enough time/energy to write, indie pub & market everything, they’re just languishing on my computer, which is the worst of all worlds–not submitted to editors and not out there for readers to buy. OTOH, short stories hardly sell for me, so I wasn’t motivated. But if I bundled them/priced them higher, the motivation increases.

    And now you’re comparing trad pub and indie pubbing novels. Thanks, as always, for the food for thought.

  16. Nice to see you go all in for indie Dean! I have to admit, it’s no surprise, but even so, I think a lot of us out there will appreciate your sound voice now firmly grounded in indie publishing! :-)

    Keep writing!

  17. Dean,

    I’m very interested to see how your Young Adult e-book titles do. So far, I have noticed my e-book sales for my YA book lag way behind the sales of my non-fiction and fiction adult books, even though I have put much more time and money into marketing the YA book.

    I’m hoping to see this change, since I have several other YA books that I could e-publish but am holding off to see how things pan out.

    Any insight on YA e-books? Things you might have heard from other authors?

    • dwsmith says:

      Lois, young adult is lagging behind because far fewer devices are being bought by young adults than adults. And those that have pads and such don’t read fiction, but spend their time on games and other things. Normal at the moment, but the trends are changing and young adult titles are growing. Just going to take time.

  18. Steve Lewis says:

    ‘Nother quick question for ya, Dean:

    With regards to a mid-six figure advance being low, are you talking about a multi-book deal or per book? If you’re talking per book, I hadn’t realized that was low. Most of the mid-listers I know, which obviously is nowhere near as many as you do, get between fifteen and fifty thousand per book. Now admittedly most of the people are know are going to be new to the field, so that could be a factor as well. Could you maybe go into a little more detail here and educate this rookie? (grin)

    • dwsmith says:

      Steve, advances depend highly on genre, of course. And a midlist writer is a writer who is not a “lead title” on a publisher’s monthly list. Midlist means your book is down the list in the second or third spot for the month. Thus your advance is lower, your sales expectations are lower, your advertising budget is zero, and so on. Bottom of the lists are usually either media or series or first novels.

      When I say the “midlist is moving to indie publishing” I mean that publishers are going to need to shorten their lists because the old “grow a writer” is pretty much dead. We used to start in the lower spots on lists, then grow up to a lead title and then on to bestseller lists. Now publishers don’t have the time for that and will cut an author with lower sales after a book or two. It’s cheaper to pay the advance to an author and not publish the book than publish the book. Of course, even that, it will take an author years to get their rights back. Not kidding.

      Publishers are going to need to have smaller staff, thus fewer titles per month, thus they have to focus on “bestsellers” only, meaning that if the sales force can’t see a profit at a higher number, no point in buying the book.

      So perfectly fine books that would have been published ten years ago are now getting tossed out by the sales force and are moving to indie publishing. Eventually, as lists of traditional publisher’s shrink due to cutbacks and just a flat lack of books at the higher levels a sales force is demanding, the midlist will be found in the indie published books, and the publishers will be watching there to mine the books that are getting a proven audience. We are already seeing that happen almost every month from authors who are talking about it. Many others are not talking. This is a major trend and will only grow.

      So, in other words, in the future, (and some now) one of the best ways to get into traditional publishing is be an indie writer first and prove your books sell. Of course, at that point, if your books are selling well, and they want you, have come to you, it will be possible to get the “respect contract terms” I talked about in this post. One writer friend of mine already did just that.

  19. Judy Goodwin says:

    I’ve lately been reading both Kris’s and your series on epublishing, and I have to say I feel revitalized, after a 2 year hiatus from writing due to school. I’m digging up old published short stories and stories that never sold, and repackaging them for epublishing. And I just created my first Photoshop cover!

    This definitely makes me think, because while I have one novel that has been rejected a few times that I’ll definitely be epublishing, I have another that is only a few chapters away from being complete. I had originally planned on selling that one in the traditional way because it’s what the publshing houses typically want–the first of a series. (Currently likely to be four or five books). Now with what you’re saying, I’m wondering whether to even bother with mailing it out. I may actually decide to put my minor in Illustration back to work and paint a cover to epublish it.

    I’ll be continuing to watch the business!

  20. Dario says:

    Dean, thanks for the excellent post. It’s a very timely one for me, as I have a fairly mainstream novel nearing completion and have started thinking on these very issues. Specifically, I’ve been wondering what the advance threshold would be to persuade me to put up with the BS of traditional publishing v publishing through my own imprint (Panverse).

    The one thing IMO that a traditional publisher can still offer is marketing and reviews–but since 99% of non-celeb authors are left to sink or swim on their own with no marketing support whatever, is there really any value there? In my limited experience the single hardest thing for an indie author to do (outside SF) is to get reviewed by mainstream publications. My own nonfiction book, which has for a few months been enjoying strong sales on Kindle, I still can’t reviewed anywhere, because the assumption among mainstream reviewers is still that if it’s self-published, it’s going to be garbage. I agree entirely with your (and Kris’s) point that for indie authors it’s about building a brand through multiple titles, but not being able to get reviewed is still a handicap.

    So as to the threshold at which you accept a traditional publishing deal rather than go indie, I guess a lot depends on how hungry the author is, and how pressing their debts, as well as their ability to self-promote. I think right now I’d probably crack at around $250k 😉

    • dwsmith says:

      Dario, if you are acting like a publisher with your book, meaning having a clear publishing company name and treating that name as a business, you can get books reviewed. With Anniversary Day, Kris’s new Retrieval Artist book that came out in December, we did “advanced readers copies” with the promotional material on the back and everything, and sent it out to major review sites and it got reviewed just fine. Why? Because the book came from WMG Publishing, which granted, is growing at light speed. It was never Kris sending out the book. It was the publishing company.

      So indie publishers can get reviews just fine. You just have to act like a publisher instead of a writer.

  21. Dario says:

    Dean, thanks for the clarification. I did send out ARCs, and Panverse has other titles (anthos) in print, but I should probably not have my own name on the accompanying letter LOL. Perhaps that was my mistake.

  22. R.T. says:

    Dean –

    I’ve been a lurker at your blog for a while now (Michael Stackpole turned me onto it) and have learned quite a bit by reading your posts and value your advice. While I agree 100% that an indie route trumps trad-pub (short of giant advances), it almost seems to only do so for authors with a name and a readership.

    Which leads me to this…

    New writers. Where do we fit in?

    I went the indie route with my first novel (Progeny) in December of 2010. I was–and still am mostly–a nobody. Nevertheless, against the odds, I’ve sold a couple thousand copies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy about that, and nothing beats getting 70% of my sales.

    However…while the shift in publishing makes going indie very attractive, the problem I face is it is the peripherals around publishing that are still an impediment. The things around just getting a good book out there still favor traditional publishing industry. Just one example: access to industry review magazines. A new writer (if they go indie) getting a shot at PW? Hah! Granted, there’s a lot of gunk floating around out there, so the vetting process required via trad-pub is the only way magazines can ensure quality.

    But getting noticed, making a name for oneself as a NEW indie is the rare hit and mostly misses. All the great reviews in the world do nothing if nobody sees them. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting reviews at people’s blogs, those might reach a couple hundred people optimistically.

    I almost feel like for an author to make it via indie, they almost have to go trad-pub FIRST to get the name out there. Now, I know enough now that I don’t expect a publisher to wave a magic wand and market the hell out of my book. That’s still my job. But the fact of the matter is, one week of my book being on shelves (while there still are shelves) or getting on some list somewhere to which the big six have access will drive more sales than the past 16 months of what I’ve been doing.

    So…what’s your take? Am I wrong (which is entirely possible as I am still a neophyte)? How do you see this applying to new authors?

    • dwsmith says:

      R.T, what Dan said. 2,000 copies is a hell of a lot more than I have done with any book indie publishing. Wow, that’s a stunning first year or so. Stunning.

      As I said on another answer, new writer or old writer means nothing much in this new world. It’s the quality of the story that matters (with help from a professional cover and great blurbs.)

      And I have no idea what you even mean when you say that “getting a book out there” favors traditional publishing. That is such a huge myth it’s scary, and that myth is building because that’s one of the “talking points” of traditional publishers. Trust me, a few of our last books I would have much rather done it with WMG Publishing because, to be honest, our publishers sucked. Fans from all over the world were asking when a next book, that was already out, would get to their place. As indie, I would have had the book there within days. My traditional publisher couldn’t manage it period for some reason or another. And one book never even made it to B&N for some reason or another and I would have had to Nook owners the second day.

      And reviews? You can do that yourself, as I said in one answer and Dan said. It has to come from your publishing name. But beyond that, it also takes time to get reviews up and running.

      And honestly, let me be blunt here to everyone who thinks reviews are critical. They are not, and make no difference in the slightest. In fact, the longer you are in this business, the more you just ignore reviews. And never read them. And I tend to know when a book of mine is doing well when I get critics hating it. Grisham said the same thing one night on Charlie Rose.

      Why would any professional writer care what a failed writer…I mean reviewer… thinks of a book?

      So the reasons so far I’ve been given to counter my math is simply these points:
      1) You can get books out better with traditional publishing…that’s a myth.
      2) You can get reviews with traditional publishing only…that’s a myth…and who cares?
      3) New writers need to be taken care of by traditional publishers to get their names out… I assume “taken care of means being screwed…if that’s the case…traditional publishers will take care of new writers with really nasty contracts and them drop them at the first sign of trouble.

      Sigh… I think it’s time for me to do another “time post” since new writers are again thinking they need to be rich and selling thousands after a couple of books. Sure is insulting to those of us who took ten to fifteen years to grow our writing skills and talent. (I sold my first short story in 1975. I got serious about writing in 1982 and started writing a story per week and mailing them. I sold my first novel in 1987. I sold my second novel in 1992. I have since sold over a hundred novels to traditional publishers (not one yet indie published). And it feels to me like it’s 1982 again and I’m starting fresh. And that feels wonderful.

      New writers in this new world are damned lucky. They don’t have the baggage the rest of us carry around. (Of course, they don’t have the writing chops either, but over a decade or so that can be learned to a journeyman degree.)

  23. “So I am now no longer a balanced voice I’m afraid. I’ll sell short fiction to traditional publishing, but unless something very unusual happens, I’m an indie novel writer.”

    Congratulations, Dean! That’s awesome.

  24. RT —

    I know that wasn’t addressed to me but FWIW…

    2 thousand copies in just over a year is *very* nice, particularly for a first timer. Keep putting the books out, build that audience, you’re right on the road to a living wage. You’re already way over the average of traditional pub sell-through for a first novel.

    As to the laydown and review processes…

    Send the book out, as Dean noted above, as from your publishing company, rather than from you the author. For the sake of credibility, it might be better to wait till you have a dozen books out through your press before you start hitting them, but that’s my guess (and I could be very wrong about it). For getting into bookstores, start putting your paperback line together.

    In terms of building an audience, there’s any number of things you can do — top of that list is “write the next book.” The next, in terms of how little time it takes, is sending out eARCS of your next book to review blogs in your genre. Another is finding ways to cross-fertilize with other authors who have audiences that are similar to yours. In any case, weigh the time investment against time you could spend writing. ALL marketing activities that don’t generate new product are sunk costs (your time is worth money, and the more sales you make the more money your writing time is worth), and it’s easy to get swept up in trying to “build your brand” and get popular when you’d be better served getting new stories down on paper (or pixels).

    For what it’s worth, and huge congrats on a killer first year!

  25. Desmond van Heerden says:

    Hi Dean,

    I was just over at Kris’ blog, when an idea struck me. I’ve been readings your posts here regarding indie publishing for a bit now, and it always seems a bit off to me that in all comparisons its always been advance + traditional royalties vs no advance + indie royalties. But what if you could have an advance in indie publishing?

    Kickstarter has been making rounds in the news recently with the INSANE amounts of money they’ve been making for start-ups and indie video game developers. Could this model not work perhaps as well for writers? True, not every writer is well known, but the internet can cast a net to all those who do know you.

    If you’re just starting out as a writer, I’m kinda guessing you’d anyway struggle to get an advance – but a mid-list writer with a recent back catalog would certainly find SOME support for writing a new novel in an existing series, or in a specific genre. If traditional publishers anyway just pay about a $5000 to $15000 advance… Would say a thousand fans not kickstart a new novel by giving $5 to $15 each?

    Anyway, just my two cents. You keep writing, I’ll keep reading.

  26. R.T. says:

    Dan and Dean –

    I don’t want it to sound like I’m ungrateful. I’m not. I might not have known what was to be expected when I started this journey, but now I realize what I have done so far is something of which I should be proud.

    The one thing you have both said is something I have NOT been doing—which is contacting places as publisher vs. author. Granted, I have only the one novel and a few bundled short stories out under the name, but I will try doing that.

    Regarding reviews. Perhaps you are right in the sense of traditional ones.

    But do you think that extends to reader reviews, as well? Personally, I do not. I recently did a blog post where I asked my readers how it was they were finding me. From the few comments there and the additional emails I received, the common theme was ‘I found you on Amazon, and after reading the reviews there, I gave it a shot.’ So—at least for me—reader reviews seem rather important.

    Dan—your advice to keep writing is dead on. I’ve put out a few bundles of short stories as well, and am currently editing book two in the series. And I juuuuust might have written the first few chapters of the third. Couldn’t resist. Had to be done.

    And Dean, not for one moment do I want you to think I do not respect your years of experience and effort. By no means did I want it to sound as if I was insulting your years of hard work.

    I know this is a wonderful time for new writers. The barriers to entry are low and the opportunity is there. Yet there is a still an institutional pushback against indies that I must deal with on a constant basis.

    Case in point: I write epic fantasy—at least so far that is all I have written. Last year, I lucked into getting involved with an author track at a convention thanks to a very helpful author willing to give me a shot. For me, such an event is golden, one of the best ways to get in front of readers. I sat on panels, sold a bunch of hardcopies there, and saw my kindle sales spike in the two weeks after. The experience opened my eyes. The same author got me into another convention later that summer when someone dropped out. More positives.

    This year, I made a conscious effort to reach out to conventions that had some sort of author program. The responses I received, if I received any, were akin to ‘we only want real authors.’ In one response, that phrase was actually used.

    I don’t want it to sound like I’m b***ing, but that sort of dismissiveness is hard to handle. Perhaps that just comes with the territory and is something against which I need to fight. Still stinks.

    • dwsmith says:

      R.T., a major book dealer, on the first day I met him, after having a story in a major anthology edited by Damon Knight, flat insulted me when I asked if he wanted me to sign a copy of my story. He said, “Why would I want some neo-pro defacing one of my books?” I told him to perform an impossible sex act on himself and stormed off, my little neo-pro feelings hurt. He became one of my best friends and he called me a neo-pro until I had published my tenth novel. And he was right.

      If you can’t handle an insult or two early on and it bothers you, run. They are only starting, and trust me, you ain’t lived until a bunch of professional editors and writers do an entire nasty spoof of your work in a magazine they published. Hurt doesn’t begin to describe it. And reviews are going to be nasty. And great. And then nasty. Ignore them all.

      Walk your own path. Write your own fiction. And with only one novel and a few short stories written, you are in the place I was BEFORE I SOLD ANYTHING. I still had over a decade to go before I got my first novel published. You are a neo-pro. Enjoy the good, ignore the rest, and get back to writing more. The more time you spend at conventions, the less time you have to write. And the farther behind you will get from where you could be.

      As Ben Hogan once said. “Every day I don’t practice is another day it will take me to become good.”

  27. MJ Kane says:

    Wow, this was an eye opener for me, a writer new to the game. I’ve just reached the querying stage and have been toying with the idea of going indie and not self publishing. I would like to have the ability to say that someone thought my writing was good enough to offer a contract without diving in to do it myself. Much respect to those who have self pubbed, because it isn’t easy. I’m not saying I never will, but I owe it to myself to play the game and see what happens. That said, knowing that there is a major difference between traditional and indie…indie’s gonna win hands down. Thanks for taking the time to research, write, and share this information, Dean!

  28. camille says:

    I think R.T. and others are also missing the glacial pace and difficult entry of traditional publishing.

    Odds are that first book won’t even be accepted at all, and making the rounds of the publishers will take a very long time, and then production will take a very long time, and then (blink!) it’s over.

    Traditional publishing is NOT a short cut. You don’t get anywhere any faster. It’s SLOWER.

    The problem is just that newbies have an unrealistic idea of all aspects of the business. The only part they get is the part where someone hands them a check — they don’t realize that it can be many years of no check before that check happens, and then it’s small and not worth what is given in exchange.

    For the beginner, the magazine market gives the value R. T. is looking for, not the book publishing industry.

    Here’s some investment perspective:

    Ten percent is an excellent return on stock market investment. For less risky returns, T-bills are giving Three percent return.

    So a $10,000 investment will earn you $300 – $1000 a year. That’s it. That’s a top return on investment. If you’re earning $1000 a year, you’re doing great.

  29. joemontana says:


    First – congratulations on your sales – 2k is amazing!

    One thing Dean didn’t mention (though he has mentioned it about a billion times in other posts) is speed.

    I don;t know you so please forgive my assumption here, but it sounds like you have 1 book out since 2010 and you are waiting for to make you rich or famous or whatever.

    IF you can sell 2k books a year and you are ‘nobody’ – write 2 or 3 or 4 books per year and price them right.

    If you sold 2k books per year * 4 books – that’s 8k books. If they are 4.99 each that’s 3.50 per book to you. 28k a year is nothing to sneeze at. Are you rich yet? NO, but one more year and 3 more books is 18k more for 46k that second year. 2 more book the next year us 64k etc etc etc.

    It’s a slow build.

    Check out some of Dean’s Sacred Cows posts about speed and making a living and think like a publisher posts about production. With 2k readers out there as an ‘unknown’ to start building on, you are in FANTASTIC position to grow a good career.

  30. Teri K. says:

    Hi, Dean.  You managed to surprise me, and I’m a regular reader who has probably read every one of your blogs.

    Seems to me like there are still a few exceptions. You mentioned YA (the teen market, usually age 12 and up — 14 and up for the older YA books) There is also the younger markets: Middle grade, chapter books, and picture books.

    Writers are self-publishing children’s books, certainly, but from what I can see, traditional children’s publishing hasn’t been effected . . yet.

    I’m not sure when the parts of children’s publishing geared toward librarians and teachers and parents will feel the current revolution.  Perhaps when ereaders are inexpensive enough to give to small children and schools start using electronic text books (which makes a lot of sense because schools won’t have to pay a fortune for new additions)? Even then, librarians have always played a gatekeeper role — for certain kinds of children’s books, I think library reviews and awards will continue to matter, which requires traditional publishing.

    • dwsmith says:

      Teri, if you say so. I honestly don’t follow the middle-grade and early-reader aspects of publishing. They are lagging behind, zero doubt about that. But I know little if nothing about those two areas other than what a few of my writer-friends have told me. I do know a couple of the writers who have been through classes here who are publishing middle-grade themselves and making a living. So it just didn’t occur to me to make an exception. But again, I don’t even know enough on those two areas to make an exception. Just as I don’t know enough about certain areas of nonfiction and technical writing. I am an adult fiction writer and a young adult fiction writer. That’s where I am coming from.

      But if you feel you can sign a contract giving away all your rights for at least 35 years for no real consideration (read my wife’s blog today) on a middle-grade or early reader book, then that is your decision. I haven’t heard that the traditional contracts are any better in those areas. Just saying.

  31. Thomas E says:

    RT, I am in quite a similar position to you. While I did write and even submit fiction before April last year I only really got serious one year ago. In that year I finished 3 novels, 50 short stories, 1 screenplay, and have started 2 more novels. The sum result of that effort was 2 short fiction sales.

    I feel like I don’t even qualify as a neopro yet. My plan is to put the work in, submit or indie publish my work, and simply treat every thing I write as practice.

    When I started I did not expect to sell anything, or make any money, for five years. I’m a year down and the practice I’ve done has allowed me to begin to see the things I can work on in my writing.

    It’s not an insult to be called neopro. It is actually an achievement. Very many people who seek to become writers do not make it that far. For years I knew how to get to neopro but didn’t because of the huge amount of work involved.

  32. Desmond:

    I’ve contributed to two Kickstarter funds for writers already. In one case, the writer will use the money so she doesn’t have to teach a summer term and will write the book then. For the other, the Kickstarter campaign was for professional cover art. In both cases, the writers had a track record of publishing quality work, and they offered ‘benefits’ that I found attractive.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of it, either. In some ways, it’s pre-ordering a book that hasn’t been written. How may people do you think would kick in $5 to a Kickstarter campaign for Dean’s next novel, if the ‘benefit’ was a Smashwords download code once it was written and released? Or $15 for the paperback version from Createspace? Not to mention those higher levels where Dean autographs the book, or throws your name into the novel as a redshirt character. 😉 Yeah, there’s a risk that Dean could die or not finish the novel for other reasons, but it’d be a better gamble than the lottery and a helluva lot more fun. 😉

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Big Ed (I think. (grin)). I might try something like that for the second Poker Boy novel. The first Poker Boy novel is called The Slots of Saturn. Already written and in proofing stage shortly. The second novel will be called Wet, Spent, and Strangely Satisfied. Maybe I could sell characters in that book as part of the higher price as you suggest. More if you die. (grin) Even more if I turn you into a God of something. (grin)

      Oh, way too much fun.

  33. Annie Bellet says:

    So, Dean, I take your position on Kickstarter has softened since the Promotions workshop? I remember I tried to bring it up and got shut down. *grin*

    I’ve run the math multiple times for novels and decided my own “price” for a traditional deal. I doubt I’ll ever see that price, but that’s okay, I’m fine with being able to write books at my own speed and jump around to whatever projects (and genres) I please. It’s overwhelming sometimes to have so much freedom, but very fun, too.

    • dwsmith says:

      Annie, never been against Kickstarter projects, actually. It’s just not a way many writers can use, so I didn’t think it was a valid topic in front of a room of thirty people. (Of course, here we are talking about it in front of thousands… go figure. (Grin))

      Yeah, my price for a traditional deal will depend not so much on amount. Notice my factors are not money but respect and treating me as an equal in the contract. If they want me to hold to levels of production or quality, I want them to be held to similar levels. If they want my book, I’ll license it to them for a set amount of time ONLY. Five to ten years. No speed limit at the end, just a flat end of the contract. If they still want the book at the end of ten years, we can talk then about a brand new limited contract. And so on. Money depends on how many their sales force thinks they can sell in their produce model. My demands (as are my wife’s) is not for more money, but for respect in the contract and a firm ending date. You would think that would not be a problem. And in a normal business, it would not be a problem. But not in publishing at this point in time. Sadly.

  34. Annie Bellet says:

    Yeah, I put “price” in quotes because my “okay, I’ll sign that” deal involves more than money, too. I love the idea of licensing for a set number of years.

    I think the big power shift here is that it is easier now to walk away. When I first started thinking about writing for a living, I’d resigned myself to being in the position of less power and less choice. I was still prepared to walk from terrible contracts, but now at least we can walk somewhere else instead of just walking away. :)

  35. Thom says:


    WMG looks more and more like the old United Artists–artists (in that case actors and directors, in your case writers) creating a company that works for them.

    Everyone has their own tipping point of balance, and for me, I want to get more shorts (what I’m writing now, because I love it, and because I come out of TV where everything is FAST) self-pubbed before I can stand to tie them up for 6 months with an editor.

    And speaking of this, I’d love a follow up blurb on just what you consider to be the top markets for the two big genres in shorts (Sci Fi and Mystery). I have my own list, and AHMM, EQ, Asimov and Analog are on the top, but beyond that it gets murky.

    • dwsmith says:

      Honestly, Thom, I go to the ones you mentioned and that’s about it at this point. I’ve lost all patience in mailing stories after the thousands and thousands of rejections. But I do try the top two in each genre if my wife tells me to with a story.

  36. JR Tomlin says:

    Honestly, Dean, not all Indie authors are stupid. I really don’t buy the “most Indie authors sell at 99 Cents” argument. I sure don’t and few of the other Indies I know do. (A few friends sell one at that price as a loss leader) Select is another matter. It has done extremely well for me and as long as it does, I’ll use it as a marketing tool. The next signup period for me, I’ll re-examine the matter.

    In fact the books that sell best for me, over your 175 a month, are priced at $3.99. I do pretty well on them.

    You’re right though about the the trick to the thing. Just keep putting work out there. I got a new novel out this month and plan another for June or July. I’m not the fastest writer in the world but even my 2 or 3 novels a year should keep new material out there pretty regularly.

    For the first time since I worked as a journalist *shudder* I now pay the bills strictly writing. So all of this can be good for us. And I really appreciate the way you share your experience and insight, even when I argue with you. 😀

    • dwsmith says:

      JR, I don’t remember saying that an indie author who puts out a 99 cent novel is stupid. (I might have, but I don’t remember saying it like that. (grin)) I’m just saying that is a different path and not one I am talking about here. To make a living wage money at 99 cent novels, you have to get lucky. And then stay lucky book after book. You can make a living wage with novels just by selling small and having enough product and being smart on the pricing. I don’t actually remember saying that authors who price their books at 99 cent were stupid. But I think that price is. However, ever author is different and can do what they want. I am just saying be smart on your pricing and get the prices up into a normal range. Nothing more. And congrats on the sales over 175 a month. That’s fantastic.

  37. Jane says:

    I’m interested in what you said about ARCs: “…with the promotional material on the back and everything…”

    What sort of promotional material do you put on the back?

    We get a lot of books sent into the radio station where I work and they just have the usual blurb on the back and a press release tucked inside.

    • dwsmith says:

      Normally, fiction books have “Advance Reader’s Copy” stressed across the front or top of the back and then a block of information where normal blurbs would be on the back. We put in the price, the tracking number (isbn), publication date, promotion planned, and so on. Sometimes these are also called “Uncorrected Page Proofs.” But mostly these days they are Advance Reading Copies (ARCs). We did them by doing them in proof form through CreateSpace and never approving the book, just ordering five proofs at a time. You often only need twenty or so paper copies for reviews these days since most places are taking electronic copies (PDFs) just fine. Then a week ahead of the official publication date I changed out the back cover ad material for the normal back cover and put the book live to get it into the channels. Worked great, although next time I’ll work directly with CreateSpace on all this instead of just playing the system like that.

      The biggest problem we had with Anniversary Day on this was that when I changed out the last ARC version for the final to go live, and then ordered the copies for the books to mail to people who had bought signed advanced copies, a file with “Anniversary” spelled wrong on the spine got put in. We had mailed about 200 of them when we finally noticed. So the true first edition of Anniversary Day is the one with the bad spelling on the spine. (grin) Ahh, don’t you love collectors.

  38. Like you, I’ve decided to say ‘no’ to non-competing works clauses.

    My dream contract would also include a floor on all royalties paid on net so that I could rely on a small guaranteed payment per book. I’ve tried asking for one a couple of times but been turned down.

  39. Jane says:

    Thanks for the info as always, Dean!

  40. Dean, just read your comment about ARCs where you say, “Worked great, although next time I’ll work directly with CreateSpace on all this instead of just playing the system like that.” What do you mean? Is there another option for ARCs?

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