The New World of Publishing: The World is Not Ending

Lately the conversation among writers and editors and some publishers is very two-sided. Either the world of publishing will completely change in the next few years or everything will stay the same (and just some new stuff will get added in).

For traditional publishers, my belief of what will happen is closer to the second: Not much will change except for more tightening and a few of the weaker publishers going down. But that said, I think for SOME writers the first option is coming to pass: Everything will completely change. And already has started to.

Yeah, that makes sense…not.

So let me see if I can, in this world of fast changes, justify the crazy position that both sides are correct depending on what side of the coin you are looking at the changes from.

If you haven’t read the last chapter of this series, about books being produce, please do. You can get it right here.

For traditional publishers, books have been and will remain produce. They will buy lots and lots of books from an ever-churning pool of authors. The publishers will focus on a release date of the book where the hope is a lot of copies will sell very quickly, then when that date has faded into the past, the book will be basically tossed out, reverted back to the author, considered worthless to the publisher if it is not selling some magic number of copies set by a computer buried in some bunker somewhere. Or at least it seems like that. (Actually, computers do set reprints of a book depending on the speed and number of books leaving the warehouse.)

Three areas of publishing will be treated differently by publishers and always have been: Long-term bestsellers, top-selling young adult titles, and some mystery series. Those books will still be considered produce, but won’t be tossed away so easily when the sales drop.

In traditional publishing, all profit and loss calculations are based on this book-as-produce (or book-as-event) model. I don’t see this model changing even if electronic books get to 50% of the market. Publishers will still treat books as produce and electronic books as just another delivery system. Publishers will have troubles in other areas, and bookstores will be in a mess, but all-in-all, the traditional thinking will remain the same. Books are produce to be sold quickly and then ignored.

However, for some authors, everything is changing. In the past authors would write a novel or story and then work to find a publisher to publish it. If the story or novel didn’t sell, or once the publisher was finished publishing the book or story, the author would have to be lucky to have the story or novel remain in current print in any fashion. I have a number of fine stories I sold in 1984 that no one has seen in twenty-six years and couldn’t find them if they tried. Not to mention the hundreds of stories and books I have published since 1984. In the produce model of publishing, for me to try to resell those old stories made no sense because they had “used” their value. And with my level of name, no publisher would even look at any of them.

In the produce model of publishing, a story ONLY has value in 99% of the cases if it is fresh and first-time published.

But now, with electronic publishing and the unlimited shelf space in electronic publishing stores, every story a writer has published has growing value. In the new way of looking at things, a story isn’t a piece of produce ready to rot when published. Nope. Now it’s a seed that can grow for decades and produce for decades. For the author.

Young adult publishers understand this to a degree. Some of the young adult backlist for the classic books have been making publishers money for decades.  Bestsellers with many books out understand this because publishers reissue and repackage their books. But for 99% of all authors, publishers don’t think of a book as a possible long-term cash flow stream and wouldn’t know how to set up a new profit and loss calculation to use that long term thinking. All books are calculated on the produce model.

But for authors, the opposite is starting to happen.

In electronic publishing, book sales grow slowly, often starting out with only a couple sales per month, then maybe only one the next month, then five the following, then seven, then five, then ten, and so on and so on.  Slow growth over a period of time as readers find it, as more readers take on electronic reading, as word-of-mouth spreads about the book. And this trend can last for decades, pouring money into an author’s pocket.

Small publishers, often started by writers, are also starting to understand this thinking and are jumping like crazy to get a small slice of this long term money from authors by helping authors get their work into all the various places for readers to find.

Ack!!  Here comes some math, so hang on.


For both examples I going to assume the same book in quality and author. And under both examples the book will sell 10,000 copies.

Example #1: Produce model.

Book is published as an event as a trade paperback. It will ship at upwards of 15,000 copies and sell 10,000 copies in the final end after returns. Author advance was $15,000. Book does not earn out.

Almost all copies are sold in the first four months and by the end of one year the book can only be found through special orders and in electronic edition that is forgotten by all but the author. Sales will have gone from a river to a minor trickle, under the amount needed to keep the book in print by traditional publisher standards.

Now, if publishers gave the rights back to authors at the end of that year, all would be great, but of course they don’t. It will often take upwards of ten years to get the rights back, and if you aren’t careful in your contract with your reversion and/or sunset clause, you may never get the rights back, since under a bad contract publishers can keep a book in POD trickling along at five copies a year and not have it be out of print.

Example #2: Small publisher or author-as-publisher model.

Budget for publishing a book under $200.00. A large part of that budget going to a friend to proof and the rest to CreateSpace or InDesign premium programs. Author/small publisher does the cover, uses free photo or art, and formats the book themselves. All easy tasks these days.

The book is launched in ALL the different electronic outlets such as Amazon, iBook, B&N, and so on, plus a POD version. I assume the small publisher (author as publisher) can start off averaging about one sale per day over ALL the different outlets cumulative. (365 sales in the first year…Not Konrath’s numbers, that’s for sure.) That rate in this example would slightly grow over the years as more and more people turned to electronic reading of books and also more outlets for sales sprang up. (Right now we have about 10 major electronic sales outlets and dozens more smaller online stores. Not counting how for almost free you can get a trade paperback out to most stores. And not counting the sales off your own web site.)

Example #1: Produce method gets 10,000 readers in a few months and then the book vanishes. And publisher has it locked up under contract for a decade.

Example #2: Small publisher model gets 10,000 readers over ten to twelve years (selling about one a day or so total across dozens of outlets with a slight increase after years). And continues onward.

How about a quick look at the money involved.

Example #1: In the traditional publisher model the advance for a 10,000 sale book in trade paperback would be about $15,000 for basic rights tied up for at least a decade.  That’s all the author will ever make and it will be paid out ahead of publication for the most part in the advance.

Example #2: The new model book will bring in the author an average of $4.00 conservatively per book sale. (Retail $5.99 electronic price, $15.99 trade paper price.)  10,000 sales would then get the author about $40,000 over the ten years. And again, the book is still gaining speed at that point and will keep earning.

Conclusion: Same book. $15,000 for the produce model, book has vanished in a few months.  $40,000 over a much longer period for the new model, book still easy to find and buy and still finding readers.

New York traditional publishers are not going to change their model. They will tighten and they will use the electronic publishing and maybe even, in a decade or so, give more of a focus to POD forms of publishing. But their business model of books as events, as produce, will not change. And authors going with traditional publishers need to understand that fact.

But what happens if traditional publishers do change some and keep books electronically in print and paying royalties to the author? Won’t the author earn the same amount that way?

Simple answer: NOT EVEN CLOSE.

Math warning! Book done by publisher in the second year is selling for the same amount as the author would put it up for electronically: $5.99 (not likely to be that low, but we’ll go there.)

Right now authors are lucky to get 25% of the net of what a publisher gets for electronic books. But with the new 9th Circuit decision of electronic books being a license instead of a sale, let us assume that number goes to 50% which is a standard license share in most contracts.

So publisher gets $4.00, writer gets $2.00 minus 30 cents for the agent, so writer gets $1.70, and of course, that has to go against the advance first until that is paid off, and then won’t be paid for three months after a six month accounting, which is months after the Kindle or iPad accountings are done.

And remember the publisher won’t be sending the book to all the new stores springing up online, and new devices. Why not? Because they have enough new books to cover those. And with produce thinking, THEY DON’T WANT TO DISTRACT FROM THE NEW BOOKS.  The older book will hit the top few outlets and then be forgotten by everyone but the author.

So if you are hoping for your traditional publisher to catch on to this, don’t hold your breath. And as they slowly climb on board, remember their focus is their current produce, not your dead and rotted book from last year.

Now authors have options.

We can sell our work to New York publishers to get the better market penetration that their systems offer, the big event push, or we can small publish our own book to get the long term cash flow and more money in the long run.

Or we can do both, one book into traditional publishing, one into smaller publishing. (Yeah, being fast and prolific in this modern world is going to help.)


What writers suddenly have with this wonderful new world is Options.

Before this last year, you either sold it or you didn’t. You were held hostage by a bad agent or you weren’t. Books and stories that were considered hard sells (or were not in a current fad) filled file cabinets. Writers would let years of work be wasted.

Nope, not any more. We now have Options!!

Now everything we write, every book we finish, if not picked up by a traditional publisher, can still earn money for us. Maybe only a few bucks here and there, but a ton better than the manuscript sitting in drawer.

My Opinion: Having even a small numbers of readers finding my work is better than no readers.

Now to the biggest question of all:

Will most writers even learn enough to use the new options?

Nope. Remember, we’re talking about the same writers who want an agent to take care of them, who believe that learning business is a bad thing because they are an artist. You actually think the writers who got angry at my Killing Sacred Cow series are going to jump into this new world of publishing? Of course not. And they will actively look down their noses at any writer doing this. Be warned.

A number of us were talking a week ago about this topic and my conclusion is that less than 5% of all authors will even begin to understand this new side of publishing. But a lot of us who have been around for a long time, who have a huge inventory, who have books that were hard sells and didn’t get into the system, are jumping for joy.  Readers can now find us and all of our old work yet again.

So, what am I suggesting a writer should do?


That’s the key. Balance and long term thinking. Am I going to stop sending books to traditional publishers? Nope. Working on one now, actually. And to be deadly honest, I have fifteen different novel projects on editor’s desks in New York as I type this. In four genres. So I am clearly not giving up on traditional produce publishing.

But will I also do original novels in the new model?  You bet.

Again, balance. If you are smart and open your mind to the new world of publishing, no writing will ever again go to waste for any author. And the 5% of us who understand this new world and are opened minded enough to use both New York traditional publishing and the new model will have the best of both worlds. And we will have the huge advantage over the writers only staying with traditional publishing, because more readers can find our work, all of our work, at any time of the day or night.

And we will have the huge advantage over just self-published or small-published writers because we will be using the tools traditional publishing offers to promote our smaller books as well as out traditionally published books.

The 5% of us who know how to keep this new world of publishing balanced will reap huge rewards because we have the best of both worlds.

This really is the best time in history to be a writer.

Wow, I love this new world.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery full of my writing got a lot more valuable lately and this article is now part of the inventory of that bakery.

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

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

Thanks, Dean

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40 Responses to The New World of Publishing: The World is Not Ending

  1. lynw says:

    Nice summary of the probable future!

    While I have nowhere near your inventory (only three books — soon to be four — out to editors, a handful of short stories making the rounds), I’m excited about the possibilities the ebook market is making available to writers.

    Am I worried that if I sell a book to a traditional publisher, it will ultimately end up as just one more squashed tomato in a basket of rotten produce? Not at all. As I see it, being published “traditionally” can help me develop name recognition, which, in turn will help push my indie-published ebooks. And since I like the worlds I’ve been writing novels in, there’s nothing to say I can’t write short stories or novellas set in those worlds, publish them independently, and use those sales to help boost the market for trad-published books.

    It’s the right hand helping the left hand. Or vice-versa. Why cut off one or the other?

  2. Ty Johnston says:

    I like the “let’s do both” option, meaning to self-publish as well as send some works off to NY publishers. It seems to me, anything else is pulling the rug out from under the writer.

    Striking that balance, however, is the key. For me, I’ve reached my balance by self-publishing my genre stuff, but keeping my more literary works to send out to print publishers. Of course for everyone that’s not the right type of balance, but for me, I think it’s working, at least so far. I’ll so how things are in six months.

  3. I’m actually in the process, with a friend, of making the leap into model #2. It’s turning into a major challenge and adventure at the same time. Via Smashwords, I expect my first ebook to be in Amazon, B&N, etc. within a month. We’re still trying to do the POD version, because Lulu is hanging us up on doing color on the inside of the book and doing a poor job of customer service.

    The major reason I/we made this leap is we write erotica, which is a very very poor genre for making money in the Produce Model. You’re just not going to sell 10,000 copies in the first three months, period. Maybe the new erotic romances that Harlequin is printing will, but not something that goes for intellectual rather than a romantic bent.

    Additionally, erotica has to compete with all the free porn on the internet. It drives the price down. On the flip side, it allows a writer to build a following if they’re willing to release their stories for free for a while.

    So my friend and I said–do we think people would be willing to pay $1-$2 for an ebook of an erotica story with professional quality art? (hence the color issue with Lulu). We’re betting yes and while it’s a far cry from the price of a standard book, it’s still better than nothing (pricing is in the iTunes model–cheap enough to indulge impulse purchases and not go looking for pirated copies). And if it works… well, book #2 can have a higher price, right?

    I keep all rights. I keep full control. If the experiment works, great! We have a pathfinder for how to make more. If it doesn’t–well, we haven’t lost much. We certainly weren’t going to talk a NY Publisher into doing a 10,000 book run…

    It is indeed an exciting time.

  4. L. M. May says:

    Dean @ “Again, balance. If you are smart and open your mind to the new world of publishing, no writing will ever again go to waste for any author. And the 5% of us who understand this new world and are opened minded enough to use both New York traditional publishing and the new model will have the best of both worlds.”

    Dean, THIS nails exactly why I am so happy to be coming out to attend both your October Novel Workshop AND the New Technology Workshop. I’m very grateful they’re being held back to back so I can get an education in both worlds (traditional and electronic self-pub) without having to fly out twice.

  5. Mary says:

    Seems to me this whole lower-priced ebacklist model could– particularly now that the 9th District Court has ruled epublications licenses vs products–recapture for the author/publisher a whole revenue stream that you don’t mention: used books.

    I’d be interested in your take on how the new emodel, whether through traditional NY-style publishers, small publishers or self-published, might impact the used book market.

    There will always be print collectors, but what about the bargain hunters and casual browsers? Won’t there be less product out there for them to buy/resell? Will price points on backlist entice them to an ebook license vs used wood pulp?

    • dwsmith says:


      Exactly the opposite, actually. Used books, since they are simply product, will always be available. 99.9% of all authors don’t care about used books because they have already been paid once for the book and a used book is just a way to get readers into the author’s work cheaply.

      Notice I was talking about POD publishing right along with e-publishing. More books, in my opinion, will be produced in paper in years to come than ever before, by a far larger number of publishers. In fact, there is a huge new niche for bookstores using these new systems, both POD publishing in store and buying from smaller publishers as a focus. Bigger chains won’t fill this area, of course, so a new type of bookstore will need to grow up into place to fill it, more than likely on the Powell’s model of used beside new on the shelves.

      I find it funny that so many people look at e-publishing and think that paper books are going away when all the evidence is pointing in exactly the opposite direction. However, the smaller number of publishers producing the books now will change to a vast number of publishers producing a very, very large number of paper books. With no return system, since one of the changes that must happen for larger traditional publishers is limits on the returns system.

      You also hear a term a lot in traditional publishing called “market penetration.” That’s important in the produce model because to sell a lot of books fast, the books must be on a lot of shelves. However, electronic stores will always have market penetration since the books once up will always be there. Needing “market penetration” is one of the main driving forces of the returns system. Electronic publishing will start to help that shortly for most books.

  6. Scott W. Clark says:


    What if publishers go for the long tail as a part of their strategy like you argue author’s need to do? Won’t that mean they will try and lock up erights for the long term if they do? That then becomes a matter of negotiating with newbies and midlist at a disadvantage, doesn’t it?

    Or does it?


    • dwsmith says:

      Scott, major publishers (vs smaller or author-run publishers) are already holding e-rights for as long as they can. And making grabs for e-rights on books they never bought them on. They know the income as well as anyone, but they are trapped under huge overhead and at the moment their main interest in controlling e-rights is to control price to not undercut their expensive hardcover and paperback books too much. Remember, at the moment e-book sales are still under 10% of all books sold. Major publishers are playing in the 90%. And newbie writers and midlist writers are always at a disadvantage in negotiating if the writer feels they must sell the book. But if the writer knows and understands the other “options” of publishing, as I talked about, some of the disadvantages go away. Remember, one of the major things about negotiating is the ability to say no and walk away. Up until this last year or so publishers knew they were the only game in town. Now that negotiating stance is changing. Again, a very good thing for the 5% of us who will do and understand this balance.

  7. Barb Hendee says:

    Right now, it is difficult for the the smaller presses to get the books they publish inside a real bookstore . . . at all–or at least some of my friends who run smaller publishing houses have talked to me about this. Of course I too can see the changes coming, and I’d LOVE it if bookstores like Powell’s became the norm, but at present, I would not be making a living at this if I couldn’t get my books into B&N and Borders. I am watching how all all this plays out very carefully.

    • dwsmith says:

      Barb, you are working off of knowledge from so six months ago. (grin) Not really kidding. Things are changing so rapidly it’s startling. But is it still difficult for a smaller publisher to get a vast number of books onto shelves in B&N to use the market penetration method of book as produce? Yes. Very, very difficult. A small publisher must go through a major distributor, have a top-rate cover and a book that is done well. Remember, buyers for B&N and other chains only take selected books from even the big publishers. Many authors never see their books in any major chain even after selling the book to a major New York publisher. And they keep selling. Shows there are a lot of ways to make money selling books without hitting the major chains, especially if major publishers can cover their overhead costs on a book and have it never hit a chain.

      Folks, if you don’t believe me on this, ask your local superstore how many books they have, then go find the number of books published every year by major publishers and do the math. Oh, trust me, the number of books that hit a major chain store on the shelves is a very low percentage of all books published, and becomes smaller by the day. Usually it’s only the top list books, bestsellers, and top series and young adult that hit those chain stores. (Your books, Barb, are top list and bestsellers. I wouldn’t change a thing. (grin))

      HOWEVER, that said, is it possible to get your small published or author published book on a B&N order list, so your book can be ordered at B&N? Yes, very easy. As well as all the other distributors such as Ingram and Baker and Taylor. Easy and no real costs. ($39.00 for Create Space which is owned by and about $100 at Lightening Source which is owned by a one of the distributors.) But to keep those costs low the small publisher or author must learn how to format books and do covers and such. A slight learning curve that feels very difficult. Again, only 5% of authors will do this in my opinion. Most authors don’t even want to deal with their own money, want an agent to take care of them. Those authors will remain in the old model as it tightens down, and if Konrath and Stackpole and others end up correct about major publishing having a major collapse due to overhead costs and return system and labor contracts, then the 5% of us will be golden. Readers still want books. And that demand has grown with the advent of electronic reading devices.

      • dwsmith says:

        One more thing on my last answer. Barb, your books are solidly in the produce model. Sure, they remain in print, but the big push on each book is with huge market penetration into stores quickly. No issue with this as long as you understand the difference. I sell books into that produce model as well. But on the long-term sales model, the growth of a seed model, for lack of a better name, I would never expect or even try to waste books and use the return system to jam 20,000 books into chains to sell 10,000 of them. I’ll sell the same 10,000 books over ten years slowly growing readership.

        Two different models. The second one did not exist much before the advent of electronic reading devices and POD publishing. For decades people have asked me what I saw coming in the future of publishing and to be honest I NEVER saw this seed model coming. I saw POD and electronic, sure, but didn’t really understand until about a year ago what it would mean for authors and publishing in general.

        As I said, the key is balance. Use both models at the moment to really build the best career.

        And one more point. Last time I was in a B&N superstore, I found eight of my books on the shelves. A couple were my old Trek and other misc books. In one month selling thirty reprint short stories on two sites (I don’t have numbers on the other sites yet like Sony and B&N Nook) I made more money than I got from all eight of those novels in all the B&N stores that month. That’s just how the math works. As Konrath and Stackpole and others have said, you make SO MUCH MORE money selling electronically, you have to sell a ton more through the produce method to just make the same. And those royalty rates and discount schedules in traditional publisher contracts are not changing.

  8. heteromeles says:

    Two quick points.

    One is the minor one: I can’t think of a reason why a #2 model author can’t simply sell POD directly to a used book store. If it sells, it sells. Why worry about the name of the bookstore?

    One reason to do this is that there’s still a digital divide, and selling on this route gets your books to the people who don’t have digital readers (e.g. the educated with limited incomes, like most grad students).

    Second is a major one, about the math.

    Here’s the question: would you rather have $15,000 this year, or earn $40,000 over the next ten years?

    My answer is: it depends on your bills!

    The second is advantageous if you’ve got your needs covered, because it’s, well, more. However, you may not be able to wait that long.

    It’s a cash flow problem. If you need to have $15K coming in per year (or more), you may be stuck in the produce model, just because you can’t afford to wait for your market to grow.

    The key that you pointed out is the sunset clause, because it lets you flip models from book as product to book as investment.

    • dwsmith says:

      heteromeles, as one long term professional writer friend said to me a while back, this e-book stuff is wonderful because for the first time in his thirty plus years of writing he has regular money coming in.

      Cash flow is always a problem for writers. Even bestsellers who don’t know how to handle vast amounts of cash flow coming from fifty different sources per book. And I have written many a book for just cash flow I have to admit. Now I never do that. Life is too short. Now I only work on projects I want to work on. Luckily, there are usually enough of those around, mostly my own stuff these days.

      Why would you ever sell a new book to a used book store? Hmmmmm…. I suppose that if you got the book cheap enough on author discount, it might make sense to let new readers find your work at a discounted rate. I’ll look into the math on that and see how it works out.

  9. Rebecca says:

    I completely agree with your assessment. I know Konrath is saying there will be a crash of the Big Six/regular publishing industry and while I definitely think there will be changes, they will find an equilibrium again. Print will never go away completely. Instead I think we’re going to see the rise of smaller, specialty publishers. I have friends running one. They specialize in collector editions, beautiful hardcovers with small print runs and additional material inside not available in the trade or ebook edition. Very smart because they are developing a very special niche. I think we’re going to see more of this kind of publishers.

    For authors, it really is the best of times and you hit the nail on the head when you talk about options. We’ve never had such options before! I’m definitely aiming to be one of that 5% even if I can’t make it to your New Technology workshop. Just means I have to work harder on my own!

    • dwsmith says:

      By the way, for those of you still thinking in older terms, let me explain two types of publishing models.

      Publisher model is that you prepare the book, then get a printer to print and bind a certain number of books which you hope to sell. You have to pay for the books you are printing and then invoice the places you sell the books too. This is the old method of self-publishing and is frighteningly expensive and you end up with a ton of books in a storage unit unsold. This is the method all major publisher’s use, of course, and have huge warehouses.

      POD model is when you set up with a printer your book in electronic fashion, then when someone orders a paper copy, they pay the printer and the printer pays you a percentage. No inventory and almost no costs.

      Lulu likes the publisher model. CreateSpace and LighteningSource are mostly POD.

      Also, the machines that some bookstores are starting to buy to print and bind books in the store work on the POD model.

  10. David Barron says:

    Dang. I get it now. The business side, I mean. I don’t understand it, not yet, but I understand what I’ll have to do to understand it. I like it. It’s a Known Unknown, and that’s the best kind.

    On the business side, I was out to sea without even a raft to float on, much less a paddle to move forward. The craft side, I’ve got a lifeboat of reading and writing, and moving forward I know where my writing should be going and what Good Writing looks like by example.

    But how the heck do I sell this, now that I’ve achieved an acceptable level of quality? Are traditional publishers really the only way? How the heck am I supposed to even pretend to make a steady living at this if that’s the case?

    Then I ran across ‘Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing’ and read all the business articles. It just made sense, I could at least see a way toward lashing all this driftwood together to make a raft. Then today I read this post, and suddenly I’ve got my direction. I get it now, dang.

    Write a lot, write well, package it right, put it out there, repeat indefinitely with improvement. Don’t be lazy, you’re working for yourself, but pay yourself a regular living wage.

    When I get back from the jungle and have access to international banking services and cash in this electronic form I’ve heard so much about, I’ll be obliged and happy to donate. But until then, um…thanks!

    • dwsmith says:

      You do seem to have got it, David. This is a business and now, thankfully, all writers with decent craft skills and a few publishing skills as well, can make great money both selling to traditional publishers into the produce model and selling through your own publishing business. Today at lunch Chris and Steve York and I were talking about the name for this new model, the slow growth one that I was calling the seed model. Steve said he thinks of it as an orchard model and will be writing a post about that soon. I agree. Plant one seed, it slowly grows into a tree producing fruit and you just keep planting more and more until you have an orchard.

      Or as I like to call it, a very large magic bakery.

  11. J.S. Lewis says:


    I love what you’re saying here. Up until a few months ago, I cringed when I heard people talk about self-publishing. When the only real option was printers preying on people who were desperate to see their dreams come true, I was vehemently angry when I heard about the amount of money people were flushing, never to see much of it back in return. I loved it when I heard about “marketing & PR” campaigns that these self-publishing companies were offering. It was nothing but a scam.

    You are right. Things are changing rapidly and I love the digital distribution brings your cost to $0 if you are a competent graphic designer — or if you know how to strike deals with people who are. Why not approach a community college graphic arts department to design a book cover and the winner gets $50 — or even a percentage of profits (not ownership)? There are all kinds of creative things you can do to make this a huge win.

    There is a caveat, however. If you decide to self-publish, and you haven’t been published before, there is a good chance that traditional publishing houses are going to lump you in a group, and it won’t be complimentary. Honestly, you can’t blame them. You can’t really blame anyone, actually. Whether or not the book is good becomes immaterial, because often the perception is that if something is self-published, there’s a reason — and that reason is that it wasn’t good enough to be published to begin with.

    Don’t get me wrong. Agents and editors have laundry lists of titles they’ve passed on that have gone on to do huge numbers. There are even self-published books that are huge — like THE SHACK. But you really need to understand that your name is your brand, and if your are branded as a self-published author without a prior sales record, it could be even harder for you to get published the traditional route.

    Now as Dean has aptly pointed out, that may not matter for much longer. Like the music industry, an independently published author will soon have a good shot at going head-to-head with the big boys in NYC. Their marketing dollars are shrinking, and if you have Social Media marketing savvy, you can be just as effective — if not more effective — than the big boys when it comes to marketing. They continue to slash their budgets, and it’s not their fault. It’s the market we’re in right now.

    Just know that if your heart is set on having a major logo on the spine of your book, you need to ask yourself if self-publishing is worth it.

    Now, if you are already published, as Dean has pointed out, a combo of traditional and self-published work is the ONLY way to go. I had a wonderful conversation with Mike Stackpole and a mutual friend of ours, Shannon Eric Denton, about this not too long ago. Mike has brilliantly negotiated his contracts so that he can use his characters from his nationally (well, internationally) published books in his own digital stories to give his readers more content.

    National publishers give you some name recognition, and that’s extremely valuable. My first publisher was Scholastic, and I went with them b/c I knew that they could get my book in every elementary and junior high school in America. I couldn’t pay for that kind of publicity if I wanted to.

    So now it’s time to capitalize on that branding and publish books independently as I continue to publish traditionally. The only problem is that most of my books are Middle Grade and they don’t have a huge reach with kids, since most 8-12 year olds don’t have Kindles, iPads or Nooks.

    Dean, I’d love to get your take on segmentation of the digital publishing world. Right now it seems like the books that are selling are the “Ludlum” and “Clancy” type books, as well as “How To” books. Adult males like toys, and nothing says digital toy like a digital book reader. That’s not to be sexist, as I know a lot of females who own digital readers, but guys tend to be willing to spend big bucks early — even when those toys cost a bit more.

    I’m sure other books will come around. In fact, I would imagine that within 5 years most college students will have a Kindle for their text books. Who wants to lug those things around. I’m just not certain 8-12 year olds will have digital readers as soon as their parents will. It’s an expensive price point for a parent to purchase for a child — and hard to trust them with mine b/c I don’t want chocolate milk spilled on it.

    As usual. Wonderful post!

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, J.S.

      A topic of a future post is how there is no longer just one model for authors to get their books into print. You clearly have an image of a sort of monolithic “self-published” author and that just isn’t the case.

      And also, it is no longer the case that all imprints are even noticed by most readers. Remember, you are not getting your books out to please other authors, but to find readers. Trust me, 99.9% of all readers couldn’t tell a Waterbrook imprint from a Pyr from an Axolotl. I published a major thriller through Waterbrook, but only way I say anything about that is I say Random House. And even then only writers know that.

      The world has changed, there are thousands and thousands of major imprints and a ton more pretty major small presses. Go ahead, try to figure out who was “self-published” under an imprint name and who was published under one of dozens of Random House imprints. No longer can tell. And if you are relying only on your taste in quality to tell, wow will you be even more wrong. (grin) As witnessed by workshops when I force a bunch of young writers to read Cussler. (too much fun)

      By the way, Pyr is a sf imprint name of a major nonfiction publisher and Axolotl was an imprint of mine when I owned Pulphouse. One year on the novella category of the Hugo ballot Axolotl Press had all five nominees. See what I mean about imprint names? No one will have a clue if it is self published or not if the author has half a brain and understands the fact that once you decide to publish anything, your book or your friends, you become a publisher, not a writer. Nothing wrong in this new world with wearing both hats. I personally have worn the writer hat, editor hate, and publisher hat at the same time. Nuts, but I did it.

      As for which books are selling and which aren’t, not a clue. Too early. My gut sense is the top seller is porn and erotica because that ALWAYS leads the way into new areas. Beyond that, I think just about everything will sell at decent numbers given enough time for this new delivery system to settle into place.

      Thanks for the great comments. Very much appreciated. I will have two posts on your topic this next week, actually. One on the myth of self publishing and the other on the idea of imprints.

  12. J.S. Lewis says:

    BTW, I just looked at LightningSource for color work, and if you’re an author instead of a publisher, they refer you to a list of companies — including LuLu.

  13. heteromeles says:

    Hi Dean,

    For your calculations, I’m thinking of using a used bookstore as an outlet for POD books. I’ve seen this done, mostly with “local interest” publications.

    If one is bring their own backlist out via a POD service, there’s no reason not to take some copies to local bookstores of all types (used, new, whatever)and seeing if they’ll buy a few copies. You’re still getting more money per copy than you would as royalty on that same book.

    One other note. I went into a local B&N recently, and I was happy to see the number of smaller presses showing up on their shelves in the SFF section. I counted six, including two I’d never seen before, and none were imprints of the major houses.

    My personal fantasy is that the multimedia conglomerates will start shedding their publishing divisions as not profitable enough, and the publishers can remake themselves as low overhead smaller companies that can afford bigger midlists. I can dream, right?

    • dwsmith says:

      Heteromeles, won’t work that way I’m afraid. But as the top companies shut down imprints, smaller new companies with better business models will come in under them. That’s the way it has always worked through history and it happening again. Big guys won’t shed imprints, just new ones with new owners are starting up to fill the gaps. Thousands of them already.

  14. Well, reading this was certainly something of a revelation. 😉

    It was just a few days ago that I was telling someone that plunking your book up on Amazon as an e-pub was pretty much a dead end, that self-pub was self-pub and wasn’t going to get an author anywhere in most cases.

    Then I decided I’d do a bit more research and update myself; it’d been six months or so since I had last really looked at it. And I popped over here, and… Hmmm. There’s a lot to think about here, and a lot that makes sense. I mean, I could sense that things were heading in that direction, but reading you, and Stackpole, and Konrath, I am more and more thinking that it’s here, now, and that it’s time to hop on the ship or miss the boat.

    Certainly an exciting time, anyway!

    • dwsmith says:

      Kevin, it is exciting, isn’t it. I don’t think there’s any boat to miss, actually. This is just the future, this balance thing, in my opinion. Stackpole was real early into this, Konrath just jumped in a year or so ago. I’ve just been on board since Mike (Stackpole) finally got through my thick skull about two years ago and I started to go from Luddite to understanding and being computer skilled. No behind or ahead on this. It’s just the business now, which is good and fun and exciting in the opportunities for writers who use this correctly.

  15. J.S. Lewis says:


    I’m not disagreeing by any stretch that there are many models to getting published. And you are 100% right in that nobody cares about the publisher’s name on the spine outside of the author. I couldn’t tell you who publishes DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, much less anything else on the market unless I happen to publish at the same house and get the books sent to me for free (a nice perk from time-to-time). And you’re right in that few know an imprint at all . . . so yes, a startup publisher (i.e. a self-published book) can have just as much cache as any imprint.

    However, the people who do care about the title on the spines are the editors — at least from my experience. Let me explain . . .

    I have people who approach me, wanting me to help them get published quite a bit. I try to help in any way I can, but I rarely read it myself. I don’t have time. More importantly, I don’t want to be the bad guy (as my wife says, I’m a little to honest sometimes).

    So I offer the books to others if the books sound like they might have a shot at being good. I gave one book to three trusted readers — one was the lead book buyer at an indie store. All three loved it and devoured it in two days (about 700 pages). Once it passed that step, it was time for step 2.

    I asked not only my editor, but the head of the fiction division if they were interested in reading it. I told them the response from my focus group and they were very interested.

    Here’s where it all changed . . . I didn’t give them a manuscript. I gave them a self-published paperback version of the book, and I could see by their posture that everything changed. Enthusiasm was replaced by doubt — and that doubt was insurmountable. Then came this phrase. “Oh, it was self-published.”

    Self-publishing has little to do with the quality of the writing. I truly believe that. However, there is a stigma (or, as you say, a myth) about self-publishing that the people who buy books on a national level share.

    Whether we agree with it or not, right now, in today’s world, if you want to publish with some of the bigger name publishers, you need to consider that when you self-publish. At the very least, if you have self-published, unless you’ve sold 5K-10K copies, I would hide that fact from editors if you can. That’s not me judging your work — that’s me suggesting that most publishing houses think that if you’ve self-published, it probably wasn’t good enough to publish in the first place (and the truth is that many times they’re right).

    Of course there will be turnover, and soon the people in charge will understand the new world of publishing, so that stigma may go away. Then again, it may not — at least not right away.

    It is definitely an exciting time for publishing — and I believe the success of self-published digital media will help the self-published print. I can testify that my attitude towards it has changed immensely over the last 3-6 months.

    However, I will say this. Like everyone else, I tend to buy familiar brands first (author names), and the next subset is books by recommendation (whether by friends or trusted bloggers).

    As much as I want to resist my own knee-jerk reaction, a self-published book needs to have a HUGE amount of buzz (a la THE SHACK) before I consider buying it. But I’m just one person. Hopefully that will change.

    • dwsmith says:

      J.S., and your point is the topic of my next Killing Sacred Cows of Publishing. The myth (now) that self publishing hurts authors. (When dealing with someone still holding the old prejudices, it sure does, as you showed. No argument there at all…but there is a bunch more to weigh these days for authors then that old problem some people still have. And that I used to have as well. Up until about 18 months ago, actually.)

      My point is that 99% of all readers won’t know these days that a book is self-published unless the cover sucks beyond belief, and I’ve seen some books out of New York that looked self-published, actually. (grin)

      Back in 1990, when I was doing Pulphouse, I had an imprint of short novels (novellas) called Axolotl Press. No one thought any book in that line was self-published even though I did some of the worst covers in the history of science fiction right along side some of the best. Only a few readers knew who was behind that line, and most didn’t care. I took a couple of the books with me to a meeting on one of my own books at Bantam Books and since I was doing shorter run trade paperbacks with Axolotl, we came to a co-publishing deal that I would do the editing and layout and print the first trade paper and they would do the mass market editions of the books.

      So why did Bantam do this for a small press (which is what any self-publisher is these days, actually)? Because I had top names such as Pohl and Silverberg and Wilhelm and Ellison and so on… Readers did not care, the collectors loved it.

      So I am agreeing with you on the author name. That’s how most readers find books. And once they find a book by an author they love, they will buy it no matter if Random House published it or (Small-Name-Press) published it. And that alone is driving the breakdown of this myth of self-publishing. Kris and I now have over 60 of our short stories up through the small press WMG Publishing in electronic form. Because I went to them just as I go to Random House with other projects does that make my stories any less? Or better? Either way? Of course not. My choice, and that’s what is wonderful about this new world. The judging of content by publisher that happened in the old days is just about gone, to the point that over the next few years it will become a myth.

      You just can’t judge a book anymore by its publisher. You could, but those days are vanishing quickly into the rear view mirror.

      Thanks for the great comments. Always appreciated.

  16. You guys couldn’t be more right, at least in my case. I almost never know the publisher of a book, though I’m becoming much more alert to that information, for obvious reasons.

    A while back (about 3 years), I learned from an online group that there were new Dune novels afoot. So I read about them and purchased the second trilogy, LEGENDS OF DUNE, written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.

    That was about the end of 2007. I subsequently bought the PRELUDE TO DUNE series (the first trilogy written by the pair), and then the final two to end the first 6-book series written by Frank Herbert.

    My point is that sometime last summer, I was lying on the floor in my office stretching my back when I noticed that the PRELUDE TO DUNE series, the first three written by the pair, were published by Bantam. All the rest they’ve written were done by Tor. Then I was curious, so I looked at the original 6 books, and they were published by Ace, who was not the original publisher, of course. As a result of that, I started paying much more attention to the publishers, because it’s easy market information. It has really helped me learn things.

    Also, in about ten minutes one day last year, I learned the 6 major publishers, and a handful of each of their imprints, which has really helped me understand the structure of the industry a bit. But that’s irrelevant to this discussion, except that it literally is that easy to learn about the industry, and many people shockingly fail to do so.

    An interesting aside is that I learned of the existence of Dean and Kris — and everyone else here — as a direct result of joining an online group a few years ago. Was told about the new Dune books, which caused me to read about Brian and Kevin. Kevin led me to David Farland, Dean, and Kris. And Dean and Kris have led me to Stackpole, Konrath. Laura Resnick, and more other writers that I can shake a stick at.

    You can learn a lot if you just pay attention.

  17. J.S. Lewis says:

    I’m excited about it, Dean. Can’t wait to learn more about it (and will be doing a fair share of my own *continued* research as well). Don’t want to simply be a sponge.

  18. Mark says:

    This is all very interesting. Thanks.

    Do you think we might see POD sprout up like Redbox movie rental machines?

    What is the margin for writers with most POD? If you price a paperback at $7.99, how much do you make?

    It’s hard to predict what is going to happen, but I think publishers will need to make some concessions about ebook royalty rates. It doesn’t make sense for writers to get a small percentage three years after a book is published and there’s absolutely no promotion at all for a backlist title. At some point the author’s share needs to be more equitable.

    And just what do you think self-pubbed authors are going to do to pricing? Konrath prices his work at $2.99. A lot of indie writers with no real reputation are pricing at $1.99 and $0.99 or even giving away for free a first book or novella in a series. Will this put some downward pressure on pricing for traditional published works in ebook form?

    (And another question is can writers make good money at the $2.99 and cheaper price points? In other words, is Konrath a good example or an exception?)

    • dwsmith says:

      Mark, good questions.

      POD is already sprouting like RedBox in many stores. You can go in, download a book and watch it be printed. Takes about ten minutes, still expensive, but time and costs are coming down.

      POD is trade paperback almost exclusively these days. Mass Market (regular sized paperbacks) are quickly vanishing because of many, many reasons. If you price a novel at $14.99 trade paperback, in the premium program for a normal-sized book (all depends on page count and trim size) an author can make about $4.00 per book average. You make something like $9.00 per book if you sell it through your own web site, $5.00 on, and $2.00 or so if it sells through other stores. To get into some of those machines that do POD in stores, you need to go through a certain company for each type of machine. Still settling.

      As for pricing, the jury is still out. Novels from major publishers are selling electronically from $5.99 if they are mass market to $12.99 and up if they are hardback in print. Most novels in the $5.99 and under range are what readers are willing to pay easily. 99 cents has become the default price for short stories. I would never price a novel at .99 because it would get confused in the short stories and you don’t make enough per sale. At the moment, the range is between $2.99 and $5.99 for novels as a comfort zone. But again, everything keeps changing quickly at the moment.

      Can writers make good money? Oh, heavens yes. Stunning amounts. But what most authors see is the start-up and that’s slow. But over a long term, and if you have a LOT of product, like being an publisher, you can make a ton of money. A ton. New York publishers build those big buildings in expensive New York with something. (grin)

  19. Mark says:

    The POD stuff sounds really interesting. I can see Borders becoming Borders On Demand and adding a dozen POD kiosks. Go online, find your book, order it via POD and either have it shipped or designate it to print at your local store and then drop by and pick it up.

    One thing I wonder about and it seems like an obvious bundling strategy is to sell a paper version and give the purchaser a download code for an ebook version. As a consumer, why should I have to double dip for a book? I may like paper but still own an e-reader and want to duplicate my paper library on my e-reader. I don’t feel like I should have to pay twice. That might actually be a nice sales incentive indie authors could use to encourage POD sales.

    • dwsmith says:

      Mark, different companies are already doing that and have on certain types of books for years. Fiction is just slow to the game.

      But I know WMG Publishing will be doing that with the novels they are doing for us. A coupon code. Great added value.

  20. Scott W. Clark says:

    Got it. Thanks Dean. Interesting times.

  21. Thank you for this inspiring and logical post about the current options available to authors. Do you have any tips for choosing which books to publish with traditional houses and which ones to self-publish?

    • dwsmith says:


      Anything that you think New York might get excited about give a shot with editors, not agents. You can send to five or so editors at the same time, so the time lag on discovering if there is excitement with New York editors is fairly short, meaning about a year. If you have a book that has a bunch of rejections, or that is a hard sell, meaning no one around you can even think of the genre it belongs in, or something like science fiction with sex, but isn’t a romance, the do that yourself. But when in doubt, give New York a shot first.

      Again, agents don’t count. If in doubt, go back and read the sacred cow posts and all the comments after the agent posts.

      What is great is that we no longer depend completely on only selling to New York. Use the upfront money of New York and the penetration into larger chain stores to get readers, but then piggy-back on those books with your own. Konrath did this, selling first to New York, then doing his own. I know he complains about making more money on his own, but I have a hunch he wouldn’t be making as much if he wasn’t doing both.

  22. Megs says:

    This thread is much better for explaining HOW you do things, but any chance you can put up a post about the exact steps to be taken? I’ve never been opposed to working my tail off for my own stuff, but I’m not about to dive in and make a mess just ’cause it’s hard to get any tried and true information on how to do this for less than 20,000 bucks.

  23. I know I’m jumping in a little late on this one, but I’m very excited. E-publishing and POD are really cool tools. I’ve also been reading some blogs by other authors on the subject. The possibilities are truly staggering. Reprints of short stories, a home for a book that’s received positive rejectons, backstories, fillers, spin-offs, pen names. It really does come down to finding the right balance and the right time. I think for me, I want to sell a few stories professionally before I start e-publishing. Get my footing, so to speak. Thanks for the post Dean. It’s great motivation.

  24. Derek Benz says:

    Just re-reading this excellent blog. One stray point. When calculating $15K today versus $40K over ten years, the reader should consider inflation. Using historical inflation averages, $40K ten years from now will only be worth about $31K today. Still, it’s better than $15K. But it’s hard for me to imagine more than a handful of us are thinking 10-15 years out given today’s economy.

  25. D Bassiti says:

    @Derek – If you assume inflation then you can assume book prices will rise too. The ‘flat’ prices here give an indication of things in the future, but viewed at today’s prices i.e. $40k in today’s money. In ten years time, looking back, the final figure will be greater than $40k.

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