The New World of Publishing: Traditional or Indie? What To Do Now?

Over and over I get the question, “Should I mail books to traditional publishers or not these days?”

And honestly, over the last year my answer has varied and shifted. But now I have finally settled on an answer I feel comfortable with for the next year or so.

Remember, please, this is just my opinion. And how I am moving for my career. But every writer, every career in fiction writing is different. Please keep that in mind when reading this.

The Problem

Right now the problem is that a former stable industry is changing at light speed. Faster, actually, which makes everything looks so warped and confused. (Sorry, science fiction joke.) No one knows how this change in publishing will settle out in two or three years.

—No one knows which publishers, which imprints will still be around, and which new imprints and publishers will grow into the challenges.

— No one knows what the agent aspect of this business will look like in three or four years. Or if agents will even be a part of publishing.

— No one knows which writers will make it through. (I actually think the bestsellers are in the worst danger.)

It is that crazy.

My answer to this craziness:

Take everything you can take into your own control and hold on.

What does that mean exactly?

Write like crazy.

Then with what you have finished, spend the next two years indie publishing your own stuff, learning all the tricks of being an indie publisher, and getting your own trade paper books into bookstores.

Then when things settle down in traditional publishing, you will be ready and practiced and have some work to present to traditional publishers.

Some Reasons for the Answer

Writers, as a group, love to give control away.

I know perfectly sane people, some of them lawyers or top business people who know better yet think nothing of trusting a complete stranger with all their money and all the paperwork for that money because the stranger calls himself a “literary agent.”  Writers, when it comes to their own writing, just get stupid as a group. Writers as a group forget all aspects of business. It is strange, but the reason I do the series Killing the Sacred Myths of Publishing.

So doing your own indie publishing will teach you how to control and be responsible for your own art. (A lesson most writers really, really need to learn.)

So how do writers take control in general?

Here are my recommendations.


Don’t have one. Period. You don’t need one in indie publishing and if you do have one, just drop back and ask them to do nothing. See how your agent gets through these coming years. In other words, leave them alone.

And watch your money on existing contracts like a hawk. Don’t let that money go down with an agency as has already happened.

Agents are in a huge hurt at the moment. Their entire reason for existing is vanishing right in front of their eyes due to technology, the increase in electronic publishing and the small income writers make from electronic sales. 15% of very little is even smaller. Not enough to pay a New York mortgage on, that’s for sure.

Why writers no longer need an agent.

—Writers can work directly through e-mail with all publishers in all countries. And directly with Hollywood producers and directly with gaming editors and so on and so on.

— IP attorneys are much, much better at negotiating contracts and a ton cheaper. And they don’t take a percentage forever.

— Publishers these days are coming to writers more and more and opening their doors back up to submissions because it is often the only way they can find new product. Agents have blocked so much great stuff it’s scary and hurting publishers.

— Also, advances from traditional publishers are becoming smaller across the board, so cash flow for agents is getting to be a nasty feature of their business, one that will force some to just not report some writer’s money since the writer doesn’t pay attention. (You give them the chance by not knowing your own money and business and letting them have it all first. I know, you trust your agent. And all I have to say to a writer who thinks that is “Good luck.” Kris and I have had two major agencies now rip us off by simply not telling us about money. We caught the last one and got the twenty grand from them.)

— Career planning or helping a writer make a career is a thing of the past since no one knows what is happening. If your agent claims they know what is happening in publishing in the next few years, fire them. Instantly. They are lying to you, plain and simple. No one knows, including me. But we all know that it will be rough, very rough. That’s all we know.

So in short, technology, e-mail, IP lawyers, and so on, has caused agents to become basically worthless in this new world.

And agents who are moving to publish their clients work are moving into an area so against this country’s agency law that eventually that will be stopped by lawsuit. Don’t be one of the writers in the middle of that mess. And besides that, it’s just stupid. Just think it through… In a few hours you can learn more about indie publishing than your agent knows, and you can deal with your own work only. Your agent will be dealing with a bunch of books from 50 clients. Yeah, that’s going to work. Not!

So my advice on agents? Run, don’t walk, away from them. In this modern world they can only hurt you.

Traditional Book Publishers

My Advice: Put on hold unless approached. Or unless you already have a contract.

Stop mailing to them, stop giving your agent anything to sell. Just hold. Don’t pull books or do anything stupid like that. Just hold and finish your contracts.

And do not burn bridges with editors. They may be one of the editors who still have jobs and that you want to work with in two or three years. Just hold.

In publishing, two years is a blink in time. Even if you sold a traditional publisher a book this fall, it would take a year or more to even get out to whatever bookshelves will be left at that time.

The big downside? Having one of your books be an asset in a publisher bankruptcy can be a nightmare at best. You want to avoid that at all costs.

In two or three years, this publishing world will be finding a new place to settle. We will all know which imprints and publishers have survived.

You think publishers can’t go down, too big to fail, you really, really need to open your eyes, study the history of this business, and then just walk into what’s left of your neighborhood Borders store. Publishers fail all the time and you don’t want a book or books caught in that mess. Just ask your attorney what being an asset of a corporation in bankruptcy can mean. And no, the bankruptcy clause in your contract is not valid and will not protect you. Sorry.

So unless a publisher comes to you with a ton of money up front, or you already have a contract, my suggestion is to avoid traditional publishing for a few years until all this settles. And it will settle.

Where and who survives is anyone’s guess, but it will settle and traditional publishing will go forward.

Indie Publishing

Go here and go here as quickly as you can.

This means a number of things. It means you, as a writer, must take responsibility for your own business. It means you must learn new things that seem scary. And it means you have to trust readers.

All these things will be good when you again start selling to traditional publishing down the road, after things have settled.

As an indie publisher and a writer with books in traditional publishing, I love indie publishing. It gives me freedom, it makes me regular checks, and it gives me control. All these things have been talked about in a million ways on a million blogs. And if you don’t know how to be your own publisher, just read my “Think Like a Publisher” series. (Tab at the top of the page. It’s free and will be out shortly in book form as well.) I walk you through it step-by-step.

Indie publishing is scary, sure, but also scary easy.

Take responsibility and then take the time you were using to send to traditional publishers to learn how to indie publish your new book.

So that’s it.

Avoid agents, hold on traditional publishing until things settle, and move to indie publishing.


Anyone who knows this business believes that traditional publishing is in for a few years of massive turmoil because of the increasing decline in standard book sales and the inability of most publishers to get out of huge labor contracts, trucking contracts, and warehouse contracts. After this third quarter, this will really start to show in corporate balance sheets next spring.

The only way out of many of these messes for a publishing company is through bankruptcy to break the leases and contracts, just as Borders tried and failed to come through. And writers’ books will be assets of the bankruptcy. Not a fun thing.

Some companies will be able to move fast enough to keep a balance with electronic publishing, others with massive overheads and long leases on book warehouses and union contracts will not be able to move. Some companies and imprints will just vanish as owners decide to just shut them down because they are no longer profitable. Other publishers and imprints will just float right through.

All this will start to clear in a few years.

So go learn indie publishing, get away from your sinking agent, and get ready for the new world that is coming. It is already clear that publishers are going to mine indie publishing for tested books to buy. That might be the way of the future. It might not be. No one knows.

The new world of publishing is going to be a ton of fun.

Step back, learn indie publishing to keep your fans and readers happy and your mortgage paid, and watch the news.

You’ll know when the time is right to head back to traditional publishing.

And that is my opinion.


Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my 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.

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

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

Thanks, Dean



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64 Responses to The New World of Publishing: Traditional or Indie? What To Do Now?

  1. Rick Novy says:

    These are all salient points. One aspect to consider: after the bankruptcies and broken contracts, imagine the survivors. Say traditional publishing consolidates into three major publishing companies.

    Upon giving this a little thought, it occurs to me that these major publishers will necessarily pursue the James Pattersons of the world. With the legacy overhead and a very few large publishers available, these publishers will have their pick of what they will ensure have the advertising backing to become blockbuster bestsellers. They have to sell this material to remain solvent.

    The implication of that is the rest of us must use small presses or remain indie. I have no idea if I’m right about that, but if I am, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.

    • dwsmith says:

      First off, Rick, there are more than six publishers. That’s a horrid myth I have yet to be able to figure out the origin of. There are thousands and thousands of publishers. But past that, I do believe there will be fewer spots as you said, thus another reason to be solid into indie publishing.

  2. I would like to add that for writers who have stories and novels ready but not the know-how of self-publishing or writers who have no interest in doing some aspects of self publishing or want be with a press with a variety of other writers, you have options too. Just make sure the press is fee-based. Don’t trade one royalty model for another. Keep your rights; keep your money; pay for only what you need.

    And have fun!

    • dwsmith says:

      What Cindie said 100%. And not only is she a top writer, she helped start a business that does just as she says, helps writers for flat fees, no percentages, on things they think they need help on.

  3. Rick Novy says:

    I never mentioned the number six.

  4. Reacher says:

    another thought-provoking and eye-opening post, thanks for sharing your time Dean.

  5. I hope that self publishing becomes the norm, rather than traditional publishers bouncing back in a few years. Self pubbing is tons better and loads of fun. It’d be like if slavery came back. More than likely Amazon’s imprint Thomas and Mercer will attract its share of writers, but I hope writers will be able to enjoy this freedom for centuries to come.

    • dwsmith says:

      Christopher, actually my hope is down the line a normal professional fiction writer does both indie publishing and traditional publishing. Just as traditional publishing was the best way for the last 50 years, now things have swung back and indie publishing is the best for a time. With luck we will find a balance between the two. Eventually, but that’s just me hoping for the best result. Not predicting. (grin)

  6. I’m doing exactly everything you’ve recommended in this blog post, and the results have been exciting. My indie-published books are being considered for movies and TV shows, and daily sales of my self-published books recently increased 17X their original amount, with sales surpassing my goal for this month. It’s wonderful that indie- and self-publishing allows authors ways to retain control over publication of their work while the publishing field is changing at warp speed. Thanks for your fascinating, informative post on the “New World of Publishing.”

  7. Susan Shepherd says:

    @Rick Novy:

    Although you didn’t mention the number six specifically, your sentence “Say traditional publishing consolidates into three major publishing companies” indicates that you believe that outcome to be possible — that there are few enough major publishing companies that they could actually consolidate into that small a number.

    The truth is that there are many dozens of companies, but for whatever reason some people talk about “The Big Six” (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster) as though those companies and their imprints comprise most of publishing today.

    This simply isn’t the case, but naturally we assume that’s your opinion when you talk about all of the fiction publishers condensing down into three companies.

    Note that this isn’t your fault, or anyone’s fault, if we’ve misunderstood your views of publishing. It just happens that there are some interesting and years- or decades-long conversations that have been going on about the publishing world, and one of them is this odd idea that instead of hundreds of publishing companies out there, there are only six that matter. Because the conversation has been going on for a while, it’s easy to walk in, say something without intending to imply a particular worldview, and accidently happen to walk into what others see as a particularly weird myth.

    It’s just an odd result from walking into a long-running conversation. Like if you walked into a bunch of archeologist grad students at a bar and somehow mention birds as modern dinosaurs. An argument might seem to spontaneously erupt, simply because the grad students are aware of long-running debates on the topic that your average joe isn’t. And that’s fine. No bad reflection on you at all.

    Also, I definitely agree with you that there will be some interesting (if mostly behind-the-scenes) wrestling down the line, as healthy publishing companies try to court bestselling authors whose publishers didn’t make it. Makes me wonder how many bestselling writers will come up with their own versions of Pottermore, and start selling their work entirely independently, without even publishing through Amazon . . .

    Very interesting times to be living in. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • dwsmith says:

      Susan, exactly. Sorry, Rick, that’s what I thought you were coming from.

      And I have a hunch more and more bestsellers are going to jump to setting up their own companies. As much as some of the bestsellers make, an editor, publisher, art designer, and managing editor salaries are pocket change and setting up their own companies only makes good business sense. It will happen.

      • SPQR says:

        That’s what I think too, because there are some large bestseller authors whose revenue exceeds many successful small presses. Some of these authors are even smart enough to realize that if they created their own vertical publishing enterprise for their work, they’d end up with a larger cut.

  8. J. Tanner says:

    Dean said: “And I have a hunch more and more bestsellers are going to jump to setting up their own companies. As much as some of the bestsellers make, an editor, publisher, art designer, and managing editor salaries are pocket change and setting up their own companies only makes good business sense. It will happen.”

    I have wondered for years why the Steven Kings of the world didn’t just publish their own books ever since the Marvel star artists broke from Marvel and within months were set up publishing their own comics under the Image Comics banner. It just wasn’t that hard for them. Once the name brand is developed to that extent, it seemed like a poor business decision to keep giving 75%+ when your brand sells itself into the distribution channel.

  9. Eve Langlais says:

    I totally agree with most of your insights except for one. Not everyone can go indie right off the hop. I know I couldn’t have.

    For myself, I never tried to go traditional, I went straight to the small e-presses. And what a great learning experience that was and still is. I learned alot with the books I had published with them, enough that in the last few months I found myself confident and knowledgable enough to go out on my own.

    Of course, not all e-presses are made the same. Of the four I deal with, I love two, but will only continue to submit pieces to the one who offers me the best terms and whom I’ve enjoyed the greatest success with. For those who don’t know the industry at all, and who aren’t computer savvy, I think they are a great alternative for getting published.

    But that’s just my experience
    Eve :)

  10. David Barron says:

    This is pretty much the summary of all the research I’ve done in the year I’ve been doing this Writing thing. I now know enough to make a five year plan, but know enough to know that I don’t (and probably nobody does) know enough for that plan to be firm for longer than six months.

    Except for the part that says to “Write Like Crazy”.

  11. Dean, I feel I must protest.

    In what way is Indie Publishing scary?

    Maybe I’m not coming at this from the right perspective, because I’m not an “artist”. But man, I’ve been in real life situations that were scary.

    I ran a sailboat up on the rocks off the coast of Maine. I almost got swept out to sea in heavy waves off Hanama Bay when my buddy and I decided to go swimming and diving against advice. A submarine I was stationed on got really damn close to getting run down by a big (100,000 tons at least) merchant ship. I hit a patch of black ice at 4:30 in the morning on Interstate 95 and spun out in the middle of the road with tractor trailors bearing down on me. My diving buddy ran out of air at 60 feet. I found myself stranded in Korea, not knowing anyone except my college roommate who was an artillery officer somewhere on the DMZ, after I slept through my alarm and missed my flight. My daughter fell out of the car when she was 1 and landed on her head in our driveway. I got pulled over and only then learned that my license was suspended. My son had to have open heart surgery just a couple months ago (he’s doing great, no worries).

    I could go on, but you get the point. Those things were scary. Uploading a file and clicking “publish” is not. If writers think that’s scary, they need to man up, stop being “artists”, and say hello to the real world.

    • dwsmith says:

      LOL, Michael, I sure agree. Actually scary is when you take out most of city’s power when your chute gets tangled in high-tension power lines. (Long story.) So you are right, this isn’t really scary.

      But it is unknown for many and with their careers and dreams riding on the line, that feels scary. Very scary. Risking a dream and income to pay mortgage is real. And when risking it on what feels unknown, then it does produce real fear.

      But after the first one is up and done, you do “What was so hard about that?” And that is what I call “scary easy.” (grin)

      • SPQR says:

        I don’t think its scary so much as indie lacks the faux validation of being traditionally published.

        Because those who think that traditional publishing is validation don’t realize how the system abuses the beginner or midlist author.

  12. Thank you so much for this concise and timely post! I have been sitting on a gnarly fence post regarding publication of my YA memoir, STRAIGHTLING. I have interest from agents, which is the Holy Grail, right? But I’ve done a lot of research on self-pubbing, and am drawn to the control and $ percentages therein. So I have, no joke, been hoping to come across a good psychic, to wrench that fence post out of my butt and tell me which path to take. In the past two days, this post appeared, and JA Konrath’s “Are You Dense?” post reappeared, AND I learned internet mega-agent left agenting in favor of social media. You know, social media? The modern-day version of a book publicist? What a trifecta!

    Again, thanks for playing a hand in my fate. Donation coming with my new job’s first paycheck!

  13. Duh…that was supposed to be “internet mega-agent Nathan Bransford.” Drink coffee, THEN type, Cyndy.

  14. Steven Mohan says:

    Brilliant, Dean. I basically came to this conclusion some time ago. What convinced me was that the contracts NY publishers seam to be offering today are downright abusive. I suspect trying to lock up writers’ careers is a last-ditch stand by the old guard. I believe eventually the industry norm will shift to something more even-handed and pragmatic. Until then, my plan: write write write write write write write write and epub it on my own. : )

  15. Rick Novy says:

    Okay, I understand where you’re coming from.

    I used 3 companies as a number for the sake of discussion only. The number of large publishing companies isn’t really my point, it is the possible decrease in that number that is. And as has already been made clear, nobody really knows what will happen. I threw this out as one possible scenario.

    • dwsmith says:

      Rick, no doubt the number of companies, in my opinion, will drop for a time, and then new companies, better ones, faster ones, will grow into the gaps. And that won’t take long. It’s the growing demand for books that will keep the companies in place. But there will be big shifts. If this business makes it through the next two years without big shifts, I will be stunned. It might be possible, but highly unlikely. Especially as slow as some of these companies have reacted.

  16. Dean, do you have a certain length book in mind when it comes to print? I want to know if you think a novella ought to remain ebook only or if an author should keep a POD option available.

    • dwsmith says:


      We are putting novellas and short five-story collections out as trade paper books for $7.99 and making some nice sales on them. They run from 15,000 words to 25,000 words or so, which makes them in the 100-150 page range. We do them at trim size of 5.5 x 8.5 inch while we do the large novels at 6 x 9 inch size.

  17. Christian K says:

    @J. Turner
    Ahh Image Comics… That turned out well, now didn’t it? Image Comics as a company run by the founders only lasted a couple years. Image is a very good example of why I think most bestsellers will stay with large corporate publishers. The Image founders left Marvel in order to get a larger share of the royalties for the stories/characters they created i.e. what would be in a standard publishing contract. It started in ’92 after the exodus from Marvel and by 2000 only Eric Larsen was left; all the other founders had closed up shop, sold their business to other publishers, or were essentially retired. Most of them didn’t really want to run a business they just wanted to do their comics and not think about business. Oh and make a lot of money, they wanted that too. Those that did actually have a head for business (Jim Lee and Erik Larsen) now run 2 out of the top 3 Comics Publishers (the others did jean commercials and were suspected of embezzling, or bought baseball teams but that’s not really the point).

    Just look at any industry that has “Bestsellers” and you will see that most of the Bestsellers concentrate on the creative side and it’s the very rare exception that runs their own business. Some do try it, but they quickly realize that they can afford to have “people” for that. You will also see that the successful “Mid-list” HAS to know how to run their own business to survive. Bestsellers can afford not to.

    On a slightly different note… I have been thinking a lot about the Comics business lately. You have this industry that: Went through a major crash 15 years ago with the associated bankruptcies and consolidations. Now has a strong indie/self publishing market. Also they are able to survive with a maximum readership of 100K to 150K and a title considered to be “doing well” at around 20k – 30K. I think you can see a glimmer of the future of fiction publishing in the Marvel bankruptcy and rebirth, DC gobbling up smaller publishers and finally going date and date digital, the formation of Image, the success of licensed properties, the “real” money being made in other media (movies, games, statuary).

  18. John Walters says:

    I appreciate the clarity of this post, and I agree. It’s high time to take control. Once the work is out there, readers will eventually find it. I have come to the same conclusion about indie publishing, with one addition that Kris blogged about recently: for short story writers there are still markets worth selling to, and publication is good publicity that you get paid for at the same time.

    But apart from hitting the traditional markets for short stories, I am publishing my indie books and stories as fast as I can. It’s really not too difficult and a lot of fun.

  19. Raymond says:


    I’m not sure the guys at Image Comics are the best example of going independent. A look at Image and it’s history is a great example of how being indie can be scary too. For example, they learned the hard way that owning your own business means you need to run it. Their comics were often late and quality was across the board from good to very bad.

    In the end, Image is a lesson in knowing the task you are undertaking before you go indie. It’s not a “write it and they will come” scenario. It means you need to write it, publish it on your own, and then go find people to read it.

  20. J. Tanner says:

    RE: “@J. Turner”

    Doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right. DOH! :)

    I won’t dispute the history of Image you present, only your conclusions. True, Larsen turned out to be the only real purist of the original bunch. Some just got rich and bailed or couldn’t maintain momentum. But if you are offered the choice to publish and get the lion’s share of riches, or let someone else publish for you and they get the lion’s share, I’d say choose the former every time. To my knowledge, none of the original Image crew suffered financially from that choice and we know some made out like bandits.

  21. JohnMc says:

    With a shake out, a few eyes will be opened in the legacy pubs. What would prevent a Schuster from scanning the top 5% of indie sales for possible talent? —

    * The author has id’d a market niche.
    * The sequel might be as lucrative as the original.
    * Much of the back office work has already been done by the indie.
    * They work a deal more in balance with the risk and after 12-18 months the rights revert back to author.

    Still fits their book as fruit mentality. They still shuck a whole bunch of back office expense being as the indie is taking on that piece of the action. The agent is pretty much out of the loop in that arrangement as well as their %.

    • dwsmith says:

      JohnMc, already happening across publishing. All kinds of savings for the publisher, including a known sales record which means they don’t have to guess as much. And yes, when you mean back-office work, often proofing, blurbs, and so on are already done, sometimes if the author is good enough, even covers or cover art. A ton of savings in costs and a proven selling book. It’s already happening. Going the indie publishing route will be one way into traditional publishing in the future. Not the only way of course, but one way.

      And yup, with no agent, author gets more, and also if the publisher wants the book, author can get better terms like a sunset clause. Or just walk and let the book keep selling indie. Also author will have a real sense of how much the book is worth and will be worth.

  22. Paul says:

    Dean, don’t you think what is happening now is a good thing for writers? Not just for the balance of power shifting to the writers, but for the fact that writers will now have to treat writing as a business, instead of being looked after, to be able to be successful. And when everything settles down in the coming years, that new found experience of ‘running your own business’ will serve well when dealing with the new ‘Traditional publishers’ of the future.


    • dwsmith says:

      Paul, what is happening now is wonderful for writers in more ways than I can count. Of course, the writers who need to be taken care of will be hurt in this change, but as a group this huge change in publishing will teach a vast number of writers to stand on their own feet, will teach them about business, and will give them a position of power again to bargain from. This is all wonderful in my opinion. And as I have said often, great fun.

  23. @John & @Dean

    It sure is happening already. UK indies Mark Edwards & Louise Voss just signed a six-figure deal with Harper Collins. J Carson Black just signed a deal with Thomas & Mercer (joining Konrath, Eisler, and Crouch in the stable).

    They were the headline ones in the last few weeks, but there have been plenty more. Lots of agents are hunting in the Kindle rankings for indies too. Trident have signed five in recent months. Foreign publishers are sizing up indie talent also. Every few weeks on Kindle Boards there is an indie checking out the background of a foreign publisher that is interested in rights.

  24. @Dean

    I think the last point in your last comment is very important. When a publisher comes looking for an indie (usually on the back of strong sales), that writer is then dealing from a position of power, and has an excellent Plan B (walk away from the deal and keep selling lots of e-books).

    It’s a far different position from the writer hoping and praying to get plucked out of the slush pile, and the deals being announced reflect that, of course.

  25. I really appreciate what you and Kris do. I also use your free fiction to verify my own efforts.

    Thanks so much.

  26. You make very good points. We did try the traditional route and found ourselves frustrated with the “no simultaneous submissions” rule. It might take a publisher six months or longer to consider our manuscript, thereby keeping us tied up while we waited. Sure, we could have disregarded the rule, but we tried to play it straight. Eventually, we decided to give self-publishing a try. It’s too soon to tell how it will work out, but we love several things about it: having full control, the speed with which it is done, and the surprisingly high quality of the product.

  27. Michael Kingswood: “In what way is Indie Publishing scary?”

    Since the thread has taken a bit of a Comics turn, I’ll quote Stan Lee from Amazing Fantasy #15 (first appearance of Spider-Man):
    “With great power comes great responsibility.” And responsibility scares lots of people. They want the power and the rewards, but they don’t want the responsibility. They want the easy part without the hard part. And the hard part is not the self-publishing: it’s the self-reliance.

  28. Dave Raines says:

    Martin L. Shoemaker wrote: “the hard part is not the self-publishing: it’s the self-reliance.”

    Yes, but. [A phrase which moves the plot along!] I see parallels between what’s happening now and the old apprenticeship system. Somebody has the skills I need and I follow them in order to learn. Okay, I don’t produce anything Dean could sell, so technically not an apprentice… All analogies break down somewhere. But I feel like an apprentice, learning from great writers in my writing group, and certainly online.

    Writers mentored other writers in the old days too, though with different tasks. Self-reliance, yes, but we’re not in it alone.

  29. My concern is that someone will see dollar signs in indie publishing and take steps to corral them away from writers. Specifically, I’m worried that big retailers like Amazon will decide that it’s not enough to own Createspace; they may decide to carry indie books *only* printed by Createspace. They may decide to start requiring exclusive printing rights — I can self-publish a novel on Createspace/Amazon, but they won’t carry it on the website if I also publish it somewhere else, like Smashwords or PubIt. I find it suspicious that Amazon is dragging its feet on linking to Smashwords; right now you can convert a book to Kindle format on Smashwords but Smashwords cannot send it to the Amazon catalog. What’s up with that?

    Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I think there will be at least one attempt to lock writers into ironclad non-compete contracts by at least one retailer, and we’ll have to weather that storm as well.

    Otherwise, I totally agree with all your above points. I have already published some indie projects, but was holding on to one which I had submitted to a trad publisher. Yet every day, I keep thinking “Even if they offered to buy the book, what kind of terms am I likely to get?” So rather than wait six months to two years for an answer I am inclined to put the book up and see what happens.

    Thanks again for your insight, Dean

    • dwsmith says:


      There is not one ounce of business reasons why Amazon or any other retailer would do something like that. They are out to make money, not limit their money. And remember, traditional publishers are limited in book shelf and their methods, an electronic book or a POD book TAKES NO ROOM, thus the more inventory anyone can have, the better off they are, the more chances of something selling. There is ZERO reason for any seller to limit inventory in this new world. That would just be bad business and no matter what you think of Amazon, they are decent at increasing inventory as fast as they can.

      • SPQR says:

        Exactly, Dean, Amazon has shown that it thinks that sharing its sales platform, even with outfits selling directly competitive products, is beneficial to Amazon. Amazon does not seem to arbitrarily adopt exclusionary policies.

        They just want people to find something to buy on Amazon.

  30. Very interesting post, Dean. And some interesting comments.
    I self-published a book in 1986. I was doing a writing seminar at the time called Write For Your Life and I wanted a book version of it, to sell at the seminar and, more important, to make the material available to people who couldn’t attend a session. I wanted it in a hurry and I wanted it my way, and my own publisher might have done it, but I didn’t even ask him. I got his production guy to shepherd the book through on a freelance basis, and I saved money by not hiring a copy editor because I didn’t want to have to write STET all over the thing to get it back the way I wanted it. I got the books in two months instead of a year and a half, and I had them print 5000 copies and I sold 4900 of them. At this point I think I’ve got about 20 left.

    It was in many respects a pain in the neck, schlepping books to the Post Office, writing off bad checks, but it was fun, too, and enormously satisfying, because I’d always had self-publishing fantasies and so did most of my writer friends. I was glad what I did worked, even though I barely knew what was doing, but I certainly wasn’t going to try it with fiction or anything that had to be sold in bookstores. For that you needed a publisher.

    Then eBooks came along and the world turned upside-down. The whole publishing landscape changes every fifteen minutes these days. I think the defensive strategy you advocate is spot on: write the books, find a way to publish that doesn’t tie you up or tie you down, and see how things sort themselves out.

    Three years ago half the writers I knew had been dropped by their corporate publishers and figured the world was coming to an end. I’m not sure it isn’t, but they’re getting by, and finding new ways to get their work to readers.

    The Chinese have a curse, of which I’ve heard two versions: May you live in interesting times, or May your children live in interesting times. I’d say we already do, and our children surely will. And if its a curse, well, it’s a blessing, too.

    This is long, Dean, and it had better be inconclusive in the bargain, because I don’t begin to have a conclusion for it all. No hard feelings if you’d rather not publish it.


    • dwsmith says:

      Larry, anything you want to write here is great by me.

      Back about the time you did that book, I actually bought a short story from you for a line of books I was publishing called Short Story Paperbacks, and I think Ed Gorman had talked to you about an Author’s Choice collection that I was working on through Mystery Scene Press. (Marty and Ed and Kris Rusch and I were doing the press. We folded it before we got to your collection I’m afraid.) Anyhow, back then doing a specialty press like my Pulphouse Press, or the Mystery Scene Press was just like being an self-published author, only we published others. (Looking back I wish I had done a few of my own books. (grin))

      Kris and I are doing something different this month. We are doing “book cards” for the first time. I’m doing one that’s a short story collection of mine and Kris is doing the first book of her fantasy Fey series. We have the books in electronic form, and in POD form, and now “Book Card” form. A brand new form in publishing. Not kidding. It’s basically like having a cover of a trade paper (front and back, folded in half no spine 5.5 x 8.5) that is the book. Then inside we have a sample of the first page on the right hand inside cover and a gift-card-like card glued inside on the left hand side. (A code on the back of the card allows people to download the book in any format.)

      Having a book card allows people to actually hold something like a book to buy an electronic book. With luck, this should help bookstores as publishers calm down and pick up this new form. I’ll put up pictures of what they look like and let everyone know how it went with dealers after the World Science Fiction Convention in the middle of August. And the costs. I am taking one of my Poker Boy collections, so going to show a few casino gift shops as well since Worldcon is in Reno. That might get interesting, might be a flop.

      Not sure why I went off on that tangent, other than the fact that I am working on the last Book Card cover right now and am excited. (grin)

      Thanks for the comment, Larry. This really is a fun new world.

  31. Camille says:

    The thing to remember about big scary Amazon, is what they are telling their stock holders. They aren’t out to limit indies in any way shape or form. Doing so would seriously hurt their entire strategy and allow their competitors to catch up with them.

    Amazon doesn’t see itself as a retailer. It sees itself as a _search company_ which makes all products in the universe available to all customers. They want everybody to always be able to find exactly what they want at Amazon — to never ever have to go any place else, and therefore never think of going any place else.

    That reliability is the most important thing in their business, and nothing else matters.

    Also, you’ve got to remember that they make good money off people who publish a book which only sells to their mom and best friends. Or people who publish a book and buy it themselves. Indies, to them, are customers.

    Also remember that their business is MUCH bigger than the publishing arm. Much much bigger.

  32. Hi Dean,

    I was getting so many requests for referrals via private email, I decided to put a directory of literary lawyers on my website. Just posted. These five lawyers can all be considered personal referrals from me, if anyone’s interested. I will update the list as I get more recommendations from friends who’ve dealt with other literary lawyers.

    FYI, here’s the links:

    Or the tiny URL:

    Laura Resnick

  33. And just to add to Camille’s point, some people are worried that Amazon will start selling virtual “co-op” to the large publishers, and reducing the visibility of indie books (and we are seeing a little of that starting with Apple and B&N).

    I don’t think that will ever happen with Amazon. They have spent a lot of time and money developing a very powerful algorithm that will display the books to you (in also boughts, customer also viewed etc.) that you are most likely to purchase.

    If they start selling those spots to the highest bidder (i.e. the large publishers), they will, by definition, be showing you a book you are LESS likely to buy.

    That’s the model Yahoo went for with search ads. Google went the other way. Google won. Amazon know this. Indies should stop worrying.

  34. JohnMc says:

    Camille is spot on with the comment. I would also point out that it is way too easy to set up a ecommerce platform these days. Practically any Web designer does the infrastructure in their sleep. It would be to Amazon’s risk to lose a prime segment of their business ticking off their suppliers.

  35. Alex Hajicek says:

    Thank you Dean.

    Thank everyone for the insightful comments.

    I’m so sick of the “sky is falling” attitude I’ve been getting from authors…even successful ones.

    For once authors have control over there work and they get all “drama queen.”

    “No this can’t last forever! Blah blah blah. All ebooks will be free in the next 5 days. We’ll all be working at Walmart.”

    Power struggles and finally the true value add, the writers get the upper hand and they can’t handle the opportunities that are falling into their laps.

    I’m back to writing! (grin)

    I love you all,
    Alex Hajicek

    • dwsmith says:

      Alex, actually, for authors trapped inside traditional publishing and all agents and many editors, the sky really is falling. But those of us standing off to one side and watching are seeing a brand new, very open sky with lots and lots of ways of making a living for a very long time.

      So those people are not lying. The sky is falling for them. But beyond the tattered pieces of the old sky is a new one. Some of those people, due to myths or just job description, won’t make it to the new sky, but many of us will.

      So don’t be mad at those whose perspective tells them the sky is falling because it actually is.

      Think of it this way. Some of us are standing outside in the sunshine while others are in an old building that is coming down on their heads.

  36. Camille says:

    To take what Dick G. says a little futher:

    I actually DO expect to see Amazon offering some sort of co-op deals… but it will just be window dressing and make the big publishers happy (and get more income for Amazon).

    The thing is, Amazon’s bread and butter, as Dick says, is the algorithm. They will not do anything to harm that. And the whole point of that is the long tail. Unusual, small products, anything you could want.

    In traditional bookselling, the back of the store was just a way to make the front of the store look good. That’s why they freely churn backlists and midlist authors. Those big front of the store displays were then critical to selling books.

    With Amazon, it’s a whole different ball game. They want to do everything for everyone. So yes, they have front of the store displays, and those screensaver ads and all that. They also spend a huge amount of money on their associates plan (giving people commissions even on things they don’t sell — why do they do that? because it’s smart). They will use every promotional tool they can possibly use.

    And that will mean special pages for publishers who want them, and possibly even front page placement. They are eager to help anyone market products — from the smallest blogger with an associates link to the biggest publisher.

    But they aren’t going to undercut their algorithm. That would be like Superman deciding not to use any of his superpowers any more because he wants to keep up with the competition, and Lex Luthor doesn’t use superpowers.

  37. @Camille

    I agree that Amazon will throw them a bone or two, as you described, but that they won’t cook the bestseller list or game the algorithm like we are already seeing at Barnes & Noble.

  38. Dean, thank you, thank you, thank you for this. THIS is what I’ve been trying to tell people. Only you said it much better than I think I have.

  39. Julie Long says:

    Insightful post, Dean. I feel really comfortable with the “write like crazy” part of the equation, but to me the self-publishing part feels as unsettled as traditional. It’s a whirling mass of potential that needs to be harnessed and some of us don’t feel up to the challenge or particularly enjoy it. I’m wondering about applying your “hold” advice to self-pubbing as well. My thought is to focus on my craft and “stockpile” work for the next 2 years and then, when the dust has settled all the way around, release several titles into the (hopefully by then reinvented) publishing world in whatever way makes sense. Of course that means no making money in the short term, but assuming one is making money other ways, would you think this strategy crazy? I’d appreciate your thoughts.

    • dwsmith says:

      Julie, why would you ever let good material just sit and make you no money??? So yup, I think that idea is not a real good one. We writers have done that enough over the years by allowing traditional publishers to hold manuscripts for so long without making a decision. It’s time we started to get out inventory into action as a business.

      As for indie-publishing being unsettled, well, sure, it’s a growing part of this business, no doubt, and players will come and go, sure. But the risk to writers is just about zero. A few hours time, a few bucks here and there for a cover art or a special program in CreateSpace, but not much else. Zero risk, easy cash flow.

      Will things be bumpy at times in indie publishing? Yes, but we are only dealing with distributors and they have no interest (meaning hold on copyright) of our work, where you sell your book to a traditional publisher and they go down, they control your work and that’s a HUGE risk. So sort of comparing white rabbits with spoiled fruit. Indie publishing keeps the control and ownership in your hands (unless you do something really stupid like have your agent publish you). Traditional publishing you are giving over control of your work to company that might not exist in a half year.

      See the difference. A bookstore is a distributor. Just because a bookstore goes down doesn’t mean you don’t still control your own work. Smashwords, Kindle, B&N and so on are all just distributors, bookstores. Nothing more, thus you hold control at all times. All safe.

  40. TJ says:

    Holly Lisle just announced that she was dropping out of trad pub to go indie today.

  41. Alex Hajicek says:

    Hey Dean,

    I agree 100% with what you’re saying but I wasn’t talking about traditional publishing (although they are crying right now (and for good reason))

    I meant Indie authors that are making a GOOD living. I keep hearing talk about how everyone will be priced at 99 cents then everything will be free….

    uh WHAT? Yes not only will ebooks be 99 cents but then that won’t even be good enough.

    Do any of these people READ? I’m sorry…

    RA Salvatore comes out with a book. I don’t care if its 25 dollars. I’m spending my money on him…

    Because book’s aren’t indistinguishable commodity and I like his work….ugh

    Writers need to stop acting like they are selling corn. Heck even Starbucks was able to make a commodity (Coffee Beans) into a premium product.

    Anyways, I really appreciate the positive attitude and general sanity here.

    Everyone else is so bitter and negative. In failure and in SUCCESS.

    I don’t see everyone selling their stuff for 10 cents a song on Itunes and *gasp* indies can easily get their music uploaded there.

    So Itunes found a profitable model but when books go digital within 5 years no one will pay for one…oh really. (rolls eyes)

    Alex Hajicek

  42. Thanks, everyone, for all the reassurance re: Amazon. I guess my anti-corporate hippie self still lives inside this budding entrepreneur somewhere. :)

    Dean, I wonder if you could give us some advice at some point re: ISBNs. I’m having the dickens of a time figuring out whether to buy my own, or let the PODs assign them for free. If I go the latter route, potentially I would have several POD outfits selling the same book under different ISBNs. I’ve done all the research I can, but there’s nothing like hearing it from the Voice Of Experience. How do you handle ISBNs? I hope it’s okay to post this question here.


    • dwsmith says:

      Sarah, all states of all books need different ISBNs. They are just a book sorting number, nothing more, and it makes little difference what the number is. Amazon and Pubit give you one of their own tracking numbers. CreateSpace for the PODs will either give you a free ISBN or you can buy one for $10.00 depending on a reference listing of who is the “technical” publisher. (Means little if anything.) Smashwords also gives out free ISBNs or you can buy them for $10.00 each.

      I have on Trek novel, still in print after 17 years, that when I get a royalty report, it shows 23 different ISBN tracking numbers. (Every time it changes state or even cover, it gets a new ISBN number for their tracking systems in the royalty area.)

      So do what you want, but my suggestion, go cheap. They are just not that important.

  43. Linda Banche says:

    I certainly hope publishers go back to accepting books directly from authors. I never liked the idea of an agent telling me to rewrite a book. Even if I did rewrite, the agent wasn’t guaranteeing me a sale. And if the book never sold, I wasted my time rewriting when I could have written something new.

    I firmly believe the readers should decide which are the good books. Readers are smart. They’ll find the good books. Why do I need a gatekeeper to decide for them? The gatekeepers are readers, too, with their likes and dislikes. And they don’t necessarily like what I like.

    I’m just as scared as anyone of the new publishing world. I’m relatively new and e-pubbed only, which has given me some flak from the traditionally published. But, just maybe I started out the right way. Good luck to all, me included.

    • dwsmith says:


      Editors never stopped accepting books directly from writers. They just put it in their guidelines like the old guideline. But nothing changed. You send a novel to an editor with the right package and something they might buy and they will look at it. Form rejections tell you to get an agent, but those are only form rejections. If they like it, they will write you or make you an offer. All the writers who believed in the guidelines of publishers deserve what they got with agents. But that’s me being harsh. Writers are people who take chances and don’t follow rules. If you are the type of person who can’t go against a simple guideline, being a fiction writer is going to be tough.

      And I agree with you, readers should decide what’s good and what isn’t, thus why I love indie publishing, which includes not only electronic publishing, but print publishing.

  44. Scott McGlasson says:

    (hat tip to Sarah Hoyt for the link)

    Excellent post, Dean.

    The number of things you need to know is indeed intimidating…more a learning cliff than a curve…but if you take each one separately, they’re really not that difficult to master. Aside from graphic art, that is. No way I’m going near that other that to say, “Yes, I like that,” or, “No, there are no green pixie fairies in this title”.

    Merciless self-promotion right up to and probably tip-toeing on annoying seems to be a key ingredient. I’m nothing if not mercilessly almost annoying.

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