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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