The Shiny New Devil You Know: Part 1…


…or, So You Want a Traditional Publisher

For the purposes of this blog, I’m identifying “traditional publishing” as the major New York houses and a handful of other major players in the publishing industry with a long history, large staffs, and national and/or international print book distribution.  These companies are collectively referred to as the “Big Six” (there are more than six of them, but we’ll leave that alone for now).

University presses and established small literary presses occupy a special niche in the publishing world; their business models have some similarities to the Big Six, although they operate on a much smaller scale and with some notable differences in business practices. For example, these presses aren’t typically interested in “locking down” an author’s future work.

I’ll be using “independent publishers” to mean — well, anyone else in the business of producing books in print or electronic formats.  This is a blanket term, and that blanket is huge. “Indies” may be companies which are extremely professional at every turn; outright scams which manipulate authors out of thousands of dollars; or any other publishers which don’t quite fit into the traditional or small press categories.

Full-on vanity presses are a completely different animal, at least in my head; and since it’s my blog, they’re my rules. Vanity presses are presses, not publishers: they charge a flat fee to print x number of copies, usually with a minimum run in the hundreds, of a book which you then have delivered directly to your house, hand out to your family and friends, sell at community bake sales, and eventually relegate to the garage. They don’t offer “marketing packages”, they won’t tweet about your Great American Novel, and they don’t have electronic format options. They’re also nearly extinct. Most of the old vanity presses saw the pixels on the digital wall long before the rest of us and moved (with varying levels of success and integrity) into one of the indie models described above.

Self-publishing is when the author takes control of every step of the process: even if she farms out editorial and design work or other tasks, she interviews and hires the people who handle this work.  With self-publishing, the author again pays a flat fee for any work she doesn’t do herself and all money from sales the completed book, minus processing fees for sales outlets like Amazon, is hers.

Not everyone will agree with these broad definitions, but I’ll be narrowing some of them later.  For now I’m going with: traditional, university, small and independent publishers. We also have vanity presses. There are reasons – some excellent, others less so – that authors choose to go with each of these models.

Before I get into things to keep in mind when seeking out an independent publisher, let’s talk about why so many authors are looking for alternatives to traditional publishing.

Traditional publishing has some great things to offer writers: editorial and design oversight, marketing teams (well, for some books), cash up front, and national distribution of print books to brick-and-mortar stores. Because of their editorial and design oversight, traditionally published books also seem more respectable to many authors and readers (although fewer readers than in the past, as we’ll see later) than independent or self-published books.

That’s a lot of work that authors won’t have to do or oversee themselves, and it’s all available at no cost to the author.

Why would any new or emerging writer want to sidestep traditional publishing?


Breaking into traditional publishing can take years. Even as recently as 2009, most writers took clearly defined steps to get published: write a book, send it out, get an agent, dance, wait as the agent shopped it around, sign a contract with one of the Big Six, dance, revise, revise again, wait, wait, wait, receive author’s copies, dance. It could take years to find a publisher and another year or two for that first book to get into print.

Those steps haven’t changed much, although agents are arguably less important to the process than they once were. It can still take years from typing “The End” to seeing those words on the final page of the completed book. The sheer amount of time it takes to land that first publishing contract is still enough to discourage many hopefuls. Today, however, the terms of that first contract can lead to even more frustration than the waiting — which takes us to our next reason a writer may deep six the Big Six:

Terrible Contract Terms

Quickie disclaimer: I have actually seen only a very few of the sorts of contracts I’ll be describing here. I don’t know how prevalent these terms are, particularly with established midlist or bestselling authors.  I do know that every single new author whose contract I’ve seen (again, not that many but certainly more than I can count on both hands) has been offered one or more of these awful contract terms from major publishing houses:

  • Undefined rights reversions –this can be interpreted to mean that the publisher owns rights to that work forever; by the time you’re successful enough to want those rights back there’s also a good chance you’ll be successful enough that they’ll never ever want to give them up.
  • The right to use the author’s characters and world as the publisher sees fit, in perpetuity.  Yes, the authors get paid for such licensing.  No, authors aren’t cut in on any actual profit; this is typically a laughable one-time payment sort of thing.  In other words, should the publisher in question decide to license out your no-nonsense heroine as a hentai icon…well, she won’t be the only one getting viciously boned.
  • “Reasonable shared rights” of a completely undefined nature  (yes, really). I can barely even get my head around how evil this is.  Essentially, with this contract the publisher can do whatever the hell they want with your piece forever (picture a line of cock rings named after your gunslinger and with the title of your book and your name right on the box; now, picture their lawyers telling you it’s all part of their marketing push and you’re welcome). They also get a “reasonable” cut of anything you may decide to do with the piece at a later date, but you won’t know what they think is reasonable until their lawyers start calling.
  • Clauses which cut the publisher in on a percentage of the profits from any future use of the author’s characters or world — sometimes for the purchased work; in other cases, for all future work by the author (!).

That last one is especially troubling, not least because the three times I’ve actually seen these clauses the wording was particularly insidious: all three times, it was buried in a half-page-long subsection of related legalese and would have been very difficult to spot if I hadn’t been specifically looking for it.  If a contract from Publisher A contains that clause and you sign it, then even when you move on to Publisher B you’ll be paying a cut of the profit from any work you do involving those characters and world — or, worse, any writing you ever do — to Publisher A forever.

Yikes! Screw those guys, I’m off to Lulu.

Everybody just simmer down.

New and emerging authors can still get decent contract terms from the Big Six (okay: maybe not so much as pertains to the electronic versions of their books, but that’s a conversation for a later post).  Since 2010, I’ve seen several traditional publishing contracts for writers with three or fewer published books that don’t contain any of these terrifying clauses.  In two cases, however, the authors in question had to shop their books around; both of them turned down offers which looked pretty good at first glance to get reasonable terms.

Traditional publishing is still worth pursuing for new and emerging authors, especially because they have all of that lovely print distribution we discussed earlier.  I’d argue that except in very rare cases, though, we newer authors should only approach the Big Six after we’ve had significant, measurable success in other publishing outlets: this will give us the leverage we’ll need to negotiate the best contract terms possible.

How we go about laying the groundwork for that success will be addressed throughout this series.  Thanks to everyone for the comments and private emails so far, and I’ll see y’all on Wednesday.


  1. So why exactly are so many writers so eager to get in with these guys?? I get so frustrated with people turning their noses up at my work because Dreamspinner is “just a small press” (it’s actually pretty big comparitively–they even pay an advance. It’s not huge, but it feels good to get!) Even the smaller presses I looked at still had some pretty awesome terms, including no nonesense contracts, royalties of 25% (some higher), and oh yeah, not selling your soul! Yikes is right. If/when I decide to write in another genre, I’m far more likely to stay with a small/indie press than I am even try dealing with the Big Guys. I’d also rather be a small fish in a pond (where my publisher and editors actually know my name) than a minnow in an ocean’s worth of huge fish where nobody is going to know who I am.

    • Hi Helen, thanks for commenting!

      I think two things are going on: first of all, there’s still a certain amount of romance involved in being published through one of the Big Six (like any romance, it ends quickly once you realize your partner’s blown through all of your money!). I also think that the incompetent small presses, indies, and self-publishers — I’m not talking about the professionals here, but the ones who really don’t care what the end product looks like — have done such terrible work that new writers who came up during trad pub’s heyday hesitate to align themselves (however distantly) with such shoddy output.


      btw, y’all: Dreamspinner is one of the better indies and they’ve definitely done well by Helen; if you’re into reading (or writing!) gay romance, check ’em out.

  2. Great information. And for those of us trying to make writing a long term career, this is very useful. But I suspect that a lot of writers view publication like a beginning actor looks at getting a part in a movie or TV show–I got it! I don’t really care what the deal is now because I’m on my way to fame and glory. Part of the reason we write is to see our names up at the top of the story or essay, and if we’re not careful, we can let that influence our decisions too much.

    Looking forward to the rest of this series.

    • Joe, I appreciate the comment. I agree that a lot of writers fall prey to that mentality, but that isn’t always a good way to look at things.

      Actors are in an industry where it’s generally accepted that most newbies a) will be kind of awful and b) make good camera fodder for low-budget shlockfests like “Sharktopus”. Not only is it okay to be a terrible actor in a crappy film when you’re just starting out, your shameful stint in that piece of dreck may even be celebrated if you should reach Lifetime Award status.

      This isn’t the case with writers. The viewing public understands that if they stumble across, say, a James Spader film from the 70s he isn’t going to have anywhere near the screen presence he had in Boston Legal (I’m not weirdly obsessed with James Spader or anything; this happened to me last week…lord, was he awful).

      When the average reader who’s just finished a mature author’s latest work then discovers the forty or so books in that writer’s backlist, on some level she is expecting an experience similar to (or even better than) the one she had with the latest work. That just won’t be the case; even a phenom’s craft improves over time, and authors often want to explore completely different themes and even writing styles over the course of their careers.

      Most readers will overlook far more instances of tired tropes or unfortunate experimentation in an author’s early work than they will forgive the sorts of errors which fill books produced by scam publishers: if enough homophones and spelling or grammatical errors make it through copy editing, most readers will ditch the book — and, often, the author — forever. Our work also has the chance of being anthologized down the line; but consider how much more likely it is to get selected for anthologies if your work is in a better publication in the first place, and how much less work it would be to anthologize a fully professional story than one with little or no editing and/or crappy production values.

      I understand the push for publication in any form but it’s in our best long-term interests to go with companies that will produce the best possible books or magazines every time (without screwing us over to get there), rather than to just amass as many credits as possible without regard to the source.


  3. Thanks for taking the time to share all this. I used to think I had a small handle on the publishing industry, but boy have times changed!.

    • I know what you mean! This is an exciting time, though; one day we’ll be able to say we got in on the — well, maybe not the ground floor — but certainly the cafeteria level.

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