What I Miss About Traditional Publishing

Although I am now an indie author, I was traditionally published—i.e. published by big publishing houses based in New York City—for twenty years. It was almost exactly the twentieth anniversary of my first sale when I stepped away from traditional publishing. I sold my first book to a publisher in April 1992, and declined the offer from my last publisher in March 2012.

In the last five years, I’ve repackaged and republished a lot of backlist titles (because the rights have reverted to me from the original publishers) and also have published a good bit of new work myself. The last three books in the Dragonfire series were indie-published, as was the True Love Brides series of medieval romances, as was Tupperman’s story, Abyss. Indie publishing gave me the opportunity to finish series that wouldn’t have been possible in traditional publishing. Five years ago, I thought that would be my main use of indie publishing, but now I’m launching new series. It’s wonderful to begin fresh, and to have the freedom to play with some story elements, too. The Crusader’s Bride, first in my new medieval romance series, is a completely new project with a series structure I’ve wanted to explore for a while. I have two more series in work, also with an unusual structure, and am loving the creative adventure. I’m pretty sure that none of these series could have been placed with a traditional publisher with favorable terms. Indie publishing has helped me to rediscover the joy of writing and storytelling.

That said, there are things I miss about traditional publishing.

1/ Conversation
Most of the people I worked with in publishing were very clever and well-educated. They were interesting, whether talking about books or not. Although going to New York to meet with industry partners could be stressful, it was also often fascinating. I particularly miss talking to my agent, who had seen much and understood more. His insight was invaluable. I also miss the great gossipy chats I would have with some editors when we met in person, catching up on who was doing what and all the news in the tiny pond of romance publishing.

2/ Expertise
There are things that big publishing houses do well, and which they continue to do best. The multi-national release of a blockbuster book, for example, requires skill and timing, as well as a kind of synchronization that is pretty much impossible for indie authors to manage alone. Very few authors write international blockbuster hits, so this doesn’t have much to do with most of us.

One of the things even the newest debut author sees with a big publishing house, though, is their collection and analysis of data. Having a large cache of sales information in a particular market niche gives big publishers the opportunity to discern patterns, even in sub-genre niches, to compare packages and tropes and author voices to try to identify what contributes to success. They can shape what they buy based on what they know they can sell, and they usually can articulate this very well. Like all powers, this one can be used badly—an editor can either build upon a given book’s strengths to make it appeal more strongly to the market without changing its essence, or an editor can insist that everything he or she acquires for publication fits a specific template, whether or not that destroys the work (or the author.) In recent years, the latter perspective seems to have become dominant.

So, I miss the consultations and the expertise the way it was offered fifteen or twenty years ago. This is because I have too many ideas. I truly think of several story ideas per day. It’s just not possible for me to write them all. Even if I could write a book in a month (and I can’t) and do it every month, there’d be at least (365-12) 350 ideas per year abandoned beneath my desk to die. I love all of my ideas, and I could make them all into good books. Choosing which is the most marketable or the most likely to succeed is a skill I don’t have, because I’m not sufficiently objective about my own work when it’s in sharp focus. In five years, I could choose, but it would be irrelevant by then. Another variable to consider: sometimes the book an author has to write isn’t the one that will propel his or her career forward, but will build his or her writing skills instead. It’s good, though, to make an informed choice. I miss being able to tap into that wealth of expertise in order to make the best decision.

3/ The Production Cycle
The production cycle for a book in traditional publishing was at least partly driven by the steps necessary to print a physical book and distribute it. It tended to be about a year, from the final delivery of the book manuscript to its on-sale date. Of course, things have been stepped up (in some cases, at some houses) for digital publications to get to market sooner, but still, I miss the steady incremental progress of a book through the production cycle. Each book would come back to me at least three times for review, which gave plenty of opportunity to ferret out inconsistencies and typos. I would know a year in advance, if not more, what my publication schedule would be. That seems so leisurely to me now, like something from another universe.

In a way, it is. The current market demands that authors and publishers be more nimble, because trends come and go very quickly. I’ve used the past tense in the paragraph above, because I’m not sure that even traditional print houses work at this pace anymore. There’s still a big difference in indie, though. Indie authors often finish and edit a book, then publish it immediately.

There must be a happy middle ground between tomorrow and a year from tomorrow. I follow many of the steps I learned in traditional publishing, but they tend to be done more quickly. I’ve yet to entirely catch up. One of the reasons I’m on a big writing push this summer is to get ahead of the curve a bit, and stockpile some projects for publication in 2016. I’d like to be less rushed in the last month before publication and to be able to sit back, all ready for release day. I’d like to be able to let a story simmer for a while, sit untended while I review its logic.

I also would like to maintain good relationships with my current partners. One of the things that happens in traditional publishing is that authors who manage to perform a miracle and pull something together in a ridiculously tight time frame tend to be rewarded by being expected to perform miracles again. And again and again. It’s not pleasant to be taken for granted, or to know that your partner will always demand too much. I want to be kind to my partners and build even more time into my production cycle.

4/ Print Distribution
I have a considerable readership who likes print books. I like them, too, both as a reader and as an author. Print distribution gives a book visibility in the world beyond online sales portals. That visibility drives sales, by encouraging impulse buys and prompting memory. Granted, print distribution from traditional publishers is more difficult to gain than it once was, but it’s even harder to get physical distribution for an indie-published book.

Because most indie print books are print on demand, there’s no big print run of copies. You don’t need that when you don’t have print distribution: orders can be filled one at a time. But another issue for me is the look of the book itself. POD products are better than they used to be, but I miss the special finishes (like foil stamping or tinted varnish, rag edged pages, step-backs, printing on the interior of the cover, etc. etc.) that are only possible for traditionally printed books, produced in quantity.

I miss my ‘shiny’. I’ll keep looking for it.

5/ What’s Done Is Done
In traditional publishing, once a book is in page proofs (two or three months before the release date) it’s essentially done. It’s hard to make changes at that point, because it’s expensive to update typesetting and reburn printing plates. From that point, the book will be as it is. There won’t be revisions, even if a typo is found. There won’t be updates to the front and end matter. There won’t be a new cover, even if the first one doesn’t appeal to consumers. The cover copy won’t be revised. The book is made the best it can be at that point in time, then left to sink or swim. The machinery of publishing moves on to the next project. The author has already moved on to the next project. Only when there’s a new edition of a book some years later will any updates and revisions happen. Most books don’t go into second editions.

Of course, much of this derives from print publishing and the realities (and cost) of making changes to an existing physical book. Some of it also comes from big publishing companies needing to manage their lists and continue to move forward. Indie authors, in contrast, tend to update their book files (both digital and POD) much more aggressively, as well as their metadata. In essence, the entire list of an indie author can be always in transition. Front and back matter can be updated, typos can be corrected, scenes can be added, covers can be changed and links can be updated. The book is a fluid canvas and one that can always be revised. In a way, this is exciting. In another, it’s exhausting. As an author’s book list grows longer, the obligation of doing this upkeep can become quite burdensome.

I miss the finality of a traditionally published book’s publication date, and the ability to move forward instead of constantly revisiting the past. My formatter and I do an annual update of front and end matter in my digital books, although I don’t do the same with my POD book files. They are snapshots in time, like my traditionally published books. This annual update is becoming quite an exercise, given the amount of content I manage, so I might make it a biannual revision after 2015. We’ll see.

6/ Someone To Say ‘No’
This is the big one. It’s counter-intuitive to most indie authors, and even to many authors who come from traditional publishing. One of the things I love about indie publishing is the freedom. It’s very liberating to not have anyone to shoot down your ideas, to be able to play with different formats of stories or different genres, to take a chance on an idea and see how it flies. That power restores our ability to take a chance on an idea that just won’t let go of our imagination.

But who will tell an indie author if he or she has it totally wrong? As tedious as it can be to build consensus, there is merit in listening to other voices. Where will I find that voice? Everyone I consult in this market is being paid by me. I’m the client of my freelance editor, which reverses the balance of power between us. Just as in the traditional publishing market, I couldn’t tell my editor that I wouldn’t make change X to my book (or do it by Y date), my editor now can’t tell me to make change X. A freelance editor might believe she can’t tell a client indie author things that author won’t want to hear.

Power is held by the one who pays. We salute the ability of indie authors to write what they want, how they want, and publish it as they want, but the marketing of books is complicated. There are stories that can be improved—not changed into something else, but edited into better versions of themselves. There are covers that don’t appeal to the right consumer. There are stories that don’t build on the author’s established brand, and might even compromise it. The diversification of an author brand, the building of its audience, the management of the graphical branding are all careful balancing acts. It’s better to be able to consult with other experts before leaping forward with a choice.

So, I miss the voice of dissent, as funny as it sounds. I think we learn more from criticism. We might not make change X, but having someone point out a weakness can lead to a buttressing of that issue. The book can become stronger as a result of the exchange. It’s hard to see the merit and flaws of your own work, especially when moving from creation to publication really quickly, because we’re not objective about our own creations. Indie authors take on many responsibilities of their publishing career, many designing their own covers or writing their own copy among other tasks, which brings more under the umbrella of what might not be seen objectively. This is compounded by the fact that many indie authors have built communities of affirmation around themselves, so even when they ask for feedback, they might get only resounding approval—regardless of whether they’re right.

There’s a balance to be struck. I don’t for a moment imagine that if I returned to traditional publishing, I’d find all of these things again. Publishing has changed and what I miss are older industry patterns. I’d need a time machine to go back to 1998 or so to have these conversations again, and that isn’t possible.

At the same time, indie publishing isn’t perfect either. As the market matures and we all find our rhythm, the missing pieces become more clear. My freelance editor and I have had some great discussions this summer, for example. Because we have similar industry credentials and experience, we both understand the power of that dissenting voice in making books better. I’m still looking for my shiny, although shortly after writing this, a new means of print distribution for indie authors was announced. I’m learning more. The market is changing and evolving, and I’m optimistic that we’ll find a new balance. Traditional publishing demands too much sacrifice for what they might offer, so that’s not the right choice for me right now. The advantages of indie-publishing outweigh what’s lacking, at least for me at this point in my career. Things are changing, though, and I’m curious to see what the right choice will be—for me and other authors—five years from now.

What about you? Are there things you miss about the way your favorite authors were once published? Are there things you prefer about this current market?

35 thoughts on “What I Miss About Traditional Publishing

  1. This is a very interesting and thoughtful post. I’ve often wondered what the trade-off was in indie/self-pub versus traditional publishing. I think the difference between you and new authors who are going the indie route is that you do have that long-time experience, which probably makes your transition more seamless. For instance, you probably self-critique pretty well. The traditional dissenting voice is most likely intuitive for you. From experience, you know which holes not to fall through, how to structure a story well, and what readers like. Newer indie authors might not have that polish. Still, I love the idea of authors have more creativity to write what brings them joy.

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    • Thanks for stopping by, Ellen! It’s good to hear from you.

      I do think that experience in traditional publishing is a double-edged sword for a writer – we’ve been taught a number of things (about publishing, about writing, about our writing) which might be true or might just have been useful for a publisher to have us believe. It’s tough to sort through those lessons learned, to keep the gold and toss the dross. The thing is that we all come to writing by our own path – I learn a lot from always-indie authors, so we can have these interesting conversations.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great, insightful post here, Deb, and you point out a lot of things many of us may not have considered before. I think you’ll have to admit though that the years spent building a fan base that traditional publishing has meant that once you transitioned to indie pubbing, you could bring most if not all of that fan base with you who would happily buy your back list and future titles. That’s why it’s understandable that so many bestselling writers are switching to indie once they have that platform, or are becoming hybrid writers who work both sides of the fence.

    New authors just learning to swim the cold waters of publishing discover very quickly that getting noticed by readers is a huge job, second only to the writing itself. This is where the marketing and promotion come in, and few writers are comfortable in this arena.

    There is a third route, and that is to work with a small independent royalty paying publisher who, while not paying advances, lends the benefits and expertise in editing, cover art, formatting and uploading of e-books, ISBNs, and useful suggestions (hopefully) in marketing and promo. A small press might also add the benefit of acting as a solid, experienced, sounding board for new writers, which may be more hands-on than what could be expected from a larger house. I’m not talking vanity presses here, but small presses who are dedicated to working in partnership with the writer (same with smaller literary agencies). What are your thoughts on small presses vs larger houses, or going it completely alone with indie pubbing? Thanks for the morning coffee prod to get me going. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Small presses can be an excellent choice for writers, both new and established, Debbie. I’m surprised, actually, that there haven’t been more small presses emerging in this marketplace. The better ones have always cultivated strong nurturing relationships with their authors, and have offered a kind of boutique publishing experience. The fit will depend upon the author, the small press, the genre of the work and the work itself, but yes, it can be a very good partnership.

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  3. Excellent post, it gives a thorough, honest review of the advantages of trad publishing vs. indie. I especially like your comment, and I quote: “who will tell an indie author if he or she has it totally wrong? As tedious as it can be to build consensus, there is merit in listening to other voices. Where will I find that voice? Everyone I consult in this market is being paid by me. I’m the client of my freelance editor, which reverses the balance of power between us.”

    Indeed, it reverses the balance of power and that’s probably not a problem in your case since you have 20 years experience in trad publishing. But for new authors going down the indie road it can be a very serious problem, and I suspect that’s why so much indie stuff is hopelessly badly edited. I’ve had fellow authors send me their books for review saying they had had excellent support from professional editors and that I should expect a quality product…Then comes the difficult moment when I have to point out typos and structural errors or shortcomings. In fact, I no longer respond and have stopped doing reviews, except in those cases where I know the author and his/her work.

    And that’s very sad. It also points to the fact that indie publishing is an excellent solution for trad published authors with a platform and a long backlist that they can recover and re-publish. It’s not a good solution at all for new, emerging authors: they simply won’t emerge in the current, overrun market (they say that 600,000 new titles are published each year in the Kindle Store – maybe, but I do know that the number of books on Amazon is presently around 4 million). People have so much time on their hands (and usually a limited budget for reading) so they will flock to the names they know – it makes sense. To break out is practically impossible without a very solid marketing push – not exactly something most authors can do!

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    • Thanks for visiting, Claude, and also for your thoughtful post.

      I agree that it is hard for new authors to break out in indie publishing, but I think it’s hard for them to break out no matter how they’re published. Digital publishing has niched the market – on one hand, it’s possible for an indie author to do well with comparatively (in NY terms) low sales numbers in a less than vital niche. That’s new and good. On the other hand, the big pop is much more elusive for all authors. That might be why big publishers do the international sensation book so well – there’s budget for every possible promotional tool, and the combination works. Cherry-picking 2 out of 20 marketing tools and choosing the right ones for that book is hard, and might not work anyway.

      The thing is that I’m not sure what the best publishing solution is for new authors – I’ve known many who have contracted with a big publisher, sure it’s their big shot, but in the end, they don’t get the solid marketing push they need to establish a brand in a crowded marketplace. Discoverability is a huge issue for every author and publisher, and the days when publishers would commit to an author for more than two books are gone. I think there is a place in this market for a small press that curates their content, packages it beautifully, cherishes their authors and sticks with them. I’m hoping that more than a few of them appear in the next few years.

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  4. I never thought I’d “go indie,” but because of changing publishers I had to wait almost a year between the release of my last and my next book, so I decided to dip my toe into the self-publishing waters with a novella. There was a lot more to it than I imagined, and I made some mistakes, but I learned from the experience, and I’m planning to do it again. I’m not sure where publishing is going in the next year or so, but I appreciate your sharing an accurate and fair assessment of the pros and cons for those of us still trying to make a decision.

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    • How to publish is quite a personal decision, Richard, and I suspect than many authors may change their strategy over time. I certainly learned a great deal from my traditional publishers and the editors who worked for them. There’s a lot of talk in the indie author community about the advantages of indie (and disadvantages of traditional publishing) which was why I wanted to look at the other side. No matter how we choose to publish, though, it’s clear that in this market, those authors with longer lists do better and have better “discoverability”. The most important thing is to keep writing and publishing to build that list!

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  6. Excellent article. Sounds like we had similar paths– 20 years with NY, 42 books, then went indie in 2010. There is much to like about both paths. I think there is too much either/or going around. As if one path is golden and the other the way to hell. It’s the people who actually can have both paths who can do well, but it someone hasn’t immersed themselves completely in Indie, doing it all is overwhelming and frightening. And there are plenty of people willing to take their money for “services”. I found the learning curve to be indie very steep and it took years to master; also, building business arrangements as an indie is different. Find the Amazon, Pubit, Apple people to talk to etc.

    Frankly, from the start I knew I couldn’t do it myself; I wanted to focus on writing, so I started my own company and have a full time business partner who handles my books and seven other authors. I still have to spend considerable time on the business end thought.

    The bottom line; there is no easy way. And regardless of path, an author must stay on top of their business.

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    • Thanks Bob. I agree that there’s too much either-or, and also a lot of pro-indie skew. The very best thing about this market is that we have choices in how best to publish our work, and that wasn’t the case ten years ago.

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  7. Reblogged this on Vampire Syndrome Blog and commented:
    For all the Big Five’s devotion to formulae, data collection and analysis models, they still fail to predict true viral successes such as “Fifty Shades”, and clearance racks everywhere are filled with their predicted “sure-fire” successes.
    The likes of Hocking, Howey and James have so far cashed in their self-made chips, but one of these years, an author who has become successful on their own terms will see no point in signing up with the Big Five.

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  8. You have a unique perspective, having been published by a big house before self-publishing. I think small presses are a great option for new writers who are sitting in the fence. There are many solid established presses and new ones popping up all the time, so it pays to do your homework first, by seeing what kind of books and who they publish, how they publish, how they market their books, and their quality. My debut novel, In the Context of Love, will be out in September, published by a small press, and at this point I couldn’t be happier. The publisher did the initial editing and copy editing, asked for my input on the cover, put together a terrific media kit, sent ARCs to reviewers, set up a Goodreads Giveaway, sent me postcards, business cards and bookmarkers. I didn’t get an advance, but I didn’t have to pay for anything either, and I will get royalties. I think small presses are great.

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  9. Pingback: What I Miss About Traditional Publishing | Writer's Resource Blog

  10. I found this very interesting. I was picked up by a small American publisher, (I’m from the UK ) who also take about a year to get a book to market, but in terms of marketing or analysis nothing really happens so I’m not sure what the exact benefits are, apart from someone doing all the formatting and the rest of it, which is not a small thing I know. What I really wish I knew more about, or my publisher did anyway, is marketing, which publishers used to do a lot of apparently, but now leave to the individual author.

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    • Exactly, Peter. One of the big changes in the last 15 – 20 years in publishing is that most of the promotion for books is done by authors. Part of that is an increased reliance on social media for marketing. Part of it is the disappearance of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, where a lot of position placements and co-op advertising used to be done. It’s a changing market, but one thing is for sure – an author needs to build and control his or her marketing platform to ensure a future as an author. I like interacting with my readers, but it does take time. I don’t think there’s any way back from authors doing so much marketing, so we each have to find our own balance.

      Have you asked about the marketing for your book and/or whether you have an assigned publicist? Even if you don’t, the house might have some suggestions for you. I’m sure they did their analysis before acquiring your book and that led them to conclude they could sell it successfully. There must be good reasons why. Good luck!

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  11. Thanks for this very full account. You mention that you were able to get the rights to your backlist. A lot of traditionally published authors cannot, apparently, which I have a feeling would seriously change the character of an author’s nostalgia for his or her legacy days.

    But about the idea of having someone say no, which I think was very valuable in my development as a writer: nowadays, people are choosing to sell their Go Set a Watchman manuscripts rather than put them in a drawer, and I don’t think you can blame them for it. I think most authors who get better at writing cringe at their first efforts, but incredibly, they also sell a lot of books sometimes, because the idea was good if not the execution. You never know what the market will respond to.

    It’s time, I think, to stifle Flannery O’Connor’s old saw that universities don’t stifle enough writers. Yes, the market is flooded with books, but I think that the more books, the more readers. There’s nothing bad about a person following their dream, even if only their family, friends, and drinking buddies ever read the book. There’s probably a number of folk in those circles who would never read a book anyway, and they get turned on to books because their uncle or teacher or bridge partner did it.

    Get everyone writing– and publishing– and eventually you’ll get everyone reading, too.

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    • Thanks for your comment, D.W. The reversion of rights is by no means an automatic thing: I sold roughly 50 books to traditional publishers and I have the rights to about half of those titles back. It’s an ongoing process, although I hope to have all under my control eventually. One hears of new deals which last for the duration of copyright, and I’m glad to have never been presented with one of those. It’s probably a function of when I stepped away more than anything else.

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  12. I like holding a book in my hand. I like being able to make corrections to my work all along the way. I like the dialogue with publishers. I like being able to pay my own people and get the work done.
    Thank you for this piece. I appreciate your seasoned perspective.

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  13. Great post!

    I’ve never had the honor of being traditionally published, short of a couple of short stories, but I’ve been in the writing business (“seriously”) since the mid-to-late 80s. I’ve seen and heard all you’ve talked about. I’m now an indie author. Two things stood out to me. I loved your statement about books in stores: “…by encouraging impulse buys and prompting memory.” Great line, the “prompting memory” bit! And secondly, the “someone to say ‘no'”! I’m readying a new book for release and had gotten wrapped around the axle on genre, because the story deals with sex, and (at times) graphic sex…but it wasn’t written AS “erotica.” I really don’t feel my novel was ABOUT “erotica,” and I really don’t know that genre all that well, and most of those I pinged my concern off of don’t know one part of the argument enough to perhaps give a good answer. But, once I backed away, ti finally hit me what was obvious the entire time. But I mention this because you say that Indie authors don’t usually have that expertise to ping…that person to say “no” who knows the business side, has all the numbers, the analysis, the historical data.

    As much as I have issues with the traditional world, I would love to be a part of it, if treated right. But don’t know if that will ever happen. The instances you cite about indie publishing, the flexibility and all…doesn’t really grab me. I’m not going to go back and change and update content, metadata or otherwise. What’s published is published, and (forgive me, but it’s how I feel) that’s just too anal and incestuous for me. If you want to move on–then do so. No matter what you’ve said, you do NOT have to go back and keep updating all that content once it’s out there, IMHO. You’re obviously doing it for the customer…but I’m telling you the customer is NOT always right. SO, none of that appeals to me, Indie publishing wise. Most of what you cite as pros and cons between the two worlds I don’t have a problem with in the opposite POV (if that makes sense)…I’m only publishing Indie because that’s the only way I’ve found to publish my work. When I had an agent for 5 years, she was stunned she couldn’t place my work. And I do miss the interaction with her. We still keep in contact.

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