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Actually, I Like My Traditional Publisher or “You Leave My Dill Pickle Alone!”

This will be long. I may ramble. Sideways. Through walls. You’ve been warned.

So in the last few weeks, I have found myself, for whatever reason, tripping repeatedly over things on the interwebs about self-publishing. I didn’t do it deliberately, at least at first, but Google+ makes it easy to fall over this stuff, and then you chase links or read comments and suddenly it’s dinner-time and you’re not quite sure where your pants went.

…possibly that last is just me. I have a problem. I’m willing to admit that.

And because it is the internet, one must take things with a fifty pound bag of salt.


…Man, there’s some really bizarre crap out there about self vs. traditional publishing. It’s not quite up there with the some of the Great Internet Debates, which burn like underground coal fires and can last through entire geologic ages—I think breastfeeding* holds the line on this one, narrowly edging out religion, gluten, and operating systems—but it’s definitely got some meat to it.

I have seen people say, in all sincerity, that they would never ever consider being traditionally published because big publishers treat you so horribly and you make so little money at it and they’re all out to screw you over and…well, a lot of stuff. And I have seen people say “Well, a lot of self-published stuff is godawful crap, have you noticed? And there’s kind of a stigma against it because of all that godawful crap, have you noticed? And so even if you write a really damn fine book, as many people do, there’s a good chance a huge swath of the population won’t read it, because of that?” and then be treated as if they were tying people to the railroad tracks while twirling an Olde Timey Mustache Of Evile.

Internet. What’re you gonna do? Still, better to light a candle than curse the darkness, etc.

I am, as y’all know, traditionally published. I have always been traditionally published. Sometimes it’s a small press, like Sofawolf, sometimes it’s a big honkin’ press like Dial, subsidiary of Penguin.**

I have been moved to comment on this because of this post, where an author says, very sensibly, that his series failed through no fault of his publisher, that they went to the mat for him, that they were AWESOME, and hey, shit happens. And he assessed quite correctly that a lot of people would ask questions about why he didn’t self-publish, or self-publish the sequels, or get out t’ol Kickstarter and everything. I suspect this is because he, too, reads the internet.

So, let me say this, from the bottom of my heart—my big traditional publisher is fantastic.

(My little traditional publisher is fantastic too, but nobody seems to be hating on the small presses as soulless bloodsuckers, so I’ll just leave it at that, except to say that you should totally go to Sofawolf Press and buy stuff.)

Seriously, love ‘em. Tell my agent every few months that she has utterly changed my life for the better. (I may have to stop that, I think it’s starting to weird her out.)  They are wonderful. My editor is wonderful. My art director is wonderful. I may scream and pace around a bit during edits, but every time we turn out a better book. (Okay, honesty time, once or twice I’ve thought I had a better cover beforehand, but that’s art on demand for you. There’s a universal law about it.)

And when we’re talking about a ten book series, seven of which have gone through the process already, that’s a pretty good thing.

No one has ever drunk my blood. No one has even looked at my neck in a thoughtful fashion. I get nothing but respect. They send me cookies at Christmas, and a gift book that my editor picks out because she thinks it’s the sort of weird morbid silliness that appeals to me. She nags me to come to New York so we can go drinking together. My art director sends me e-mails saying she’s proud to be part of the Dragonbreath team. The nice woman in foreign rights always includes a cheerful note with the Portuguese copies.

Occasionally, sure, we have one of those we-are-two-co-workers-on-one-project-who-do-not-quite-agree moments, but we are eager to talk it around, and everybody goes home figuring it’ll work out eventually. Given what sort of field this is, that’s really damn good. I freely admit that I am fortunate in the people who work with me, but not, I think, terribly unique.

Shortly before the release of Ghostbreath, I got a fan letter from the caretaker of an autistic boy. She said he loved the book, and he’d gotten interested in reading other books as a result of Dragonbreath, and that it had made a huge difference for him.

Well, first I wandered around pretending I had something in my eye. Then I forwarded it to my editor. They said “Look, we just got in the advance copies—we’ll send him one early.” And they did. And that is a small thing, but it matters.

So when you’re talking about those horrible big publishers that are out to stifle your creativity and suck your blood, to you, it may be a faceless monolith who sent you a mean rejection letter. But to me, you’re talking about a group of women that I work with pretty much constantly. Who send me cookies. Who are damn decent human beings.

Likewise, when you gleefully predict the downfall of traditional publishing, you are not talking about blowing up a building with nobody in it. There’s at least three or four real people in mine and a couple of hazy groups like “the marketing team” and “the sub-rights guys” who I also do not wish to see blown up, even if I don’t know their names.

Okay. Enough sentimentality, let’s roll up our sleeves a bit here.

There’s a couple of points I’d like to address more practically, because I keep seeing them and they keep not being as true as people would like them to be when they keep saying them over and over again.

Big Traditional Publishers are on their way out.

I’ve been seeing this one for years now, and…well, they’re an awfully lively corpse. Penguin keeps posting profits. Their sales are up 6%, and that’s adjusting for loss of Borders. They keep writing me checks. The checks keep clearing. They are doing a brisk sale in e-books. My advances went up by a third on the last contract over the one before.

“I don’t care!” you say. “Five years, they’ll all be bankrupt!” (And yes, somebody said this to me recently.)

It’s possible. It’s also possible that they won’t be. It’s also possible we’ll be struck by a meteor. All I know is that they’re making money hand over fist at the moment. We are, most of us, poor prophets. I’m as heavily invested in big publishing as you can be, and I’m still not losing a lot of sleep over it, and neither is my agent.

Now, brick-and-mortar bookstores? Yeah, those should probably worry, and my heart aches for them. But the publishers do not appear to have gotten the memo about their impending demise.

Big Traditional Publishers are running scared of self-publishing!

…’kay. Look, if you say so. I can’t say I’ve seen any indications. If you want to interpret spats with Amazon as “fear of self-publishing” then go for it. I won’t stop you.

My agent has suggested I release things too weird for conventional publishing as an e-book on at least one occasion. As she makes no money off that and quite a lot off the Big Trad Publishers, and is furthermore the cleverest, canniest, and possibly most dangerous woman I know, I am inclined to trust her judgment. (My editor’s entire opinion was “Didn’t you do something with wombats—dear god! You’re still doing that? How do you have time? Do you sleep? Wow!”***) Nobody has ever said “Oh god, if you self-publish, we’ll shake you ’til your teeth rattle!”

(Yes, I read that one article about the one writer too. It strikes me as very peculiar, and there are a few more details I’d like to know before I pass judgment.)

You can make more money self-publishing!

Maybe you can. Me, I’ll take my advance and the bit where I don’t do any of the editing, art layout, design, marketing, more marketing, selling foreign rights, sending out ARCs, wrangling with printers and keeping stock in my garage.

But if you self-publish your e-book, you get a higher percentage!

Higher percentages of e-books are great. I get 25% of e-books. You can get like 70% through some of the various e-books people, or so I hear. That’s quite a bit bigger, yup.

‘Course, you have to actually SELL those books. And if you are confident in your marketing ability to move as many books—hell, mathematically, to move a THIRD as many books—as a big marketing department, then rock on. Do it. Fly free, little self-publisher! Spread those wings! FLAP ON, YOU CRAZY DIAMOND!


I am not confident of this. I could not market my way out of my own pants. (If I knew where they were.) I haven’t a clue how many e-books we move of Dragonbreath. It’s probably on a sheet of paper somewhere in the pile, god knows.

And I like not worrying about it. Are you kidding? Somebody sends me a lot of money and then I get to go sit in a coffee shop (once I find my pants) and get a cup of coffee and a chicken salad sandwich and pull out my laptop (which I bought with money Penguin sent me) and write. For hours.

And they keep filling up the coffee cup! And the sandwich comes with a dill pickle!

You want me to pitch that over for doing lots of work of the sort that I hate desperately, cutting savagely into my writing time, in hopes that maybe I, on my lonesome, can out-market a team of literate mako sharks wearing nice suits?

Feh. Next you’ll be trying to steal my dill pickle.

This, I think, is what a lot of people in self-publishing have failed to understand—yes, if you DIY it, you make a lot more of the profits! Well, great! That’s awesome if you like to DIY stuff! I, however, do not know how to change my own oil, cannot sew, and can just about make mac and cheese on a good day! I DIY nothing.

The only things I am any good at are art and writing.**** I would like to do that.

Just that.

And traditional publishing says “It’s cool, we’ve got people who can’t draw stick figures but who can charm the little birds out of the trees over here, we’ll put ‘em on it. And we have printers! And people who know what copyediting marks mean! Here, have a dill pickle.”

So. Self-publishing is a GREAT fit for people who want to run around like crazy and talk about their book to everybody and get into the guts of layout and direction and make sure they know where everything is at every step of the process and are absolutely confident that they know the best direction to get their book sold.

Me, I don’t even do my own taxes. Thinking about numbers makes me tense and unhappy and as if small animals are clawing underneath my sternum. Thinking about marketing makes me want to apologize to everybody who has ever bought my book, ever. I am a bad fit for self-publishing. I am the worst fit for self-publishing. I cannot think of any reason why I would WANT to abandon traditional publishing, unless it’s to put out something I can’t possibly move in traditional circles and which the fans are yelling for.

Now, you can dismiss me as an elitist snob if you’d like—go for it! Rock it! I’ll get my monocle! And you can dismiss me as a hopelessly inept dweeb who wants to make no decisions and be the literary equivalent of a kept woman, and I will say “Yes, now you’re getting it. Also, have you seen my pants?” If you are a self-publishing zealot who thinks big publishers are the Devil, there is absolutely nothing I can say, as a minor demon, that will change your mind.

And I’m cool with that. It’s the internet. These things happen. If you’re looking for things to insult, I am several pounds overweight, snore loudly, and afraid of the monster under the bed.  Also, I have a really painful zit on the side of my ear—you know, the excruciating ones that get up under the fold at the top of the ear? Arrgh!—and you can probably do a good five minutes on how I deserve it. S’cool.

But the moral of this story is that you go where you fit. One size does not fit all. And despite what you might see on the internet, traditional publishers are not bastions of intergalactic evil who want to eat your tasty tasty brainmeats. All of the ones I’ve had have been staffed by real human beings who have been very nice to me and worked long hours to make my book succeed.

And I’d feel kinda bad about myself if I didn’t say that, in public, where people could read it.



(Sidenote here–there’s actually one area where an author can have their pickle and eat it too, that being backlist. I know a couple of big names who are happily self-publishing their backlist, which has gone out of print, as e-books, and sometimes doing very very well at it. There, it absolutely makes sense to go out on your own. It’s out of print anyway, the heavy lifting was already done, this is one area where I think established authors get a seriously good break on the self-publishing end. But, of course, you have to be fairly well established already to make this really work, since it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a backlist if nobody’s buying the front list.)


*Whatever you did, it was wrong. As a result your child is doomed, you are worst than Hitler, and if the other person had their way, SWAT teams would descend on your house and shoot the breast pump from your hand with high-powered weapons. I’m pretty sure that’s still the gist.

**I will state categorically that Sofawolf edited far more intensively and thoroughly and at no point did I run around the room screaming “OH MY GOD, I ONLY CHANGED THAT BIT IN THE FIRST PLACE BECAUSE THEY TOLD ME TO!” On the other hand, Penguin was able to give me an advance as big as my head. So, y’know. There are pros and cons to anything.

***Expressed pre-End of Digger, obviously.

****Even my gardening is mediocre. Just when I think I’m getting good, I harvest an onion that is actually smaller than the set it came from.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

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My royalties actually come in envelopes from Pearson. I think they're pretty deeply intertwined at this point...

Thanks for writing this. I'm not a writer myself but I have lots of friends who are and who angst about different strategies for publication.

A factor you may not have considered: I think a lot of people on the "traditional publishing bad" side of the fence are aware that in various other arts (music, TV, movies, comic books) the publisher-equivalent screws the talent over as a matter of course, has in fact raised screwing the talent over to an art form in its own right. But I think it is much less commonly recognized that book publishing isn't like that, that the worst thing that traditional publishers commonly do to authors of book-length text is drag their heels about admitting that the book has gone out of print and they have to give the publication rights back!

(A pretty solid rule of thumb for "am I getting screwed here?" seems to be "do they want a copyright assignment, or will they be happy with a license?" To go right next to "money flows toward the author", of course.)

A lot of people are in the business of making and/or selling books because they love it. That's going to ameliorate the greed side of an industry no end.


Charlie Stross every now and again also says this, over on his blog, or at least, things similar.

> you can dismiss me as a hopelessly inept dweeb who wants to make no decisions and be the literary equivalent of a kept woman

Hell yeah. I did not have to do the layout on my Tarot deck's book. I did not have to contract with a printer in China to get it printed. I did not have to store umpty-thousand copies of it. I did not have to try to get it in stores all across the world. I did not have to get it in the hands of reviewers. I did not have to advertise it. All I did was (1) draw the thing, (2) write the book, and (3) lay out the box and book's cover. (And yeah, my publisher and I did a few back and forth rounds on the box cover. I'm glad as the final piece is much stronger and eye-catching than my first attempts.)

If you like doing all those other things, awesome. But hell, even the indy webcomics people, who have this myth of ULTRA SELF RELIANCE, have accumulated a few businesses like Dumbrella that deal with all the mechanics of making and stocking the physical items.

The traditional publishing model is not dying. The bookstores are getting their lunch eaten by online stores and I am sad to see this happen. And eventually the physical book will become a rarer thing. But there will still be a need for editors, publicists, and people to manage all the other parts of the process of getting the work from the creator's studio into the hands of thousands of eager fans across the world for a long time to come.

"eventually the physical book will become a rarer thing."

I am not convinced of this. At the very least, it will not be TOMOROW! as everyone has been claiming since Border's downfall. I'm pretty sure there will always be a demand for "I need that book NOW" which online stores can not fulfill, and I know for a fact that our locally owned bookshop has gotten bigger in the past few years due to a good marketing campaign (not due to Border's silly decisions).

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Dear Ursula:

1. I love you

Yrs sincerely,

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I read this comment and thought "Yes, EXACTLY!" And then I looked at the user-icon and realized it was you. :P

This is one of the reasons I want out of freelance design. I don't even mind any part of it that much (except for convincing people it's worth the money, I HATE that), but doing all of it is just too many hats, and I have no energy left for the actual design stuff.

I wanted to thank you for this from another side.

My guy is an artist, he makes freakin' adorable crochet stuff and the occasional art card and print. He also loathes dealing with people with a fiery passion and when I relate the more interesting encounters with him it usually inspires a huge entertaining rant. So... I handle everything. Online listings, convention scheduling, e-mails, keeping up with shipping supplies, pretty much everything other than the actual art.

And up until very recently I'd been thinking "Well yeah, of course I do all that, because I'm crap at the actual art part." but it's slowly been dawning on me that, oh yeah, that's... kind of agent stuff. I have a purpose, I'm his agent! There's a name for it besides "Helpful non-artist!"

So thank you, I'm going to keep this and similar posts in mind when the thought about "REAL talented people do every step of the process, I'm meddling...." starts creeping in. And now I should probably send another e-mail to the latest "No, I cannot read your mind when you say 'I want to buy something'" customer.

I know you've probably thought of this already but does your dude write down the patterns he uses for his adorable crochet stuff? Because those would also sell, if he (and you, his agent) were interested in that avenue.

Just sayin'.


Onions can be harvested?

LOTS of people need to see this, and the comments people are and will post as well.

Many industries are sadly underestimated by the public. They don't know what goes into doing the things they do. People still think: I can do this better! and sometimes they can... and sometimes they dream up a new and different way. But sometimes, why re-invent the wheel?

ursulav: The Athena in my personal pantheon.

(From the "She speaks wisdom," angle, not from the "She goes around with an owl" angle. ...although I think Athena doesn't wear pants, either.)

How do you feel about the 'springing fully-formed from her father's head' angle?

Oh, gods and little fishies, yes.

Now, I've only really written fanfic and the publishing vs. self-publishing debate is only a blur on the horizon, but I have done freelance graphic design and made and sold fine art. I'm sick of wearing all the hats required for freelance design. I do not *want* to be entreprenurial (which is apparently supposed to be the One True Ultimate Destiny as an American).

On the other hand, I've had art in a local gallery, and it was the awesome-est thing ever. I brought the owner my art, ignored it for a year, and she helped figure out pricing and sent me checks. How cool is that?! Yeah, the gallery owner took a cut -- and she's welcome to it! She sold far more of my art than I ever would have!

Really, whenever I see people talking about the advent of free content for all, or self-publishing, or e-publishing, or how any of this stuff will change the world as we know it, I tend to think that a lot of it will come out in the wash. I'd be very unsurprised to see mini-industries spring up around self publishing that emulate the functions of the tradtional publisher -- perhaps not all under the same name and roof, but there remains a need for editors, marketers, designers, etc.

I like what you say about how entrepreneurs are supposed to be the One True Ultimate American Destiny. I had never thought about it that way until now. In fact, on the news this evening they were showing one of a series of segments about entrepreneurs in my area.

I am in the midst of a Bachelor of Music, so I may or may not face similar dilemmas when I am done (though at the moment I don't know what I'll be doing, exactly). But it's nice to think that maybe I can find a way of working that doesn't involve me being everything to everybody... maybe...

All my life, I wanted to be published. Submitting to print publishers got me nowhere, but never did I think self-publishing was the way to go.

That was then. This is now. Times do change and there are lots of opportunities out there.

I have six ebooks with two publishers. I like them both for different reasons. I am eternally grateful to them for thinking I was good enough to publish. I don't expect to make a lot of money, but I do get half of every work that sells.

If this hadn't happened (and it was only five months ago I sold my first story), I might have self-published at Amazon. But now I don't have to go there. I'm really happy with where I am right now.

Edited at 2011-11-03 01:23 am (UTC)

Thank you. Thank you so much. This post gives me hope that maybe I *can* actually send out my manuscript and have it rise or fall on its own fucking merits instead of THE EBOOKS ARE COMING.

Well, even if the ebooks come, a lot of them will be coming from traditional publishers. We're already seeing that business model forming.