Advice to Traditionally Published Authors

alice-in-wonderland-29904_1280I have a number of writing friends who are in one phase or another of a traditional career––still in it, sometimes hanging by a thread, a few dropped by their publishers. These friends all started in the “old system.” You wrote a book, got an agent, signed with a publishing company. Getting invited inside the walls of the Forbidden City was the only game in town.

Of course, that’s all changed. The indie revolution that began in earnest in 2008 has grown from healthy baby to active toddler to good-looking adolescent. It’s driving the family car now. It has some acne, sure, but the teeth are good and the body sound.

From time to time I’ll hear from one of my friends, asking for advice about which way to go. They may be near the end of a contract, or in new talks offering them lower advances and tighter terms. Here is some of what I tell them.

  1. Traditional publishing is still a viable option 

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of traditional publishing are greatly exaggerated. Yes, trad pub is in the throes of reinvention due to digital disruption. That process is slow, as it is for any large industry facing a shifting infrastructure. Rapid innovation has never been the strength of large industry. But they’re trying.

Traditional companies are also the only way to distribute print books widely into physical stores, including big boxes and airports. If that’s where you want your books to be then traditional publishing is your best shot.

Just understand that your shot is getting increasingly long. Because big bookstores are closing. There is tighter shelf space within those stores. Big boxes and airports are ordering fewer books, and therefore sticking with the big names like Lee Child and Janet Evanovich. While there has been a nice resurgence in independent bookstores, they can’t replace what’s being lost when a major chain store closes.

  1. I understand your anxiety

Being with a traditional house provides a level of security. When you’ve been working with the same people for a long time, there’s a comfort level. When you’re used to the system—editorial, design, distribution, marketing—the thought of switching to a place where you have ultimate responsibility for these things can be nervous time.

Many writers just “want to write,” and not worry about all that other jazz.

My advice is: don’t let anxiety be the tail that wags you. Think back to when you wanted to break in the first time. How nervous were you pitching to an agent? Getting rejected? Wondering if you had what it takes? Eventually, you broke through. You can do it if you go indie, too, because you have the added benefit of a track record. You know what you’re doing as a writer. You have readers who will follow you.

Writers always operate with a certain degree of fear. The trick is to translate anxiety into action, with a rational plan for where you truly want to be.

  1. Don’t think of traditional publishing as your nanny

Trad pub is about the bottom line, because it has to be. You can’t stay in business unless you make a profit. Publishers have to stay in business, and they will treat you with that in mind.

I tell my writing colleagues that a publishing company is not your nanny. If you don’t make them money they are not going to coddle you, make you breakfast, or tuck you in at night. There will continue to be very nice (albeit overworked) people within the company, who like you and want you to succeed. But it is the counter of beans who will determine your future at said company.

Now, if you’re making midlist money and your publisher continues to offer it, you may want to stay right where you are. One successful indie author misses several things about traditional publishing. Have a look here.

Fight for a fair non-compete clause.  Your business partner owes you that.

But you should also learn to sing “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” like the orphans in Annie. I have several writing friends who have been “orphaned” over the years when their editor-advocate within a company moved on or was let go.

  1. Traditional contracts are tight

Traditional publishers are taking fewer risks these days. This is reflected in contracts many writers and agents find particularly onerous. Which is why the Authors Guild is calling for fairer terms. It’s a lovely thought. But it is slamming up against harsh reality. Big publishing simply cannot afford to be overly generous or induced to easily revert assets (i.e., books) back to authors.

It’s business. I hold no animus for a corporation that is trying to stay in business.

But you are in business, too. So be educated about contracts. Work with your agent on the terms you can live with, and those you can’t.

In a lengthy piece on this topic, Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote:

[W]riters need to know what they’re up against.

They’re not signing up for a partnership with a production and distribution company like they had in the past. Mostly, these days, writers are signing with an international entertainment conglomerate that wants to exploit its assets for as long as possible…

When writers do business with an international entertainment conglomerate, they should be prepared to walk away from what initially looks like a good deal. Because, in most cases, the writers will lose the right to exploit that property themselves for the life of the copyright.


  1. Know your risk tolerance

Thus, what you really need to assess, right now, is your own risk tolerance. Are you willing to walk away from a sure, albeit smaller and more restrictive contract? Can you do without an advance? Do you have the patience it will take to build up an indie publishing stream?

You are taking a risk either way. Traditional publishing is a wheel of fortune. When you pay to play, you’re hoping your book will be the one on the wheel that comes up the big winner. If it does, it could be worth millions. It could be the next Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars or Gone Girl.

That’s what you’re playing for—a #1 bestseller slot, the movie deal, the airport placement, the Today Show appearance.

Of course, this sort of fortune happens to very, very few. Books that deserve to be there don’t ring the bell. Yes, your book could be the one, which is what lottery players say to themselves every time they walk into a liquor store or gas station mini-mart.

If you play and your books don’t make it, the cost may be several years of your writing life and possibly no reversion of rights. So be rational about your gambling. If you are you willing to risk all that for a spin of the wheel, then get the best terms you can and good luck to you.

  1. Know your freedom and creativity valuation

But here’s another thing to consider: how much do you value the freedom to write what you want to write and to publish when you are ready to publish? To try a different genre and not worry about branding restrictions and non-compete clauses?

Do you want to be creative more than you want to be secure?

Another thing: if you decide to stay traditional, you at least need a footprint in the indie world. Work with your agent and publisher about non-competing, short-form work to grow your readership.

It all comes down to making the decision YOU want to make, without letting a thousand anxious thoughts hack away at your dreams. So listen to counsel and advice. Talk things over with your agent, your spouse, your talking cat. Pray, if you believe there is divine benevolence.

How Make Living Writer-online coverJust don’t wait for certainty, because the only constant is change.

Traditional publishing will stick around and try to find its way forward. Indie publishing will continue to grow and diversify, and new options for writers who own their rights will appear. This requires constant vigilance and business savvy, which some writers don’t like. Don’t be afraid. The principles of success are not difficult to understand and implement. I wrote a whole book about that.

Whatever you decide, keep writing. I love what one of my favorite Hollywood writer-directors, Preston Sturges, once said. He was riding high in the early 1940s with a string of hits that still shine today. But he knew Hollywood careers are transient. “When the last dime is gone,” he said, “I’ll sit on the curb with a pencil and a ten-cent notebook, and start the whole thing all over again.”

As long as you write, you’re never out of the game.

26 thoughts on “Advice to Traditionally Published Authors

  1. At the recent Writer’s Digest Conference April Eberhardt presented several sessions on Partner Publishing or Hybrid Publishing (see . Presses like She Writes, Booktrope, and Spencer Hill Press are offering a middle alternative between traditional and self-publishing that may be the right answer for writers searching for ways to retain more control over their art and more fully participate in the process of getting their books into the hands of their readership. Yes, things are changing, and the adroit author should explore all the possibilities and learn to think outside the box in terms of marketing and distribution. Thanks for the insights, James. You’ve been a help to me through your books and columns while working on my first NIP. Whether I go traditional, self, or partner, it’s good to know that alternatives are possible.

    • Maggie, thanks for the comment and the link. These small, agile companies are increasing and may be a good alternative for the writer who “just wants to write.” My cautions would be:

      – Look at the production values of the company. How are the covers? How are the formatting and look of the print versions?

      – Ask if there is enough of a marketing advantage to give up a good chunk of the royalty income.

      – Be very sure about the contract terms. If you’re unclear about anything get clarification from the company. If still unclear, consult an IP attorney.

  2. Lot’s to think about, Jim.

    Thanks for a great post and a systematic way to self-evaluate the risks vs. benefits.

    I like your advice on using shorts to increase exposure and grow your readership. I have my first novel waiting for publication by a small publisher. I’ve taken a few breaks while working on my second to write shorts. I’ve had some success with several stories accepted by anthologies. And I give a lot of the credit to your books, especially Super Structure and Write Your Novel from the Middle. The mirror moment and the golden triangle are truly a foundation for building a story that grabs the reader.

    Back to Indie publishing: Maybe it’s been discussed here before. But if not, I’d love to see a discussion of all the resources (books, blogs, conferences, organizations) that are out there to help a newbie get into Indie publishing.

    Thanks for another great teaching moment.

    • Steve, there are SO many resources out there on getting into self-publishing. A great place to start is Joanna Penn’s site,

      If modesty did not preclude it, I would also mention my own book on the 5 absolutely unbreakable laws of self-publishing success.

  3. This is a great post and one I enjoyed thoroughly. I have your book and will read it more than once. I have written one book and published as an indie writer (nonfiction), and am always looking at ways to get it “out” there, which seems to me the biggest issue, and seems to be the advantage of the traditional authors (someone else gets it “out there” at least). Thanks for all you do and write. I love this blog.

  4. This is a really helpful post. I’m in the midst or deciding on which path to take. These very thoughtful insights make the pathways more clear. Thank you.

  5. Jim,

    While I’ve published a number of short stories I have yet to publish a novel (currently revising my latest). I have a number of friends who have published with big traditional houses, and others who have gone the indie route. Trad is tough–you get cut from the team if you don’t perform up to a certain level (namely star status) whereas as an indie you are the coach and general manager.

    On the proverbial other hand indie success seems to demand faster and more frequent publication than traditional publishing–two of my indie author friends put out four, five or even more books a year, whereas one trad-published friend is working on two novels to be published in the next year, more than the typical one novel a year of trad but far less than what “seems” to be the indie rate.

    I’ve been gearing up to self-publish for several years, but have been working first and foremost on improving my craft and my ability to write compelling novels (a never ending task to be sure). My concern is the anxiety the thought of pumping out four, five or even more novels a year induces and how to have a winning mindset (to continue the sports metaphor)while aiming for quality over quantity. Trad authors can run at a more moderate pace, a novel a year, which “seems” more manageable. Do you see a real difference in mindsets when it comes to producing fiction between trad and indie? If so, how do you go from one to the other?

    As always, thanks for another insightful post!

    • Dale, you’re right to keep the focus on improvement as a writer. That applies across the board.

      As to frequency, an indie writer does not “have to” publish 4 novels a year, etc. Doing so, with quality, does increase the rate of an upward trendline, because every book contributes to the momentum. But if you write one novel a year the pace is slower, but it’s still a pace.

  6. Jim, Good advice, and a departure (unfortunately) from the evangelistic zeal of some indie-published authors who want everyone to come over to their side. I’ve had good fortune with traditional publishers, but I had to agree and whisper “amen” when I read ” But it is the counter of beans who will determine your future at said company.” Been there, done that.
    After my traditional contracts expire, I’ll be exploring both roads. Meanwhile, I’ve dipped my pen into the self-publishing waters with a novella and been pleasantly surprised at the outcome. I’ll do another one near Christmas.
    As Bob Dylan sang (or mumbled), “The times, they are a-changin’.”

    • You’re in a good place, Doc, because you’ve had trad success and are now doing just the right thing, putting out self-published work. So also in the words of Dylan, “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

  7. Great advice, as always. Writers today have to decide if they want to retain control over their book and determine their own pricing, or if they are willing to give up part of their royalties in exchange for less work on the production end. This choice also depends on how much you can afford to pay up front for freelance editors, formatters, cover artists, ISBN numbers and such, as an indie author.

    • You mention pricing, Nancy, and that’s a biggie. Trad pubs are keeping ebook prices relatively high ($8.99-$14.99) and that definitely depresses sales for midlist authors.

  8. Great advice here, Jim. I would only add that if a publisher is interested in a writer’s book, that writer shouldn’t be too eager to sign the boilerplate contract. A good agent should be able to tweak the terms a bit in the writer’s favor. Most of us are so thrilled when we’re offered a contract that we don’t negotiate at all, which is a mistake.

    • Very important reminder, Kathryn. I know several agents, and they have had varying success negotiating terms. It all depends on the publisher, of course. But it’s crucial to fight for the best terms.

  9. I watch my trad pubbed friends very carefully. One was dropped after a 4-book deal. I know another MS is being shopped, but the writer himself has pretty much dropped out of sight and his books have cratered in rankings and reviews.

    Another seems to be on the top of the world, just launching another series, but he has also surfaced lately about “not wanting to go indie because he’d rather pay a company 85% to do it all for him.” Nothing specific, just a hint of restlessness that all may not be a glossy as it seems.

    Others seem to flare brightly, than fade back. A sudden nervous burst of social engagement around the new book then *crickets.*

    And while I would trade places with anyone of them, at least for the term of the book, being able to read between the lines shows me that there is no magic formula. The emperor isn’t naked by any means, but he is wearing ready-made, off-the-rack.

    Gives me hope to continue moving forward, trying different angles, trying to get and keep my mojo going. It is definitely a marathon, not a sprint.


  10. By the time I finally finish what I’d started several years ago, the publishing industry may have gone through several more changes. We’ll see what’s available when I finally get off my arse. lol

  11. This post hits home. I was asked by a traditional publisher to submit an at the time unwritten book, plus a pitch for 2 more. I’m still waffling about whether to follow through, and then what to do should they offer that contract. I’ve been with 3 other publishers, 2 digital first and one library focused, and had zero success until I went indie. I’ll never give that up, but the thought of turning over some of the headaches like cover art, marketing, etc., is tempting. But I’m counting unhatched chickens at this point. First I have to finish the book, come up with ideas for 2 more, and see if they even want it.

  12. That’s what I like about having come into this business just as self-pubbing was taking off. There are options, paradigm shifts, and entire alternate universes that can be transcribed in a heartbeat in this industry, and it is just exciting. And still at the heart of it all, lies the literary Mordor, eye blazing, beckoning us to great heroics or crushing defeat, drawing us to it’s flame to see if we have what it takes.

    My present strategy, as has been all along, is to try and assail the heights a few times, then go ahead and self-pub and see where it goes on its own. Who knows who the next Andy Weir or Hugh Howey will come from, if not from the ranks of those keep putting in the effort to make good stories and get them out to folks.

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