What Path Should a Writer Take in 2020?

by James Scott Bell

I’ve always used December as a month to re-calibrate and re-think my writing goals for the new year. Since we have writers at all stages of the journey here at TKZ, I thought it might be a good time to consider the various paths a writer might take…and how to choose among them.

  1. The Forbidden City

The traditional publishing industry—represented by the so-called “Big Five”—is still kicking it, though there are clear challenges ahead. This mega-model cannot sustain itself without developing new talent, but the risk capital for doing that is not so plentiful as it once was. What’s keeping the lights on in Manhattan offices is the ever-increasing dependence on A-list writers. Which means fewer resources to nurture midlist talent. As a recent article in Publishers Weekly put it:

[M]idlist sales have faltered enough in recent years that there is a growing concern among publishers and agents about how the business can create new hits when the field they once turned to is, well, disappearing…

A publisher at a major house agreed that, to an extent, publishers have contributed to the gap between the top sellers and those below. With social media offering a variety of ways to promote titles that are selling, publishers usually put more resources behind books that are succeeding in order to maintain momentum. As these books get the lion’s share of the houses’ focus, other titles are left to find audiences on their own.

The dependence on big hits by proven authors has also been exacerbated by two other developments, according to the article: “a shrinking physical retail market and an increase in competing entertainment driven by the proliferation of streaming TV platforms.”

Getting invited inside the walls of the Forbidden City has always been difficult. And it’s always been difficult to stay inside. With fewer slots available for new writers—and even less for a flat-selling mid-lister—the difficulty of this path has only increased.

  1. Small Publishing Companies

I’d define this slice of the publishing pie as any company not owned by the bigs but still operating in a traditional fashion. That is, they take on a manuscript and foot the bill for editing and design work. They may or may not pay an advance, but do offer traditional royalty terms.

I’d put Amazon Publishing (note: not Kindle Direct Publishing, which is for indie writers. See #3, below) at the top of this category, though it is truly unique in that it owns the largest (online) bookstore in the world, yet isn’t usually granted shelf space in brick-and-mortar stores (unless, of course, they own those stores!)

Also near the top is Kensington, which calls itself “America’s Independent Publisher.” (They must have good criteria as they publish this fellow.)

Blue-Footed Booby

As presses get smaller, they usually have a tighter genre focus. For example, Graywolf tends toward the literary, while Brash Books walks the mean streets of crime. Powerhouse bestsellers from the smalls are as rare as the Blue-Footed Booby. But with the right partnership you may be able to put together a solid body of work and a steadily growing readership.

How do you find the right small publisher for your novel? You can still pick up a copy of Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market 2020 (which you ought to do soon, as the future of this publication is uncertain due to the sale of WD assets to Penguin Random House earlier this year).

Finally, there are “really small” companies springing up, seemingly all the time. They focus almost exclusively on ebooks. In many cases they’re run by indie writers who’ve had some success themselves, and seek to make extra scratch helping new writers get out to market.

A great big caveat scriptor is necessary here: it’s easy to call yourself a publisher, and just as easy to go bust. (I got a flaming email once from the founder of a one-person press after I issued a gentle warning to writers about such companies. How dare I! We can give more personal attention to individual writers! I wrote back and wished her good fortune. Eight months later the company was out of business, unable to pay their writers the royalties they were owed.)

While these micro publishers do not offer advances or require an agent, you really need to do your due diligence with any contract. (File this advice under “Duh.”)

How can you tell if a small press is legit? Start by reading this post.

  1. Indie (Self) Publishing

We’re twelve years into the ebook revolution, and enough time has gone by for the dust of the self-publishing “gold rush” (roughly 2008-2013) to settle back down to earth. We have adequate history now to assert a few things.

First, this path to market is still fast and without obstacle. Anyone can do it. That’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing because for the first time since Gutenberg it’s possible for an author to make bank outside the walls of the Forbidden City. A curse because there’s a great temptation to toss a book out there when it’s clearly not ready for prime time, and/or has a shoddy design.

There are innumerable books and blogs and courses that can teach you the technical details on getting your books online. If you are averse to being truly DIY (that is, dealing directly with Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.), there are aggregator sites that will do the distribution for you, in return for a percentage of your net proceeds. Your net is based on the retail price of your book, less the bookstore’s commission. For example, Amazon retains 30% as its commission when a book is sold off its site. The author gets 70%. The aggregator takes a slice (usually 15%) out of that 70% and sends you the balance. Smashwords and Draft2Digital are the leading aggregators right now. Here’s an article comparing the two. (Note: If a company charges you an upfront fee as opposed to percentage of net, it falls more into the category of a vanity press. See #4, below.)

Just remember that regardless of how you get your books to market, the three keys to making actual dough as an indie are 1) writing commercially viable books (i.e., in a popular genre); 2) being prolific; and 3) understanding that you’re running a small business.

That last item—business sense—gives many writers the willies. It’s hard enough to find the time to write! Now I have to spend time on business?

Well, yeah, if you truly want a shot at indie success. I wrote a book about the business principles you’ll need.

  1. Vanity Press

This is a business that makes money off authors, rather than the other way around. They require you to put up a pretty penny (do they make pretty pennies anymore?) to “publish” your book. They usually do a competent design job, but then what? They’ll offer to upsell you various packages (e.g., enhanced marketing) the value of which is negligible.

The article referenced earlier has a section on vanity presses. If you have written one book that you would like to distribute to family and friends in a nice hardcover edition—and have no desire to make writing a career…and you have lots of discretionary income—then perhaps a vanity publisher might be an option.

Whew. Now that we’ve covered these four paths open to writers today, we need to ask one more big question before making the choice, and that is: just what is it you want to accomplish, when all is said and done and published, with your writing? Here I think there are three possible answers.

The first is the amorphous concept of validation. A lot of writers I’ve talked to over the past ten years about self-publishing have given me variations on, “But I want the validation of a traditional contract.”

I call this notion “amorphous” because you can’t measure it. Will this type of validation give you 100% satisfaction? Probably not. How about 80%? Perhaps, but how long will that feeling last? If you become one of those writers who is dropped by a publisher (which will retain the rights to your output), what then? You’re five years into what you thought was a career and all that work you’ve done belongs to the company that let you go? And your dismal sales numbers make it impossible to land another contract with a like-sized company? (This makes it imperative that you and your agent negotiate a fair reversion clause, based on royalty income, and whatever else you can get.)

A more understandable reason for seeking a traditional contract (from a Big Five publisher) is to play the lottery. You’re hoping that one of your books will be among those chosen to get a huge marketing push, landing you a prime spot on the New York Times bestseller list and guaranteeing a long, seven-figures annually career. There are about two dozen authors who fit this profile and ten million who would like to. That’s why this is a lottery.

I find it a perfectly fine reason to knock on the doors of the Forbidden City. I just want you to be aware of the odds.

The third type of writer wants to create a reliable and steady stream of income. That could happen with the right small publisher partnership, but I find it more likely and lucrative in the indie world. My favorite model is the classic pulp fiction era. The writers who made it were, above all, good storytellers. They knew their craft. They were also prolific and understood the market—just like successful indie writers today, of which there are many. I personally know several indies making healthy five- and six-figure annual incomes because they operate on pulp principles.

Your assignment is clear. Figure out which motivation is most important to you. Then you can fashion 2020 plans and priorities accordingly. Next December, and each December after that, think through these considerations anew.

And whatever your choices—whatever type of writer you see yourself as—do this above all: Love the writing itself. Write with joy. Find and nurture your sweet spot. That’s the only thing that will sustain you over the long haul.

Which is why TKZ exists. We love writers and writing. We love sharing our insights, and hearing back from you in the comments. So as we wrap up another year, thank you for making this community one of the best places to hang out and talk about fiction craft and the book business. We now pause to catch our collective breath, and will see you back here on January 6, 2020!

Merry Christmas
Happy Hanukkah
Próspero año y felicidad!

43 thoughts on “What Path Should a Writer Take in 2020?

  1. This post is incredibly helpful (and scary) as I reach the end of my project. Thank you for your generosity throughout the year.

  2. Excellent advice, but who’d expect less. Something else I considered when I shifted to 100% indie publishing was my age. I just don’t have enough years left to go the traditional route, especially after hearing Neil Nyren of the Big Five talk about how their house works when it comes to promoting their authors. You get what they expect to make back, and for a debut author, it’s not much. Forget the book tours, the advance copies of your book sent to reviewers and bookstores. Their marketing efforts will revolve around adding your book to the email list they send to bookstores, media, etc.

    Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kwanza, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year to you, yours, and everyone at TKZ. I look forward to visiting each morning with my first cup of coffee.

    • That’s a good point on the “pro” side of the indie choice, Terry. The speed! I love putting finishing touches on an edited manuscript and seeing the book up for sale the next week…as opposed to 18 months from now!

      • And one other consideration I forgot to mention. If you choose to publish via Amazon (not KDP), that’s the only place your books will be available, both in print and as e-books. Believe it or not, there are still people who buy via other sales channels. I’m one of them, despite being able to use the free apps for other e-stores. I’ve got this ‘thing’ about exclusivity. So, you’re cutting out a portion of your potential readers.

        • Yes, Terry, that’s an ongoing discussion. Personally, I’m an income-based writer (i.e., I do this for a living!) and the financial gain from being KDP exclusive with my fiction is just too big to ignore right now. The question is, will Amazon continue to be the 500 pound canary in the world of bookselling? Remember when Barron’s wrote them off back in 1999?

          • And it’s a personal choice. Just wanted to put the option out there as a data point for making a decision. Everyone said Barnes & Noble would go under 10 years ago, yet I make a decent portion of my income there. Plus, Kobo opens up a much bigger international market than the other channels. My fear is that Amazon, being that 500 pound canary, will someday decide to change the rules. Competition in the marketplace is a good thing.

  3. Back at you with best wishes for all TKZers–bloggers, commentators, and lurkers. Thanks for all the good stuff.

    With my magazine full of [well-edited] cartridges, I’m hoping to be able to start rapid [indie] fire late in the coming year. My training calendar for 2020 includes, beside KZB and lots of other books and posts about writing, Malice Domestic and the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing. The latter program will include mystery writer Daniel Taylor (Death Comes for the Deconstructionist), but probably not a lot of attention to genre writing.

  4. I’m the type of person who gets easily overwhelmed and anxious–in large part because there are so MANY creative things I want to do, of which writing is only one (plus a bunch of stuff that doesn’t fit into the ‘creative’ bucket).

    But your post reminds me of 2 things:
    1) For all my hemming & hawwing, one decision is absolutely firm: when I publish, it will be indie. Decision made.
    2) When I survey the vast landscape of all I need to learn to be an indie author, both craft & business wise, I am reminded that TKZ has been the most rock-steady writing resource in my life for the last several years.

    Thanks to all the TKZ contributors for your time and expertise, and to all the commenters as well. I really appreciate this community and thank you all for being a part of it. Enjoy a well deserved break!

    • First of all, BK, it’s great that you’ve made a decision. Run with it. That’s always a first step toward success.

      I am reminded that TKZ has been the most rock-steady writing resource in my life for the last several years.

      Music to our ears! And thank you for your contributions here.

  5. Great information, JSB! I join the rest in saying, “Thank you for what you do here.”

    It is truly the first place I head early in the morning-after the coffee pot. If I can sum up what Killzone has added to my writerly life: When I’m here, I feel comfortable in my own author skin. I don’t have to channel any other author. I admire and respect their body of work and their knowledge of the craft. But I don’t have to be them. That, to me, is gold-plated. I’m grateful for absorbing that here.

    And I’m so grateful for what I learn here. There’s one thread I see snaking through each and every post: strive for excellence, Deb. I don’t think I’ve ever read a post without a personal takeaway. Can’t say that about many other author-type sites.

    My goal for 2020 is to indie-release my debut novel (my editor and I, however, do plan to have a conversation about the possibility of a small house), while completing two more for possible release in 2021. And in the cracks of the year, read, read, read-about the craft, and spread my reading wings to other genres.

    Again, thanks to each of you for being top-notch teachers of the craft. Love ya!

    • When I’m here, I feel comfortable in my own author skin.

      Love that, Deb! And glad to hear about your goals. May it be a Carpe Typem (Seize the Keyboard) year for you!

      • Haha! Carpe Typem…I need that on a T-shirt for sure.

        And BTW…just this very morning signed up for your Patreon stuff. Read Miss Magenta. Loved it.

        So, now I have a new 2020 goal: learn how to write short stories. 🙂

  6. Thank you for an outstanding end-of-year post, Mr. Bell.

    It took roughly four years, the consumption of thirty-two craft books (a huge percentage of which were penned by J.S. Bell), the creation of a humble office space in my home, and huge amounts of “whittling down” to figure out the shape of what I want to do as an author. I’ve got it now. I’ll be tearing into 2020 and driving through stories like a heavy snow plow in a blizzard of ideas.

    Thank you to all the TKZ folks for countless informative and educational posts and comments through 2019. You all help me stay on course. I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and fabulous New Year!

    • I’ll be tearing into 2020 and driving through stories like a heavy snow plow in a blizzard of ideas.

      Pretty clear, Carl, that you’ve got voice! Good on you and happy writing!

  7. Thanks, Jim, for all the wonderful teaching and advice you and the other TKZ contributors provided here. Although my daytime job allows visits here only Saturday and Sunday mornings, I often read the other posts late at night. I have enjoyed your Patreon short stories, and would encourage other readers to join Patreon.

    Largely because of your advice and others, here at TKZ, I have set out on the Indie route. I have published two middle-grade fantasies, and am working on the third. I realize that I won’t have much time to market those books until I retire from my daytime job, but they’ll be out there and waiting. And my grandchildren can read them in the meantime.

    One topic that I’ve missed (if it’s been discussed here), and that I am beginning to accept will be necessary for success, is public speaking. I’m reading NAKED AT THE PODIUM (along with about four other books, including Plotman to the Rescue). I hate to think about travel and speaking, but I’m resigning myself to that possible necessity.

    Jim, I’ve heard you speak at conferences several times. I would love to see some discussions here, by you and other TKZ’ers, on the ins and outs, strategies, fine points, etc. etc. of public speaking as part of the marketing of books.

    Thanks again for all your teaching. May you and your family have a Merry Christmas and a Happy and prosperous New Year.

  8. Thank you, Jim, for another great post. And thanks to all your fellow KZBers for all their insightful posts, too.

    Your rundown of the different publishing choices we writers face today is spot-on. Four years ago, I finally made the decision to do “the full indie” (with apologies to a certain movie with a similar title 😉 instead of jumping on the query-go-round like so many of my friends had. A number of them succeeded in landing a contract, but, as you pointed out, tradpub doesn’t support the mid-list, so many of them eventually were “cut” by their publishers. I even had one dear friend who worked his heart out to get a trilogy published by a reputable small press, only to see them fumble the ball, giving his books lousy covers, minimal editing and no marketing beyond being listed at their website.

    Indie publishing certainly has it’s challenges–visibility being a big one, even in Kindle Unlimited. I’m currently wide, because up until this past Friday, I had a day job, and I wasn’t prolific enough to really leverage KU. I retired from the library on Friday after 32 years, and am now a full-time writer at long last, so will be re-evaluating as I see how prolific I can become 🙂

    I truly love the freedom of being an indie. Sure, the only “validation” I get is whatever sales, reader reviews and reader emails my books might garner, but that’s fine by me.

    Happy Holidays to you and everyone else here at KZB! Here’s to a fantastic 2020.

    • Thanks, Dale, for your contributions to the comments this year…and man:

      one dear friend who worked his heart out to get a trilogy published by a reputable small press, only to see them fumble the ball, giving his books lousy covers, minimal editing and no marketing beyond being listed at their website.

      To me, this is as horrific a story as anything from the keyboard of Stephen King!

      • It was that. The one ray of sunshine in this is that he was able to get his rights to the books back. He’s been re-editing them, commissioning new, much better covers, and preparing to relaunch them next year as an indie.

        • That’s great to hear, and often what can be done after working with a small publisher. The Bigs can be stickier, which is why it’s so important to negotiate a fair reversion clause.

  9. Jim, your post gives me courage to venture beyond Amazon exclusivity. Smashwords founder Mark Coker spoke at our Flathead River Writers Conference several years ago. I really appreciated his alternative outlet to the 800 lb. gorilla named ‘Zon, but, at that point, wasn’t ready for the plunge.

    Thanks also for the link to the article comparing Smashwords to Draft2Digital. I didn’t know an author could do both.

    Thanks for your many years of great wisdom and guidance, along with other TKZers and commenters from whom I learn valuable lessons every day.

    Warm wishes for a Merry Christmas!

    • Always glad to hear the info is helpful, Debbie! All this talk about gorillas and canaries and going wide…don’t forget your pith helmet!

      Merry Christmas back atcha.

  10. The traditional publishers’ contracts have gotten much worse in recent years to the point that even established writers who aren’t bestsellers receive much less money for each book sold, and the unwary author can sell themselves into a contractual life slavery they can’t escape. Tread very carefully with an agent or publishing lawyer you can trust.

    One of the biggest dangers of small press publishers is that they are run by a small group of people, and even the most competent people have health problems or die. I’ve faced this problem a number of times in my career. Two of my books went out of print for the first time in twenty years earlier this year because of this problem.

    The good news about self-publishing is that you are in control, the bad news is you are in control. Learn your business stuff and be prepared to write fast because readers expect lots of content from writers they support.

    And here’s a New Year Resolution for you. Read Kristine Kathrine Rusch’s “Business Musings” columns from beginning to end, then subscribe for new posts. She tells the ugly but honest truth about all the variations on publishing as well as business tips. Here’s a link:

  11. Excellent post, as always, JSB.

    And timely as I do my evaluations on the Solstice, which was yesterday. Dancing naked through the trees and all that.

    Here’s to 2020!

  12. Thanks for providing clarity about the various publishing choices available now, James. And for the reminder that although writing is a creative venture, it’s also a business. And businesses take planning and analysis if we want success.

    I appreciate all the generous advice, tips, and encouragement you and your fellow TKZ bloggers share every day. Visiting here each day keeps me inspired, entertained, and hopeful for my own writing projects.

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays for every way you and your readers celebrate the season.

  13. Your posts are always a part of my Sunday morning routine, Jim. Thanks as always for both having the wisdom and sharing it!

    Oh, and thanks for your newsletter, too. I love the simplicity almost as much as the fact that it =always= makes me smile. Or this morning, even laugh.

    Merry Christmas!

  14. Jim,

    Thank you for another great article. Lots to think about as we head into 2020.

    2019 was my first year as a published author (small press, good experience). I loved spending time on TKZ this year, learning more about the craft of writing and being inspired to write, write, and write some more. My whiteboard is overflowing with to-dos for 2020, and I’m trying to figure out how to slow time down so I can get it all done. Who knew telling stories could be this much fun?

    Many thanks to you and all the TKZ bloggers.

    Shalom and Merry Tidings to everyone.

    • Glad to hear about your good experience with a publisher, Kay. Those stories are less frequent these days, it seems.

      And love that overflowing whiteboard. Sounds like a great 2020 coming up!

  15. Much to think about in your article, James, as well as in all of the responses! This is pure gold: a wealth of first-hand experiences & survival stories of the treacherous waters of publication.
    You might just have changed my mind on my own route.
    Thanks for the info, the experiences, and the great links, everyone!
    Much success to all in 2020!

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