Traditional Publishing is Alive and Thriving and Different

By John Gilstrap

There’s a buzz about the internet that the traditional publishing market is dying, and that the most reliable route to authorial success is through some form of self publishing. In my experience, the rumors are in large measure perpetuated by people and bots who stand to make money from frustrated authors who want to see their words in print and are willing to pay for editing and publishing “services” that suck cash and provide no guarantees.

The argument as I hear it.

The days of Maxwell Perkins and like minded star makers are long gone. No publisher (herein after synonymous with “traditional publisher”) is willing to develop young talent. Either the manuscript arrives at the transom fully formed and ready to publish, or it will be rejected.

Agents are no longer taking on new clients. Instead, they concentrate on their current stable of authors, who make sure that the doors to the publishing industry are closed to newcomers.

The entire industry is prejudiced against (depending on the perpetuator of the rumors) white people, people of color, men, women, gays, straight people, old people or young people, and about any other demographic slice that has chosen to feel oppressed on any given day.

For those authors who have found the magic string to pull to gain access to an agent and then on to a publisher, disappointment awaits. Either the selected publisher will pay too much for a book that doesn’t earn out, thus dooming the author to a painfully short career, or they will pay a mere pittance that will have no meaningful impact on the author’s finances.

And oh, the financial abuse! For every book sold, the publisher keeps as much as 90%, and of the paltry 10% given to the author, one-fifth of the amount goes to the author’s agent. When Amazon will let an author keep 70% (?) of the cover price, who would even consider a real publisher?

The evidence is plain and clear: Advances are shrinking for everyone, and the Big Five are getting smaller every day. Clearly, that’s the sign of the industry’s impending death.

One would be a fool to even consider offering their book to a publisher.

Reality as I see it.

First, a brief reminder of where I come from: I sold my first novel, Nathan’s Run, in 1995. By the time it hit the stands, I had already sold pub rights to my second book, At All Costs. Both were sold for astonishing seven-figure advances and neither earned out. Not even close. Since then, there’ve been 26 more books, with at least two more under contract.

The Max Perkins editing model died long before I joined the publishing scene, and I’ve been around since the days when query letters were sent in envelopes that contained an SASE, and manuscripts were shipped via FedEx at something like $25 a pop. That’s when I learned that only bad news came in the SASE. Good news came via phone call. Even then, the burden lay with the writer to submit a near perfect manuscript to agents who requested to see a sample. Then, as today, the easiest answer to a newbie trying to enter the entertainment business, the easiest answer was/is no. Who would want to establish a long-term relationship with someone unprofessional enough to submit flawed work as their first impression?

Then and now, overworked editors depend on agents to serve as gatekeepers at two important levels. First, there’s the quality of the writing. Without a good story that is well told, there’s no good product to mold into a better product. (There’s never been hope for ill-conceived or poorly written stories).

Second, agents make sure that excellent manuscripts go only to editors who are looking for that kind of story. When a trusted agent tells an editor, “I’m giving you a 24-hour exclusive on this story before I submit it wide,” all other work gets shoved aside for the editor to read and make an offer (or not). Publishing continues to be a relationship business.

When a manuscript is accepted by a publisher, editing is less about wordsmithing than it is about project management. Once everyone is happy with the story, the editor champions that manuscript all the way through the cover design, marketing and publicity efforts. For the record, no author in the history of the world has been pleased with their books’ marketing or publicity plans.

NOTE: First novels are in large measure author auditions. Authors who work to promote their own works, make speeches and show an active interest in the advancement of their own career will see their publicity budgets grow with time.

Now, as then, agents and editors are starving for new talent, and champing at the bit to take on new authors. The crippling problem now that didn’t exist in my early days, is email. Back in the day (Good Lord, I can hear my old man voice), the sheer inconvenience and expense of submitting via mail served as a form of natural selection. And before that–as recently as the 1980s–a new draft meant retyping the entire manuscript. Talk about a barrier to entry!

Now, each agenting day reopens the valve for a tsunami of under-cooked, ill-conceived and poorly-executed submissions overloading their email boxes. I’m talking really awful, terrible drek. New authors demonstrate a shocking lack of respect for these professionals’ time. As always, the easiest answer is no. A yes has to be earned.

But according to the interwebs, nobody needs an agent anyway. There are plenty of resources they can pay to publish their terrible work on ebook platforms.

The nightmare of huge advances

I’m not going to pad the truth here. When HarperCollins and Warner Books recognized the magnitude by which they’d overestimated the marketability of Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, my career took took a kick to the doo-dads. But I got to keep the money. Let’s call that a silver lining.

And I kept writing, churning out character-driven thrillers. I was able to build on the various starred reviews of those first books, and I found publishers who were willing to hang in there because I was willing to take advances that hovered around 2% of the news-making paydays. Audiences grew, and as they did, so did the advances.

Nowadays, I won’t take an advance that I can’t earn out within 8 weeks of publication. That frees up lots of cash to be used in promotion and marketing. Over time, as a backlist grows, it acts as a kind of annuity, rendering the advance as more of a symbolic payment.

Many aspects of the good old days never made sense.

All corners of the entertainment business are driven by significant egos, all of which need stroking. Big name editors are stroked by their own imprints, authors with book tours and big advances. The huge names in this industry never earn back their advances because much of their value lies in being among the authors published by the publishing house. Ninety-nine percent of book tours lose money for the publisher, but the loss is justified by the bragging rights.

Or, so it has been for generations.

I think the most critical element in the slow implosion of the Big Five is the fact that they are now owned and run by people who don’t particularly like books or publishing. Once acquired by mega companies, publishers become another profit center among dozens of other profit centers whose profit margins are much higher than that which is possible in the book biz. The last couple of years has seen countless big-name editors released and replaced by lesser editors who demand lower paychecks. Publicity, distribution and copy editing are routinely sourced out to freelancers who have no emotional tie to the companies who hire them or the authors they edit.

The stage is set for great things.

The ossification of the Big Five is creating tremendous opportunities for new authors and new publishers that exist because they like the business of producing books. My own publisher, Kensington, remains privately owned and thriving. Newcomers like Blackstone and Source Books are making great strides in taking on new and orphaned authors and turning profits at the same time. New publishing companies are opening their doors every week, it seems.

But with new opportunities comes a shift in the author-publisher paradigm. It’s expected now that authors understand that they are small business owners and therefore responsible for a solid percentage of their book’s success in the marketplace. Writing is becoming more of a team endeavor.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

10 thoughts on “Traditional Publishing is Alive and Thriving and Different

  1. “…a shift in the author-publisher paradigm. It’s expected now that authors understand that they are small business owners and therefore responsible for a solid percentage of their book’s success in the marketplace. Writing is becoming more of a team endeavor.”

    Oof. That is exactly why self-publishing (not the same thing as “vanity publishing,” in which the author pays tons of money to see their work in print) is a good deal.

    I earn at least a 70% royalty on everything I write, and a much higher royalty on anything I sell (at a discount) from my own site. And of course, I own all rights to my intellectual property, as will my heirs.

    When I was traditionally published (early ’90s), I had to do all the same self-promo etc. that I do now, but for a 10% royalty. That is bad math.

    I’m very happy for your personal success. But awhile back, I recall someone posting that by and large, the days of 7-figure advances are over.

    As it has ever been, these days most authors who stick solidly to the agent-tradpub-rejection route are seeking validation. Many spend years revising and rewriting (often for the agent before even a 20-something English-major slush-pile reader ever sees the mss) and then for one editor or another. Hovering over one work when that same author could be putting new words on the page and improving in the craft.

    But one part of the traditional publishing paradigm will remain the same: Authors will continue to sell all rights to their IP to tradpubs for a pittance of an advance plus low royalties. And the title will go on the publisher’s spreadsheet and add a LOT more value to the company’s bottom line than the author will ever see.

  2. If you end up selling all rights to a publisher, your agent is incompetent. Every part of a publishing contract is negotiable.
    You can choose to build your house in the woods with your own hands and bask in the money saved by not hiring a plumber or architect. I prefer to do it right, with the assistance of professionals.

    • Good post, John. But keep in mind that a self-published indie author can hire those same professionals as freelancers. That’s what I do, and I prefer it that way.

  3. I chose trad publishing. I like having an agent who will review my contracts and negotiate for me. My small publishers pay 40% royalty and I don’t have to stress over all the details involved in self publishing. Thanks for a great post!

  4. Well laid out, Mr. Gilstrap.
    After putting three small publishers and one magazine out of business, I opted to go indie. Starting from scratch at my age isn’t feasible. But I’m not putting a roof over my head or food on the table with my writing income. I’m making decent gravy and enjoying (most of) the ride. Marketing still sucks.

  5. Thanks for this look at where traditional publishing is today, John. I’ve been heartened to see the growth in new publishers like Blackstone and Sourcebooks. I want to see publishing continue to flourish, and these new publishers, as well as small presses and, yes, indie authors, are key IMHO.

    A friend of mine, who writes science fiction, had his latest novel published by a small press as opposed to the big house his previous three had been published at. He noted that he’d been a small cog in a big operation at his former publisher, but with the smaller publisher he was a “somewhat larger” cog at a smaller operation, and his book was treated with more care. This is another potential benefit of going small.

    As an indie, I see myself as the equivalent of a micro publisher, but publishing only one author, me 🙂 It’s incumbent on me to ensure my book is the best I can make it, working with beta writers, copy editors, proofing etc, so that what I’m offering is worth a reader’s time and money. Just like the best publishers do.

  6. Right you are, sir, about all authors needing to think like a business these days. And the goal of a business is profit. Thus the issue is as you framed it at the top: whether “the most reliable route to authorial success is through some form of self publishing.” Much depends on the mindset of the author. As Jane D. put it, some authors prefer not to stress over the details of indie publishing. That’s legit. But for authors willing to master the details (which really aren’t that hard), I agree with what Jane Friedman said in a recent Hot Sheet, reflecting on the new Author Guild survey of writing income:

    “When self-pub authors start out, they tend to earn exceptionally little compared to those getting traditional deals (or advances), which makes sense. But if the self-published author keeps going and becomes established (if they can hit the five-year mark as far as this survey), they are likely to outearn their traditional counterparts.”

  7. I think traditional publishing can certainly be viable for some writers. But I also think it’s relevant you started in 1995 and made your bones before the recent turmoil. A lot of newer authors are the ones complaining how the system works for newer authors in 2023.

  8. I love the discussions about traditional vs. self publishing. It’s like a grand puzzle each author has to put together for him/herself.

    My first novel was traditionally published by a small publisher, and I am so grateful things went that way. I saw it as a validation of my ability to put together a coherent story. They were wonderful to work with, and I intended to stay with them. But when they offered a contract for the next book, the terms weren’t as good as the first one, and I began to get cold feet about the whole small publisher business. My husband and I negotiated with them, but we couldn’t get to agreement, so we parted company on very good terms and formed our own publishing company just to publish our works.

    Self-publishing is a lot more work, but the rewards are also greater. I love the total control I have over my work. On the other hand, I’m just finishing a middle grade book, and I understand MG is a genre that is best handled trad because of the need to distribute to schools and libraries, so I’ll be submitting to agents and publishers again. (Wish me luck. 🙂 )

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