The freedom of indie vs the nothing of traditional

The biggest problem with indie publishing is how not just casual readers, but people in writing, insist on referring to it as “just” indie publishing.  How it’s somehow lesser than the “Holy Grail” of an old-school traditional deal.

This is a prime example of why so many writers with their heads on straight are rejecting the traditional side.  Now, before you roll your eyes, you should know the link goes to an author who has a long career in writing.  She’s had dozens of books and short stories traditional published, from novels to short stories to anthologies to magazines.  She’s been a professional author for more than thirty years, longer I believe; and has sold books and made bestseller lists worldwide.  Those of you who need the reassurance of knowing Rusch has worked for decades in the old school are part of the problem, but it is what it is.

There is no pot of gold on the traditional side.  There just isn’t.  There isn’t even a regular career, a working writer’s year in and year out being able to pay their bills on the traditional side.  So many authors are going indie because there is no money unless they do.  Rusch has been reporting consistently about the problems on the traditional side, how it’s dying, for several years now.  This specific article details how not only are the payouts anemic, but the trads paying these pittances are further insisting on loading the contracts with clauses that prevent the author from any other avenue that could bolster their writing income.

Read the article.  Here’s the best part:

The Work [the novel] shall be the Author’s next book-length work. The Author represents that there is no outstanding commitment for publication for the first time of another book-length work written or co-written by the Author to a third party and the Author will not offer rights to another book-length work written or co-written by the Author, or accept an offer for such a work, until acceptance of the Work by the Publishers and until the Author has complied with the option in Clause 3(a)

That’s a now-standard clause in most traditional publishing contracts.  What does it mean?  Simply, upon signing, you (the Author) are legally prevented from publishing anything else until the book in the contract has been published.  And further, until the traditional publisher has reviewed and declined your next book.  Notice there’s nothing about exceptions for stories that are in different genres, under different pen names, stories that are unrelated to or not sequels or prequels or parallel works to the book the contract is for.

In layman’s terms, these standard deals mean you get the “Holy Grail” of being “Big Name Published.”  Woot woot, raise the roof, awesome-sauce.  Right?  Wrong.  They’ll pay you a few thousand dollars, maybe as much as five thousand, but it’ll be spread out over eighteen to thirty-six months in three payments; contract signing, acceptance of final manuscript (i.e., after all the editing and revising and modifications the traditional publisher insists upon), and finally the actual publication.  The first third could be in your hand within a month or two of signing the contract.  But the revisions and editing process is normally something that takes a long time on the traditional side; it is not an exaggeration to say you could be waiting a year or more as drafts and versions trade back and forth between you and the editors.  And then, after you’ve finally waded through the revisions, you wait another couple of months for the second third of your money, and then dig in for what could very easily be another twelve to eighteen months before a “spot opens up on the publishing calendar” at your Big Name Publisher.  Only once that spot comes, and your book is printed off and sent to stores, will you have a final one or two months of delay before that final third of your money shows up.

Five thousand dollars.  Less Agent fees (15% normally), so now you’re down to $4,250.  Divide by three, $1,416.67.  But what about royalties?  No, a midlist and certainly not a new author is not going to see royalties.  It is rare for a trad side book to sell more than a few thousand copies.  The advance is all the money you’ll see, and can you live on $4,250 over a year-and-a-half or two years?  Yeah, I didn’t think so.

“But my book’s special; it’ll be a big hit and take off.  Oprah will talk about it.  Steven Colbert will hold it up on his show and tell his audience how amazing it is.  Bookstores all across the world will be begging for more copies because they’re selling them as fast as they come in the door.”

No, it won’t.  You can count on one hand the number of books in a year that take off like that, most years.  And the exceptional years hardly ever need more than the other five fingers, so less than ten.  Yes, your book too.  It doesn’t mean it sucks, it’s not a comment on you as a person, it’s just the reality.  The high-and-mighty traditional side has no secret sauce when it comes to making your book successful.  Gritting your teeth and enduring their horrible terms doesn’t mean you’ll get paid off in the end when they wave the magic marketing wand and presto-changeo eyeballs attached to wallets appear.  Your book will just be one more that comes out, and that’ll be that.

In fact, proving how the trads don’t know what they’re doing; they’ve been encroaching more and more into the areas the indie side has developed to market and promote books.  It’s getting harder for indie authors to get spots on advertising and promotional sites as more and more trad publishing houses show up to take up space in these venues that developed to actually put books in front of real readers, not just buyers from book stores and critics from review publications no actual readers ever read.  So that’s a thing.

Not only are trads not paying you something you can live on, with no future revenue stream you can enjoy and look forward to; but they’re going to stretch that meager sum out across three payments and most of two years.  And there won’t be any other payments unless you get them to accept another book.  And finally, they’re not going to let you leverage any other publication vectors to support yourself.  No selling something to a rival traditional house.  No small presses.  Certainly no indie publishing.  So they’re not paying you anything that’ll let you write full time, and are insisting you do nothing else to support yourself as an author while they fumble and stumble about wasting time.

Why do indies get so annoyed at casual readers who turn their noses up at anything that’s not traditional?  Things like this are a big part of it.  Writers write; it’s what we do.  It’s what we want to do.  But trying to go trad means you can’t write.  Except for yourself.  And if you’re a writer, you want your work out there being read.  God forbid you occasionally make a little money out of it.  There’s nothing dishonorable or seedy about selling entertainment to people.  Everyone is a consumer of entertainment.  It’s one of the biggest industries in the world economy, from music to movies, games to books, paintings and sketches; all of it.  People like R&R, they like fun things.  They’re willing to spend a little of their money to be entertained.  Wanting to provide entertainment is okay.

Writing is hard.  So many of you don’t believe this, but try it.  Sit down and try to crank out 80,000 to 100,000 words of a coherent story.  A few weeks later, when you’ve not gone anywhere, or when you’ve petered out a few tens of thousands of words into a story that even your family and friends struggle to say something kind about, it’ll be clearer.  Go look at any writer’s forum for just five minutes a day for a week.  You see the same questions, the same problems, show up from fresh new faces every time; faces that never bother to search the hundreds of threads asking the exact same questions they did before their post.

“Why am I stuck?”

“Is my idea any good?”

“How can I create a compelling character?”

“My beta readers hated it; what’s wrong?”

“My plot feels flat.”

I don’t say this to discourage anyone who wants to write.  Only to illustrate that it’s not easy to create a story people will read.  Most writers who are good at it take time, months at a minimum, to pull together a novel-length book.  And that’s what it takes to make a living wage.  Short stories don’t sell very well, on either side of the publishing aisle.  Readers prefer novel length.  The Golden Age of short stories in the 40s – 60s is long over.  There are few paying markets for shorts, and even on the indie side where the writer can crank them out and pump them into Amazon and Kobo, few customers want them.

Being a writer is hard.  But it’s insult to injury to sit by and see what traditional publishing is doing to authors too unresearched and blind to believe how the only people who might make any notable money off their book will be the vultures who write the contracts.


My latest novel, Grift Girl Gone, launches on 11-April.  Fans of con artists and caper crimes might find it interesting.  Have a look.