How Is Self-Publishing GOOD for Traditionally Published Writers?


There seems to be a fairly common misconception that traditionally published writers are “against” self-publishing aka indie publishing, dismiss it, don’t understand it, are afraid of it, etc.

I assume that erroneous impression is created by the most-discussed, most-visible (and most misinformed) commentaries from traditionally published authors—the comments that characterize self-publishing as destroying literature, books, publishing, and civilization itself!

However, speaking as a traditionally published writer (I’ve sold about 30 books to about half a dozen publishers over the years and am currently under contract), most of us are a lot smarter than that—indeed, most of us have had to be very smart to survive (let alone occasionally thrive) for years in traditional publishing.

More to the point, most of us are self-publishing. We’re elbow-deep in it, and we’re very excited about it. Indeed, Novelists, Inc. (Ninc), the professional writing organization I belong to, has focused much of its annual conference and its monthly journal, Nink (for which I’m a columnist), on self-publishing for the past 2-3 years—precisely because it’s such an important avenue for the working writer.

By way of disclosure, I was very skeptical about self-publishing in 2009, when strangers first started talking about it to me, precisely because I had by then endured 20 years meeting people who knew absolutely nothing about the business, telling me that by spending $12,000 to vanity-publish their novel (so they could corner total strangers like me and urge us to buy it), they were making a much smarter choice than I was by licensing my books for decent money to publishing corporations with national distribution. The fact that, of the two of us in those conversations, I was always the one making my full-time living as a writer and they were always deep in the $ hole, rarely altered their position. That sort of consistent experience for 20 years does make you a tad skeptical the next time someone with shaky social skills turns up and starts screeching at you about how their self-publishing venture is brilliant and you’re just an idiot—a dinosaur! a house slave! a tragic wretch! a Whore of Babylon!

By mid-2010, though, I personally knew several experienced pros (my dad, Mike Resnick, being one of them) who were electronically self-publishing their reverted backlists and making good money that way, which took care of my skepticism. So I started researching how to do this myself, and I self-published my first backlist book in January of 2011, followed by 17 more backlist books, with 4-5 still left in my production queue now. After those remaining titles are e-published, I plan to experiment with self-publishing frontlist (as well as with POD, producing some audio editions, crowdfunding, and other exciting possibilities).

 I also intend to keep licensing books to my traditional publisher, DAW Books, where I am very happy—and where I have, in fact, just signed a contract for four more books.

 A lot of traditionally-published authors are self-publishing, and have been doing so for 2-3 years now. Most of the writers I know, which is hundreds (alas!), are self-publishing.

 Here’s a typical example of why self-publishing is such a great development for the traditionally published author:

  •  In 2010, the earning life and market potential of all my backlist books was completely over. Nothing of mine released prior to 2009 was in print, none of it was earning a penny anywhere, and none of it was realistically viable for re-sale to publishers. And in traditional publishing, this was a typical position for a writer. Few people besides bestsellers had a backlist that stayed in print and earning for more than a few years.
  •  In 2011, I started self-publishing those backlist novels as ebooks—and promptly started earning income from them again, as well as hearing from new readers who’d never found my work before.
  •  In 2012, these same books, which had been dormant for years, accounted for one-third of my annual income as a full-time self-supporting writer, and they were a crucial factor in my being able to buy a house last year.

This is a typical example of why every traditionally published author with the sense that the gods gave to overcooked broccoli (and that’s most of us) is thrilled to death with self-publishing and elbow-deep in our own self-publishing programs.

A friend of mine who I helped walk through the early steps of self-publishing backlist gave me an extremely generous housewarming gift when I moved into this house in October,  due to having made more from self-published backlist sales last year than from frontlist publishing advances. Another friend of mine earned over $40,000 in two months with a couple of backlist books that soared up the ebook charts. Still another friend of mine earned $25,000 in three months with just one old backlist book. A number of my friends made more money on their self-pubbed backlists in 2011 or in 2012 than they’ve ever made, in a given year, from their traditional publishing careers.

 So of course we love self-publishing!

 And that’s just backlist. Just the old books that were just lying around on the couch eating brownies and pizza all day, not earning their keep anymore—until the e-volution!

Another crucial  way that self-publishing is good for writers who work with publishers is that now we can publish and earn from everything we write. No more projects will sit gathering dust in a trunk for years (as, for example, my Esther Diamond series did) because no publisher wants it. Therefore, many of us have new projects we’re working on which we have not focused on before because we knew we wouldn’t be able to sell them to publisher. This is what we do for a living, so we usually couldn’t afford to spend months writing something we knew wouldn’t get a contract. Now, however, everything we want to write has earning potential and can be marketed directly to readers, so we have more creative freedom and more earning potential than we’ve ever had before. We love this!

Also, precisely because we have more options for earning income with our work now, we’re in a much stronger negotiating position with publishers than we ever were before. Unless you were a bestseller or had a very hot project that multiple houses really wanted, a publisher negotiating with you always knew that you were extremely unlikely to walk away, because you couldn’t risk not earning income by deciding that something was a dealbreaker. Now, however, we always have another viable option, and that puts us in a much better position in negotiations. Publishers have been slow to recognize this, but we are now seeing the first faint glimmers of reality beginning to dawn on the industry and certain “non-negotiable” and “industry standard” clauses s-t-a-r-t-i-n-g to shift slightly in some instances. (It’s a process…)

 So whenever some poorly-informed writer with a big media megaphone claims that self-publishing is destroying literature, I ask you to keep in mind that such statements are no more representative of traditionally published writers than is a statement by some politician claiming that women don’t actually want equal rights and equal pay.

 * Housekeeping note: This isn’t my actual website (yet). It’s my practice site for learning WordPress, with which I keep meaning to rebuild my actual website. (Actually, now that I’ve committed blog here, I guess this is my blog.) My actual website, which has no blogging or commenting functions until I get around to rebuilding it, is at:

19 responses

  1. The industry is moving towards a fusion of traditionally published with self-published. The publishing houses will see that there is money to be made in backlists. Currently, they are not set up to turn backlists into money. The new technology lets writers do that for themselves. The struggle the publishing houses are having with their business model is the inability to pivot from expense laden revenues on the front end to lower cost revenues on the backend. Once they figure out a meaningful way to do that, how will their contracts change and what will authors who are comfortable with self-publishing be prepared to sign? Add to the mix the ever shrinking physical distribution channels of trad publishing and the picture becomes even murkier. Now is a time of opportunity for authors.

  2. It’s a shame their response to rights reversion is so selfish. It’s a “If I can’t have it, no one can” mentality.Tying up rights for duration of copyright is shocking. I know they invested money and a bit of time in each book, but if they gave up on it then let the author try.

    Authors like you will be one of the “lucky” ones who got their rights back. The new writers (too scared to negotiate, too poor/cheap to hire a lawyer, etc) won’t be in your position. I wonder when those horror stories will start, if ever. They might think it’s normal for the book to die and never get another shot. They’ll probably blame authors like you, just like an agent did recently.

  3. It’s a reality and has been so for over four years. What’s really happening is smaller, agile, publishing partnerships (which is what we call ourselves at Cool Gus) are filling the gap between traditional publishing and all the work and responsibility of pure self-publishing. We support our authors traditional publishing, and put them in charge of their own “self-publishing” with our expertise, talent, contacts and ability to do the heavy lifting on the tech, cover and editorial side.

    • Good example. There are a lot of viable choices available to us now that didn’t exist 5 (or even 3) years ago. So a writer is never again submitting a book or negotiating a contract with no other good options available to her.

  4. I LOVE self-publishing. Even though I had had eighteen novels traditionally published, I could never make a living that way. As a lowly midlister, there seemed little I could do to alter the status quo. And then along came kindle and epublishing, which I learned about from reading a number of American websites and blogs (Joe Konrath’s blog, in particular).
    So in late August 2010, I took a deep breath and plunged wholeheartedly into the indie world, beginning with my backlist. I’m now 100% indie-published (not counting the few books on which my ex-publisher retains the rights) and for the first time in my several decades-long writing life, I am earning a living as a full-time author. And it’s great!

    • Glad to hear it!

      This is Long Tail economics, exactly as Chris Anderson described at the 2007 Ninc conference (and in his bestselling book, of course). The revenue is no longer wholly centered in the beast’s head (the big publishing corporations), now it’s spread out throughout the long body and tail. Though top sellers may be seeing their traditional publishing sales and income decline, the way the big networks have experienced audience decline since the days where we only had 3 channels to choose from if we wanted to watch something at home, far, far more writers can earn income–and, indeed, earn a LIVING now–than was ever before the case. And those of us who’ve been paying bills on our midlist incomes all these years LOVE having more revenue!

  5. Another great sharing, Laura, and a perspective seldom heard… that of the core of traditionally-published writers awake and open to all the possibilities and speaking to the rest of us. Thank you. I’ve only published one book and it was self-published and later sold to St. Martin’s (1980). They let it go out of print in 1982 or so and it lay dormant until last year when I re-read my contract and asked for my reversionary rights. They made me wait six months and tried to get me to sign over ebook rights to them instead (for guess what? the “industry standard” 25% of net aka 17.5% royalty), but I held out, said no and got my rights back. Even at that, they kept a few hooks in me about rights of first refusal on next works, etc…. Next year though, I have termination rights time coming up… the little known 35-year rule… and I will end the matter with them. I will be self-publishing other titles again starting later this summer, 2 or 3 titles a year for the next several years. Down the road, one of them will be an update of the book I sold to St. Martin’s, but all things in time. Mine will be a patient game. But I do wish I was starting it with a backlist the size of yours!

    • Keep in mind that all an option clause means is that you are contractually obliged to show them your next MS as described in the clause (ex. your next “Esther Diamond urban fantasy novel”). Even if your agent negotiated a bad clause (ex. your “next book”), showing it to them is still your only obligation. You are not obliged to show them a GOOD novel that you expect them to want to buy, for example. If you show them a good novel, you are not obliged to accept their offer. If the option clause is really ATROCIOUS (one publisher notoriously secured rights to consider writers’ “next work” for 10-17 years!), then submit a book you’ve no intention of writing.

      One you’ve submitted an option book, the clause/obligation is fulfilled, and you can go do whatever you want with your other work.

      • I have always loved the scene in the movie “Wolf” (which is otherwise entirely forgettable) where Jack Nicholson’s character, an editor at a BPH who has been forced out, goes to his favorite and bestselling author to see if she wants to go with him into a new venture. She tells him sadly that his former employer has an option on her next book. Then she smiles and says, “It may be time for me to finish up that 80-page travel essay on ‘Irish pubs I have loved.’” (She’s a novelist.)

        • IIRC, what actually happens in that scene is that he, the editor, tells the author he’s looked at her contract and explains her option clause to her. The usual portrayal of an author is too stupid to know the terms of her own contract. (I really enjoyed that film, but it was a very unrealistic portrayal of publishing. Among other things, writers are typically long-distance business acquaintances with editors, not personal friends prone to turning up unannounced in their offices. And although writers sometimes follow a favorite editor to a different house, they don’t burn their careers or risk legal action from a publishing corporation to do it, as that film suggests. Only a few writers are that attached to working with one particular editor, and such situations are usually handled in a business-as-usual way. Editors resign and get laid off fairly often, after all. (My first editor resigned about 2 months after signing me. My second editor resigned about 4 months after that. My fifth editor quit to have a baby. My 6th, 7th, and 8th editors were laid off. Etc., etc.)

  6. I should add, that in ending the matter, I meant only to establish a “clean slate.” I have no fundamental complaint about St. Martin’s. I was treated fairly by them as well as by my agent. I’m actually a hybrid author by disposition and open to striking the best long term business arrangements considering all the ins and outs of self-interest and mutual benefit. There are times and places where traditional publishing makes sense and, likewise, as you’ve demonstrated, where self-publishing is the right play.

    • Thanks. You’re helping to disprove my suspicion that in the internet era, a reasoned voice and common sense is unappreciated and unheard. :)

  7. Couldn’t agree more. I’m doing exactly the same as you and my writing is flourishing, because as you say all those ‘pet projects’ that a trad publisher wouldn’t take on can now see the light of day. Thanks for this.

  8. OT I am relieved to see you have a better cover on Fallen from Grace. How the poor book has suffered.

  9. Thanks for providing a counter-balance to the wave of commentary that purports to have the interests of writers at heart. Typically provided by those who have a direct stake in the traditional corporate world of publishing, those voices flatly ignore the real world most of us inhabit. Those, such as Scott Turow, who decry the digital revolution have little apparent understanding of the positive impact self-publishing now has on the lives of those writers who toil below deck in the industry. At last, the vast unheralded majority of writers has a chance to reach a reading audience without the mediation of the giant houses, distributors, and agencies. It is very satisfying to have someone–anyone–give voice to the many new opportunities for writers that now exist thanks to digital publishing and Print on Demand.