Traditional publishing: why would I?

March 5, 2014 Publishing/marketing 4

As a reader, I’ve been a fan of self-publishing for some time now. While many self-pubbed works really would have been better strangled at birth, some of my best reads have been by authors who side-stepped the traditional route. As I inch towards self-pubbing my own work, I wondered just what it would take for me to sign a contract with a traditional publisher. What would the benefits really be?

Now I should, perhaps, point out the obvious here. I’m never likely to receive an offer from a publisher. I’ve no intention of submitting, I have no agent, I’m unlikely ever to sell enough myself to attract any attention. So this is purely hypothetical.

But let’s suppose, very hypothetically, that it’s happened, and I have indeed received an offer from a publisher to put ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ out to the masses. Let’s assume that it’s a most likely scenario, that is, not a telephone number advance, but not derisory. About $5,000 seems to be a standard amount these days, so let’s run with that, and assume a boiler-plate contract. What would be the pluses and minuses?


  1. The advance. Since most authors never earn out their advance, this will likely be the only money received. If I were hoping to make a living from my writing, $5,000 wouldn’t cut it, but even though money isn’t a driver for me, this is a derisory amount for something that took me a couple of years to write and polish. There’s probably close to 1,000 hours worth of work in there, and this values my time at $5 an hour. However, it’s still $5,000 I didn’t have before.
  2. Access to bookstores and libraries. This is a huge advantage over self-publishers, who can sell very easily through online stores, but just can’t get their books into physical stores. [Edit: H Anthe Davis points out in the comments below that self-pubbers can now do this, by way of Amazon/CreateSpace, although at a cost.]
  3. Marketing muscle. A publisher will send out advance review copies, and may attract attention from press and other media. However, authors still get to do most of the social marketing.
  4. Warm fuzzy feelings at seeing the book in bookstores, and the confidence boost that some independent party thinks the book is worth publishing. This isn’t a driver for me either, but I don’t underestimate the effects.


  1. No control over editing, cover art, formatting, marketing, pricing.
  2. No creative control over the contents, since the publisher’s editor may ask for changes. Many don’t but if they do, refusing can be a deal-breaker. Given that I’ve written the book I wanted to write, rather than one tailored for a market, it’s very likely that I’d be asked to do this: to cut the size, and also to adjust the content.
  3. No freedom to publish other works now or in the future. This is the biggie – the non-compete clause, which even big-name authors are unable to remove completely. The contract will usually specify that all future works be submitted first to them, and that nothing be published which is in any way in competition with the books they have rights to. This can cover pretty much anything, under any name, that an author has already written or might write at some time. It can be a career-breaker, if interpreted tightly.
  4. The rights to that book forever, since ebooks never go out of print. The publisher has them, and that’s that. If the publisher goes bust, or is taken over, or decides to sell some of its portfolio, good luck with having any say in the matter.

I haven’t mentioned such things as foreign rights, movie rights, audiobooks and so on. Publishing traditionally makes these things more likely, perhaps, but they’re not impossible for self-pubbers either, and they’re better dealt with by an agent than a publisher.

I also haven’t mentioned how much time, effort and money it might cost to get that offer on the table in the first place. All that submitting, first to agents, then to publishers, over and over and over again. This isn’t as testing as it used to be in the days when a manuscript had to be typed out in 12 point double-spaced whatever font, and then packed up, carted to the post office and mailed at great expense. I imagine some authors must have spent as much on submissions as they ever got back in advances. These days, digital submissions have taken a lot of the strain out of the process, but there’s still the time involved.

Another factor that has a bearing is the cost of self-publishing. Where trad publishing gives the author an advance, cash in hand, self publishing incurs costs, which may be anything from free to several thousand dollars. I plan to spend around $2,000 on cover art, editing and formatting. On the other hand, a self-published work is earning money straight away, while the trad. pubbed author sits and waits for a year, maybe two years, before the book is actually on the market. But these are imponderables. It’s impossible to say definitively which route is better financially in an individual case.

Every writer has to put their own weighting on these pros and cons. Some just want to see their book in the window of a bookstore, and don’t mind the restrictions. For me, it’s the ramifications of a contract that specifies forever that bothers me. A time limited contract would be reasonable: three years after publication, say, or five from signing, even if the book is never published. That I would consider. But forever? And it’s not just the rights to this book at stake, there’s everything I might write in the future. The non-compete clause is a deal-breaker for me.

Then there’s creative control. Now, I’m not so precious about my writing that I think it’s untouchable Art-with-a-capital-A. I’m quite happy to remove info-dumps, to tighten prose, make dialogue crisper, use more active verbs. But slicing out 40,000 words? Making a character more assertive? Changing ages or genders? Changing the ending? If I decide to do that myself, fair enough, but if it’s some random editor who thinks it will make the book more marketable? Forget it.

So on these assumptions – a modest advance and a boiler-plate contract – I’d turn down traditional publishing every time. But what if the stakes were raised? What if the advance were $100,000? $500,000? At what point would I roll over? We’re into infinitesimal possibilities here, of course, but let’s just play along. $100,000 is enough to fund a couple of years of full-time writing with no other income, or longer with another source of money, but after that – back to the day job (unless it turns into a mega-bestseller, which few do). Half a million is getting more interesting, and a million? Yeah, that might do it. Maybe.

Of course, this is serious flying pig territory. The zombie apocalypse is more likely than some traditional publisher turning up on my doorstep with a seven digit offer. I don’t enter lotteries because the odds are stupid, and this is way, way outside those limits. So I’m not ordering the Ferrari just yet.

But what this proves is that, for me, traditional publishing isn’t an option. There’s nothing they offer that I want, and I’d be giving away enough to make me uncomfortable. So self-publishing it is. Others may take a different view. The beauty of being an author right here, right now, is that there are no truly wrong answers, just a variety of different paths to publication.

4 Responses to “Traditional publishing: why would I?”

  1. Tristan Gregory

    While I am going the self-publication route (and enjoying it) I wanted to pick apart one assumption above:

    “4. The rights to that book forever, since ebooks never go out of print. The publisher has them, and that’s that. If the publisher goes bust, or is taken over, or decides to sell some of its portfolio, good luck with having any say in the matter.”

    This entirely depends on the contract. While it may be hard to get a publisher to budge on some of their most egregious pet clauses, that doesn’t mean a mutually advantageous deal can’t be worked out. I’ll never sign a contract that sells my rights for life of copyright (or includes a non-compete clause, or doesn’t have clear and automatic rights reversion language, etc etc), but that doesn’t mean I would never sign a contract with a big publisher at all.

    • PaulineMRoss

      Very true. My post assumed a boilerplate contract, with invariable terms and that means (for the larger publishers, anyway) rights for life plus 70 years. Smaller publishers are (apparently) more flexible. And if you’re Hugh Howey or Michael J Sullivan, you can negotiate better terms. For a debut author – probably not. The bottom line is always – read the contract, then read it again.

  2. H. Anthe Davis

    Having self-published through Amazon/CreateSpace, I should mention that they do have an option for making your physical books available to bookstores and libraries. It involves a fee and also bumps up the price of the physical book — I imagine because the bookstores need a cut themselves — and I know that some libraries (like mine) are restricted on the amounts of material they can buy through Amazon. But it’s worth knowing that the opportunity is there, and will probably become more prevalent going forward.

    I tried for a while to attract the attention of an agent or publisher with no success. I would really like to see my stuff on the shelves with a publishing house’s imprint on the spine, so my acceptance of my self-publishing status is a bit sour-grapes, but I agree with you on the issues of contract and creative control — I don’t like the idea of someone else telling me what I MUST do in order to sell. Marketing people look at trends and try to fit to them, which creates a push toward the generic. I want to write what I want to write. If I don’t ever earn back the amount of effort I’ve put into my writing… Well, at least it was 100% mine. And anyway, I like my day job.

    • PaulineMRoss

      I do think that avenues will continue to open up for self-pubbers to get books into bricks-and-mortar stores and libraries. On the other hand, as bookstores continue to vanish that option becomes less and less relevant.
      “I want to write what I want to write” – yes, that’s exactly how I feel.

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