Monday, February 24, 2014

Are the Horror Stories About Traditional Publishing True?

In 2014, Dana Weinberg conducted a survey analysis of author satisfaction. This survey was followed a year later by another one conducted by Jane Friedman.

These surveys compared how happy authors were with royalties, editorial help, copies sold, and so on across three publishing platforms: traditional, self-published and hybrid (a combination of the two).

Are the horror stories about traditional publishers true? The conclusion was a resounding "meh." Self-publishing outperformed traditional publishing, but by only a small margin.

I have a few observations to make about this survey. The first is that people are more reluctant to give negative answers on surveys than positive ones, so every survey is slanted towards positive or neutral responses.

The second thing is that while authors may be somewhat satisfied with the pedigree offered by a large publisher, the majority of books that are traditionally published don't make back their advances.

What this means is that publishers don't put a lot of time or energy promoting books by authors who aren't already celebrities. The reason they don't bother is that they would rather invest their resources in promoting cash cows. With hundreds of authors, and thousands of titles on their lists, this makes sense for large houses.

The third thing that comes to mind is that some of these horror stories are actually the norm. Authors who are "cursed with ugly covers ... receive very little assistance or support in the way of marketing and promotion, or learned that their publishers had little investment in their careers as writers and/or no interest in their future books" is not an exception - this is standard practice in the publishing world.

Just to give you some perspective, here are a couple of true horror stories:
An author signs a contract with a major publisher, only to have is scrapped when the house goes through an organizational shake-up. The author can't find another publisher. (That happened to a friend of mine.)

An author submits a manuscript, and the editor wants the author to take out any word longer than two syllables, shift the POV, change the title, and delete half the chapters. (That happened to me.) 
While traditional publishing is not all it's cracked up to be, believing that self-publishing is the road to the Land of Milk and Honey is ingenuous.

Those who find themselves dissatisfied with traditional publishing and turn to self-publishing have to ask themselves some hard questions. Will I spend several hours a day marketing and promoting my work? Will I research the market to find out how I can reach my audience, or am I assuming that simply "putting it out there" is enough? Do I expect instant fame and fortune?

No  matter how you publish - whether you take the traditional route, or do it yourself - great expectations must be matched by a great amount of work. There is no substitute.


How Common Are Traditional Publishing Horror Stories?—Author Survey Results

By Dana Beth Weinberg, Digital Book World

I have heard numerous horror stories on the fiction front from authors who sold their books to publishers only to find they had lost control of content, were cursed with ugly covers that doomed any hope of sales, received very little assistance or support in the way of marketing and promotion, or learned that their publishers had little investment in their careers as writers and/or no interest in their future books. Such horror stories often seem pervasive, and they easily become rallying cries for self-publishing and the greater control it provides authors. Are these tales of dissatisfaction with traditional publishing notable exceptions, or are they the norm?

The traditional-publishing victims I’ve encountered typically report that they had been thrilled to receive their contracts and had accepted neglect or poor treatment or disadvantageous terms because they felt they had no choice. Indeed, before self-publishing became a viable option, few of them did. Worse, such experiences could harken the death spiral for an author’s career: no investment from the publisher could lead to sluggish sales which in turn could lead to poor chances of selling a subsequent title either to publishers or bookstores. Authors would be forced to abandon series or throw away their brands and try to reinvent themselves.

Cautionary tales capture our attention, and they tend to get repeated and even embellished. In other posts, I reported survey results showing a preference for traditional publishing among authors. I also found that authors had expectations for several advantages of traditional publishing relative to self-publishing. With so many authors positively disposed toward traditional publishing, perhaps these horror stories are very visible and heartbreaking exceptions, a disappointing conclusion to the struggle to break into the traditionally published ranks.

Additional readingAuthors call for better communication with publishers


  1. It's a shame really I love horror and all I see on the bookshelves these days are thriller and crime. To me that's not horror and I wish more horror was being published

  2. Hmmmm. You might want to read the article before you leave a comment.

  3. very useful information for any indie author, regardless of genre.


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