Is Traditional Publishing a Scam?

The screech of a smoke detector woke me up at 6 AM.

For a few seconds, I thought it was a false alarm. The smoke detectors have been fussy lately. Then I smelled smoke.

I leaped out of bed and raced out to the kitchen, trying to remember exactly where we keep the fire extinguisher.

Black smoke was billowing up from the stove. My plumber, Sam, stood hunched over a frying pan that held a huge, smoking pancake. “Hey, Ma! It ain’t cooking right.”

I was so furious, I could hardly speak. “I’m not your mother and what the devil are you doing in my house?”

Sam fanned smoke out of his face. “Making breakfast, a course. You better put some clothes on. My Ma don’t like people wandering around half dressed.”

“What’s your mother doing in my house?”

“Dear boy! It’s so good of you to invite us over to teach me about how to get my book published.” It was the voice of Sam’s mother Minnie, out in the dining room.

I peered around the corner.

Minnie had stacked up two chairs to get at the wailing smoke detector. “Sammy! I think it’s broken. Can you find me a hammer?”

“I’ll take care of it,” I said. “Just give me some room.”

Minnie looked at me, and her face turned bright pink. “You need to put some clothes on you, young man! Wandering around in your jammies — it isn’t decent.” She climbed down off the chairs.

In ten seconds, I had the battery out of the smoke alarm.

Blessed silence filled the house.

I took a deep, calming breath. Somehow, it didn’t work. “All right, people, it’s 6 AM. What are you doing in my house at this time of day?”

Sam gave me an enormous grin. “You was gonna teach Ma how to get her yeah novel self-published. And I was gonna take notes.”

I vaguely remembered something about that from yesterday. But I hadn’t agreed on a day or a time. “Well … how’d you get in? I locked the door last night.”

Minnie smiled and whipped a set of lock picks out of her apron. “Retired locksmith, dearie! Always useful when your host is a sleepyhead. Now run off and get dressed. Time’s wasting, and we need to get my yeah novel published today.”

I groaned and staggered back to my bedroom, where I spent ten minutes explaining to my wife that we had guests. She knows what Sam is like, so she didn’t seem terribly surprised, but she also didn’t get up.

Half an hour later, showered, shaved, and dressed, I went back out to the kitchen.

Sam and Minnie were just finishing breakfast. The table was covered with half a dozen dirty plates, three empty jars of jam, two bottles of syrup, a butter dish with one tiny sliver of butter left, an empty gallon jug of milk, two cartons of orange juice, and an empty box of Cheerios.

Sam leaned back in his chair and gave a happy sigh. “Well, that wasn’t bad. Wasn’t much in your fridge, so ya might wanna have the wife do a food run while we work.”

My head was hurting and my fists were clenched tight. “So Minnie, you’re interested in getting self-published–”

“Dear boy! I’ve been having second thoughts about that.” Minnie’s face twisted in agitation. “It’s just … maybe self-publishing is good enough for Sammy, but I want a real publisher.”

“You want a traditional publisher, right? One that pays you an advance and royalties? Not one of those vanity publishers that you have to pay?”

Minnie beamed at me. “Exactly. Self-publishing might be good enough for Sammy, but I know you’ve had a real publisher and I want to hear why you did that.”

I poured the last dregs of the orange juice into the one clean glass left in the kitchen and went and plopped down on the couch. “When I started writing, there was really only one way to get published — you worked with a traditional publisher.”

Sam heaved himself into my favorite chair. “But they’re a cheat, right?”

I felt my face warming up. “I wouldn’t say that. Twenty years ago, even five years ago, it was really the only rational way to get published.”

Minnie sniffed loudly. “If a person has any self-respect, I think it’s the only way to get published.”

“Ma, you got to get out more. Read some blogs. I been reading this feller’s blog, Joe Conrad—”

“You mean Konrath,” I said. “Joe Konrath. Great guy. I love his blog.”

“Well, he says that them legacy publishers treats authors like …” Sam looked at his mother and his face turned a brilliant red. “Like rat-poo.”

“Sammy! Language!”

Sam shrugged his massive shoulders and hung his head. “Ma, I’m just quoting the feller exactly. Ain’t I?” he appealed to me with huge, pleading eyes.

“Not in those exact words,” I said. “But yes, Joe Konrath says traditional publishers treat their authors like, um, crap.”

“You horrible boy!” Minnie said. “Using filthy language in the presence of a lady. I ought to wash your mouth out with soap. And I would, too, but I’m too polite to interrupt. So go on and explain.”

I went into my office, got my laptop, and logged into Konrath’s blog. Joe’s said a lot of things about traditional publishers over the years, but I found one that nicely summarized things: Do Legacy Publishers Treat Authors Badly? I handed the laptop to Minnie and let her read it.

As her eyes moved down the screen, her face tightened. Sam leaned back in his chair and pulled out his iPad.

When Minnie finished reading, she looked horrified. “Is all this true? Do traditional publishers only pay 25% royalties on e-books?”

“Most of them do,” I said. “I’ve heard rumors about some big-name authors who get more, but I can’t really say how much more or who I heard it from.”

“Well, whyever not?” Minnie said.

“Because the terms of contracts are generally supposed to be kept secret,” I said.

“Uh-oh.” A guilty look crept across Sam’s face. He pecked feverishly at his iPad for a full minute. “Say there, Mr. Bigshot Author, I don’t suppose ya know how to untweet a Twitter thing that ya shouldna sent out to 8000 folks, do ya?”

I didn’t move a muscle. If Sam wanted to blather about his contracts in public, it wasn’t my problem.

“Cuz here’s the thing. I was curious about what kinda contracts you been getting—”

I shot up off the couch, raced into my office, and yanked open the drawer where I keep my contracts. All the files were missing. “Sam!” I bellowed.

“Ma, don’t let him hit me!” Sam shouted.

“He won’t hit you Sammy. Nobody hits my boy.”

I stalked back out to the living room. “Sam, this time you’ve gone too far.”

Sam held up both hands. “I was just shocked is all. Righteous indignification. And I didn’t tell whose it was. Well, not in so many words. I just said it was a Bigshot Author. Could be anybody, right?”

I sat back down and put my head in my hands and waited for my heart rate to drop below 200. “Sam, don’t ever do that again.”

Minnie was still looking at Joe Konrath’s blog. “Is this true about titles? Have you ever had a publisher change your title?”

I thought for a minute. “Of the eight books I’ve published, the publisher asked me to change the title of five. In four cases, the new title was better. In one case, it was worse. And in one case, I asked to change it from the original, but the publisher conveniently forgot. And in another case, the publisher suggested the title from the start, and it wasn’t quite perfect, but I never got around to asking them to improve it.”

“Dear boy, that’s what spines are for.”

“Look, you’ve only got so much negotiating room,” I said. “You have to ask for the changes you can get. And publishers think they know more about titles than authors do.”

“Yer making a real strong case fer them traditional publishers,” Sam said.

Minnie jabbed her finger at the screen. “But I still don’t understand why traditional publishers only pay their authors 25% royalties on e-books. You told us that was a scam by those dreadful vanity publishers. You said publishers should give us all the profits.”

“No, I said vanity publishers should give you all the profits,” I said. “Because a vanity publisher takes none of the risk and you take it all. So you should get the profits on the book. A vanity publisher is doing a work-for-hire in setting up your book for you. You pay them to do that up front. There’s no reason you should pay them any more after that.”

Sam was grinning at me like he’d scored a point.

“But a traditional publisher isn’t like that,” I said. “A traditional publisher takes quite a lot of the risk up front. They pay you an advance. They pay for all the production costs. So they have a lot of skin in the game. You invest only your time. So the traditional royalty structure on hardcover books has been roughly a 50-50 split on the profits.”

Minnie looked perplexed. “Doesn’t it cost terribly much to make a hardcover book?”

I shook my head. “A bit. There are paper and printing costs. There are warehousing and shipping costs. And of course there are returns.”

“Explainify about them returns,” Sam said. “Cuz it don’t make no sense to me.”

“It doesn’t make any sense to me either,” I admitted. “When a publisher sells a book to a bookstore, the bookstore can later return it for full credit if they don’t sell it. And in recent years, the word I hear is that bookstores have returned on average half their books.”

“That sounds dreadful!” Minnie said. “I can see how that would eat into the publisher’s profits. But … you don’t have any of those costs with an e-book. So why aren’t the royalties on e-books 50%?”

Her words hung in the air for a long time. Sam leaned back and crossed his arms. And smiled.

I tried to pick my words carefully. “Well, Minnie, I’ll be blunt here. A lot of published authors think that e-book royalties are much too low. And most of the agents I’ve talked to also–”

“But all them folks just grin and sign the contract and get cheated outta their royalties,” Sam said. “It’s a scam is what it is. Somebody oughta look into  it—all them big publishers paying the exact same lowball, cheating 25% royalties. It’s collusionification, is what it is.”

“It’s a bad situation,” I said. “And my opinion is that it needs to change or the traditional publishers are going to eventually face an author revolt. I think it will change, but—”

“Will it change by tomorrow, dear boy?” Minnie said. “Because you know I was really hoping we could get this done today so I can tell all my friends tomorrow where they can buy my book.”

I laughed out loud. I just couldn’t help myself. Because it took me ten years of learning how to write before I sold my first book. And then it took more than a year for my publisher to edit my book, create the cover, do the typesetting, get reviews, and ship it to stores.

“He ain’t laughing with you, Ma,” Sam said. “He’s laughing at you. Cuz he knows you’ll be lucky to get yer book published in two years.”

“Two years!” Minnie squeaked. “Why so long?” She rounded on me. “Is that right? Will it take two whole years before one of those traditional publishers can get me into bookstores?”

“That depends on how well you write,” I said. “If your writing is brilliant right now, then you could find an agent within a couple of months. The agent could sell it in a few months. The editor would work with you for maybe three to six months. Then there would be another six months to a year while they …”

I stopped, because I really had no idea what actually happened during that six to twelve months. Other than “marketing,” which in my experience, generally doesn’t happen for most authors.

“But … at least they pay you well?” Minnie said. “I mean, authors have to eat, right? So they’ll pay me a living wage for my book?”

I coughed.

Sam was grinning more now. “Well, hey, not meaning to be nosy, but I accidentally come across some of yer royalty statements while I was looking fer yer contracts, and–”

“You WHAT?” I roared.

Sam pulled a thick sheaf of papers out of the grimy pocket of his coveralls. “I just wanted to see if that Conrad feller was blowing smoke when he sez that legacy publishers give ya royalty statements that don’t make a rat’s behind worth of sense.”

“LANGUAGE, Sammy!”

Sam flipped open one of the statements to a random page. “See, now that ain’t a bad week’s worth of pay, right there.”

I looked at the statement. “That isn’t for a week, Sam.”

“Oh, well then.” Sam grinned. “Ain’t so great fer a month, is it?”

“It’s not for a month, Sam.” I could feel my face turning hot.

Sam looked perplexed. “What kinda operation is it that don’t pay at least once a month?”

“Most traditional publishers pay every six months.” My words hung in the air for a long time.

Minnie grabbed another royalty statement from the stack. “Well this one looks more like what I was expecting. That’s a whole lot of money.”

Somehow I doubted that, but I looked anyway. “Um, that’s a big number, I’ll grant you that. But it’s a negative number. That’s what I still owe on that contract.”

“Oh, my!” Minnie sat back on the couch and fanned herself. “How are you ever going to pay back all that much money?”

“He ain’t,” Sam grumbled. A scowl slid across his face. “From what I hear tell, most of them contracts with traditional publishers never earns back the advance. And if the book don’t earn its keep, then the author don’t pay. The publisher eats the loss.”

“That’s exactly right,” I said. “Nobody knows the exact percentage but I keep hearing that the great majority of books never earn back their advance.”

“Well then, that’s a good reason to write for a traditional publisher,” Minnie said. Her face perked up. “You can be sure of getting the advance.”

Sam glowered at me. “Bigshot authors and them big advances. Ain’t fair.”

“Well … there’s a small problem,” I said. “Actually, three problems. First, advances are getting smaller, from what I hear. Second, if a book doesn’t earn out its advance, then the author may not even get a next contract. And third, if you know you aren’t going to earn out your advance, then you have no incentive to market your book.”

“Goodness, honey, why in the everworld would an author want to spend time marketing her book?” Minnie asked. “Shouldn’t an author spend her time writing? Isn’t it the publisher’s job to market the book?”

Sam leaned forward. “That Conrad feller sez publishers talk big about marketing, but then they don’t hardly do nothing.”

I didn’t say anything. I’ve worked with several traditional publishers. I’ve truly enjoyed working with them. I love most of the editors, marketers, and publicists I’ve worked with. They’re book people. Fun to be with. Smart. Hard-working. Honest. And some of them actually were effective in marketing my books. I know they tried hard. But in some cases, they didn’t succeed.

The fact is that each of those books was my baby, not theirs. My publishers have had dozens of books to market every year. Sometimes hundreds.

The hard truth is that marketing my books is my job. It always has been my job. And it took me a while to figure that out, because hardly anybody ever comes right out and says it that way.

And the sad truth is that unless a book earns out its advance, any marketing time an author puts in will enrich the publisher, but it won’t earn the author a dime.

And that really sucks, because most of my author friends work hard at their marketing.

But I know very well that many of them don’t earn out their advances.

Which means that their marketing earns them nothing.

And that saps their incentive to market.

Minnie seemed to read my thoughts, because she didn’t ask if Joe Konrath was telling the truth about marketing. “But what’s this about non-compete clauses? Surely traditional publishers don’t put those in contracts, do they? You told us yesterday those are terrible things.”

Once again, I tried to choose my words carefully, because this is a minefield. “The purpose of a non-compete clause is to protect the publisher’s investment in you as an author. Traditional publishers will typically invest tens of thousands of dollars in your book. If you do something that damages their investment, then they get very upset. My friend, agent Steve Laube wrote a nice blog on that just recently.”

“But here’s the thing,” I said. “Vanity publishers take no risk at all. So when they put a non-compete clause in a contract, they’re cheating you. They have no investment to protect.”

Minnie read through Steve Laube’s blog post and her face turned pale. “Some of these traditional publishers put in perfectly dreadful non-compete clauses.”

“I’ve heard horror stories from other authors,” I said. “But because of that confidentiality thing, I can’t repeat them for you.”

Minnie was wringing her hands. “Oh dear, traditional publishing looks awfully good from the outside, but it seems like it’s not so good on the inside.”

“Ma, it’s a scam, same as them vanity publishers,” Sam said.

“No, you’re wrong, Sam,” I said. “Vanity publishers, for the most part are scammers. They take your money and don’t give you fair value for it. A few of them do give you good value, and if you can find one that’s fair, then a vanity publisher or a subsidy publisher might possibly be your best option. You just have to think hard about what you want, what you’re willing to spend, and how much you want to work.”

Sam leaned back and scowled, muttering, “Scam, scam, scam.”

“And you have to do the same kind of hard thinking with traditional publishers,” I said. “They pay you an advance and they take a lot of the financial risk. They set the terms in the contract to benefit themselves, and sometimes they don’t bend at all on negotiations. But a traditional publishing contract can be a very good deal for the author. Sometimes. The point is that we have choices now. Five years ago, self-publishing was not a real option. Now it is.”

“But … how could I hold my head up high if I were to tell my friends I was going to self-publish?” Minnie said. “That’s just for … losers.”

“No it isn’t,” I said. “A lot of authors I respect are self-publishing. And some of them are selling zillions of books. Barbara Freethy. And Bob Mayer. And Bella Andre. And Hugh Howey. And many more. Not to mention that a number of traditionally published authors got major book deals after making a success by self-publishing. E.L. James got her start writing fan-fiction.”

“Who?” Sam said.

“Never you mind.” Minnie’s face turned pink. “She writes, um, romances. Not something a young boy like you would be interested in reading.”

“Sounds boring,” Sam said. “But that Bob Mayer feller, he was in Special Forces, so he’s gotta be good. And that Hugh Howey feller writes a heckuva good mystopia.”

Minnie looked exasperated. “I didn’t raise you to use curse words like that. You just apologize right now.” She shot me a sharp look. “But you, young man, seem to be riding on the fence. One minute you’re telling us dreadful things about traditional publishers, and the next minute you’re defending them.”

“I’m just telling you reality,” I said. “Traditional publishing has pluses and minuses. I’ve done eight books with traditional publishers. And I’ve done two of my out-of-print novels self-published. And I have another one due out any day now.”

“What? You never mentioned it!” Minnie said. “Are you ashamed of it?”

“No, I’ve just been waiting until it was ready. Here’s the cover.” I opened my iPad.

Double Vision coverMinnie stared at the cover for several seconds. “Oh. My. Word. Now there is one handsome young man. You’ll tell me when this book comes out?”

I nodded. “I promise.”

“And you’re going to self-publish this book?” Minnie began flipping pages on the iPad. “Oh my! It looks like it’s a real book and all.”

“Of course I’m going to self-publish it,” I said. “I’ve got several more that I want to do this year, all self-published.”

“Ain’t gonna work with them high-powered traditional publishers any more?” Sam asked.

I shrugged. “I might. The thing is, I have choices now. Every book, I can choose the best option. I’m not locked in to traditional publishing. I’m not committed forever to self-publishing. I can make the best decision for me. I like that freedom.”

“Freedom.” Minnie sighed. “I like the sound of that.”

Suddenly, she clutched at my hand. “Dear boy? I just don’t know what to think. Will you teach me how to make the right decision for me? I’m not desperate to get published. But I’d dearly like to see my book in print before I die.”

“It’s all a matter of asking the right questions,” I said. “There isn’t any one decision that’s right for everybody. But … yes, I’ll help you.”

“Well, there’s another decision we better make real soon.” Sam stood up and headed toward the kitchen. “What’s fer lunch?”


 What’s Next

Randy sez: This is the second in a series of blog posts on self-publishing novels. Some of what we say will be useful to non-fiction writers too.

Minnie’s next step is to decide whether she wants to work with a traditional publisher or whether she wants to self-publish.

If you’ve got friends who might be interested in how a writer makes that decision, feel free to let them know about this Indie Author Guidebook series.

See you next week!


  1. Rob Hoey June 25, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    Hi Randy-
    I’m finishing up a novel about Occupy Wall Street and I have a legal question. In the story I mention a cable TV network in a somewhat negative way (in terms of political views and lack of honest reporting from the viewpoint of my main character). I’ve avoided using real names of politicians, but I wonder if I may do that.
    Rob Hoey

  2. Randy Ingermanson June 25, 2013 at 10:35 pm #

    Hi Rob: I’m not a lawyer and so I don’t give legal advice. If I were writing your novel, I’d make up a name for the cable TV network. Just seems safer that way.

  3. Conor James Caldwell June 26, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    Another interesting, easy to follow post.

    Thanks Randy!

    By the way, I bought your Oxygen (writer’s journey edition) and the appendix in the back on MRUs and or public/private clips was excellent. I’m sure it will make my writing much better.

    • Randy Ingermanson July 12, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

      Hi Conor: Glad you like the appendices! When I learned MRUs from Dwight Swain way back when, my writing suddenly got a whole lot better. It’s like magic, and very few writing teachers teach them. Which is why I focus on them so much. There’s just no better way to give your reader a powerful emotional experience.

  4. Lisa Cook January 3, 2016 at 8:21 am #

    I am writing my memoir as I would a novel for a more interesting read. Most of the characters are dead. The story takes place in the 1960s. Can I use real names?

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