Death of the Publisher


If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know I like to keep my finger on the pulse of the publishing industry. Staying abreast of developments in your field comes with the territory when you're a professional author.

I started out like most aspiring writers thinking I had to land a book deal with a Big Five publisher to make a living. Objectively studying the data soon convinced me otherwise. Love it or hate it, the paradigm shift ushered in by Amazon shook up the publishing biz forever.

The writing has been on the wall for at least five years now, but oldpub authors have muddled on, insisting everything's fine as their royalty checks shrink. I'm always amazed to meet new authors who are still querying agents and getting excited at the prospect of signing oldpub book deals.

In fairness, it was possible to make an ad hoc case for working with a publisher--until now.

Leftover hippie academics have been babbling for years about the death of the author. Now we're actually witnessing the death of the publisher.

What does that mean? It means that publishers now add zero value. There is no service they provide that you can't perform or commission yourself at equal or higher quality and at much lower costs.

You can hire the same artists the big boys use for under a grand per cover.

Need an editor? Skilled freelancers--like yours truly--have you covered for a reasonable one-time fee.

Formatting is so easy to do yourself, you could outsource it, but there's no need to.

Marketing? This old canard just won't die. The days of publishers' PR departments handling all the marketing so their authors are free to just write are long gone--if they ever existed at all. Whether they go with oldpub or go indie, all authors need to do their own marketing.

And we're much better at it.

"But I can't afford to front a grand in production costs!"

Here's a thought experiment. The average new eBook, oldpub or newpub, earns about $2000 in royalties over its launch window.

Imagine we sit down at your kitchen table, I stack two grand in cash in the middle, and I give you two choices.
  1. I divide the stack in half. A thousand goes to production costs, and you get to keep the other $1000, plus all royalties earned from then on.
  2.  I divide the stack in half. This is a 50/50 royalty split between you and the publisher. Except the publisher keeps taking 50% of all royalties from then on.
My question to you is, do you spend a little time and money now for more money later, or do you keep paying a percentage of your royalties forever in exchange for some one-time work?

Low time preference folks take option one every time. And low time preference is essential to success in any field.

"But oldpub pays advances!"

Again, it's a question of time preference. The standard oldpub advance is also $2000. This is not a gift. It is a no-interest loan against future royalties. Largely because oldpub pays shit royalties, half of traditionally published books don't earn out, so that two grand is the only money half of oldpub authors ever see for their work. Don't earn out? No second book for you. 

Care to bet your career on a coin toss?

If you're offered an oldpub book deal, sit down and ask yourself how long it will take you to beat the contract if you go it alone. On average, the answer will be, "not long."

All of my books have earned out their production costs.

The majority of them have beaten standard oldpub contract terms. My three most recent books beat the standard oldpub contract before launch.

And I'm near the middle of the scale. I could show you a dozen newpub authors who've broken out bigger than me in the past couple of years.

I'm not talking Galaxy's Edge outliers, either. The indie author group 20 Books to 50K put their heads together and figured out a reproducible method for earning a living at writing.

Can't afford the up-front costs? Crowdfunding has emerged as a viable way for authors to raise money for editing and cover art. I can personally vouch for book crowdfunding on Indiegogo.

TL; DR: Authors, ditch the gatekeepers, take control of your careers, reach more readers, and earn more money. The future of publishing is DIY.

XSEED CROWDFUNDING UPDATE: Thanks to you maniacs, we've left our third stretch goal in the dust! As promised, seats are now available at my virtual gaming table for the Combat Frame XSeed pen and paper RPG playtest.

Seats are limited, so claim yours now!

Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 Second Coming - Brian Niemeier


  1. As far as I'm concerned (and I'm a retired traditional publisher) every word of this is true.

    I sold my first novel in hardcover to a small press. Ten years later, when Kindle was mature, I released an ebook edition. The ebook edition earned as much money in three weeks as the hardcover earned in its entire ten years. The ebook is still earning money four years since I published it. And it's all mine.

    1. Not only is THE CUNNING BLOOD a profitable book, it's a rollicking good sci fi story to boot.

      Thanks for the powerful testimony, Jeff!

  2. The mania started with the Campbell nomination. We're not stopping now!

  3. A lot of people don't think of it this way, but practically every American these days has an ebook reader in his or her pocket. It's called a smartphone, and it's always in my pocket, full of indie books, ready to roll if I have fifteen minutes to kill in a doctor's office. That's our market. Being noticed is tricky, but there is no scarcity of readers.

    1. Guys like Jon Del Arroz and Adam Lane Smith are rapidly figuring out the getting noticed part.

  4. Brian

    More reasons to avoid tradpub

    1) their despicable behaviour towards libraries vis-a-vis ebooks

    2) tradpublisher bias against minority language translations

    For example the Catalan translation of Margteet Atwood's The Testaments was deliberately delayed for 6 months so the the Spaniah translation.(because the Spanish publisher is owned by one of the big 5 while the Catakan publisher isn't)


    1. There's another reason: When Barnes & Noble closes too many stores (or just goes under) traditional publishing will have no way but Amazon to reach the market. That will destroy a 75-year-old business model. As best I can tell (I still have many friends in tradpub) top management has no idea how to recover from the loss of big box chain storefront retail.

    2. What do you think of Elliott Advisors bringing in James Daunt to save B&N? He brought Waterstones back from the brink. What do you think his chances are here?

  5. This is a powerful tool i will send to my friends (tottering between deciding to go oldpub or newpub) immediately

    1. Please do. I think of this blog as a public service.