No Future for Oldpub

New York Ruins

Pulp Speed exemplar Dean Wesley Smith isn't exactly bullish on oldpub's long-term prospects.
Most writers who break into traditional publishing are done in two books. Maybe three if they are lucky. And when I say most, I would give a conservative guess of 95%, more than likely closer to 99%. A lot of writers are chewed up and spit out to get that one writer who sticks past three books. But even then, a ten or twenty book writer is often tossed aside if anything goes south along the way.
But that is impossible to tell an early-stage writer with the dream in their eyes of being a writer.
I can vouch for the futility of talking certain "aspiring authors" out of seeking approval from oldpub. I've also observed that there's a high degree of overlap between oldpub Stockholm syndrome sufferers and people who flood the #amwriting hashtag with despondent tweets about how writing is nerve-racking emotional labor.
There is no long view in traditional publishing anymore. None.
When I first broke in back in 1987, there was a long view. You sold novels, they came out, you grew readers until you became a lead title of a line in a month, then if you could write bigger books, you “broke out” of the genre into bestseller numbers and you could live off your writing.
I lived off my writing back in those days from 1987 by being prolific, a slightly different path. I did not care about writing under my own name, and I wrote upwards of 18 novels in one year for seven different publishers under many pen names. I did that for over a decade, year in and year out. And I edited for New York and other companies as well.
But it is not possible to do that now. There were twenty or more major publishers when I broke in, now there are four. And a few mid-sized one that play as publishers.
There is also no loyalty now. When I came in, the editors and publishers were loyal to their authors. Now an author is nothing more than a number on a spread sheet and if the number doesn’t match what someone thinks it should be, that author is gone. That’s why they can fill the shelves these days with so many two-and-out authors.
Maintain no illusions. Oldpub is a meat grinder that sucks in hopeful authors and churns out pink slime. Best to avoid it.
With indie, you own all your own copyright for the life of the copyright and unlike traditional publishing thinking, books don’t spoil. You can keep the books out to readers for a long, long time, changing covers, redoing blurbs, marketing them.
In the same time as it will take an traditional writer to be pushed aside, try to write something new, and be dropped by their agent and realize they will never be published traditionally again (usually about 7 really brutal, dream-shattering years), an indie writer who just writes at a decent speed can be making decent money. Some might even be making a living.
And with indie, the money can just keep on coming in if you are smart.
But you are in control. That is a good thing for most of us, a bad thing for a few.
Who is newpub bad for?

  • Writers who shy away from the business side of the business and "Just want to write."
  • Writers who think that marketing their work is somehow beneath them.
  • Writers who value getting a pat on the head from self-appointed gatekeepers over earning a living.
The irony is, oldpub is no better for authors who want to coast and let strangers make their business decisions for them.

What? Did you think Tor Books would give your first novel enough of a marketing budget for bookstore co-op, a signing tour, and starred Kirkus review?

Oldpub didn't lavish that kind of ad spend on new authors back in their salad days. These days they're scrambling to keep the lights on.

Now is the best time in history to be an author. Sales of eBooks are at holiday season levels thanks to Corona-chan. Finish that novel you've been polishing for ten years, self-publish it, and start the next one. Your audience is ready for you right now!

Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You - Brian Niemeier


  1. Dean Wesley Smith is my idol; he's the reason I started taking writing seriously. Thanks to his inspiration, I've got eight books published already this year.

    Would I be out of line if I plugged my books here?

    1. Thanks! I'm on Amazon, and I've published four mysteries, a short-story anthology, two fantasy books (one novel, one anthology) and my newest, The Gilded Age: Awakening, about superheroes in 1908.

      The two fantasy books are available in paperback and ebook; the first one is called Arrival, available here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B084VCJ3FJ

      As Brian always says, support indie publishing, because old pub sucks. (I'm paraphrasing that last part.)

  2. Did you post a few years back an outline of the costs and profits made between self publishing and trying to go the traditional route? I can’t recall if it was here or a blog post on Castalia or somewhere else but my web search fu is failing me. Your post on pricing ebooks on Amazon at least mentioned making $2.00 profit from either an ebook sale or a paperback sale.

    Curious, with the heady days of Amazon’s self publishing system behind us, what do you recommend now for aspiring writers? I assume website/social media engagement to create a fanbase is still a must, and using Amazon is still needed, but what has changed? Just Amazon’s failed algorithms for book recommendations? What about the royalty rates? Can one go full Indy and ignore Amazon completely?

    1. Djurandel,

      Great questions. I'd like to hear what's Greg's opinion about mailing lists to build an audience. And the viability the patronage model.


    2. The rule of thumb is that a newpub sale profits the author 5.6x more than an oldpub sale. That's before the agent's cut.

      Thus, you'd have to sell about 6x more copies through oldpub to match what you'd make on your own.

    3. What's happening in the book industry right now is the next big round of creative destruction. Last time, Amazon undercut oldpub. Now Amazon is voluntarily destroying its book business as oldpub breathes its last gasps.

      KDP effectively killed the big publishers ca. 2013. They just weren't broke yet.

      Now Amazon is killing KDP, with the difference being that they'll never go broke.

      There's no magic formula for success anymore, which isn't to say there's no path to success. On the contrary, there are now multiple paths. Which one to take depends on your situation.

      Are you an engineer or an IT manager making a decent living who can turn out a 50K word novel each month? You should immediately write the 1st 4 books in a series, hire a top-notch editor and cover designer, launch the book on KDP, shovel moeny into AMS, and hire a student to manage your ad campaigns. Release a book a month. Repeat.

      If you're a down-at-heel starving artist, start a self-hosted blog TODAY. If you're social media savvy, you can get on Twitter and try to build a following before you're cancelled. Build a blog readership by posting at least *something* six days a week. Learn SEO and trade links with bloggers whose followings are 10x bigger than yours, no more; no less.

      Write your books while you're building your audience. Once you've got a book that's fit for public consumption, launch a crowdfunder to pay for editing and a good cover. I still recommend offering your books through KDP, if only because it's still 80% of the market. If you're good to your readers, you'll probably turn more of a profit from the crowdfunders than from Amazon.This is the genesis of neopatronage.

    4. Brian

      Thanks.in summary the independent writer is a freelancer no diffetentvfrom a plumber or other small business owner. Thus you're responsible for your business got it.

      As for the numbers let me repeat the ones for the Catalan industry.
      When a book is sold the publisher gets 45% the bookstore 35% (and many bookstores are owned by the publishers)
      15% to the agent and 10% to the authour.
      All percentages EXCEPT THE AUTHOURS' are variable.


  3. Just to add another data point to this conversation. In my own experience it takes between 40k and 50k impressions to get a sale. So for me its easiest to reach that through advertising.

    If you don't have money for advertising but can reach those numbers through social media then that my be an option. But regardless of the path you take realize that there are over 10 million books on Amazon now.

    Recently I saw a book ranked at 11.6 million so we can surmise there are at least that many books. And you're competing with them for eyeballs. I expect that over time it will take more effort to earn the same income.

    So the take away is this: if you really want to be in this game you shouldn't sit on your book. Get it out there and start work on the next one.