Authors Who Reject Publishers

There’s been a lot of talk recently about traditionally published novelists rejecting their publishers and releasing their books themselves. I can see that these novelists don’t like making a pittance on their books, but it seems churlish to dump the very people that made them a success. Without the publicity departments of those publishing houses behind them, there is little chance that these authors would have ever attained their current popularity. If you are one among millions of unknown writers trying to sell your book to an unaware reading public, it doesn’t matter if your book is stellar. It cannot shine without readers.

Many authors have the idea that wonderful books will always find a readership. Once that might have been true, but in today’s book world, where anyone with a computer and bit of time on their hands can write a novel (sometimes in only a few weeks, including editing — yikes) the sheer numbers of available books can keep even a great book from rising above the flotsam.

Interestingly enough, only a couple of these once traditionally published authors wrote truly original novels. If the rest had to make their own way in the ocean of ebooks and self-published books, they would have not have found much of a readership. The major publishers want what I call blue-jeans books — books that are made from the same fabric as all the others in a genre but with a slightly different styling. They don’t want anything too original because it is hard to sell. (I had several editors tell me they loved Light Bringer, my latest novel, which will be released by Second Wind Publishing this March, but they turned it down because they didn’t know how to sell it.) The blue jeans quality that makes books acceptable to editors of major publishing houses is the very quality that makes them unremarkable in the self-publishing or independent publishing world.

I don’t have much use for the traditional publishers, so I don’t really care that these authors are shunning them, but it does give new writers a false idea of can be accomplished by going it alone. The very fact that these authors are dumping their publishers is news. Publicity, in other words. And it’s only newsworthy because readers know their names. And readers know their names because the authors had the benefit of a big corporation’s publicity department.

I might have been unaware of the situation, but one of these authors contacted me via Goodreads, asking me to be part of a promotional effort. He wrote that he’d send me (along with hundreds of others) an ebook if I promised to write a review and post it on a given date. I turned him down. I don’t like his books, and I don’t like being told when to post a review. Not that I would — I still have not learned the art of reviewing books. And if I did do reviews, I’d post reviews of books released by small, independent publishers. The point is, he sent me the ebook anyway. A story about vampires. Sheesh. Still doing the old blue-jeans dance.

I purposely did not mention any names in this bloggery since I don’t want to help promote the authors. And anyway, it doesn’t matter who they are. I certainly don’t care, and there’s a chance in the not-too-distant future no one else will either.

Is Writing Worth the Effort?

A friend asked me if trying to become a successful author is worth the investment of time and money. Not only do writers have to hone the craft, they need to attend conferences, workshops, hire editors and publicists, build websites and promote.

I wish I knew the answer to my friend’s question. Now that my books are nearing their release date, I’ve been spending most of my time on the internet researching how to promote. And I still don’t know how to do it. Blogging, of course. Publishing articles. Making connections on Facebook and Gather. But to become successful, writers need to go beyond the obvious. Nor do I have the money necessary to do all that is required, including attending conferences, joining national writing groups, traveling to booksignings. So I have to do it on the cheap.

Is it worth it? I won’t know for a year or two or ten if I’m going to be a successful author, so right now,  I’ll leave you with the daunting facts: one and a half to two million books are written every year. 150,000 are published (about half of those are self-published), and since many carry over from year-to-year, I figure that at least a million are being peddled as we speak. 75% of published books (including some with big advances) sell less than 500 copies. 85% of published book sell less than 1000 copies. 84% of books in a bookstore sell less than 2 copies. A book is considered successful if it sells a total of 5000 copies. Considering the time it takes to write, edit, and promote, that comes to about $1.00 an hour for the author. Woohoo. (And that doesn’t take into consideration the sometimes hefty amounts people shell out for conferences, editing, classes, etc.)

Because time as well as money is at a premium, we feel guilty when we promote and let the writing lie fallow. And we feel guilty when we write and don’t promote. Juggling with fire would be easier, and less complicated, especially when the fireballs being juggled include jobs and family.

On the other hand, what choice do we have? We are writers. We need to write, and we need readers.

Contracts, Publicity, and Everything Else You Want to Know About Small Publishers

I asked Vana Roth, author of A Nation of Expendables, about her experiences with her publisher, if she had much communication with them, if she had to sign a complicated publishing contract, and how much publicity and promotion she had to do. She very generously responded:

Hi, Pat.

Experience with a Small Publisher 

The following is based on personal opinion of working with a small publisher. Since this is my first book, I have nothing else to compare it to. Therefore, in answer to your questions, my experience with a small publisher has been very positive. Other than the original book release being pushed back a few months, everything has gone really well. Whether publishing with a large or small imprint, release dates tend to fluctuate and it’s a matter of being patient. Regardless of what happens when, the contract states the length of time the publisher has to get the book from contract award to print. It can take eighteen months or longer depending on the length of the book. Eighteen months may sound like a long time but it really isn’t when considering how long it can take to get a manuscript through edit, copy-editing, and artwork. A whole lot of coordinating goes on in the background and timing depends on the publishers schedule as well as those chosen to perform other services. If the publisher fails to publish in the specified amount of time, all assigned rights revert to the author. The author is free to pursue another publisher with none of the original publisher costs charged back to the author. A Nation of Expendables took fourteen months from contract award to print. 


It’s my understanding; publishers may assign the first read of a manuscript to an editor or editors. After reading, the editor makes a recommendation to the publisher as to whether the manuscript is viable. Based on editor recommendations, genre, topic and reader interests the publisher makes the final decision about offering a contract. The editor assigned to my book was the first to inform me of the contract award. A couple days later, the publisher followed up with a personal phone call for introductions. A few days later, I received the contract in the mail for review. All-important communications have been handled through email or regular mail, which I prefer since it gives me a ready reference for anything I might forget and a legal copy of what’s been discussed and agreed to beyond the original contract. I’ve talked several times with everyone who’s worked on my book. Communication is essential especially when you think about the importance of the final product. Once the book goes to print, it’s extremely costly to make changes; it has to be right the first time. I haven’t any negative things to say about the experience thus far. I suppose it has to do with my publisher and the professionals she contracted to handle my book. I had about a thousand questions and they were all answered in a timely manner. Everyone was very friendly, accessible and professional. Other authors under the publishers imprint have been very helpful in offering support and advice. It’s been a huge learning curve for me but since everyone’s been so helpful to the Newbie, it’s been a real pleasure. 

Publishing Contract 

Immediately after submitting a synopsis to agents and publishers, I started researching traditional publishing contracts to find out what’s standard, what to watch out for, what areas could and should be re-negotiated and what legally needs to be present by federal law. There are tons of great sources on the internet to research publishing contracts. If you’re ever in doubt, you can have an attorney who specializes in publishing contracts and copyright law review a contract.  

I was originally offered (3) contracts for A Nation of Expendables. One I rejected because the publisher wanted a re-write with more graphic detail of the blood and guts. The second was a one-page contract from an attorney turned publisher. He sent a one-page contract; I sent back a seven-page amendment, needless to say, the relationship deteriorated from there. Although royalties would have been paid at 50% on print copies, the contract was exclusive and for an indefinite period (pretty much forever). Standard contracts run from three to five years. The publisher also wanted 100% of the subsidiary rights with no provision for royalties or payment for these rights. Subsidiary rights are but not limited to, foreign language translations, film options, TV options, brail editions and other formats such as ebooks and audio CD’s. The contract was also missing the actual publishing date required by federal law. The publisher has to specify when the book will be in actual print and available for purchase. It’s my understanding the federal ruling came about since some publishers would enter into contracts with authors with no intention of ever publishing their books. They would tie up the rights for as long as possible to keep certain books from competing with books on similar subjects they wanted to put money into promoting. The only rights assigned to my publisher are English language rights in print and English language ebooks. I retained all other rights but have an option to assign these rights to my current publisher for a percentage if I so choose and if opportunity presents itself. The three-year contract I received was very fair and in my mind as close to perfect as one gets. There were only a couple, minor areas needing negotiation.  

Negotiating a Contract 

If you’re negotiating a contract without an agent as a middleman, you have to remember all publishers expect to make a profit, which is normal. They will keep a larger percentage if you allow them. If you’re uncomfortable with the percentage offered, there’s nothing stopping you from asking for more. The worse that will happen is the counter offer may be rejected. From what I’ve read, royalties on print copies range from 5% to 15% and 10% to 50% on electronic formats depending on the publisher. When you get a contract, pay close attention to the percentage of royalties on ebooks. Established publishers could go up to 50% split since there’s little cost involved once the book’s been formatted and put on a server for download.  

In my opinion, a good traditional contract from a small publisher to an unproven author offers royalties on a graduated scale based on sales volume: 10% on the first 5,000 copies, 12% on the next 5,000 and 15% on anything after in print form with a minimum of 20-25% on all ebooks. If you can get more, which is difficult…great…but if you can’t, in my opinion the graduated scale is very good. If a publisher offers 50% on all print copies, you may need to pay special attention to what’s missing in the contract. You may be signing control of your book away for life and/or your subsidiary rights without any financial benefit. There are a number of other issues addressed in the contract such as copyright ownership, first right of refusal on sequels, book character ownership, etc. A contract from a reputable publisher will put everything up front and in writing. If these issues aren’t addressed in the contract, I’d have serious doubts about the publishers’ integrity. 

You probably already know this but under a traditional contract there’s never a charge to the author for any publishing services. Never pay for artwork, edit, copy-edit or printing. A reputable traditional publisher will assume all up front costs. Some small publishers may or may not offer an advance. Mine did not and I didn’t have a problem with it. I think the hardest thing for an author to decide is whether to accept a contract or hold out for one they think may better. 

About Agents 

Since I haven’t an agent and negotiated the contract myself, I don’t have to pay anyone 15% off the top of my earnings. If this book does well, it will be easier to find an agent and/or if necessary, another publisher for the next book. I’m still not sure at this point if there’s a benefit to having an agent unless an author’s only interested in publishing with a large imprint since it’s almost impossible to get their attention without one. Unless you have multiple manuscripts the agent agrees to represent, once a publisher’s found and the contract is signed, there’s very little left for them to do. Personally, I’d rather pay a good publicist the 15%. 

Publicity and Promotion 

Publicity and promotion is a tough one, my publisher has a very active publicist. It’s still early for my book and there may be more requirements. So far, the only things I’ve been asked to provide is a short bio, applicable website addresses, and blurbs about the book that my editors helped write. The publicist takes this information and copies of the book to conventions to generate interest. She also presents the book to a variety of chain stores. The goal is to get the chain store to put the book on their approved purchase list and to stock it. The publicist also helps set up book signings and interviews. No matter what type of publisher is sought, all authors nowadays are required to promote their own work so unless you have $25-50,000 for a personal publicist and unlimited funds for marketing, you’ll be required to do a fair amount of promoting yourself. 


I consider myself very lucky when it comes to being published. There are close to 1,756,000 fiction and non-fiction manuscripts submitted to publishers (big or small) each year. Between 3-5% of those ever get published. These figures do not include books from self-published authors or technical manuals (medical, technological or mechanical). This is why I chose to go with a small publisher with good distribution. The odds of being noticed by one of the larger imprints were very low. In addition, smaller houses can keep books active longer. If a book doesn’t generate immediate interest, a large publisher may only keep a book active for six weeks. My publisher will keep the book active for eighteen months unless we agree to another contract at the end of this one keeping it active longer. At some point since small publishers don’t have millions of dollars behind them for promotion, they’ll ask you to submit a promotional business plan. What they’re looking for are the methods (email, direct mail, web site, phone calls, newspapers, etc.) you intend to use to help promote your work. 

Other than that, I can’t think of anything else to tell you. If you have any other questions…please feel free to ask! 

Always a pleasure, take care,

Vana Roth 

For more about A Nation of Expendables see:

It’s Not the Will to Win, But the Will to Prepare to Win That Makes the Difference

I never wanted to write the Great American Novel (whatever that is). I wrote my first novel to see if I had the discipline to do it, and discovered that I did. It was terrible, though, so much so that I do not count it as one of my works. Besides having broken all the rules of good writing, especially the one demanding that the writing be good, it had too much of me in it. The one positive thing about it is that I will never again make the amateurish mistake of writing a thinly disguised autobiography.

Although I have improved my writing with each succeeding book, I have not yet found a publisher. In publishing, as in life, a great deal of luck is involved, and I have never been lucky. But that does not keep me from acting as if I will get published.

Football coach Paul Bryant said, “It’s not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.” Many writers have the will to get published, but they do not have the will to prepare for that eventuality. They hold onto their prose as if it were gold and not merely the coin that will get them where they want to be. They are profligate with adverbs and stingy with rewrites. They think readers are waiting breathlessly for their immortal prose.

I am not one of those writers, or at least I hope I’m not. I slash every excess word, I challenge every adverb, I write and I rewrite, I work on my query letter and synopsis. And I plan my publicity strategy for when my book is published. I am already getting known on the internet. (All right. So only two or three people know my name. It’s a start.) I blog. I’ve joined social networking sites. I have a website. I write articles. I think of ways to talk storeowners into letting me do a book signing, and I think of ways to make it a success. I plan speeches to give to local groups. I’m learning how to juggle several writing-related projects, such as editing, blogging, writing, rewriting, because once a writer is published, more is required than simply writing, and I want to be ready.

Hundreds of thousands of people write a novel every year, and few will find a publisher. If the will to prepare to win makes a difference, perhaps some year I will be one of the lucky ones even if I haven’t written the Great American Novel.

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Grubbing For Readers

I met a well-known novelist on (if you can call a few written exchanges meeting someone). My first communication with a successful author, and he contacted me. So what if it was only a comment he left on one of my articles, he did contact me, and it left me feeling a little strange. I couldn’t figure out what I had done to draw his attention, and I couldn’t figure out why a writer such as he would have signed up for Gather where the newly published and the wannabes hang out.

His latest book is coming out in March, so perhaps that answers the question of what he’s doing there — publicity — but still, as the author of more than twenty published books, including a couple that have been made into movies, why would he need to do it on such a basic level?

Out of curiosity, I looked for his books in the library, and found only one, which had been published five years ago. What shocked me was that his name appeared below the title, and his picture was not on the back of the book jacket. (Big name and even not so big name authors are regularly featured above the title.) And the mystery of what he is doing on Gather became a little clearer.

No matter how successful writers are, if they aren’t among the elite who bring big bucks to the publishing houses, they have to grub for readers. It seems a sordid business, this grubbing, and I wonder how often it pays off. One author who is contstantly grubbing says her book, which has been out a year, is doing well. It sold between one hundred and one thousand copies.

For many years now, my dream has been to become a published author, but I’m no longer certain it makes any difference if I get there or not. Published authors have to spend a lot of time publicizing themselves and their books, and that time is subtracted from their writing time. And if they do reach the pinnacle, they become something completely different, not an author but a celebrity, which also takes them away from writing. (I am beginning to see why brand name authors often degenerate into mediocre writers: they do not have much time to write.)

In a perfect world, I would be a published author and make enough money to live on so I could devote my life to writing. But this is not a perfect world, and the publishing industry is not always the answer to a writer’s dream. I don’t think self-publishing is the answer either, at least not for me. It seems that self-publishing becomes a matter of eternal self-publicizing, and again, little time is left for actual writing.

I don’t know where my answer lies. I will, of course, continue pursuing publication, but more importantly, I will continue writing. That’s what I want to do — write — not spend my life trying to get my name known.