Myths and Truths about Traditional Publishing—What It Was Like for Me.

Old Open Bible

I came across this post via Chris the Story Reading Ape (a crucial source for publishing tips and news). Steven Spatz, president of, a book packager for independent publishers, lays out “Six Myths (and a Few Facts) about Traditional Publishing.

Just to be clear, “traditional publishing” means having your book produced by an established, for-profit publishing company that will pay you an advance, provide you with an editor and a publicity department, physically manufacture your book—including the cover and format—and, ideally, get it to sell.

In contrast, independent or self-publishing means writing a book and getting it edited, producing a formatted copy with a cover, uploading it as an ebook to an ebook vendor like Amazon or Smashwords or as a “real” book like a paperback or hardcover to a company that “packages” it for you and that may supply some editing, cover production, and marketing, depending on what you pay for.


When I contemplated this post, I didn’t know those definitions could be so hard.

Bottom line: A traditional publisher PAYS YOU and does it all (or much of it) for you. As an indie publisher, you either do it all yourself, possibly for free, or pay for certain services you don’t feel you can do well.

grunge paper texture, vintage background

With that out of the way, the very first comment on Mr. Spatz’s article pointed out that BookBaby specialized in packaging books for “indie publishing,” and is therefore biased against traditional publishing.

Okay, Spatz may be biased. But as I read, I found myself saying, yeah, yeah, that’s exactly what I found out during my all-too-brief existence as a traditionally published author. Spatz’s observations, in my view, offer a useful “wait-a-minute!” that prospective authors need before they decide how they want to enter the publishing melee.

Note that the experiences I cite here are grounded in my own career: I was traditionally published by three MAJOR houses, St. Martin’s, Bantam/Doubleday, and New American Library. Today’s traditional publishing field is surely more competitive, not less, than in those glory days.

So, with eternal gratitude to Victoria Strauss, read these thoughts as a version of Writer Beware.

Spatz’s Myth 4: Publishing with a Traditional Publisher means your book will show up on bookstore shelves.

This was my first devastating revelation. And my mother’s. We’d walk into a bookstore and she’d gesture at the extravagant front-door displays and demand, “Why don’t they put your books out here?”

Because, I learned, shelf space is a precious, much fought-over commodity. In order to be provided so much as a sliver of space the width of a spine, my books had to have a mega advertising budget behind them. Mega. I had to be Paris Hilton. Or Michelle Obama. Or . . . you know who I mean.

My mass-market paperbacks (these still do exist) did get rack space in drugstores. For about a month.

I can now get my books into independent bookstores by carrying them there and asking for shelf space while presenting a reason why I deserve it. This was as true before indie publishing as it is now. Only it never occurred to me. I didn’t know that was part of my word in letterpress wood type

Myth 3: A traditional publisher will market your book.

This hope meant almost zilch thirty-five years ago. I can’t imagine it means more now.

No one told me that I really needed to get out there and market. They told me, write the next book. At least now they’re honest about this.

Marketing is the hardest thing asked of authors who really would rather be writing the next book (well, hardest after writing the synopsis). Only some of us have marketing in our blood. I found that my houses had standard “marketing” practices that gave the books a chance to take off but didn’t do anything out of the way to grow them wings. A smart author (I was not) would have noticed all the other things that could have been done, and would have done them.

I did do something. For King of the Roses, they asked me for a list of horse-racing celebrities who would endorse the book. I compiled such a list. They wanted to know who on that list I knew whom I could personally ask. Um, no one.

I said, since this book is about the Kentucky Derby, why not run an ad in the Daily Racing Form on Derby Day? Not cost-effective, they said. So I paid for it. Myself. They may have been right. In those days, you couldn’t track clicks to see who responded to what ad.

What a traditional house can do is send your book out to reviewers. They have lists of people who will possibly read your book and write it up in a highly visible place. Much more effective than begging for reader reviews. If the right reviewer—say, at the New York Times—takes a shine to your cover or back-of-book copy, you might really end up on Oprah! (No way of knowing what my brief mention in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly meant to my sales.)

Magic book

Myth 5: Getting picked up by a major house means your writing career is set.


Your career with a traditional publisher will last only as long as you write a) what the publisher thinks will sell; or b) what actually does sell. You want a career in a traditional house, YOU better make sure what you write sells. See Myth 3.

And if what you wrote the first time around doesn’t sell well above average, second chances are hard to come by. More than once agents I’ve approached want sales figures from my previous books. At the very least, they want my platform. How many famous people do I know who will endorse my book?

It takes only one “disappointing” book to end this kind of career. I know.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways back into the fold. But they are at least as hard as that first foray, when you stood a chance of being a “discovery” that sent the sales team into raptures. I was there. I know.

Some “truths” from Spatz I can endorse:

**It will take at least a year and probably longer for your traditionally published book to make it into print.

**You have to fight for control over your metadata and cover. If you don’t like cover or the back-cover copy or the book description, you have to assert yourself. I was able to protest the inner jacket flap copy for one of my books and rewrite it. But it was when I saw the back-cover copy of that book that I knew the book was doomed. No blurbs quoting the excellent reviews for my first two books, both in paperback from Bantam. Instead, just an excerpt from the book.

Decent writing, I guess, albeit arguably overwritten. Of course, in Bantam’s defense, in those days, no one could order a mass-market paperback once it was out of print.

**And if your traditionally published book does make it onto bookstore shelves, it will run out its welcome fast. Once it’s last month’s sensation, it’s gone. Maybe you’ll get a paperback deal that may hang onto shelf space in row 6 a little longer. But it if doesn’t sell, bookstores will pull it for this month’s New Thing. People will buy your book from Half-Priced Books or from third-party sellers on Amazon, and you won’t make a cent.

Image of earth planet on hand

A truth of my own: Working with a top editor at a major house doesn’t mean your book will get better.

My editor at St. Martin’s was superb, my editor at Bantam horrible, and my editor at NAL nice but not inspirational. (They are all long gone, so don’t ask.) I learned that, in the end, I alone was responsible for the words that got published under my name.

I regularly depressed people at writing conferences by sharing these experiences.

If I’ve depressed you, at least you are forewarned.

If this sounds as if I am biased in favor of self-publishing, well, to a certain extent yes. I would like to be traditionally published again because a “published” book, however doomed in the market, would give me credentials for speaking and guest-posting. I would also like reviews. And my feeble, newbie marketing efforts are unlikely to earn me what I would make from even the most anemic advance.

What I do like about self-publishing is that my prospects are limited only by my energy and creativity. There is no shelf-life for my books. I can try new marketing techniques indefinitely without knowing that next week, or the week after, my books will show up on that pile labeled “remaindered.” I can even revise and republish. I can be a completely new author, in a completely new genre, as fast as I can write.

When lightning strikes an author!

My final words of “wait-a-minute”:

If you want to submit traditionally, haul out all those grammar books and all those tomes on how to structure a story. Editors and agents do gatekeep based on how much work you’re going to mean for them versus how much you can earn for them. A badly edited, unstructured book means more work for them. A great idea can die because it looks as if it will take too much time to slap into shape. Make their job as easy as you can.

If you want to self-publish, do your due diligence. Book packagers (that includes Kindle Direct Print and Ingram as well as BookBaby, Lulu, etc.) vary widely in quality and cost. Make sure you understand how the self-publishing universe works (it’s all out there online) and don’t pay for anything you can do yourself. You can publish your ebook in an hour at Smashwords or Amazon for free. Your paperback may take a little longer, but you can do it. Don’t pay for anything you can do yourself.

Ask me anything you want about my days as a “published author.” I’ll tell you everything but the names.




Filed under Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, business of writing, indie publishing, King of the Roses, looking for literary editors and publishers, Marketing books, Money issues for writers, Myths and Truths for writers, Publishing, Self-publishing, Writing, writing novels, writing scams

11 responses to “Myths and Truths about Traditional Publishing—What It Was Like for Me.

  1. Pingback: So-True Post: Some Hard Facts about Publishing | Just Can't Help Writing

  2. Thank you for sharing your insights. While the subject of publishing is vast, this is one of the few times where I’ve heard a perspective that seemed in favor of indie publishing. The few others I’ve heard seemed to portray it as “more work on the part of the writer,” as well as a certain amount of “if you do go the self-publishing route for your first (or more) attempts, the traditional publishers will not even consider you.” If I may, do you feel that is accurate? Do the traditional publishers actively avoid indie publishers, unless they achieve overwhelming success?

    It’s also interesting that you remark on how many did not react well to your insights. I have heard panelists at conventions talk about a form of burnout they experience when they offer legitimate advice, and instead of thanking them, recipients will argue with them, as if they can somehow change the reality to better suite their wishes.

    It is a tough road, and a steep climb, but the fact that some manage it is proof enough that it can be done. I think the real question is whether someone would rather keep trying even though it’s hard, or risk looking back with regret.

    In any case, thank you again for sharing your insights. I admit, I’m still focused on crafting a quality story (though I do send out short stories to literary magazines). Here’s hoping my next one is well received.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Adam,

      Thanks for a thoughtful comment. I don’t know for a fact how traditional publishers react to material that has been self-published. I haven’t officially “self-published” any fiction, because the two novels I’ve put up on Amazon and Smashwords were originally published by traditional houses. That would be a good question for those with agents or relationships with editors in traditional publishing to pursue and share.

      There are definitely instances of indie publishers picking up traditional contracts after their books have achieved substantial success.

      There’s so much to say about self-publishing versus traditional publishing that I’d direct people to get online and do their research rather than trying to sum it all up in a short post. I’ll limit myself to this: in either case, you must know your craft, and you must be willing to market. The main cost I see for would-be indie authors is editing, but no agent or traditional editor is going to be interested in a manuscript that requires a huge amount of work to fix basic problems, so if you can’t self-edit, you’ll face a wall no matter which route you choose. Similarly, getting a book, even a very good one, noticed, is key. Unless you already have a major platform or a following, you’ll have to invest some sweat equity in marketing no matter how you get your book out.

      Okay, I guess one other thing: anyone who thinks that getting published traditionally is in any way easier than indie publishing is nuts.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the challenge as much as I do the writing. Call me crazy but this is fun. I love writing the book and I love chasing after the agents and publishers. I have always enjoyed going after things that are hard.

    Yes, I’m probably nuts.

    Excellent information. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Jessica Bakkers and commented:
    A damn refreshing, insightful read into the world of traditional publishing. Check it out.


  5. I can’t tell you how interesting (and somewhat relieving) this was to read. I’ve been agonising over the trad vs indie publishing decision for a year. To the point where it hamstrung my writing and stopped me moving my manuscript along. I eventually, reluctantly, decided to go indie after a lot of research highlighted a lot of what you’ve said above. However, I still had those nagging doubts.

    Your honest post really puts my mind at ease. I knew in my heart that trad publishing wasn’t going to be all roses, but I must admit I thought it’d be the ‘easier’ way (once actually getting picked up of course) than indie publishing. Your post backs up the research I’ve done that suggests getting a trad publishing deal isn’t the answer to every writer’s prayers; that she’ll still have to self-promote to get her book actually noticed. And the insights into things like shelf space on book seller shelves… hadn’t even thought of that.

    So thank you so much for penning this. I hope you don’t mind if I reblog; I know a lot of other ‘about to be published for the first time’ writers who would love to read this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you found this post useful. I used to make myself Public Enemy Number One at writing conferences by trying to share these experiences–everybody wanted to believe that they were going to be the newbie author “discovered” and offered the million-dollar advance. There’re so many aspiring writers out there who haven’t done any homework; they have no idea what it takes to “get published,” or how to take advantage of the opportunities indie publishing offers. I want them all to check out the many wonderful sources available online.

      Earlier on, I posted some other accounts of my failed “traditional” writing career. It was an eye-opening few years. I have very different goals now and different, hopefully more realistic expectations. Thanks so much for your feedback.


      Liked by 1 person

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