Actually, I Like My Traditional Publisher or “You Leave My Dill Pickle Alone!”

This will be long. I may ramble. Sideways. Through walls. You’ve been warned.

So in the last few weeks, I have found myself, for whatever reason, tripping repeatedly over things on the interwebs about self-publishing. I didn’t do it deliberately, at least at first, but Google+ makes it easy to fall over this stuff, and then you chase links or read comments and suddenly it’s dinner-time and you’re not quite sure where your pants went.

…possibly that last is just me. I have a problem. I’m willing to admit that.

And because it is the internet, one must take things with a fifty pound bag of salt.


…Man, there’s some really bizarre crap out there about self vs. traditional publishing. It’s not quite up there with the some of the Great Internet Debates, which burn like underground coal fires and can last through entire geologic ages—I think breastfeeding* holds the line on this one, narrowly edging out religion, gluten, and operating systems—but it’s definitely got some meat to it.

I have seen people say, in all sincerity, that they would never ever consider being traditionally published because big publishers treat you so horribly and you make so little money at it and they’re all out to screw you over and…well, a lot of stuff. And I have seen people say “Well, a lot of self-published stuff is godawful crap, have you noticed? And there’s kind of a stigma against it because of all that godawful crap, have you noticed? And so even if you write a really damn fine book, as many people do, there’s a good chance a huge swath of the population won’t read it, because of that?” and then be treated as if they were tying people to the railroad tracks while twirling an Olde Timey Mustache Of Evile.

Internet. What’re you gonna do? Still, better to light a candle than curse the darkness, etc.

I am, as y’all know, traditionally published. I have always been traditionally published. Sometimes it’s a small press, like Sofawolf, sometimes it’s a big honkin’ press like Dial, subsidiary of Penguin.**

I have been moved to comment on this because of this post, where an author says, very sensibly, that his series failed through no fault of his publisher, that they went to the mat for him, that they were AWESOME, and hey, shit happens. And he assessed quite correctly that a lot of people would ask questions about why he didn’t self-publish, or self-publish the sequels, or get out t’ol Kickstarter and everything. I suspect this is because he, too, reads the internet.

So, let me say this, from the bottom of my heart—my big traditional publisher is fantastic.

(My little traditional publisher is fantastic too, but nobody seems to be hating on the small presses as soulless bloodsuckers, so I’ll just leave it at that, except to say that you should totally go to Sofawolf Press and buy stuff.)

Seriously, love ’em. Tell my agent every few months that she has utterly changed my life for the better. (I may have to stop that, I think it’s starting to weird her out.)  They are wonderful. My editor is wonderful. My art director is wonderful. I may scream and pace around a bit during edits, but every time we turn out a better book. (Okay, honesty time, once or twice I’ve thought I had a better cover beforehand, but that’s art on demand for you. There’s a universal law about it.)

And when we’re talking about a ten book series, seven of which have gone through the process already, that’s a pretty good thing.

No one has ever drunk my blood. No one has even looked at my neck in a thoughtful fashion. I get nothing but respect. They send me cookies at Christmas, and a gift book that my editor picks out because she thinks it’s the sort of weird morbid silliness that appeals to me. She nags me to come to New York so we can go drinking together. My art director sends me e-mails saying she’s proud to be part of the Dragonbreath team. The nice woman in foreign rights always includes a cheerful note with the Portuguese copies.

Occasionally, sure, we have one of those we-are-two-co-workers-on-one-project-who-do-not-quite-agree moments, but we are eager to talk it around, and everybody goes home figuring it’ll work out eventually. Given what sort of field this is, that’s really damn good. I freely admit that I am fortunate in the people who work with me, but not, I think, terribly unique.

Shortly before the release of Ghostbreath, I got a fan letter from the caretaker of an autistic boy. She said he loved the book, and he’d gotten interested in reading other books as a result of Dragonbreath, and that it had made a huge difference for him.

Well, first I wandered around pretending I had something in my eye. Then I forwarded it to my editor. They said “Look, we just got in the advance copies—we’ll send him one early.” And they did. And that is a small thing, but it matters.

So when you’re talking about those horrible big publishers that are out to stifle your creativity and suck your blood, to you, it may be a faceless monolith who sent you a mean rejection letter. But to me, you’re talking about a group of women that I work with pretty much constantly. Who send me cookies. Who are damn decent human beings.

Likewise, when you gleefully predict the downfall of traditional publishing, you are not talking about blowing up a building with nobody in it. There’s at least three or four real people in mine and a couple of hazy groups like “the marketing team” and “the sub-rights guys” who I also do not wish to see blown up, even if I don’t know their names.

Okay. Enough sentimentality, let’s roll up our sleeves a bit here.

There’s a couple of points I’d like to address more practically, because I keep seeing them and they keep not being as true as people would like them to be when they keep saying them over and over again.

Big Traditional Publishers are on their way out.

I’ve been seeing this one for years now, and…well, they’re an awfully lively corpse. Penguin keeps posting profits. Their sales are up 6%, and that’s adjusting for loss of Borders. They keep writing me checks. The checks keep clearing. They are doing a brisk sale in e-books. My advances went up by a third on the last contract over the one before.

“I don’t care!” you say. “Five years, they’ll all be bankrupt!” (And yes, somebody said this to me recently.)

It’s possible. It’s also possible that they won’t be. It’s also possible we’ll be struck by a meteor. All I know is that they’re making money hand over fist at the moment. We are, most of us, poor prophets. I’m as heavily invested in big publishing as you can be, and I’m still not losing a lot of sleep over it, and neither is my agent.

Now, brick-and-mortar bookstores? Yeah, those should probably worry, and my heart aches for them. But the publishers do not appear to have gotten the memo about their impending demise.

Big Traditional Publishers are running scared of self-publishing!

…’kay. Look, if you say so. I can’t say I’ve seen any indications. If you want to interpret spats with Amazon as “fear of self-publishing” then go for it. I won’t stop you.

My agent has suggested I release things too weird for conventional publishing as an e-book on at least one occasion. As she makes no money off that and quite a lot off the Big Trad Publishers, and is furthermore the cleverest, canniest, and possibly most dangerous woman I know, I am inclined to trust her judgment. (My editor’s entire opinion was “Didn’t you do something with wombats—dear god! You’re still doing that? How do you have time? Do you sleep? Wow!”***) Nobody has ever said “Oh god, if you self-publish, we’ll shake you ’til your teeth rattle!”

(Yes, I read that one article about the one writer too. It strikes me as very peculiar, and there are a few more details I’d like to know before I pass judgment.)

You can make more money self-publishing!

Maybe you can. Me, I’ll take my advance and the bit where I don’t do any of the editing, art layout, design, marketing, more marketing, selling foreign rights, sending out ARCs, wrangling with printers and keeping stock in my garage.

But if you self-publish your e-book, you get a higher percentage!

Higher percentages of e-books are great. I get 25% of e-books. You can get like 70% through some of the various e-books people, or so I hear. That’s quite a bit bigger, yup.

‘Course, you have to actually SELL those books. And if you are confident in your marketing ability to move as many books—hell, mathematically, to move a THIRD as many books—as a big marketing department, then rock on. Do it. Fly free, little self-publisher! Spread those wings! FLAP ON, YOU CRAZY DIAMOND!


I am not confident of this. I could not market my way out of my own pants. (If I knew where they were.) I haven’t a clue how many e-books we move of Dragonbreath. It’s probably on a sheet of paper somewhere in the pile, god knows.

And I like not worrying about it. Are you kidding? Somebody sends me a lot of money and then I get to go sit in a coffee shop (once I find my pants) and get a cup of coffee and a chicken salad sandwich and pull out my laptop (which I bought with money Penguin sent me) and write. For hours.

And they keep filling up the coffee cup! And the sandwich comes with a dill pickle!

You want me to pitch that over for doing lots of work of the sort that I hate desperately, cutting savagely into my writing time, in hopes that maybe I, on my lonesome, can out-market a team of literate mako sharks wearing nice suits?

Feh. Next you’ll be trying to steal my dill pickle.

This, I think, is what a lot of people in self-publishing have failed to understand—yes, if you DIY it, you make a lot more of the profits! Well, great! That’s awesome if you like to DIY stuff! I, however, do not know how to change my own oil, cannot sew, and can just about make mac and cheese on a good day! I DIY nothing.

The only things I am any good at are art and writing.**** I would like to do that.

Just that.

And traditional publishing says “It’s cool, we’ve got people who can’t draw stick figures but who can charm the little birds out of the trees over here, we’ll put ’em on it. And we have printers! And people who know what copyediting marks mean! Here, have a dill pickle.”

So. Self-publishing is a GREAT fit for people who want to run around like crazy and talk about their book to everybody and get into the guts of layout and direction and make sure they know where everything is at every step of the process and are absolutely confident that they know the best direction to get their book sold.

Me, I don’t even do my own taxes. Thinking about numbers makes me tense and unhappy and as if small animals are clawing underneath my sternum. Thinking about marketing makes me want to apologize to everybody who has ever bought my book, ever. I am a bad fit for self-publishing. I am the worst fit for self-publishing. I cannot think of any reason why I would WANT to abandon traditional publishing, unless it’s to put out something I can’t possibly move in traditional circles and which the fans are yelling for.

Now, you can dismiss me as an elitist snob if you’d like—go for it! Rock it! I’ll get my monocle! And you can dismiss me as a hopelessly inept dweeb who wants to make no decisions and be the literary equivalent of a kept woman, and I will say “Yes, now you’re getting it. Also, have you seen my pants?” If you are a self-publishing zealot who thinks big publishers are the Devil, there is absolutely nothing I can say, as a minor demon, that will change your mind.

And I’m cool with that. It’s the internet. These things happen. If you’re looking for things to insult, I am several pounds overweight, snore loudly, and afraid of the monster under the bed.  Also, I have a really painful zit on the side of my ear—you know, the excruciating ones that get up under the fold at the top of the ear? Arrgh!—and you can probably do a good five minutes on how I deserve it. S’cool.

But the moral of this story is that you go where you fit. One size does not fit all. And despite what you might see on the internet, traditional publishers are not bastions of intergalactic evil who want to eat your tasty tasty brainmeats. All of the ones I’ve had have been staffed by real human beings who have been very nice to me and worked long hours to make my book succeed.

And I’d feel kinda bad about myself if I didn’t say that, in public, where people could read it.



(Sidenote here–there’s actually one area where an author can have their pickle and eat it too, that being backlist. I know a couple of big names who are happily self-publishing their backlist, which has gone out of print, as e-books, and sometimes doing very very well at it. There, it absolutely makes sense to go out on your own. It’s out of print anyway, the heavy lifting was already done, this is one area where I think established authors get a seriously good break on the self-publishing end. But, of course, you have to be fairly well established already to make this really work, since it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a backlist if nobody’s buying the front list.)


*Whatever you did, it was wrong. As a result your child is doomed, you are worst than Hitler, and if the other person had their way, SWAT teams would descend on your house and shoot the breast pump from your hand with high-powered weapons. I’m pretty sure that’s still the gist.

**I will state categorically that Sofawolf edited far more intensively and thoroughly and at no point did I run around the room screaming “OH MY GOD, I ONLY CHANGED THAT BIT IN THE FIRST PLACE BECAUSE THEY TOLD ME TO!” On the other hand, Penguin was able to give me an advance as big as my head. So, y’know. There are pros and cons to anything.

***Expressed pre-End of Digger, obviously.

****Even my gardening is mediocre. Just when I think I’m getting good, I harvest an onion that is actually smaller than the set it came from.

10 thoughts on “Actually, I Like My Traditional Publisher or “You Leave My Dill Pickle Alone!”

  1. OmegaMom says:

    *C*i*r*cumcision is worse then *b*r*e*a*s*tfeeding, IMHO. Because you get crazy guys in addition to crazy women. On the BF debate, most guys are just, “Whoa. You mean they do something else than entertain *me*?!?!”

    Love your rant. I’m forwarding it to John Scalzi, who has written similarly, and almost as entertainingly.

  2. Katherine says:

    I wrote a book in the early 90s about the Internet. It was a best-seller for technical books in Australia (which isn’t saying a lot, but hey it bought me a computer as well).

    In about 1995 or 1996 I was asked to speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival in a session they entitled something like “The Internet: Is It The Death of Books?” It was the most stony faced audience I have ever faced. They would have lynched me if they could. Fortunately, what came out of my mouth surprised them.

    Did live music die because of radio? Did radio die because of TV? Will books die because of the Internet? Not a single book is going to disappear until they make computers where you won’t electrocute yourself when you read in the bathtub. The people who have to worry are the magazine and newspaper publishers.

    I am very proud of my prophetic powers. Of course people tend not to listen when you aren’t spouting grand visions of gloom and doom or a spectacular vision of capitalist utopianism.

    Now we do have computers that won’t electrocute you in the bathtub. They are called e-books. Will the book go away? It won’t go away, but many books that take up space and are primarily informational may. Encyclopedias, law books, medical books, journal compilations, etc have already largely moved over to digital media. “Disposable” literature may go entirely electronic: airport books, romances, thrillers. Go to any used bookstore and the sorts of books that crowd the shelves there are the sorts that aren’t sufficiently collected to produce in paper form.

    Science fiction could go either way. It’s readers are fond of technology and may be happy to go electronic. They are also inveterate collectors. So publishers know they can make money by publishing “collectors editions”.

    The only real certainty about the market is that it’s going to change. I’m still pretty certain paper books won’t go away, it’s just a matter of which ones will continue to warrant the destruction of a forest or two.

  3. Jen says:

    Ya know, what I like about self-publishing is I can print exactly what I want, when I want, and I pretty much have full authority over it.


    I would totally love for someone else to do all the work for me. That ain’t happening, ’cause I have no idea how to get someone to say, “OOOH, I want to sell your stuff for you for a cut! Gimme! Gimme!” =p

    The trouble with full autonomy is full responsibility, and knowing that I don’t know how to sell my way out of a paper bag means I can self-publish all day and all night, and my Dad will buy a copy. Reeeeeeally not sure about anyone else. Everyone I know who has a lick of success on a scale larger than a mere handful devoted fans says self-publishing is no business model–marking up a $9 black-and-white graphic novel to $15 when a best seller like Amulet is full colour and only $10 doesn’t work very well. I totally believe it, but I don’t know how/want to do the legwork to get a REAL publisher.

  4. tanita says:

    Yes. And thank you for articulating clearly, albeit in a sideways manner lacking pants, what I think.

    I, too, am HAPPILY a Big Publishing kept woman. I have an agent so that he can bash out the contract things, I have an editor so she can talk to conferences and conventions and I have copy editing people because they like to do all of those little hash marks and swoops and circles on my manuscript. And I owe them all a great deal.

  5. Hawk says:

    Totally agree, and thank you for having a voice of reason amidst the yelling . I’ve stopped reading some of the discussions. Marketing oneself is a lot of work, and most of the “down with Big Traditional” folks are not the ones actually doing any publishing of themselves, I always notice. The ones that ARE doing self publishing, and loving it, are loving the control and the busy-ness as much or more than the profits. And none of them deny that there’s a lot of work for the author in self publishing.

    I got into a discussion just last night about this sort of thing. I’m in a chat with some friends, and one of them asks if he can read over one of the drafts of my work. “Sure,” I say, knowing he’ll read it, comment on it, and forget all about it (and delete the file).

    Another friend got all up in arms about this, and began asking me pointed questions about whether I had protected my book, etc etc etc and when was I going to self publish etc etc and Big Traditional Publishers would now never touch my book, thanks to my stupidity. Etc etc.

    He was quite surprised when I refused to get upset with him; he was even more surprised when I outright laughed about his allegations about Big Publishing. Then again – this friend of mine has never gotten a rejection letter. He’s never made a submission.

    So he was speaking from an “outsider” stance: having never tangled with any sort of publishing, he was going with information based purely off the Internet. Which may be a wonderful thing, but is hardly a comprehensive (or consistently reliable) source for hard facts.

    Also – you are not the only one who finds it dinnertime, and where did the day go, and hey where are my pants? I think perhaps pants sneak away from us when we aren’t looking. Of all the items that go missing on me, the pants are the ones with LEGS, you know….makes me wonder.

    So, if I see your pants I’ll let you know! *grin*

    Big publishers would never touch your book because a friend…read…it…wait…what?

    Yeah, I got nuthin’. Some days the misinformation on the internet is so terrifyingly vast that I’m not sure mere mortals can chip away at it. — Ursula

  6. Kate @ Candlemark says:

    Preach it!

    No, seriously. I always get a little bewildered by the people who insist that there’s only One True Publishing Mechanism To Rule Them All, and want to sit them down for a nice cuppa and a chat about how the same pants don’t fit or flatter everyone, y’know?

    I run a (very very) small publishing company. We do good work. We produce gorgeous, well-edited books. We also can’t offer advances the size of your head, nor gobs of sales.

    I also happen to freelance as a book designer. Wearing that hat, I get to work with the DIY people who choose to hire out their design to someone with some experience.

    There’s lots of ways to publish a book, and not all of them work well for everybody. You have to figure out what fits YOU and what fits your story. DIY/self-pub, small press, big traditional press – they all have their place in the ecosystem, man. Without them, there would be no ecosystem, and that would be sad, because then we would have no wombats. Or dill pickles.

  7. Bizzy says:

    The only thing I can say for self-publishing/author funded publishing, is that it can help you get started if the Big Publishers aren’t yet interested. it can also give you a better starting product when finding an agent to help you get with a Big Publisher. Even then, you have to be really careful to make sure this doesn’t set you back by producing the aforementioned “Crap, have you noticed?”

    Love the rant, Ursula!

  8. $400 in Printable Coupons says:

    An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a coworker who has been conducting a little research on this. And he actually bought me dinner due to the fact that I discovered it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to talk about this issue here on your website.

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