Why Traditional Publishing Isn’t Dying

This is likely to be a controversial post because I am going to say a lot of things about the industry that I think are hard truths. Truths that suck to hear, but they are things I think need to be said.

Despite pundits saying it, traditional publishing isn’t about to die. It isn’t “dying”. It isn’t even in pain. While the “Big Six” in New York are suffering there are plenty of presses who are still doing marvelously and aren’t on the verge of collapse. In fact, I would even say that the indie publishing world is booming. While there are sharks in the water and idiots floating around in inner-tubes with tin foil hats there are also plenty of good companies emerging from depths. The thought that traditional publishing is dying is a misnomer and is, for some people, wishful thinking. It isn’t going away, and thank God for that.

I do not take issue with self-publishing and have many friends who are quite successful doing it. They are skilled writers who take time with their works to polish, market, and prepare them for the shelves they’re on. I salute anyone who takes the time to do that and do it well. It isn’t easy. However folks like that are rare.

The reason I prefer traditional publishing in 90% of circumstances boils down to a single word: gatekeepers. There is a buffer zone of several people between the hopeful would-be author and their potential audience. Agents, acquisitions editors, editors within a publishing company, lawyers… all of these people make a difference in the quality of the work produced. And they all protect readers from the dreaded Slush Pile.

If you don’t know what the Slush Pile is, it is a derogatory term for the query inbox. It’s a neck-deep pool of horrible that no one wants to be part of, and it’s what acquisitions editors protect readers from. They protect you from such titles as “A Billionaire Dinosaur Forced Me Gay” or “Taken By The Lightning Bolt“.  Those books, however, almost define the slush pile in my mind. I’ve got nothing against gays or erotica, but those two were the worst things I could dig up on Amazon. If anyone else wants to share links to HORRIBLE books in the comments I’d be happy to add more!

Before you ask, yes. It is that bad. No, I’m not making it up.

Now, before you all shout “BUT I DON’T SUCK!” I believe you. Being that awful takes many years of hard work, and I personally know many successful and skilled self-published writers. However, you are running up against the fact that you are emerging – still dripping – from a pool over three million kids have peed in. No matter how many showers you take and how many times you clean that bathing suit it will follow you around as long as you own that suit.

I know that it isn’t fair. And I know that it isn’t right. But that is the stigma that self-published authors face, and it isn’t going to go away. I know many people believe that self-publishing will gather steam and stomp those mean ol’ publishers right out of existence, but it just won’t happen because: gatekeepers. The lack of gatekeepers is what is causing the self-publishing industry to hemorrhage. There are so many authors and so many of them are so awful that it becomes almost impossible for readers to sort the wheat from the chaff. That job that once belonged to people who defined the writing industry before readers even saw the content is now being passed on to the readers, and most of them just don’t want to do that job.

There are a few dedicated folks who will read only indie books. They will read only self-pubbed works, and they stick up for authors they believe in. I respect them, and I respect the authors who actually “make it” through self-published means. Being able to do that means they have found ways to market themselves effectively to the point where they are likely as educated in marketing as many people who have gone to college for it. It is no easy road. However, they are the minority.

Regardless of the few, the proud, and the intelligent who look at self-publishing for what it is – a business venture – there are far too many folks out there who view it as a shortcut. I recently had a conversation with my friend Jerry Hatchett about this topic. Jerry is an accomplished self-pubbed author who is one of the few authors I know who nearly makes a living off his writing as an indie author. He expressed hope that maybe self-publishing would start to filter itself after awhile, and I hope for the same. However the realistic part of me doesn’t see that happening anytime soon because any moron with a word processor and internet access can put a book up for sale. And they will. The lack of gatekeepers in the industry is what will cripple indie authors from being able to really become the powerhouses they could otherwise.


17 thoughts on “Why Traditional Publishing Isn’t Dying

  1. You knew your message was controversial, and although there is much truth in your post, I must take issue with one concept – regarding “gatekeepers.”

    Just because a “professional” agent or editor or publisher thinks your work is good enough to put out there does NOT mean it is. I recently had a NY agent ask for a full ms of my women’s fiction, only to tell me six hours later it “wasn’t steamy enough.” SIX HOURS. So, she literally thumbed through the pages until she got to the sex scenes, reading only those. Next time, maybe I’ll bookmark them for her.

    Bringing me to my next point – my work was clearly represented as women’s fiction, and pitched to an agent who claimed she represented this genre. Not romance, not erotica. This was a well-known, big-time NY agent. One of our “gatekeepers.”

    PS – I’m no one-show pony. I have three – count ’em – contracts with traditional, though small, publishers.

    And keeping in mind the opinion I express here is entirely my own personal one, look at Fifty Shades. The gatekeepers certainly have pushed that one on us. And, if you’ve read it, you will discover it is among the worst written pieces of trash on the market. I never even got through the whole thing – fingernails on a literary blackboard.

    The gatekeepers are all about how much money they can make on our work, not how well written it is. I’m reading a book right now by a well-known, very successful, traditionally published author. The story is weak, the quality of the writing embarrassing. But the Big Six love her.

    “Agents, acquisitions editors, editors within a publishing company, lawyers… all of these people make a difference in the QUALITY of the work produced.”

    So not true. Quality has nothing to do with it. Marketability is the key.

    1. First – I want to thank you for being so candid and sharing your story. It highlights many of the problems traditional publishing faces and will continue to face as the industry continues.

      I will be the first to tell you that the gatekeepers aren’t infalliable – they are people just like everyone else. There are many examples of “literature” that should never have been allowed out of someone’s head. I don’t think the publishing system is perfect, and I believe in there being room for both self-publishing and trad. publishing.

      However, as having been (and currently being) one of those gatekeepers I mentioned we don’t just think about marketability. Some companies do. The Big Six are notorious for doing that and only that – however they are also the ones whom are struggling these days for their unwillingness to modernize. That’s why they put out things like Snooki’s memoir (which flopped catastrauphically). However, smaller presses, indie presses, etc. don’t just look at marketing.

      Don’t lump all publishers together in the same boat and say that marketability and quality are anathema to one another. While a book doesn’t have to be marketable to be good, a book does have to be marketable to sell regardless of the medium you are selling into. When I review a book I look at it for quality and enjoyability first and foremost. I don’t care about marketability when I start reading – I just want to enjoy the ride. When I reach the end (or as far as I can stomach going in some cases) then I evaluate the marketability of that particular book.

      I agree that New York is struggling for precisely the reasons you mentioned. This post wasn’t about the hoity guys in big suits publishing Stephen King and following that act by Snooki. This was about traditional publishing as a whole. If New York falls and fails to adapt indie publishers will fill that void – and their values are much the same as mine overall. Or, at least, the good ones are. Not every apple in the basket is good – I will acknowledge that every time – but neither are most of them bad.

  2. I have to say that first I am happy that traditional publishing is not dead, but I am also happy that self-publishing is available. I know one of the books that you use as a bad example, I know who wrote it personally. I won’t say which book or who wrote it but the person I am speaking of wrote that book in a very short time. The author is published by your so called “Traditional” means and is successful at writing. As an author I applaud their work and the fact that they are making a living as a writer, not just writing for the sake of it.

    That said, yes that those novels would not be published by traditional means but thrown on the slush pile but that does not mean they are not worth being written or read. I have heard a million “Glowing” reviews for Catcher in the Rye. I can’t stand that book. It is not my taste, it is not my style. Frankly I think it is overrated. That is my opinion of a book that is listed as a classic. If you want to compare books from traditional publishers to works from Self Publishers you couldn’t have picked a worse genre. You picked books that are EROTICA. How many of the big 6 publish erotica, not romance but straight out of the bedroom hot and steamy novels or stories? How many indie publishers do? Let’s leave 50 Shades out of this for the moment and think about how harlequin made their money, steamy novels about white men and women who are the PERFECT embodiment of human kind. Many of us are not perfect and we do not want perfection in our sexy stories. What turns on Johnny and Mary Jane may not be for everyone. So we have fantasies, and let me tell you if you have ever looked at Erotica story sights people are freaky-deeky.
    Dino Erotica has a following which means some where out there someone likes the idea of getting boned by a T-Rex. That is their choice. Someone else may think that statues and lightning are something to be hot and bothered by. Self-publishing now gives the non-elite everyday man/woman/other an outlet and if they choose to write Dino Erotica instead of Mommy Porn then that is their choice.

    You wrote about those two books as the worst- you picked the genre.
    Now if you want to talk about literary works that are published by traditional means vs. self-publishing we could have a conversation. Traditional publishing can take a perfectly fine novel and elevate it to a best-selling novel, or they can take a wonderfully crafted work of art and throw it aside because of one misplaced comma. Great works are meant to be seen and reading should be for the masses. Unfortunately at times the traditional publishing houses and many indie ones as well are elitist. If I at 16 years old had parents who were somehow connected to publishing houses I may have had one of my many stories in books or magazines. If I was anything but a poor kid learning how to express myself through writing I might have known how to get my work into the world. Instead it has taken me years of school, research, and conversations, plus countless hours of sleepless nights wondering what to do before I decided that I would give self publishing a try. I still plan to send certain novels on to traditional houses, but in the mean time self publishing gets some of my work out there and may lead to having a better foothold when I tackle the big bad traditional publishing wolves that seek to destroy my novel.

    I agree that traditional publishing isn’t dying, but self publishing isn’t always a short cut. You should try talking to the authors you bashed so quickly. You might find they are intelligent people, from different walks of life who have connections in the world of traditional publishing. Maybe they had a crazy dream and decided to write about lightning and dinosaurs, (a dream is what gave us sparkly vampires which not everyone thought was a good idea), or maybe they were really bored and wanted something to do. Maybe they think their work is god’s gift to the world. You didn’t ask. You simply judged, as we humans tend to do. For me self publishing wasn’t a short cut, it was a boost. If I can market my own book and sell enough copies I can then use that as a line on a query letter, instead of saying “Yeah I write but it sits in a drawer along with the rest of the rejected manuscripts.” Try looking at self-publishing as something other than a quick buck or a farce. Some of us don’t see it as a business venture so much as an internship. Not everyone is using self publishing for horrible things, and not all of what you view as horrible is unnecessary. So what if someone wants to self publish dino porn. You don’t have to buy it, and you certainly don’t have to read it, and furthermore as you clearly state self published works like you mentioned are not killing the traditional publishing industry. So what is the point of bashing them other than being elitist and critical? You say that it killed indie authors, maybe those indie authors did not put fourth enough effort to be powerhouses. OR maybe the world has had enough vampire/werewolf crossovers to last a life time and now desire something more exciting, like horses and lightning bolts!

    1. Regarding the dino-erotica – while the genre is absolutely not to my taste, the writing was awful in quality. I did one of the look-inside things on Amazon to examine the writing style before panning it, and I couldn’t get past the first page with the combination of grammatical errors and poor writing. It was truly awful.

      I am not ripping on erotica as a genre. People can write whatever makes them happy so long as they write it well and edit it properly. I have written steamy things before and don’t judge people who do. If that’s their genre then more power to them. I don’t care what flavor of pornography they prefer.

      There is a distinct separation between “not my genre” and “this is poor writing”. I didn’t like “Catcher in the Rye” either. I also didn’t like “The Old Man and the Sea”, nor did I enjoy “On the Road” by Kerouac. I wouldn’t pan those as awful writing because they aren’t – I just don’t enjoy them. It’s the same reason I don’t read Stephen King or Michael Chrichton. As an editor and publisher I can distinguish between the two worlds, so you don’t need to extoll the virtues of erotica to me. I may not publish it, but I don’t hate it. Nor do I hate people expressing their personal kinks through writing. That isn’t my business. I have seen erotica about subjects I am genuinely not interested in that was written well enough that I continued reading it and found myself enjoying the story even if I was skimming through the sexual acts I wasn’t interested in.

      In regards to “elitism” in publishing of course that exists. It also exists in self-publishing. You give any people a way to say they are “better” than someone else and they’ll take it. It’s fact, unfortunately. However, there are enough indie publishers who aren’t like that that traditional publishing has a place for everybody. As you so pointedly mentioned earlier – Harlequin handles erotica, as do an infinite number of indie publishers. In fact I think there may be more indie erotica publishers than there are ones who don’t handle it. Don’t quote me on that statistic since I have no data – it’s just personal observation. And this is not to the exclusion of self-published authors who also have a place in the writing world and deserve attention, praise, and commendation so long as they go about the publishing process properly.

      I also don’t believe self-publishing is a short cut. If you read my article more closely you will see that I comment that self-publishing is a massive amount of work, and that I respect it. I respect it a great deal. Anyone who can do it and be successful and put out high quality work is deserving of adulation and respect. I know several who do that and make a living off of it, and I speak about them in my post. Your last paragraph suggests to me you didn’t read much of the article before becoming angry. HOWEVER – people who churn out poorly-written tripe without proper editing regardless of the genre or method of publishing aren’t going to receive my praise. That’s why I will talk down about Stephanie Meyer and E. L. James until I’m blue in the face.

      The reason the books on my “worst books ever” list happen to be erotica is less about the genre itself and more about the fact that unpolished erotica writers are some of the worst writers I have ever seen. I have seen awful writing in every genre, but by in large erotica tends to produce some of the worst in terms of quality not content. Why? Because most erotica writers are just writing down their fantasies without regard to style, editing, or really creating much of a story. I, too, have friends who write erotica. Really, really good erotica. Not just in terms of content but in terms of quality of writing, editing, and so on. They polish their work, edit it just like they would any other genre of novel, and work hard on their craft. That is the kind of dedication I would expect and require from anyone who wants to be a writer in any genre.

      tl;dr: I don’t hate erotica; I hate bad writing. I know the difference between “not my style” and “this writing is awful”. Self-publishing is often used as a short cut, but it isn’t one and shouldn’t be one. It is, in fact, more work than traditional publishing if it is done right. I am telling people to do it right.

  3. I’m not angry, I did read the article and I respect your reply. I get your judging these works based on being in bad format and writing. I just think if you knew the circumstances of one of the books maybe you would realize the reason behind doing that was more satire than an honest attempt… I just think that in terms of your view that you come off as elitist and that is what I hate most about the publishing world. I suck at grammar especially placement of comments and when I am in a hurry. It does not mean I can not craft a great story and make readers interested, it just means I have to work really hard and pay extra special attention to my writing. I wasn’t angry, more doing what my father taught me and playing devils advocate or debating as others would say.
    I honestly respect that you explain that traditional publishing is still a valid and reasonable option. I also agree that self publishing should be done right, and doing it right takes a lot of hard work as I recently found out!

    1. If it is satire then it’s very good satire – good enough to be equal to some of the books in the genre. I would be happy to adjust the article with some awful books that aren’t satire if you would like to provide some examples. It isn’t personal about the books I chose – I just plugged some things into Amazon and pulled up the most likely suspects.

      I definitely agree that I can sound elitist. That’s one of the follies of the way I speak, and it’s a problem I’ve had with communication universally. Making grammar mistakes in comments doesn’t mean at all that you can’t possibly write a good story. I make grammar mistakes in comments and blog posts all the time; I’m definitely not perfect. I don’t even catch every single grammar or style mistake in books I edit. I’m only human – so are you. I don’t judge people’s storycraft over grammar mistakes – my problem comes when proper editing allows severe mistakes in what is supposed to be a finished work. In the case of satire where those are done on purpose it’s acceptable (again, I was unaware of the satirical nature of the work in question). But it’s so common in many books that were slapdashed out – and it happens in trad. published books too. Typically they’re from small publishers, but I’ve found a number of significant editing errors in books from Roc or what have you.

      I guess it’s just because that kind of thing makes my hair stand on end. It’s likely because I’m an editor, and it distracts me from the story if I’m staring at a misplaced comma.

      Devil’s advocate is a perfectly reasonable position, and I appreciate your willingness to talk to me and candor. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I enjoy the discourse. You’ve been nothing but polite and respectful, and I appreciate it!

      1. I read books but I don’t tend to pay a lot of attention to bad books because I don’t seek them out, so I would be no help there. I think that you pose a good point that traditional publishing is not dead, and while I think that perhaps I could find a publishing house to take on my book I didn’t even try because the book I just published is not my favorite genre and I actually worried about wasting the one chance of traditional publishing on a romance novel that are dime a dozen when I really want to make a splash in fantasy/sci-fi. But it was a good enough story for me to want to put it out there so I went for it. At least now B&N might be picking it up for the local store! It’s something. I think that the term writers has also become diluted as well. When I was a child I was told my grandmother was a writer. It was respectable, it was noble, it meant time spent alone working on crafting something that you wanted the world to see. I learned writing for me was soothing and helped my depression and anxiety. I could say in a letter what I couldn’t say out loud. Now everyone is a writer. I don’t think anyone should not be, but I think it makes the entire concept muddled. People forget the true romantic notion of being a writer. In a very cluttered room at the top of the stairs, tucked away in the corner of the house was a typewriter, it belonged to my grandmother. That room was largely untouched after her death and when they cleaned it out and found some of her writing my mother held onto it for me. I now have a few precious pieces of paper that she put words on, forming her own story. It gave me insight into a woman I was so like, but never really knew. That is a story, that is inspiration. That is the beauty of the craft. Writing wasn’t supposed to be about the money and the get rich quick. I think like all things traditional it has lost some of the shine. Books that you pointed out while I play devil’s advocate are maybe helpful to a select few, overall the notion of writing is now a very different beast!

        I enjoyed this! I never comment on other posts. I am glad I took a chance, and simply based on the fact that I felt it was more honorable to defend a friend! Interesting how things change our POV.

      2. There actually isn’t a “one chance” at publishing, Airian. You can query as many times as you want on any book, though I understand not wanting to waste time on something you’re not REALLY dedicated to when you could be working on something you are. Don’t be afraid to try approaching a trad. publishing house with something if you really want to try. I know Insomnia will give almost anything but erotica (it’s just not our genre) a fair shake.

        Congrats on having your work picked up by B&N! Just be careful of their return policy; that’s something you’ll want to talk about with them. Actually, that whole thing warrants a blog post anyway (return policies). I’ve talked about it on other blogs, but I’m not sure I discussed it here. Returns are a sticky subject that have sunk many indie publishers and really hurt indie authors in the past. I’ll post something up this evening on the subject for you if you would like to know more.

        I agree that the idea of being “a writer” has changed. We are no longer regarded as Hemmingways or Kerouacs. We have to fight the stigma of just being a nerd who wants to sit alone pounding out Harry Potter fan-fiction. It’s a tough world because so many people are now claiming to be writers. Like you, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from taking up the craft, but so many people are skipping important learning steps in the process and heading straight to the press. It’s not all bad – there are more writers out there who are good being noticed by readers than could have happened before, and writers now have the possibility to control their work more completely.

        It was definitely a lively exchange, and I enjoyed it. 🙂 It’s been nice to get to know you and discuss writing with you! I hope to talk more in the future.

  4. E, I don’t read your comments as being elitist at all, simply as instructive…and very useful. Perhaps all writers own a touch of the editor; I know I do, and I shudder at some of the glaring errors by some of today’s best-known authors – not just tense, but POV, and plain ol’ spelling mistakes, including homonyms. I won’t name the culprits, out of self-preservation. After all, I seem to make the SAME mistakes that THEY make, even after I think I have properly edited my work!

    1. We all make mistakes. God knows that my novel WIP that I recently finished and am editing needs a huge amount of polishing before anyone gets to see that monster. And I always look for an editor because I know the importance of having another set of eyes on something. Heck, when publishing through Insomnia every work is seen by two editors because one will not likely catch every single mistake all the time, and we want to put out the highest quality work possible. It takes a village to publish a book, really.

      1. I wonder how many manuscripts lie unpublished because the editing and rewriting were such toothbreakingly bi***es that the authors finally said “the heck with it”.

      2. Don’t I know it. I have a few of my own that I have been staring down for awhile and have been teetering on the edge of “heck with it” on. I’m slogging through it though because I love the story and characters.

  5. I’m a bit late to the conversation, but if anyone’s still following this post, here are my two cents.

    I think the author hits the nail on the head. A good number of self-published works are terrible. I read a self-published thriller when I was on vacation, but I stopped reading it after 4 chapters because the writing was just awful. Info dumps that read like a bad travel brochure, illogical decisions by the main characters, and no consistency between POV (on the same page, in dialogue tags, the speaker alternated between ‘he’ and ‘I’)

    In short, the book had no business being consumed by an audience, especially considering the author (and Amazon) wanted money for it.

    I was at a writer’s conference a few months ago and I learned that agents are swapped with queries–more so than they were ten years ago. Who knows why everyone’s trying to be a writer now, but clearly, the traditional publishers aren’t hurting for business.

    Yes, the big conglomerates will sell a book of Kim Kardashian’s selfies, but they’ll also publish debut authors as well.

    As a consumer, when I’m on Amazon, I’ll pay close attention to the publisher. If it’s a vanity press, or someone’s invented press to avoid the “Amazon Digital Services” tag, then I’ll probably move on.

    Unless the self-publishing world can figure out a way to let the consumers find the actual quality self-published works, then self-publishing will never destroy traditional publishing.

    1. I’m sorry this wasn’t approved sooner. It ended up in my “to be approved” vault until today. I’m not sure how that happened, but you have my apologies. Thank you so much for the thoughtful and insightful feedback.

  6. “Will books, as we know them, come to an end?”

    “Yes, absolutely, within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books. But more importantly, ebooks and e-publishing will mean the end of “the writer” as a profession. Ebooks, in the future, will be written by first-timers, by teams, by speciality subject enthusiasts and by those who were already established in the era of the paper book. The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.” – Ewan Morrison

    Here’s the full article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/aug/22/are-books

    Do you think there’s any truth to this?

    1. Well, twenty-five years is a long time when you’re looking at a business who is just now launching forward into the digital age. It’s difficult to predict exactly what will happen in the future. Now, I don’t believe for a minute that the launch of e-publishing and ebooks will be the death of the writing profession. I know a lot of indie authors who have e-published and are making a decent amount of money doing it. While the ending of rockstar writers like Stephen King and so on may be coming since traditional publishing is evolving, I don’t foresee the profession collapsing. I also don’t foresee an end to traditional publishing.

      Now, even if print books go the way of the dodo (which I, again, do not foresee), publishers won’t collapse. I estimate the market will equalize and normalize. Markets often operate like a pendulum. This outlook is kind of like the belief in the late 90’s and early 2000’s that Napster was going to completely devastate the music industry. As we can see now, twenty nearly twenty years later, the music industry has evolved, but it hasn’t collapsed.

      There will continue to be a market for stories because we, as a species, love stories. They’re ingrained in our culture and have been for thousands of years (at least). I wouldn’t panic about the future of writing. Yes, it may change, but just be patient and watch. New technology always changes markets. They’ll adjust and equalize.

    2. Mr. Morrison, as are we all, is entitled to his opinion, for that is what his article is – an opinion piece. There are no facts or statistics to shore up his premise, only conjecture. We could even say his article is a Chicken Little exercise (the sky is falling; the sky is falling). Based on my anecdotal observations, more people than ever, especially those in the younger generation, are reading. Not only are they reading, they are reading voraciously. Not all of us may enjoy some of the genres currently in vogue, but that does not matter. What matters is that when the love of reading becomes ingrained in more of the population, the search for good creative writing increases exponentially. “Fiction by committee” cannot replace creativity in the minds of either the writer OR the reader. Thank goodness, I say, for the popularity of ebooks because they have helped illuminate the world of books to a vast new world of readers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s