Ode To Traditionally Published Authors

I just got back from the annual Sisters in Crime luncheon in Chicago’s Greek Town where I was one of the guest speakers, along with Sara Paretsky and Barb D’Amato. All of us were at one time President of the National organization, which many of you know is dedicated to the development and promotion of female mystery authors. Of course, there were lots of questions about today’s publishing environment, and what authors and/or aspiring authors should do.

I “grew up” in the traditionally published world, behind Sara and Barb, both of whom are among my favorite authors . Sara has been on the NY TImes Best-Seller list more times than I can count, and Barb’s books have been highly acclaimed with praise and awards as well. They are authors who probably don’t have to worry about the “new world,” although Sara does do Facebook and Twitter, for those of you who are interested. I, on the other hand, am not as storied as they are, and do have to navigate this Brave New World.

Someone at the luncheon asked us what we see as the biggest change in the new age of publishing. I decided to expand on my answer with this blog. Again, this turned out to be longer than I wanted. So get comfy before you start.

As it happens, I was thinking of writing a blog geared specifically to traditionally published authors even before the luncheon, but then two other authors beat me to the punch. I highly recommend you read both blogs. Each makes excellent points, but one is more closely aligned with my personal philosophy, and veers close to what I wanted to talk about.

First, the blogs. Edan Lepucki, who attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop says this. And Kris Rusch, a prolific author who’s been published in several genres says this.

Now, a bit of background: I’ve generally had wonderful experiences with traditional publishers. I started at Penguin. Berkley Crime Time published my four Ellie Foreman mass markets. At the same time  the hard covers of those mass markets were published in a unique (at the time) subsidiary rights arrangement with Poisoned Pen Press. Berkley subsequently dropped me, but Poisoned Pen kept me in print. In fact Barbara Peters and Rob Rosenwald are responsible for saving my career, and I will always be indebted to them. I went on to publish my two Georgia Davis thrillers with Bleak House Books when Ben and Alison were around, and they were fabulous. Now I’m with Allium Press of Chicago and Emily is a dream to work with.

However, the most valuable lesson came when I was dropped by Penguin.

It was not a good day. Not at all. I cried. I drank. I ranted. But when I finally picked myself up off the floor,  I realized that if I was going to survive in this business, I had to become a business. Sure, I liked the cachet of being a writer with a modest following and modicum of respect, but bottom line, I needed to step in and control my career, such that it was. Poisoned Pen did make it easier, but despite their support,  I needed to learn how the business works, where I belonged in it, and how I could grow. I hate to say I realized I had to “brand” myself, because it’s such a cliché now, but a lot of my efforts were and are exactly that. Building my brand. My “inventory”… my “stock.”

And that, traditionally published authors, is an attitude that self-published authors have WAAAY over most of you. You have been managed by publishers and agents, perhaps to the point that Stockholm Syndrome has set in. You feel unable or unwilling to do anything to upset the apple cart. You are trying to please THEM, whereas it should be the other way around.

I remember when I was starting out and authors would say, “well, my agent told me…” or “I have to run this by my agent/editor/publisher (take your pick).”  At the time I thought they were bragging… as in, I’m important and good enough to have an agent, editor, et al. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe they really did ask their agent’s permission before they wrote a short story or went to a conference or started a new series. If they did, or if you do, might I suggest you re-examine what you’re doing in this business? You are — or should be — the boss. Your agent works for you. You license your work to a publisher. You make the decisions.

Unfortunately, not enough traditional published authors have that attitude. But pretty much every self-published author I’ve ever come across DOES. And they’re constantly coming up with ways to add value to their brands. I am involved with a group of indie authors. I’m also involved with a group of traditionally published authors, and I’ve got to admit that the indie authors are the ones with the creative ideas. They are always thinking and willing to experiment, sometimes in ways I’ve never considered. But they are also always focused on the bottom line. What will this do for us? For me? For our sales?

Does this mean I have “gone Indie?” Of course not. I hope to continue to be published traditionally. I love the community, the reviews, the relationships, the bookstores. However, I now evaluate every opportunity that comes my way, including those from traditional publishers, to see if it is a sound business decision.

Btw, those decisions don’t always involve dollars and cents. Sometimes it might be wiser for me to be published traditionally, despite not making a lot of money, knowing I will get reviews that will be worth their weight in gold down the road. Or perhaps the distribution of the traditional publisher is deeper and wider what I could do myself.

Other times, it might make more sense for me to publish myself. Particularly if it’s a prequel or a sequel to an ongoing series. Or a short story that sets up or concludes the series. Or an audiobook that I can produce through ACX (which is a godsend for midlist authors, btw… If you have the audio rights to your books, RUN, don’t walk to ACX.com right now.)

Still other times, I might be in it primarily for the bucks.

But, you see, that’s my choice. Yours too.

I know several indie authors who refused deals with reputable agents, because they concluded an agent couldn’t do anything for them that they couldn’t do on their own. I know other indie authors who have signed with agents. I know plenty of traditionally published authors who are producing e-books of their backlists just to have them available. I know other traditional authors who are doing e-books because any dollar they make is found money.

None of these reasons are stupid. They are all the result of authors who have seen the writing on the wall. And that writing says “Writing is my business. Not my agent’s. Not my editor’s. Mine.”

To that end, I want to again recommend Kris Rusch’s latest blogpost. If you are a traditionally published author, eventually you’re going to be signing a new contract. You should – at the very least – be aware of the issues that will impact you now and into the future. Read this. Print it out. Keep it near you in contract negotiations. Remember that contract is skewed toward a publisher’s interests, not yours. Don’t automatically accept everything without knowing what you are giving up. Ask yourself, or a lawyer, (I recommend you hire one to review the contract), whether it’s a fair contract. If it’s not, what price are you paying? Can you live with it?

You don’t have to. You do have options. But only if you take control. Btw, this is not rocket science. All it requires is a slight shift in your mental attitude. From… “they like me, they really like me”… to  “What are you doing for me today? Tomorrow? For the long term?”

See? Not hard at all.

Have a great week.


PS It happened again…  You know that sophisticated drug tunnel they found on the border?  Well, Georgia Davis knows all about it. Life imitiates DOUBLEBACK.

  • Another great post Libby!

  • I remember, back in the spring of 2001 when Dell informed me my contract wouldn’t be renewed since I didn’t come close to earning out a $250K advance…Who the hell earns that out in a couple of years!!??? Yikes!! I ranted for 5 years and then got busy writing again. When StoneHouse/Stonegate Ink picked up the The Remains and the two books that Dell had originally published, The Innocent and Godchild (my agent had gotten the rights back), I ended up selling hundreds of thousands of e-book editions. Where did that land me??? With another major deal, this time from Thomas and Mercer who is publishing, yet again, The Innocent and Godchild, aside from five other books. I’ve come full circle, but I’m not giving up indie publishing. The majors will always be volatile experience and if I learned anything over the past decade, it’s that I can only count on me and me alone…:)

    • Well said, Vincent. And good on you for hanging in. Your success speaks for itself.

  • I’m also from the world of traditional publishing, having been with a high-power respected agent. We sold many books together for a lovely amount of $$.

    And it all went away. That happens. And I also did the head-banging teeth-gnashing thing, and at one point decided I’d had it good and to move on with something other than books. But the backlist continued to collect dust under the bed–and my fantastic agent had gotten my rights back so–

    New life, for me AND my books. I don’t consider myself “traditional” or “indie” or any of the popular name-calling. I’m an author. I write books. How my books get from mereaders doesn’t matter nearly so much as that I provide my readers with what they want, and connect with them directly through my platform.

    Today authors have options, more than any before. It’s not an either/or but a what’s the best fit for THIS project or THAT author. Great post! I’ll share.

    • Thanks, Amy. You are soo right on. We are authors, and, bottom line, it doesn’t matter how they read our stories. As long as they do.

  • I appreciate reading this post, Libby, having just signed a deal for my debut novel. For me, it was a dream 11 years in the making. And despite indie publishing becoming a viable enough option in the years I was trying that I now teach it as 1/3 of my class on publishing, I felt that the deal I was offered was the best possible way to go. The relationship I built with my agent over the unsold years, and the one I am just beginning with my editor, are truly precious to me. But I couldn’t agree more about the writer being in charge of her own career–whether indie or traditionally published. Ideally, some of the advantages from both paths could be borrowed in the other. Thanks for taking up this topic. And you reminded me that I really must join SinC!

  • Dianne Hanau-Strain

    Thanks, Libby–for those of us just getting started your insights are both unsettling and invaluable.

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  • Deciding to go it alone was one of the toughest decisions I ever made, but it has allowed me to connect with many more readers than I previously had and, being a Virgo, I relish the control. Sink or swim, it’s all on me.

  • Lots of food for thought here, Libby. And I like you saying basically ‘Author: Get in the driver’s seat’ – because I’ve heard enough from people who think they know what’s good for everyone ELSE, or that their experience is the universal.

  • I am multigenre. I wrote to pay the rent and that’s how I learned. Self-help (still doing to honor the recession), children’s books, award-winner, biobraphies used in Women’s Studies will be revised to become an e-book. Poetry for girls, e-book, but would try traditional first. Thriller–traditional. YA traditional. An editor once said, “You will always write for blah, blah.” She was friends with the agent who gave away entertainment rights to what became a bestseller. I have a huge backlist but except for bios am having to much fun to change.