The New World of Publishing

Traditional Publishers are Getting What They Deserve

by Dean Wesley Smith

(Originally published here on October 3, 2011)

A beginning note: This post came about because lately I’ve been getting the writer-as-center-of-the-universe questions a great deal. Writers believe that when they send in a manuscript to an editor, it is the only manuscript on the desk. Writers believe that when they take on an agent, they are the agent’s only client. Writers believe that their advance is the only money publishers will spend on their book. That sort of silliness, which drove the writing of this post. Keep that in mind when reading this. Thanks!

Traditional Publishers Caused Agents to Become Publishers.

Let me simply say that traditional publishers deserve what they are getting.

And my question is this to traditional publishers:


Why not just cut off those agencies and go direct to the writers?

Too simple, right? Too logical. Too much of a logical, good-business solution for publishing, I know. Sigh.

But even with traditional publishers being continually stupid, agents as publishers just won’t work. And today, in Publisher’s Marketplace, we saw that clearly once again.

Let me explain this as best as I can.

The History

Over a decade ago traditional publishers, in a cost-cutting measure, decided that slush piles did not serve them well. So someone, somewhere (more than likely in Pocket Books, since this sort of started in the Star Trek department) decided that publishers could outsource the slush pile to agents.

In other words, give up control of the pipeline to the original product that they depended on. Yeah, that was smart business.

The publishers did this by simply putting in their guidelines that instead of no unsolicited manuscripts, they wouldn’t accept unagented manuscripts. One simple word changed the job of agents.

Laid-off young editors decided to become agents, and young agents started blogging and looking for clients and the young writers instead of just ignoring the guidelines (like young writers had done for decades) started paying attention. And they went to agents.

And because these agents were young, they started thinking they actually were in control of these young writers.

And again, the young writers let them.

And over a decade the industry changed, with a generation of new writers slowly working into the business under this new system.

But the problem was that up until that point, agents worked for writers. But over the decade that started to change as well as agents started working more and more for their small group of editors inside publishing houses. The agents basically became outsourced editors, reading slush, having writers rewrite to try to groom manuscripts to one of the agent’s editors.

A few writers made it through this system, most did not. And we lost a generation of really original writers to this stupidity.

Now, with the extreme cutbacks in traditional publishing, the rise of indie publishing, the shift to electronic publishing, agents started thinking. “We are already editing, why don’t we just become publishers and try to grab some of the money the publishers have let go of.”

Of course, they will do it “for their clients.”  (These clients, for the most part are the same writers from the last decade who were convinced their agent was a god, that their agent would take care of them.)

Today Another Change

So today in Publisher’s Marketplace, there was an announcement of a company starting up that will allow agents to go to that company to put up their client’s work. For a “toll” as they are calling it. That toll is around 30% of GROSS. And all top agencies are thinking about going with them or a company like them and a few have already.

Why? Because as I have said over and over and over, agents can’t do this publishing thing. It just takes half a brain and a calculator to see that.

Here is why agents can’t do this: (Remember the writer-as-only-one thinking.) Agent has 50 clients Maybe more, and by client, I mean 50 WRITERS. Each client has 10 backlist novels and 20 backlist short stories to put up. (An average, some a lot less, some a lot more. Not counting front list and rejected books.)

Remember, these clients want to be “taken care of and don’t want to learn how to do this themselves.” And these writers think they are the agent’s only client.

So 30 stories times 50 clients = 1,500 stories for that one agent to format, do covers for, proof, and put up electronically. (Wait, it gets worse.)

Some of the larger agencies will have twenty or more agents (Some a lot more agents than that). 1,500 stories times 20 agents = 30,000 stories for that agency to deal with and get into electronic and POD format. That would make that agency larger than most major publishers.

And remember, agencies are going this way because they are broke. They don’t have the money to hire staff and cover designers and proofreaders and editors to do the 30,000 stories from their clients WHO ALL WANT TO BE TAKEN CARE OF AND BE GIVEN PERSONAL ATTENTION.

Yeah, and that’s going to happen.

It’s taken over a year for WMG Publishing to get up just over 200 of Kris and my backlist an we haven’t even touched the surface yet. And there are numbers of us working on it. Imagine if Kris and I were with one of the major agencies and asking our publisher/agent when she was going to get all our backlist up?

So anyone with half a brain, which none of these agents seem to have, know that this is a giant disaster just starting.

That’s why I say if you are with an agent and they start to become a publisher, RUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Not only is it a fantastic conflict of interest, but your work will be lost in the mess.

Well, today this company with a full staff, came running in to the rescue of these agents wanting to be publishers. I am going to call these new companies that are riding in to help agents “rescue companies.”

And they will rescue these agents from their own stupidity FOR A TOLL.

The toll will be paid by the writers of course.

The Math Again

So here is how that math will work for the stupid writers who will allow their agent to become their publisher.

  • Book sells on Kindle for $4.99.
  • Kindle takes 70% leaving $3.50. (This amount is what an indie published writer gets per sale if they did the work themselves.)
  • Money is sent to rescue company.  Rescue company takes 30% of gross toll.  So from the $3.50 that they got they take 30% of $4.99 = $1.50.
  • So the agent then gets $3.50 – $1.50 = $2.00.
  • Agent takes 15% for “taking care” of their writer.  So agent gets $2.00 x 15% = 60 cents.
  • Agent (when they get around to it) sends author $1.40.
  • $1.40 divided by $4.99 = 28%. Author is getting 28%.

One more note: That $1.40 is AFTER all expenses for cover and layout and time to launch are recouped. So you are paying someone a flat fee after all to get your book up, then only getting 28% after all expenses are paid back. And the expenses get paid back out of your $1.40 only. So you will see no money for a very long time, if ever.

Other Major Problems

Besides the ugliness of the quantity I talked about above, there  are other problems in this.

  • A Strange Company Doing A Large Number of Books will not Care or Read Your Book. You, as an author, will have no control and no say and yet will be paying for the stock art and the designer for your book. Your book will look like every other book, with no branding and nothing to help it sell. You are so much better served staying with traditional publishers than having your agent do it.
  • No tracking available. Instead of just having an agent get your money, an agent you don’t know, you now also have another firm with people you don’t know getting your sales records and money. Most writers will be lucky to even see a percentage of the 28% they are actually owed.  And they would have NO WAY of knowing.
  • Slowness of the money that does arrive. Wow, I can’t even imagine. Your money comes into a “rescue company” mixed with thousands of other authors and who knows how many books, it gets divided out and sent to your agent with hundreds of other authors and maybe a thousand books. Yeah, that’s going to make the money come quickly. Not.
  • Bookkeeping nightmare: This major “rescue company” could be dealing with income from the major distributors like Kindle from hundreds of thousands of items every month from a hundred agencies and maybe three hundred agents. It is darned near impossible for an agent to keep money straight when a publisher pays an agent for five writers royalties at one time. No chance, zero-point-zero that anyone along the way will be able to keep this straight. And agents have no money to hire the bookkeepers required to even try. It is a nightmare that a lot of great books and stories will be lost into.


Sorry to pound this drum once again. I will stop soon and just sit back and watch and be sad about all the great writers that will be lost in this mess.

A single agent CAN NOT deal with over a thousand books and stories from their clients. They don’t have the ability to design covers or layout books and they don’t have the money at the moment to hire expert help. And worse yet, they don’t care.

And even if they did have the time, the money, and the ability, if you are a lower-level writer at any agency, you might see your first backlist get published in a couple of years.

Agencies with twenty or thirty agents can’t deal with thirty thousand novels and stories built up in their writer’s backlists. They just can’t. Not even a dozen combined major traditional publishers could deal with that kind of flood in any kind of short order. So the agencies will farm the work to one of these “rescue companies” that will take their “toll” and do nothing for you.

Agents can not be publishers. They can’t do it for you.

The math doesn’t work.

Nothing about the idea works.

Nothing.Traditional Publishing caused agents to be in the position where they suddenly think they can become publishers. That does not mean you need to let them with your work.

Just say no and run.

Traditional Publishing opened the door for writers to go directly to readers. The traditional publishers lost their control over the distribution system. Now we don’t need agents. We don’t need traditional publishers.

Traditional Publishing is about to fall on its face as paper book sales decline and the smart authors flee the sinking ship. Agents are going to be mostly gone in five years.

Writers, don’t let your books get trapped in the mess.

Take control, start the new learning process now to become an indie publisher. It is not hard.

This Christmas is going to be a stunner for electronic reading devices and electronic book sales. Trust me, your publisher/agent can’t have one of your books ready to sell by December 26th.

But you can.


The New World of Publishing — 2 Comments

    • We appreciate your interest in NIP–Austin, Anna.

      Our focus is limited to long-form, novel-length fiction. We do have members who have tried screenwriting, and the only assistance I can offer is to ask if they would be willing to share their relevant experience with you.

      Tosh McIntosh
      Moderator, NIP–Austin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *