self-publishing · The writing business

What deals will publishers offer in five years’ time?

permanentlyAll the scribbling world is going indie. New, unpublished writers are, to establish themselves – even if they’re agented. And experienced, well-regarded authors are leaving their imprints – either being dropped or deciding to seek a better way to release their work.

While publishers are probably not short of new material, we know they watch the indie scene to see who does well. At the moment they pounce on the Hocking and Howey high fliers, but in a few years’ time they’ll have a different breed of writer to consider: the well established indie with a clutch of books and a growing audience. The kind of author who used to make up the midlist. I’m wondering, what deals would they offer?

For most of us it’s unlikely to be bidding wars. But one thing’s sure. It’s really going to test the industry because it can’t be a standard midlist deal. Most indie authors will have outgrown that.

Help with production

How much production help will a competent self-publishing author need? Of course, some writers loathe production and will be glad to hand it over. Others, though, relish the control (like yours truly) or will have it so smoothly managed that they’d rather hire the help themselves than hand over a bigger share to have it arranged.

A publisher might be able to offer an economy of scale – although they have often cut staff so much they are using the same freelances who are hired by indies.

Italics: flat feet bad
Italics: flat feet bad

Here’s an added complication. The book needs to look professional. How would a deal legislate for a situation where a writer’s production values look like a home haircut? Spin it the other way: what would stop a publisher vetoing an outside editor to keep the work themselves and accrue extra percentage points?

I’ve already made this more complex than I imagined. Suffice it to say: production costs will become a negotiation point.

Help with promotion and marketing

I’m guessing that one of the prime reasons for partnering with a publisher is to gain kudos, exposure and credibility in places we can’t reach by ourselves.

We all know that if a publisher pulls out all the stops they can make a huge difference to a book’s fortunes. But most of the time (ie if they haven’t paid big bucks for the author), they can’t afford to.

newspaper_boosmlWhat most non-starry authors get is a few mentions in the national press. That can certainly send an indie author reeling with delight. But does it sell copies? The evidence is that it doesn’t. Most books don’t sell unless you keep them constantly on readers’ radar. A splash in the press is short term. Indie authors know they have to keep a sustained campaign of advertising and promoting. The midlist author launch package is little more substantial than a token cork-pop at the book’s birth. It won’t keep the book alive, month in, month out.

There’s worse. At the moment, when you sign a deal, publishers are often secretive or vague about what marketing they will do. They’re used to the writers being so overawed that they never have to explain what exactly will happen or how brief the publicity flare will be.

Indeed, it’s shocking how meagre a publisher’s marketing plan might be. One writer I know was asked for a list of blogs the publisher could contact to run posts about the books. Up until then, the writer had believed the publisher would use their own special contacts, not people the writer already knew about. Another author friend, after two successful books, was sent on a social media course. He learned nothing he couldn’t have gleaned from reading a few blogs.

However, many of my writer friends are excited about the Amazon imprints – even authors who feel they’re finished with traditional publishing. Why? Because Amazon have developed and honed an amazing machine for finding readers. What’s more, the algorithms can work long term with emails and targeted deals. That’s the kind of help we would all take seriously.


I haven’t even mentioned ebooks. As ebook formatting is one of the simplest things for an author to do or source, few of us will need help to make them. Where will a publisher add value? Publicity? The trouble is, their publicity machine is still wedded to print territories, whereas indies are already marketing on the, ahem, wordwide web. Perhaps publishers will start to think globally. Or perhaps ebooks will be left out of publishing deals with indies, as those markets may already be well served.


Getting copies into bookshops is one area where indies struggle – and traditional publishers are acknowledged masters. However, go into your local Waterstones or B&N and you’ll be bewildered by the acres of book spines. What’s the likelihood of someone finding your book by chance, even if it’s there? Except for prominent displays (which aren’t given to every author), publicity is what makes readers pick up a book or ask for it to be ordered – and indies can already get onto the wholesale lists at very little cost. We don’t even need to buy the ISBN. So it is my contention that well targeted, long-term publicity is more significant to an author than distribution to a lot of shops. Do feel free to disagree.

Help with development

It probably seems cockeyed to consider this last. We can’t deny that editors can add a vital nurturing influence. Although successful indie authors will already have their infrastructure for making a book good, few of us would dismiss the chance to do it better. Or am I dreaming?

Equitable arrangements

At the moment a publishing deal is like a fixed-price menu. But the authors of the future will be savvy about publishing. They’ll look for equitable arrangements and publishers will have to be flexible for each situation. A la carte.

sidebarcropNo more secrets

Publishers will also need to be more transparent. Right now the culture is to keep the author in the dark. A business relationship can’t be vague like that.

Ultimately a fair deal will take account of what each side puts in. Who, in a publisher, is equipped to strike a fair deal with the entrepreneurial author or their agent? The editors? They know about nurturing content, being its shepherd and handling production. But they aren’t skilled in converting this into workable contract terms and profit shares. And why should they be? That’s like expecting your plumber to be able to fix your computer. The other option is the contracts department. But they’re in a legal ivory tower, away from authors and the realities of book production or selling. It’s as if we need a new kind of job in publishers – a professional who can grapple with all of this.

UPDATE: To be fair, many editors do recognise the need for change. But they don’t necessarily have the skills, systems or company culture to reinvent their relationships with authors. They’ve usually got enough to do keeping up with their publishing schedule – having managed an editorial department I know the realities of getting books out, and how diktats often come from lofty management levels that are impossible to fulfil while making the daily deadlines. So this kind of change is going to take time.

One thing’s for sure. The current standard publishing deal isn’t going to cut it.

Thanks for the dream team pic Permanently Scatterbrained

Let’s discuss this brave new world. Do you self-publish? If a publisher came calling, what would you appreciate help with? What do you want to handle yourself? What do you think would make you attractive to a publisher in return for their help?


48 thoughts on “What deals will publishers offer in five years’ time?

  1. So much of business depends on a company’s existing protocols – this is “the genius of the system” that can so easily manifest instead as “the idiocy of the system”.

    Historically, publishers have nobody in middle management who is accustomed to agreeing joint venture terms with authors. (The top-selling authors get to talk to senior management and more care is taken to tailor a deal to their needs.) Now the industry is changing and the one-size-fits-all contracts will have to go, as different authors will demand different terms. The good effect of this is that the business must become more transparent. Authors will no longer settle for an editor airily declaring that marketing plans will be “at the publisher’s discretion” and drawling something about “standard terms”.

    The problem is that publishers are not set up to talk in terms of JVs. I have found personally that the system gets very idiotic indeed when you sketch out a JV in principle with an enlightened CEO and are then thrown down to the level of harassed editors who have neither the time nor the business templates to see the deal through. Yet however much we try to tell publishers that it cannot remain “business as usual”, they still act like they’re on the bridge of the Titanic and forecasting a light frost.

    1. Joint ventures …. mutual respect … getting rid of vague terms such as ‘at the publisher’s discretion’ … you’re speaking my language, Mr Disvan. And there’s something else important here. While we’re all agreeing that something must change, it’s not going to happen overnight. Changes like this will probably happen gradually – which is why I thought it would be interesting to take the five-year view.

  2. Wow! Well, you certainly managed to hit this one out of the park, adequately covering all of the bases too. As an aspiring author, I’ve kept an open mind and watchful eye on the publishing aspects industry wide–the pros & cons, etc. If the trend moves towards publishers having to share the load and work in a more collaborative fashion with writers, seasoned or otherwise, the finished product can only thrive in an environment of trust and mutual respect.

    1. Thanks! And I like your point about the benefits to the finished product. At the moment it’s disheartening that the economic pressures of publishing are not allowing the artform to develop and are almost punishing originality. Copycat books that will be safe bets are crowding out the more interesting authors who would have been published not so long ago – authors who would have had good and interesting careers.
      Well thanks to self-publishing they still can. And maybe in a few years’ time, certain sectors of the industry will be interested in them and help them gain greater recognition. That’s if they haven’t already got that well in hand.
      But in a good publishing ecosystem, we all need each other. Publishers need original writers because they can’t invent new material for themselves. Writers usually appreciate support. Where can we meet and all create something good?

  3. Reblogged this on and commented:
    A lot to think about and I’m not sure I have answers yet. I do know that marketing is a huge part of my day with a publishing company publishing my book. There’s much to consider.

  4. I don’t have answers yet. I do know I am learning to rearrange my day in order to accommodate the hours needed to market. It’s time consuming to be sure. Bottom line, it’s taking a lot more work these days to be seen. We have to decide if our books are worth the sacrifice.

  5. Love this, and it’s so true. The other thing with the ‘Big Six’ is that you have no idea what real sales numbers are, you have to trust what they tell you. Indie’s are used to following sales hourly now if they choose to. I think the time of warehousing books should be a thing of the past. Print on demand as ordered has to be the future. Distributing of print books is the publishers the only card they hold right now. Great conversation.

    1. Hi Elizabeth! Interpreting sales numbers is an arcane business indeed. I remember my first royalty statements from Random House – more complicated than a tax return. And the time it took to get paid!
      As you say, it’s incredible to think that indies can follow sales so precisely. Not only does it tell you what’s really going on, it means you can monitor sales spikes and troughs and assess whether there was anything you did to cause it.
      Warehousing is a double-edged business. Even with the cost of storage and delivery, it’s cheaper than POD. Although publishers are now using POD – via CreateSpace, in some instances.

  6. Print on demand. Transparency. Joint venture agreements. At least one imprint of one of the Big Five is already doing this: The Friday Project at HC. More need to follow their lead – but that will require not only the will, but new roles to be defined within the company to make it so.

  7. In my day dreams I see a team of clever people trumpeting my books from the treetops. Then I wake up and realise those days are over. Much as I would love to have someone else take over the marketing side of the publishing equation, I know it wouldn’t work. Times have changed, and now readers demand personal content from their authors. They want to know us, not our publicity machines.

    That said, what’s left for an Indie like me? Validation perhaps, but I believe even that benefit is being diluted by the reality of modern publishing. Truth is, most readers neither know nor care who publishes the books they read. So long as the product meets their expectations, nothing else matters. And isn’t that the way the relationship between author and reader is supposed to be?

    1. AC, you make a good point here. Readers like the personal contact with the author. But in fact this has always been the case. Before the days of social media, readers got to know about books when authors appeared on chat shows, in radio and magazine interviews etc. Children’s authors visited schools – and still do. Social media has expanded this degree of contact.

      1. lol – I’ve only ever seen my favourite authors in the flesh twice in my whole life so I just assumed meet and greets were rare. Social media has certainly expanded that direct contact, and I think it has expanded the power of word-of-mouth as well. Keep the posts coming. 🙂

  8. I have become a hybrid. I’ve indie-pubbed two of my books into the USA – which previously were trade-pubbed in the UK and commonwealth. I’m going indie for the next two books in the series, but also keeping in touch with my agent and keen for other traditional deals that may arise.

  9. It will be interesting to see in five years, for sure. As writers self publish and experience the control and freedom of being Indie, they might not even feel that twinge of desire to be traditionally published because they will already feel validated. Publishers will have to offer more to seduce them. Or, maybe there will always be writers willing to give up their rights? Publishers will just move onto a different author who is willing.

    1. Hi Laura! Certainly the validation aspect is changing. Indeed the earliest indie successes are probably gathering more kudos by getting a groundswell of readers behind them and ‘proving the system wrong’.
      Certainly when I published my novel I felt nervous about the possible reaction because it was like advertising that it had been much rejected. But I was unprepared for the way readers react when they’ve enjoyed a story. I realised with my ghosted work, I’d never encountered anyone who’d read it. When readers enjoyed it, they thanked the guy whose name was on the front! So the validation – from happy readers – was deeply rewarding.
      You’re right that publishers will have to rethink what they offer. And I’m sure some of us answering this thread would, at the moment, be too troublesome to work with. 🙂

  10. Great article Roz.

    Is it any wonder so many disgruntled former occupants of a publishing stable are joining the Indie ranks? I think not. These days the publishers expect you the writer to do all of the promotional work, while they take the majority of the profit! That’s the reason I parted company with my publisher to follow the Indie path, a decision I do not regret taking. 🙂

    1. Hi Jack! Your comment echoes up and down the land, in many author conversations. They need to do more for authors, and align the profit shares more equitably.
      Or maybe the majority of midlist authors will be unpublishable because the economics won’t be viable.

  11. The publishing industry’s biggest problem vis a vis indies is that most of the things that make indie publishing onerous — notably marketing — were already being sloughed off onto authors by traditional publishers. My second nonfiction book, American Dictators, is coming out in October and I’m proceeding on the assumption that I will do the lion’s share of the promotion, review pimping, and media shmoozing. Meanwhile, I will use the credibility of having two trad-published books to leverage attention for my indie titles.

    1. Hi Steven – yes, as publisher cut their marketing budgets, the responsibility fell on the author. Then the author would find themselves in the unfair position of being blamed for a job they weren’t ever trained or supposed to do.
      I saw an interesting statistic in a column by the Times books editor, Erica Wagner. She was listing the sales of novels that had been nominated for literary prize. One of them had only sold a couple of hundred copies. I’ve done better than that with my literary novel – and I freely admit I’m clueless about selling it. Yet I’m managing to do better than an author who had publisher backing and was nominated for a prize. I’m not inferring that my novel is better, BTW – but that the publisher’s marketing was wholly ineffective!
      Steven, you’re in a good position because you’ve passed the gatekeepers. That means you can persuade people to take your work more seriously.

  12. Thanks for hosting this discussion! While I think you’ve downplayed the value of distribution too much, we’ll see what develops in the next few years. We (traditional publishers) are listening and are evolving. Time will tell if we are quick enough…

    1. Peter – delighted to see a publisher join the discussion. You’ve been discreet here about your origins, so I’ll fill in what I found from Twitter. Peter is from Westbow Press, which is the self-publishing arm of Thomas Nelson.
      So please do elaborate about why you think authors should place more value on distribution. I’m not necessarily going to disagree. In fact I have a bookshop that sells good quantities of my novel every month – the title I find hardest to sell by online efforts. My husband is often saying ‘that’s just one shop – if you multiplied that by all the shops, you’d be doing very well’.
      But there’s a factor he’s overlooking – and which is the reason I feel that publicity counts for more than distribution. In the shop where my books sell well, the store owner adored the novel and keeps it on a display by the till. If it was buried on the shelves (which it would be in most shops) would it be found so easily?
      But I’m speaking as an author. From your experience, you see a whole different side of the machine.
      Is it better to spend resources on physical distribution – or distribution to readers’ minds?
      Do come back and fill the gaps.

    2. With fewer bricks-n-mortar bookstores, especially independents, the value of physical distribution to midlist authors is bound to decline. But it hasn’t gone yet.

      I agree with Pete that the smaller traditional publishers are aware of the need to change. But the kind of evolution you are talking about, Roz, really requires the resources of the Big Five – and they only pay lip service to the “listening and evolving” Pete is talking about. They aren’t really doing anything differently as far as I and other midlist authors can tell.

  13. I self-publish, have 8 novels, and quite a few short stories. I’ve been in the biz since early 2010 and have learned so much that even if a trad publisher approached me, they would need to make it an awesome deal to get me to sign. I already have an editor in place, artists if I need help with cover work, and all the software I need to produce a book. Why do I need them? Why would I turn over my control for a huge decrease in royalties? I market, do signings, actively seek out places to get my books on shelves- either libraries or cultural centers, and I have a decent amount of fans. The only thing that would make it sweeter would be a movie deal, and I’m even taking steps to work on that.

  14. Pretty much reality. My rule of thumb used to be if you didn’t get a six figure deal you’re ‘promotion’ consisted of the publisher throwing galleys at the usual suspects. Now they rarely do galleys.

    I didn’t have a problem with that. I had a problem with getting bullshitted. Being told “We have so much planned” and then it never panning out, simply so I wouldn’t bother them. Tell me up front “We’re doing pretty much nothing” and it goes down a lot easier.

    A lot of the indie authors with success who have never been traditionally published are in for a rude awakening. One thing I do once in a while is look for some of these indie successes from a year or two ago and see how they’re doing in the trad world. The results are a bit surprising.

    1. Hi Bob! I thought this might be your kind of territory. And yes, while it’s galling when they do nothing, there is no way you can work with partners who lie.

      I’d be interested to see the results of your investigations following up indie authors who took traditional deals. I’m hoping they didn’t all have bad experiences… what did you find?

  15. HI Roz, I couldn’t agree more! I’ve signed a two book deal with one of the big six/big five after self publishing. I am leery of giving up so much control and that’s why I needed the advance to be worth it. I’m also a bit worried about the promotion. I feel like they didn’t promise me a ton and what they did promise me will be easy for them to do especially if I become the squeaky wheel reminding them. I’m really anxious and curious to see if this partnership will help me sell more books than I can on my own. That will be the true test.

  16. My friend published with a small publisher and is now having regrets. After they overpriced her book and will do nothing to promote it. It’s almost impossible for her to sell to anyone she doesn’t know personally. And now she’s being told it’s considered a ‘failed’ book and that agents will see it as a strike against her. Very sad.

    1. Olivia, what a shame. Especially as we put so much into a book. For the publisher it’s just business; for us it’s that plus everything.
      Actually I don’t think it would count against her that much. She might have to use a different pen name in order to woo more publishers – although after such an experience it’s hard to see the appeal of a publisher. But agents would understand the circumstances and that she wasn’t to blame. Does this mean she’s stuck? I don’t think so. The industry is changing and there will be more power in the hands of the authors – though getting noticed by readers will be hard.
      I do hope this turns out well for her.

  17. Although I would be highly flattered, I would need to receive a substantial deal to even think about going with a traditional publisher. They do need to change their way of doing business if they are going to work with indie authors. Indie authors are finding their way, because they can publish books much quicker than a traditional publisher can, and they are in control. If a traditional publisher isn’t going to help promote more than I am already doing, than what is my motive for going with them? Obviously I would have to show substantial sales myself to have a trad. publisher even approach me, but I like what is happening now. I like self-publishing under my own publishing company. If I were to be approached by a publisher, it wouldn’t be the money only that needed to be substantial; it would have to be a substantial marketing plan. A plan that allows me to reach an audience i am unable to reach.

  18. As a business, I loathe publishing. Every step of the way for me has been an accident, but nobody got hurt. At least not permanently. I squandered my momentum yesterday. Many yesterdays ago. Is there anybody on the planet that has NOT written an erotic novel? I understand where a clitoris is located, and yet…
    Clearly it’s largely about marketing; all about marketing. Personally I only read my own stuff. That’s the way I roll.
    So–what I got out of this article is: nobody knows, but…
    Followed by some salient points that didn’t relieve my angst, but thanks just the same. I tried it as an indie and then I found a small publisher and I prefer the start up, because it at least provides a platform.
    I don’t care about the money anyway, not until it gets up over $10,700, my current yearly income. I can safely say that will never happen for me. I mean,not likely.
    Sooner or later the Indy market will implode because there is just too much crap out there. On the other hand you have plenty of “writers” that don’t mind writing for free or subsidizing their work, if for nothing more than to be able to wear the mantle of being an author.

    1. Hi Jesse
      I don’t think the indie market will implode. I don’t think there is an indie ‘market’. I think there are writers, of all different kinds and talents. Some of them will build readerships. Some indies are doing better at finding their readerships than some traditionally published authors. It’s a changing world.
      You raise an interesting point about authors subsidising their work. If you think of the man-hours that go into just one novel, the pay of a traditional deal is insanely low. We are all subsidising our work, traditionally published or not. Is that just so we can call ourselves authors? Do we perhaps have other reasons why we write?
      A friend of mine summed it up interestingly at the Edinburgh ebook festival. She said ‘I write for love and I publish for money’. ‘Love’ in this case is not necessarily her ego, but a desire to do justice to an idea in a way that would help others understand why it was so special. Craft, in other words. I like her assessment here.
      It’s brilliant that you’ve found a situation that suits you, and it sounds like it was won by much effort and heartache. Good luck with it.

Your turn!

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.