How Common Are Traditional Publishing Horror Stories?—Author Survey Results

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

I have heard numerous horror stories on the fiction front from authors who sold their books to publishers only to find they had lost control of content, were cursed with ugly covers that doomed any hope of sales, received very little assistance or support in the way of marketing and promotion, or learned that their publishers had little investment in their careers as writers and/or no interest in their future books. Such horror stories often seem pervasive, and they easily become rallying cries for self-publishing and the greater control it provides authors. Are these tales of dissatisfaction with traditional publishing notable exceptions, or are they the norm?

The traditional-publishing victims I’ve encountered typically report that they had been thrilled to receive their contracts and had accepted neglect or poor treatment or disadvantageous terms because they felt they had no choice. Indeed, before self-publishing became a viable option, few of them did. Worse, such experiences could harken the death spiral for an author’s career: no investment from the publisher could lead to sluggish sales which in turn could lead to poor chances of selling a subsequent title either to publishers or bookstores. Authors would be forced to abandon series or throw away their brands and try to reinvent themselves.

Cautionary tales capture our attention, and they tend to get repeated and even embellished. In other posts, I reported survey results showing a preference for traditional publishing among authors. I also found that authors had expectations for several advantages of traditional publishing relative to self-publishing. With so many authors positively disposed toward traditional publishing, perhaps these horror stories are very visible and heartbreaking exceptions, a disappointing conclusion to the struggle to break into the traditionally published ranks.

Several of the questions on the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey were designed specifically to examine authors’ experiences with publishing. Separate sections on the survey asked comparable questions about experiences with the last book authors had traditionally published and about the last book they had self-published While the sample is not a scientific sample and may not be representative of the experiences of the full population of published authors, we are able to report on the experiences of 3,008 authors: 1,636 who had only self-published, 774 who had only traditionally published, and 598 hybrid authors who had done both and reported separately on each experience.

A look at the median response for each survey item provides insight into whether authors tended on the whole to be satisfied, dissatisfied, or neither regarding their experiences. In the chart below (which excludes aspiring authors who have no direct experience with publishing), the responses are coded using plus and minus signs to denote whether authors reported being “very satisfied” (++), “satisfied” (+), “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied” (-/+), “dissatisfied” (-), or “very dissatisfied” (–). Experiences with which 50% or more of authors reported being satisfied or very satisfied are highlighted in yellow.

medsatpublishing_with title-jgFor this sample of authors, authors’ experiences with traditional publishing fell short of expectation. Traditional publishing left authors satisfied with certain parts of their experience and less satisfied with others. For most experiences, traditionally published authors appeared surprisingly similar to their indie-published peers. Overall, authors were not very satisfied with their experiences, perhaps due to the gap between our hopes of producing bestsellers and the harsh realities of the market.

Notably, hybrid authors—those who had both indie published and traditionally published—were less satisfied with traditional publishing than they were with indie publishing. Does this mean we should credit the horror stories as common? Not quite.

I probed the data a little further and compared responses of hybrid authors about their latest experiences in both traditional and indie publishing. What I found surprised me.

If the horror stories are the norm, then we would expect large differences between the self-publishing and traditional publishing experiences for most authors. Given that the scale used to measure satisfaction ranged over 5 points from very dissatisfied (1) to very satisfied (5), we would consider a 1-point difference to be meaningful, e.g. a move from “dissatisfied” to “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied” or a move from “satisfied” to “very satisfied.”

satpubhybrid-jg[1]Instead, the results showed that, with the exception of creative control, the average swings in satisfaction ratings were relatively small. Self-publishing outperformed traditional publishing in these authors’ experiences, but only by a little bit.

Authors’ experiences with traditional publishing appear lackluster—and likely different than publishers themselves might expect—given expectations about the supposed benefits of having a traditional publisher. Based on these survey results, I conclude that the horror stories about traditional publishing are not the norm, but nor are tales of overwhelming joy.


See the full report, What Advantages Do Traditional Publishers Offer Authors?for the complete data and analysis.

15 thoughts on “How Common Are Traditional Publishing Horror Stories?—Author Survey Results

  1. Pingback: Publishing Opinions | How Common Are Traditional Publishing Horror Stories?—Author Survey Results

  2. Victoria Strauss

    Without breaking these results down between small press and large press authors, they really tell us very little. While there are horror stories in all parts of the publishing industry, there’s a big difference between the problems experienced by small press authors (especially if their publishers are inexperienced) and those encountered by authors pubbed by larger commercial houses. Any author may be dissatisfied with sales and marketing–but small press authors have to struggle far more often with issues like bad contract terms, poor editing and design (due to unskilled staff), and limited distribution–not to mention the high attrition rate that’s such an unfortunate feature of the small press world these days.

    1. Michael J Sullivan

      Agreed. I love the surveys but each person is going to want to analyze the results with their own filters. This is one of the reasons why the Hugh Howey data is so nice -he gives all the data and you can slice/dice as your curiosity dictates. For instance I have interest in the “outliers at high rankings” or the “ones who sell poorly” but data for people in the 1,000 – 25,000 range – yeah I’m going to look closely at that.

      I paid the $275 for the full report, but it didn’t break things down to how I wanted. If that $275 included their findings AND the raw data – I would rebuy in an instant.

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  4. David Rozansky

    I am the publisher of Flying Pen Press, and I also offer my services to authors as a business manager. I spend a lot of time on all sides of this issue: author-published or third-party published, as author and as publisher. I’ve even done my time working the floor and the backroom of a bookstore.

    I wanted to thank you for a thoughtful, balanced article. I read so much hype promoting one business model over the other, usually based on preconceived notions and self-serving opinions. An objective article on the benefits of author publication versus third-party publication is rather refreshing.

    I agree with your conclusions, that both methods seem to satisfy or irk authors equally. In a time when publishing authors have abilities to distribute books on par with corporate media giants, the only factor left is the relationship with the reader. Readers never care if a book is backed by media giants or an author with books in her garage. They want great writing, stories that entertain, information that helps them in their lives and careers.

    We see so many authors rush into do-it-yourself publishing without yet developing the skill of a master storyteller and the techniques of buzz marketing. This populates the field with terrible books and books that never sell.

    But when a professional writer with business savvy decides to publish her own work, I often see her succeed just as often as writers who choose to trade publication rights for a lesser royalty but more immediate advance and less capital risk.

    Authors with business savvy tend to be happier publishing themselves, while those uncomfortable with business tend to be happier letting a third party manufacture and distribute the final product, just as there are freelance writers and staff writers who prefer their choices. At least, that’s been my observation.

    Nice article. I learned a lot from it.

    Keep ’em Flying,
    David Rozansky, Publisher
    Flying Pen Press

  5. Pingback: Author Satisfaction - Traditional vs. Self

  6. Michael J Sullivan

    What Victoria pointed out is one of the reasons why I want access to the full data set, because I may want to analyze a different slice than the posts that are coming out of the analysis you all are doing.

    One thing to keep in mind for next time. I know you excluded the aspiring – which is good. But I think the survey could have branched for those people and ask them a whole different list of questions that would be pertinent to their situation. I think getting more insight on those who have been either (a) riding the-query-go-round but getting nowhere or (b) trying to self-publish and just can’t get through all the steps involved. Would be fascinating to learn about.

  7. MimiR

    If you are reaching out to authors with current contracts, you’re reaching the wrong traditionally published group. It’s the authors who get screwed so thoroughly that they get squeezed out of NY publishing that have the horror stories. I had a pretty decent time with my first book–which sold GREAT, BTW. Then I got orphaned, and my second book was absurdly mishandled to the point that it damaged my career severely.

  8. Alma H. Bond

    I have a wonderful publisher, who has just published my third book. He encourages me, sends me free books, and hired a press agent to represent me. Although he is the owner of a small press, I have turned down offers to be published by better known publishers because I like him so much.

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