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The Curious Alchemy When Art of Writing Meets the Business of Trad-Publishing

If you're an author, do you self-publish or go for trad-publishing? Why? What did you think of Leigh Bardugo's 8-figure deal, and how it would impact the trad publishing industry?

Trad-publishing twitter has been abuzz with news of #1 NY times bestselling author Leigh-Bardugo’s 8-figure deal.

There are many aspects to the discussion. Fans are happy she received it.

Some writers are upset that such a staggering advance was offered to one author. They feel this money would have been better spent ‘spread out’ between many authors.

Yet others feel like this advance is divided over a dozen books, and even if the minimum figure is 10 million, it will likely be given to her in several installments, will see tax and other deductions, and she would definitely earn it back for the publishers and more, given her track record.

Many extrapolate that the money these books will generate will give editors the bandwidth to take chances on newer authors and diverse books in trad-publishing.

Personally, I wish Bardugo the best, and having read her early work, feel that she’s an excellent and prolific writer, and the publishers would definitely make back that money and much more.

I’m a little skeptical though about the second part: that the cash this would earn would be ploughed back into publishing in the form of good advances for a larger variety of books.

We writers tend to forget that trad-publishing is a capitalist enterprise. That profits will go to the investors, and only the barest leftovers to the publishing staff and other authors. That’s simply how trad-publishing works–just like any other company–where profits mean huge bonuses to the upper echelons and not much for the general staff. Unless it is something like Fifty Shades of Grey, which, 10 years ago, famously led to talk of $5,000 bonuses for all Random House staff. I don’t really know that the millions of copies E. L. James sold led to huge benefits to publishing in general, or indeed a greater ‘taking of chances on newer authors.’

To trad publishers, while there’s a certain level of the appreciation of the art, what matters is the investment and the bottom line. If they paid you a sizeable advance, they’re going to throw everything and the kitchen sink at your book: from sending custom muffins and candles to influencers and booksellers, all the way to glitzy book tours and launch parties.

Making the bestseller lists needs much more than a good book: you need the might of a huge publicity and marketing machine grinding away in the background. Booksellers will tell you that lead titles get most of the book publicity and marketing oxygen, not the mid-list. Many award-winning books languish in low sales.

A book is primarily a product that must sell, and make profits on the investment made by the publisher. Some authors like Bardugo are ‘sure bets’ and they Will continue to get most of trad-publishing budget and attention.

If a smaller book happens to strike the zeitgeist and becomes a sleeper hit, publishers will wake up, and pay attention and possibly throw in more marketing effort behind it. The rest of mid-list authors, who make up nearly 95% of the pie– somewhat profitable, but not bestsellers–are treated in a ho-hum fashion. Marketing is not a proactive ‘given’ for the vast majority of books at most big imprints, it’s reactive in case the book gains some traction.

At the best of times, trad-publishing is bestseller-driven, not niche-driven, and is going increasingly in that direction.

It is self-publishing that caters to niche markets. Long after traditional publication marks a certain genre or sub-genre as ‘saturated,’ self-publishing authors in that exact niche laugh all the way to the bank.

In trad-publishing, most authors go in as artists. They’ve trained themselves in the art, and care very little about the business. A lot of trad-pubbed authors continue to deal with the artistic aspect, and think of their own books as their ‘babies.’

This leads to such disappointment amongst mid-list authors. As a traditionally published author myself, I wonder where in the mid-list I’ll fall once the statements come in.

You can be naive and think that writing a good book is enough, but truth is a good book needs strong marketing, and might still tank if the timing isn’t right. Hilary Mantel reached stratospheric heights, but by that time she’d already written ten books.

Gone are the days when an editor had the final say on what books to publish and how much to pay for them. In the current times, and even more so after the pandemic, it is excel sheets and corporate meetings that decide if an offer would be made on a book, and if yes, how much. So many at the decision-making table have never read a single book in the genre.

In the meantime, authors must plug on, putting out their best craft/art, doing what they can with marketing themselves and hope to build a back-list and a fan base that will keep them profitable. It is good to dream that huge advances to specific authors in trad-publishing will ‘trickle down,’ and lead to more diversity in authors and equitable author advances, but that’s all it is, a nice dream.

Writing is art and trad-publishing a business. Nowhere is it clearer than at an acquisition table.

When you read books, do you care about how it was born? If you’re an author, do you self-publish or go for trad-publishing? Why? What did you think of Leigh Bardugo’s 8-figure deal, and how it would impact the trad publishing industry?


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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

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11 Comments

  • jlennidorner says:

    Love the post. I’m happy for the author. Advances, as far as I know, have to be repaid if the book fails. That’s a bit of a gamble all around. (Maybe less so for authors writing about investing. 😆)
    It’s April, so I’m focused on the #AtoZChallenge.
    Proof of Existence, book two in my dark urban fantasy series, is out this month. Very exciting. Indie published. It’s a niche. When I sent query letters of book one, I couldn’t find an agent who knew what a handle was in an MMORPG. 🤷🏽‍♂️

    J Lenni Dorner (he/him 👨🏽 or 🧑🏽 they/them) ~ Reference& Speculative Fiction Author, OperationAwesome6 Debut Author Interviewer, and Co-host of the #AtoZchallenge

  • That was an interesting article Damyanti.

  • I wrote on a similar topic a few years ago: https://mestengobooks.com/2019/08/20/will-illegitimate-books-tip-the-scale-back-to-traditional-publishing/

    Traditional publishing is still a better option for some writers but not others. Good points.

  • I opted for self-publishing in 2010, because I realized I might not live long enough to be trad-pubbed, even if I kept querying and submitting. Self-publishing was a way to escape the inevitable bitterness and self-chastising that accompanied rejections. (Yes, I know we’re not supposed to “take it personally,” but I did.)
    I did not need to make a living from writing, so that wasn’t an issue. Now I have published 7 books, in both ebook and print form, and am reasonably satisfied with the results.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Audrey, we all take it personally, because it IS personal. I applaud you for your chutzpah in diving into self-publishing.

      I think different modes of publishing suit different writers, and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it.

  • I enjoyed this article, Damyanti. You covered a lot of ideas. I don’t envy a ten-figure deal. Maybe by the time we calculate all of her labor, she didn’t even earn minimum wage. Share it with other authors? Even America’s favorite socialist, Bernie Sanders, refused to do that with the proceeds of his book deal.

    I liked the incite that trad-publishing is bestseller-driven, not niche-driven. Being a niche writer, I’m thrilled to blame that instead of anything about my storytelling skills!

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      I think it would be significantly above minimum wage, in this case, but the idea that it should be spread out is somewhat naive. Publishers like to invest big on books they feel will give them returns. They’re only partially there to promote the art of writing. Some of the biggest sellers of the past decades wouldn’t be called art, even by their own creators, but they sold, and that’s what publishers want. Stripped to its basics, they’re selling ‘art-products’ to turn a profit.

      And as to niche and bestseller, that’s really how it is. And indies do wonderfully well catering to the niche–the market gaps that big publishers are unable to fill given the way they work, and their lack of agility. You should be proud of what you do, and having read your work, I can see why they do so well–they are good, and there’s a market for them. Trad pub just doesn’t see it, or it is too niche for their work system.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Absolutely. We can, and should dream. But personal dreams lead us towards making goals, that we can plan to achieve. Dreaming that publishing will one day be equitable on the other hand, is not within our control, and there’s no way to plan towards it. Only writing the stories we write, and advocating for them the best we can.