The hard truths of publishing right now

There are some realities in publishing that are tough right now…


Original trade paper is now the way to go with many debuts. Hardcover is a tough sell and no one wants to be placing their authors out of the market.

The traditional approach (hardcover release followed by paperback a year later) is now an exception, not the standard rule.

I know it’s hard for many authors to get their heads around the idea that they won’t be published in hardcover, but I frame it as something that has to be earned and worked up to right now.


If a project is not amazing, editors aren’t buying. Editors see a lot of good things they might have bought 10 years ago, but right now books need to be remarkable to stand out in acquisition meetings and on bookshelves. That’s why agents are also extremely picky; we know how hard it is out there. 


Writers no longer have to simply compete with other writers, they are competing with all the other things that divide consumer attention–movies, magazines, TV, the internet. Part recession mentality, part reality of the competitive marketplace, commercial fiction has to be engaging and high concept to stand out in the crowd, warrant a purchase, and warrant spending what limited free time many consumers have on reading fiction.

So delight and entertain, writers! We’re waiting for that breakout book that will shine through the acquisition process and garner the media attention that will simultaneously make it stand out in bookstores, no matter what format your publisher thinks is best for you.

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

15 thoughts on “The hard truths of publishing right now

  1. As someone who has held onto the idea of going the traditional publishing route, I think you’re making a compelling argument as to why some authors should self publish. The competition between media for time hasn’t changed; it just seems like publishing houses are becoming reactive to the market that needs a sure thing instead of trying to be tastemakers. The less the project fits the narrow definition of what the traditional market is actively seeking the more likely the author will have to take it to market independently.


    1. I didn’t think of it that way, but I can certainly understand your perspective for reading it that way. I would argue that the speed of which things move online and in all media has increased ten fold in ten years–which is part of the reason that writers have to ‘compete’ differently as they are used to being a print medium (physical books), and now are also a digital medium (ebooks).

      Publishing as always been a bit reactive and cautious. They put up money for a book that they are unsure will earn out. I agree that they can take steps forward in being tastemakers.

      I think publishers know what they’re doing and know the markets that they publish into well. I.e. they know market trends and titles, and how to market and publish well into the cookbook category for example. However, I can see how this is frustrating for writers who write outside the mainstream market.

      But my big word of caution is thinking that being different and standing up against the big conglomerates is better for your career is simply not true. Publishers have decades, sometimes centuries of experience in distribution, marketing and PR that a single entrepreneurial author does not have–however, that IS something than can be learned which is why some authors take to self publishing so very well, and some flounder with the lack of direction.

      Thanks for stopping by Shawn!


      1. Thanks for your response, Carly. And, just to clarify, this was not a slight against traditional publishing or a complaint about the uncertainty of the industry. I believe that writers need to do what is best for their careers, whether that be go through an agent and publisher or self-publish.

        I don’t think there is one single path to career, as evidenced by the number of books that come via traditional means or writers like Joe Konrath, who have succeeded independently. My understanding is in even during the good economic times that many midlist authors received little budget for promotion and marketing. Some were encouraged to use their advance to hire a publicist. (This is based on articles in Poets and Writers Magazine.)

        The film, music, and comedy industries have seen a surge in indie artists like Kevin Smith, Ok GO! Chris Hardwick, Adam Corolla, etc. It’ll be interesting to see whether writers will increasingly follow suit.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is ultimately, it comes down to the strength of the art and faith that, by whatever means, it’s worth the audience’s time and money.


      2. I agree that writers need to do what’s best for them. Some feel claustrophobic with traditional publishing, despite the advantages it affords, while some are happy to give up some control to go a traditional route and see their book in stores.

        I agree, in today’s publishing environment there are many paths to success.

        And you are right about limited marketing budgets. That’s a reflection of the times now, especially. Many agencies are now using publicists for their clients because publishers are pulling back their support.

        It’s an interesting time to be in publishing and pursuing publication! Thanks for all your comments Shawn!


  2. Seeing posts like this motivate me even more to evolve as a writer. If agents want the best, I have to become the best. Self-publishing isn’t an option for me. Traditional, no matter what state it’s in, has always been my goal. I believe in hard work. I’m always open to learning and growing as a person as well as a writer. Perseverance is the key.

    It’s tough for any new author to get noticed, especially for someone who writes horror. I’ve gotten close and even though I had an agent who was “very, very interested”, but in the end “reluctantly passed”, I haven’t given up. Writing is an important part of my life. If anything, I’m trying harder. Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

    Sometimes the truth isn’t what we expected, but that doesn’t mean we should despair. We must recognize the truth for the knowledge it contains. And knowledge is power. Give me the odds up front so I can see how hard I’m going to have to work. A post like this should be worth its weight in gold for writers, and not an opportunity to whine and complain about the uncertainty of the publishing industry. Thank you so much, Carly.


    1. Love your passion and enthusiasm! Thanks for sharing your drive. Keep at it!

      It’s making me want to sit up a bit straighter in my chair today and continue to work hard for my authors everyday. :)


  3. Hi Carly. This post makes me wonder- are there many authors out there that write full time? Or do most have day jobs? It seems so difficult to actually get published. (I write for fun but entertain dreams of being published sometime down the road. As a prolific reader I also enjoy understanding what goes on behind the scenes).


    1. The truth: You need a day job for a long time. It is possible to write full time but it takes years because you need to produce a book a year or two, then wait for the royalties to come in.


  4. It’s been my experience that many writers still take an “either-or” approach to traditional vs. self-publishing. That’s a narrow, impractical mindset in my opinion. Despite my library of self-published work, I have never stopped seeking traditional publication. Some projects I submitted to agents (and later, just to PSLA), while others I decided would be better as self-published releases. My goal is to be successful on both sides of the fence, because it’s not only possible, but essential in the modern world of publishing.


    1. Ian, I’ve heard that some agents will hold self-publishing sales against you if they aren’t stellar. Do you publish under your own name? Do you mention your self-publishing in your queries?

      Thanks for providing an interesting additional POV. Cheers!


      1. Shawn, I publish under my own name and was upfront about it in my query. Carly and I discussed it and she signed me anyway. Lol. I think agents understand that self-publishing takes time to get off the ground. I know my own sales are five times what they were a year ago. All that means is that I’m building a Bigger Better Brand which means more name recognition for traditional sales. There are even agents out there that are encouraging and assisting their authors to self-publish their backlist and out of print works. Personally, I feel that’s a conflict of interest (the assisting for financial recompense part) in the author-agent relationship, but kudos to them for accepting the changes in the market and trying to adapt to them.


  5. Thank you for this – very informative (the comments, too, everyone!).

    As for writers who write full time, in Canada, most (if not all) supplement their writing income (which is usually not great) by teaching workshops and the like. It’s something most must do to get by if they don’t have another day job.


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