Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big 5 Publishers

Harry Bingham between houses

Harry Bingham between houses

Today’s guest post is by Harry Bingham (@harryonthebrink), a UK-based author.

I’ve been an author for more than fifteen years. My first book came out with HarperCollins in February 2000 and I’ve been going ever since. (I’m British and the book came out in the UK and elsewhere, though I’m a relative newbie in the US.)

Fifteen years might not sound such a long time, but I’ve already had two literary agents, four publishers, seven editors, and thirteen books—even more if you include things I’ve worked on as editor or ghost. More to the point, I’ve witnessed the publishing industry evolve through at least four different eras.

The first era—I just caught its tail end—was back when price discounting was still modest. Back then, publishers still had marketing cash to spend on actual marketing. HarperCollins spent about £50,000 ($75,000) on launching my very first book, with posters up at rail stations and airports, on the London Underground and elsewhere. I was lucky: those times were already ending.

Before long, retailers started to become more assertive. They slashed prices to lure consumers and sold space in their retail promotions to replace that lost income. The cash that had once been used to attract consumers was now going straight to bookshops to compensate them for the pain of all that discounting. No more posters, no more direct appeals to the consumer.

That was the second era, but it was still pre-Amazon, pre-ebook. And as that third era dawned—the Dawn of Bezos—it turned out that the actual digitization issue was easy. (E-reader technology? Get Amazon and Apple to invent something. Distribution? Leave it to Amazon and iTunes.) The thing that truly gave publishers sleepless nights was the risk that their traditional retail buyers would go extinct.

In both the US and the UK, Borders collapsed. Barnes & Noble and Waterstones, the book retail leaders in either country, were either loss-making or only marginally in profit, a situation which still persists.

Publishers were finding it increasingly hard to sell in print and to sell right across their front lists—but it soon turned out that they didn’t have to, either, or not the way they used to. The huge margins they made on ebooks more than made up for the loss of print revenues. The equally huge margins they made on their backlist ebook titles made up for the struggles of the frontliners.

In a weird, paradoxical way, Amazon provided both the threat (the rise of the ebook) and the solution (those giant margins).

The net result? It turns out that now, at the end of that third era, publishers are making more money than they ever have done before. All those tedious stories about Amazon wanting to swat publishers from existence somehow ignore the fact that Amazon is only marginally profitable, while the publishers are making a fortune. (And, yes, literary agents know how much money publishers are making, but they still haven’t managed to reverse the long decline in author incomes. No sign of that changing.)

But what about the author in all this? What does it mean for you? What has it meant for me?

Well, I don’t know. Anyone who claims to have answers is a fraud: the wheel is still in spin, the ball has yet to settle. But I do have a story that contains the seeds of an answer.

I said I’ve been through a number of different books, different editors. Well, I should really have added that I’ve been through a number of careers too. I started out writing financial thrillers. Those things morphed into historical fiction. Then I jumped over to nonfiction, both specialist and non-specialist. But I could never stay with nonfiction forever. I just liked telling stories too much. So I started writing a series of mystery novels, featuring a young Welsh detective, Fiona Griffiths.

Those books did really nicely, and still are. They sold in the UK, in the US, and to other publishers in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. A production company optioned the rights to the first book and that book has already successfully been televised.

Which is nice. My career has had some ups and downs (more about that here if you’re interested), and it’s wonderful to be writing series fiction that’s performing strongly. It’s like having all the nice bits of being a writer (the writing) without all the worst bits (the massive financial insecurity).

Only there’s a twist in this tale, a twist that caught me totally by surprise.

In the US, my books were bought by Delacorte/Bantam Dell, part of Random House. I enjoyed a superb editor and the firm’s quite excellent production standards. I got some incredible reviews—that first book, Talking to the Dead, had starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus and was a crime book of the year for the Boston Globe and the Seattle Times. What’s more, my ebook sales were strong enough that I’d earned out my author advance before the book had even come out in paperback. That’s good going.

As you can imagine, I was pretty pleased. An author’s turbulent life looked, for once, to be pretty calm. With hindsight, I was like the pretty teenager in the weird, creaky house who decided, “Nope, there’s nothing to worry about here.” The quiet bit before the horror starts.

Because the two books I did with Random sold well as ebooks, they pretty much failed in print. The $27 hardback isn’t an obviously desirable product for today’s crime/mystery reader—certainly not when debuts are concerned—and the book basically flunked. Because retailers couldn’t shift the hardback, they didn’t want to be burned twice, so they ordered the paperback only in very limited numbers. That too sold horribly.

What we had was a paradox—emblematic of that third era in publishing—where a book could have (a) great reviews, (b) a good author-publisher relationship, (c) excellent production quality, (d) strong ebook sales, yet (e) be a print failure. What were we to do?

To me, it was obvious that we needed to establish the series in stages. We’d start with ebooks, priced so as to attract the risk-averse buyer. Then, once we’d built a base, we’d start to issue affordably priced paperbacks. Then, once all that was strong enough, we’d offer the premium priced hardback too. Simple.

Only not. For one thing, Random House wasn’t set up to work like that. There were e-only imprints (Alibi) and there were hardback imprints (Delacorte). There wasn’t, and isn’t, an imprint able simply to publish a title in whatever was most natural to that author and that book.

And then too, if I was going to be published e-only by Random House, I would receive just 25% of net ebook receipts. That’s about 17% of the ebook’s cover price as opposed to more like 70% by simply publishing direct with Amazon. I couldn’t understand why I’d want to do that. I mean, yes, I’d have listened if they’d come to me saying, “Harry, I know giving up 75% of those net receipts sounds like a lot, but we’re going to add a whole ton of value to the publication process. We’re going to do a whole heap of things that you can’t do on your own. And here’s a stack of in-house data which shows that we can boost your sales way past the point you could achieve.”

The Strange Death of Fiona GriffithsThey didn’t say that. They didn’t actually make any argument at all. When I said no to 25% royalties, that was it. No further conversation.

And I was OK with that. I very happily chose to self-publish the third book in the series—The Strange Death of Fiona Griffithsand will accept whatever outcome the market cares to deliver. 

That book has just come out. It cost me about $2,000 to publish the book. That sum includes cover design, editorial work, manuscript conversion and some marketing activity—primarily an author blog tour and a paid Kirkus review. I know there’s debate in the indie community as to whether it makes sense to pay $425 for a Kirkus review, but the investment has come good for me. Kirkus described the book as “exceptional” and gave me some very quotable quotes. I don’t think you can easily quantify the impact of that review but, for me, I’m much happier marketing a book that has some potent third-party endorsements.

It’s way too soon in the publication process to evaluate whether my experiment has been successful, but my pre-orders were sufficiently good that I’d repaid my upfront investment on the day of publication itself. The advance I’d got from Random House was $30,000 per book, so I’ve a way to go before equalling that, but I don’t rule out succeeding. It’s just too soon to say.

And this, I think, will be the theme of this fourth era that’s now just possibly emerging. It’s a world where authors with plenty of Big 5 sales experience choose to say, “You know what, I’m not playing this game any more.” Where authors make a positive choice to walk away from the terms offered by good, regular publishers.

The much-published Claire Cook has already described on this blog her own journey away from the Big 5. Her story is different from mine, but it’s also the same. There are others too. On my own website, William Kowalski—a critically acclaimed bestselling author—talks about why he made a similar journey. A spatter of refuseniks.

The traffic isn’t only one way. Hugh Howey is the epitome of self-publishing success, but he was (rightly) happy to accept a huge print-only deal from Simon & Schuster. He’s also 100% conventionally published in the UK. There are plenty of other examples of self-pub authors who have decided to take all or part of their business over to the traditional model.

And that’s great. The fourth era isn’t one where Indie Publishers Destroy The Evil Big 5 Oligopoly, or vice versa. This new era of publishing is one where authors have a meaningful choice. What that choice is will depend on the author, the territory, the genre, and multiple other issues which will vary across every different situation.

For what it’s worth, I suspect that publishers will adapt fine: they’ve adapted to everything else. Agents too: they’re going to have to understand that their authors have more options than they did before, and that their agencies can’t necessarily take a cut of everything that moves. (Again, most agents will navigate this shift just fine: my own literary agent has shown immaculate integrity and professionalism.)

But the fact that some major players will be able to adapt doesn’t mean that nothing’s changed. On the contrary, from my own point of view, the ability to say, “Thank you, but no” to a massive publisher is an utterly revolutionary and liberating shift. And the more that authors move from trad-pub to self-pub and back again, the more publishers will be aware that things have changed. If they treat authors poorly—and they do far, far too often—they’ll need to bear in mind that the author in question now has a choice about where to take the next book, far more than was ever previously the case.

Of all the ages of publishing that I’ve lived through, this is the one I’m happiest to be part of. The one that feels most exciting, most aglow with promise.

Long live the revolution! And may you always find readers!

Note from Jane: Harry’s book The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is available on Amazon and elsewhere. If you want to find more about Harry: visit his author site | Writers Workshop | Agent Hunter.

Posted in Guest Post, Publishing Industry and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .

Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham writes crime novels and loves it. When he's not doing that, he runs the Writers' Workshop, a British literary consultancy. He lives in Oxfordshire, England, but spends a lot of his childhood in Wales, where his crime novels are set. Things he loves apart from writing: wild swimming, rock-climbing, walking, & dogs. He's married, has two kids, and he loves his life.

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121 Comments on "Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big 5 Publishers"

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[…] early February, Bingham’s article Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big Five Publishers, appeared as a guest post on Friedman’s site. Although well known in UK circles — for […]


[…] “Random House and I couldn’t find a way to continue working together in the US,” he says in an interview with Thought Catalog, “so I’m self-publishing my Fiona Griffiths series there” in the States, starting with the third installment, The Strange Death of Fiona  Griffiths. He wrote about this in an essay as a guest at Friedman’s much-read site: Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big Five Publishers. […]


[…] Why Authors Walk Away from Good, Big 5 Publishers – Of course there are reasons to pursue traditional publishing, but this article presents a look at the publishing industry for the last 20 years or so, and one author’s experience with it all. (sidenote: I would love a companion article about an indie/self-pub author who is actively choosing the Big 5 Publishers. Let me know if you find one.) […]

Jill Meniketti
Thanks, Harry, for sharing your story, and many thanks to Jane for posting this. Loads of great comments, as well. I rejected a “Big 5” deal, as they didn’t seem to be offering anything I couldn’t do myself with my existing platform (I manage a rock band that tours the world). With a jam-packed life, I’d been really looking forward to the marketing machine that comes with a major publisher. But, then I grew disillusioned hearing of disheartened authors whose publishers did the bare minimum for promotion. While on tour last fall, I changed course and decided to self-publish; once… Read more »
Adam Renzema

I self-published my first novel because I knew it would be so unconventional/nontraditional and challenging that no publishing house would touch it. I also dislike the art choices for 99% of the Big Five book covers. I also don’t have two years to wait to gain the approval of man when I already approve of myself. I was able to manage my own process from beginning to end, and that’s priceless.


[…] Why Authors Walk Away From Big 5 Publishers UK author Harry Bingham describes the four stages of his career, and why he’s decided to self-publish after good expe­ri­ences with tra­di­tional houses.Tags: Writing AmWriting […]

Jenny Alexander
Same story here, more or less. I was first published in the mid 90s when the publishing world was completely different. For the first ten years, authoring felt like a career – then everything shifted, the so-called ‘mid list’ got dropped and squeezed, publishers got bigger and bigger, book selection and marketing was all about bestsellers, and like lots of my fellow writers I was at a loss to see how i could survive in that market, or indeed whether I would want to. Self publishing feels like a godsend to me – not so that I can leave trad… Read more »

[…] currently self-publishing some of my front-list work (for reasons explained rather exhaustively here), but I’m conventionally published in Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the […]

Ben S Reeder
Harry, I just want to start off by saying “You nailed it!” The new options available to writers today ARE the hallmark of today’s publishing world. My path may be similar to some here, in that I started with a small independent publisher with my YA paranormal series in 2011. Eventually, I got my rights back and went completely self-published, starting with a zombie series that sold reasonably well, and then re-releasing the YA paranormal series, which went to the top of the paranormal genre on Amazon with the second in the series the day after it was released. A… Read more »
Ray Peden
I decided to self pub my new suspense/thriller…launching May 15 (I hope). Wasn’t willing to twiddle my thumbs waiting for the 50th agent rejection, and then after #51 accepted me, waiting for some publishing house to drag its feet and decide how best to reshape my vision. So I dug in. In the process of learning KDP, Createspace, LightingSource, and the other endless options, after reading zillions of blogs on the various options and related benefits, writing media kits and press releases, setting up accounts on PayPal, enlisting a webmaster (I could go on and on), I realized the worth… Read more »

[…] Bingham presents Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big 5 Publishers posted at Jane […]

Geri Clouston
Thanks Harry and Jane for your insightful blog- we are referring to it on the indieBRAG Facebook page! Although we work with only self-published authors, we do not discourage them from seeking traditional publishing deals- they need to find the best path for themselves. Our job at indieBRAG is find those self-published books that deserve attention and help to shine a light on them. You have had the experience of working with talented people in the industry that make a book worthy of a reader’s time and money, unfortunately many SP authors skip some of this costly and difficult work.… Read more »
I am 100% indie-published and proud of it. My first book came out in 2011 about the time publishing was changing. My story was a biographical narrative about ‘Daniel’ and was rejected by several publishers because it didn’t fit the genre – neither non-fiction nor fiction – and was too historical, they said. But my writing group was dabbling in learning about self-publishing, so I printed a few hundred books locally and sold them myself, and put it up as an ebook. The ebook didn’t begin to sell, until my 2nd book, ‘The Cornish Knot’ a contemporary woman’s novel appeared… Read more »

[…] Why Authors Walk Away from Big 5 Publishers – This is one writer’s story of moving away from the big publishing houses to go self-published. […]


[…] covered. What I do want to talk about is a thing I’ve seen a lot of lately, most recently in this article by Harry Bingham. There have been several of these things, (Konrath is the feral posterboy for the movement – […]


[…] Harry Bingham, an author for more than 15 years, now embraces this latest era in the publishing industry. […]


[…] by diverse authors who never had a voice. Others are former traditionally published authors who walked away because the contract terms became so opprobrious only a foolish person would sign them. These are […]


[…] many of traditional authors are considering how this incident is reflective of a growing trend. A guest post, on Jane Friedman’s blog from February, penned by formerly traditionally pubbed, British author […]


[…] Here’s what led to Bingham’s decision to go it alone. You can read the article in its entirety here. […]


[…] Author Kristine Kathryn Rusch analyzes the story of an author who backed out of a traditional publishing deal 2 months before the book was released (Publishers’ Weekly article) due to the publisher’s lack of support, a move that 10 years ago might have ruined his career–and why it’s a move he can make today, (Rusch’s analysis) thanks to the new publishing world. Nor is he the first author to walk away from a Big Five publisher for similar reasons–Jane Friedman why she also walked away. […]


[…] are broken by a big publisher. Read here  to find out what author, Steve Hamilton did and here to find out what Harry Bingham […]

I found this post through a link from Sisters in Crime e-letter. Thank goodness, or I would not have known that there were new Fiona Griffiths books. As a former print book reviewer/editor now turned books blogger, I found the first two books on NetGalley and reviewed them, later buying e-book copies because I enjoyed them. I generally don’t review self-published books unless I know the author because there’s so much junk out there that I count on publishers — big and small — as a gatekeeper. I also write mysteries that were published by a smaller, independent publisher in… Read more »

[…] that bell jingle, and they are changing their path to follow him toward the good green pastures. “It’s a world where authors with plenty of Big 5 sales experience choose to say, ‘You know what, I’m not […]


[…] and printed books without the help of a traditional publisher who often administered this task (Bingham, 2015). One such author is Scott Nicholson, who has published over 70 books and sells them online through […]

Corinne Shields
Hi Harry and the rest of you for the initial article and the subsequent comments. All very illuminating for a 60 plus retiree who has written for ever without ever getting a traditional publishing deal! I have plenty of material, the result of all those years, but have neither the time nor the inclination to try to peddle my wares to a publishing industry that I have found to be impenetrable. I became very excited when I discovered that self publishing seems to have morphed into something quite cutting edge and now fancy myself as an Indie Writer! I have… Read more »

[…] Why I Left My Agent.  A guest post on Jane Friedman’s site, I read this one with avid interest.  Because, I love my agent and I love feeling like I have someone in my corner to help me with my career.  But, as we know, there’s a lot of changes in the publishing world these days and so I’m interested in all viewpoints.  You probably should be, too. […]

Paul Lange

Interesting reading, thank you all. I am a new author, well at least to the current field, politics. I have just finished a book on politics from the typical American’s point of view. I am just going through how to get it published. It was a book I was going to write whether it ever published or not, I just wanted to. So the book is done, and I am talking to self publishers and trying to find an agent at the same time. Any thoughts, comments, suggestions would be appreciated.


[…] sentiments couldn’t be more true. With the rise of the e-book, published authors are actually leaving “Big 5” publishers. It all comes down to money. “Big 5” publishers are […]

Sophie Grace
WOW!! Harry, I appreciate your well thought out observation. I quite agree! I am knee deep in research mode about the book publishing industry. I am a first time author and I have learned so much about the publishing world. Both encouraging and discouraging in equal measure. Although my MS was requested by an agent and 2 editors from a publishing house, we all know it’s just a request….It seems they want you to be already visible- then and only then, will they spend a modest amount of $’s to promote your work. I loved reading this! Thank you!

[…] traditional publishers and literary journals will better suit your journey. On the flip side, Harry Bingham found he couldn’t stomach poverty while his publisher’s coffers […]


[…] the most part, Printers Row covers Big 5 books, and the other sites I mentioned are hyperlocal in their coverage, which is necessary and […]

Hi I am in the U.S. and I read most of everything here and I am a bit confused. I am currently waiting for the copyright of my first book and it is a book for 3 years old till old age. Its a true story written in rhyme form with actual pictures of my son. Its a mystery and fun book, clean for all children but filled with many important hidden messages for adults to uncover. I really want it to be analyzed by college students and professors of all departments. I don’t know which route to go and… Read more »
Jane Friedman

Most authors are not going to earn much money on book publishing, regardless of whether they self-publish or traditionally publish; I don’t encourage you to pursue it with money in mind. If you have very little money to invest, then do not invest it in book publishing.


[…] fascinating explanation of why one author walked away from a contract with the Big 5 and chose self-publishing by Harry […]


[…] you. In 2013 authors typically got 10-15% of print sales (hardcover, paperback) and in 2015, 25% of ebook sales. (Side note: We think those numbers are pitiful.) Also watch whether the percentages are off list […]

Jane Jago

Great Article and breakdown of the Industry

Prathama Singh

Mr. Harry Bingham, I read your article and it was eye opening, it was nice to know your views since the beginning…I am a college student, a first year and am pursuing Architecture. An insight of such an experienced person as you was helpful to me as I am yet to publish my first Fiction-Fantasy novel.


[…] work and money. Authors such as JA Konrath, Dean Wesley Smith, Linda Gillard, Rebecca Cantrell, Harry Bingham, and Claire Cook. Or Brenna Aubrey who turned down a super deal in order to […]


[…] the best explanation comes from Jane Friedman, one of my favorite bloggers. You can read her post here, but in a nutshell she explains that publishers can no longer market a book as well as an […]


[…] to find more of themselves in what they are reading, but at the cost of lining the pockets of the Big Five. Additionally, as much as my college education may lead you to believe that I have a deep respect […]

Mike Prater

Is there anyone who can recommend a reasonable publishing company.
I am totally new to writing. I have written a couple of children’s books which both include really catchy poppy kids songs. One of the books was recently excepted for publishing but after reading reviews on the company with regard to upfront fees i decided not to proceed.
I am not sure i can take care of getting the book printed and marketing the book, and all the other things required online etc. Can someone point me in the right direction, thanks.

Jane Friedman

You might find this services directory from ALLi helpful:

darkocea (Jessica)

I have no problem working hard to get my book/s known, it’s the revising and editing thats driving me crazy. Why is it everything I think a chapter is done (for now) I go look at it later and ACK there’s a big error staring at me. @-@ What is it about revisions that cause more errors to creep in so it has to be edited again? It it just me?


[…] The new wave of success stories — which includes independent authors / publishers like Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking — seems to have raised the perceived legitimacy of self-publishing considerable. In fact, many traditionally-published authors have started self-publishing their own back lists and new books, including one of my own clients, Pam Crooks, who I previously interviewed for this blog. Well-known author Martha Beck, who I’ve designed CD covers for, regularly produces and publishes her own material. And you can read Harry Bingham’s (not my client, but I wish) reasons for self-publishing here. […]


That’s a very inspirational story. I may not be a writer like the rest of you but I aspire to become one in the future. At the moment I’m just a 17 year old girl who loves books. I’ve started sending pieces of mine to writing competitions and I would really appreciate your opinion on that. Do you think that it’s a good move for a future career? Thank you for your time. I honestly wish the best to all of you!

Jane Friedman

Hi Christina – Competitions can be a good motivator; just be sure you’re entering contests that are worthwhile. Here’s some advice: http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-all-articles/qp7-migration-career-advice/the_truth_about_writing_contests


[…] As for the question about agents, my response was similar. Reputable ones will want to see evidence of very strong sales on Amazon before talking with a self-published author. And frankly, if your self-published books already has good sales on Amazon, why would you need an agent or a publisher? It’s doubtful whether the traditional agent/publisher approach can improve sales for most authors, and they will end up taking more money. Many readers of this post may be surprised to learn that big publishers seldom market books by new authors. […]

John Grabowski

Something I wonder about here: Why is the cover for Fiona Griffiths so different (and so much better) here than on Amazon?

Louise Dean
This is an excellent article. I’ve been writing since 2000 and had a number of publishers and a couple of agents. It makes for a picaresque journey. My mantra now is to keep it simple from the start. Make sure your book has a very short and sweet hook for its premise because we live and write in ‘the age of impatience. Everyone – from publisher through to reader – longs for writing that makes the heart beat faster. This is what I advise writers starting out. Writers should be published. At my online creative writing course – Kritikme.com –… Read more »
Nate Tombs

I found this article to be most valuble. Am in the process of publishing my first book and it has not been pleasant. I was highly concerned about ebook sales but not so much now.
Thank you very much for this informative article.