Not Every Writer Wants To Be A Publisher

This is something I see often enough: an author talks about losing a series or having some difficulties with a publisher or whatever, and someone from the crowd eventually says, “You should self-publish. We want more of you, the money’s better, we’ll support you. Plus, so many options! Amazon! Kickstarter! Bookflipper! Pub-Burger!” Sometimes it’s a polite suggestion, sometimes it’s double-barrel proselytization and they start spouting off “facts and figures” along with a dose of venom against the oppression of the traditional system.

I like self-publishing. I like it as an option. I have explored it and will continue to explore it.

But it’s not exactly easy.

It’s not moving mountains or shitting pre-constructed Ikea furniture, but it takes a set of skills that are wholly separate from writing: marketing, design, coding, editing. Some of these skills are valuable to the writer regardless of which publishing road she walks, but that doesn’t mean every writer is eager to pick up every skill nor is it a guarantee she’ll be good at them.

To hazard the doofusly obvious: self-publishing isn’t about writing, it’s about publishing.

Some writers just want to be writers.

They don’t also want to be publishers.

It’s just that simple. Neither wrong nor right. It’s a personal and professional choice.

Further, despite what some feel are absolute guarantees, self-publishing is not automagically the way to MORE MONEY than you’d get with a traditional publisher. It is a fact that the actual royalties (if you want to call them that, as Amazon and other entities act as distributor to the self-published, not the publisher) are better. Once again to bludgeon you all with the Mallet of Obviousness, 70% (or thereabouts) is higher than 25% (or thereabouts).

The outcome of publishing, however, is more complicated than those percentages.

If traditional publishing yields more sales (also not a guarantee), then that advantage shifts — 70% of $100 is a helluva lot less than 25% of $1000. Plus: rights, sub-rights, blah blah blah.

As I’ve noted in the past, self-publishing is all risk. It’s the opportunity to make zero dollars or a million dollars and potentially burn down your chance of entering that novel into the traditional space because if your book lands with a poop-plop instead of a big money splash, it doesn’t matter how fucking amazetesticles your book is, because it’s done, game over, so sorry.

(I’m using that correctly, right? Amazetesticles?)

Self-publishing is an act separate from writing.

Not every writer has the time, the talent, or the interest.

Both writing and publishing take work. Self-publishing demands the work of both.

Worth it for some, tricky or undesirable for others.

This isn’t meant to dissuade any author from going that route. It’s more to dissuade everybody else from haranguing authors about self-publishing when it’s just not in their wheelhouse.

(We’re still saying “wheelhouse,” right? Can we change it? Howzabout “primate house?” I like that one better. “Sorry, Bob, I don’t think I’m the man for the dildo salesman job. It’s just not in my primate house.” Though maybe dildos and primate houses don’t mix.)

The great thing about being a writer in the year 2013 is that there exists no one path to success. But each writer has to find the path that works for her — we all have our tunnel in the mountain, our path through the jungle, our needle to thread.

We just have to find it and let other writers find theirs, in turn.


  • Ah, its all so confusing. I am trying so hard to just WRITE and not be distracted by the publishing crap, like you told us not long ago. I’m hoping for some kind of miracle with my book. Maybe some kind of glittery publishing fairy will whisk my book away and magic it into millions of pounds?
    Meanwhile my end-of-night-shift frazzled brain cannot cope with dildos and primate houses….

  • Thank you. Man, I don’t get the zero sum game mentality that I find in so many corners. I tried self-publishing one of my books, and I didn’t care for the process, plus I couldn’t afford to hire an editor. I’m happy publishing with a niche press now, and it galls me when some writers act like I’m selling out or doing something incredibly stupid for making an informed decision regarding my books.

  • Thank you for writing this. I self-published last year, and like Hayden above, I’ve discovered it’s just not for me. I’m not a natural salesperson. I like writing and re-writing and editing, not marketing and formatting. Thanks for not making me feel like a failure for that :)

  • This is a great post. And one of the debates that will keep popping up as long as there are books being published. Not that we shouldn’t discuss it. I totally agree with everything you said. I tried to self pub in 2006. A couple picture books for self promotion. I sold a bunch at school functions and garage sales (don’t laugh). I also illustrated other folks self-pubbed work for commission. It was nice to see my artwork and ideas in a finished format, but it’s not for me. I like spending time on getting the content right … which takes all my time.

    Thanks, Chuck.

  • I liked this post. I’m hoping to be published one day, but know, at the moment, that I am not interested in self-publishing. It’s nice to have all the options out there though.

  • You just explained my feelings on this much better than I could. I have nothing against self-publishing, at all, it’s just not something I want to do. I have a limited amount of energy, and I want to spend it writing, not publishing.

  • Ditto to the above. Whenever someone suggests self-publishing to me, I shudder at the thought of the work involved. Writing is hard enough. Getting a manuscript into a submission ready form even harder. Never mind the work involved in editing and promotion if you are lucky enough to snag a publisher. Self-published adds another level of hardness.
    More power to the people who do it well and produce a product that can compete with a industry publication.

  • I can see how it works for some people, but for me I constantly feel as though I am doing it wrong. When I tweet about me, and see other writers almost mechanically churn out promotional tweets, or RTing other promotional tweets and nothing of themselves.Or when they have hundreds of five star reviews and I have eight. I have my series in with an agent, and I am waiting to hear back, plus I am into 190 pages of a first draft of a second book, so regardless I am writing and I choose to see it as having no downside. I know there are no shortcuts regardless, but for me the joy is in having written and being read.

  • Excellent post that brings up a great point. Self publishing isn’t for everyone, just like traditional publishing isn’t for everyone. I know plenty of authors, both indie and trad and it works for them. Myself, I’m an indie author and while I love it, I know it’s not for everyone and try hard not to “shove it down people’s throats” so to speak. Sure, I’ll be straight up honest with people if they ask about it – but only if they ask. You’re so right in that there are plenty of different options out there for authors now-a-days and each author has to choose the best path for THEM and their book. Heck there are even authors out there that are both indie and trad published, because each BOOK has it’s own needs too.

    Go with what feels right to you as an author, like this post explains. Do the research then make a decision for YOU.

    • Self Published is NOT indie… It is self Pubbed. Indie is still trad pub on a SMALLER scale.

      Sorry pet peeve.

      • I’ll note though that I consider the distinction less and less meaningful these days — indie usually means independent publisher, and one could argue that a self-publisher is still a publisher and is demonstrably independent. IMHO, YMMV, etc.

        — c.

  • Ah. I get that lecture more often now that I’ve gone the agented, traditional route. But it’s adorable when people proselytize the self-publishing route to me, as if my partners and I haven’t been in publishing for the past 8 years with our magazine. Sigh.

    Pheasantsong said something about concentrating on writing… Yes. That.

  • Even with all this ‘the publishing industry times, they are a changin’ talk, nothing garners the respect of a legit book contract. Someone in a big building thought your book was marketable enough to spend money to publish you. What is the first rule of any business? Try not to spend your own money.

    Self-publishers complain that their books were rejected by agents and publishers ten times, so they decided to self-pub. Ten rejections is amatuer and a many well-known writers can boast hundreds of rejections. 20-50 rejects is average.

    Since I work a full-time job, I have two ways to spend my time: 1) Write 2) Querying agents or publishers. I can’t add marketing to that scheme.

  • Excellent post, Chuck. I’ve had great experiences with a traditional publisher (my western The Circuit Rider was pubbed by Thomas & Mercer) a small niche publisher (a literary collection), and self-pubbing (my latest is a thriller called The Recruiter.) Honestly, all of them have been fantastic experiences and great learning opportunities. I never claim one is better than the other. Just different. If you’re a writer, you have to find out what works best for you. And you don’t have to necessarily pick one – maybe your primate house is huge…

  • Hey, great blog, you should self-publish it as an ebook.

    Anyone who says there is only One True Way either has something to gain or feels so insecure about their own choices that they need the validation of others making the same choices.

    Tell you what: I promise not to try to force anyone to do what I did, if you don’t rush to judgment about why I did it. I have self-published two novels. I did not collect a pile of rejections and then self-pub as a last resort. Instead, I studied the industry for six years, worked hard to write great stories, and decided that self publishing my books was the better personal, business, and career decision. My goals and objectives are not necessarily the same as any other writer’s. And when people ask me about self-publishing, my first comment is your mileage may vary.

    • Good for you. I think it goes both ways, and yes there is no universal right answer. I love it when people weigh the options and make the decisions. I do think, though, that sometimes some traditional authors don’t even want to explore the self possibility because they just are so opposed to it.

  • Just wanted to throw in here that even if a person lands a traditional published deal there’s still a lot of self promotion involved. Take Chuck himself for example, he’s a huge internet/twitter presence (and not to say your books sell because you tweet about them Chuck) but an author nowadays is expected to self promote. I think Brian Keene said that gone are the days of Bentley Little type authors who have next to no presence anywhere, either via internet or say book signings. There are a few of the great authors that can sit back and do very little promotion and sell millions of books, but these people are the exception, not the rule. Just saying that going the traditional route may not be as hands free as some might think. Yell at me if I’m wrong.

    • You are completely right. But speaking from experience on both sides of the publishing fence, traditional publishing is easier on the marketing/promo side. Because — at least, provided your publisher doesn’t completely dump you in the DMZ of zero marketing dollars, which can happen — you’ve got a support system carrying you forward. And, at least, putting you in bookstores where you get some shelf space and visibility. Self-publishing is… pretty much all you all the time. Which can be tricky and unpleasant and, at the worst, spammy.

      — c.

    • ….eh. I hear this all the time, and it may be absolutely positively true in 99% of cases, I have no idea–but it hasn’t been for me.

      I am possibly the worst marketer in creation. I barely remember to tweet when a book comes out. My blog mentions my children’s books once in a blue moon, because there are much more exciting topics, like interesting chickens.

      Dial has done ALL the heavy lifting. They go to conventions, they talk to booksellers, they shelled out for stand-up displays and adspace on Nickelodeon and book trailers and for the last two years, they’ve paid for a big pyramid display at B&N. They have meetings where very serious people get together and discuss my “brand.” They send me to bookseller conventions to be on panels. And they have done this without even once suggesting that I should market myself, that I need to be doing something different, or do any promotion on my own nickel.

      I stay home, write books, and watch the bird feeder with my binoculars. At Christmas, I send chocolate to everybody who works on sales and marketing for the series and tell them how much I appreciate them.

      I keep hearing “You have to self-promote, even with trade publishing!” and that may well be the case for many people but it hasn’t been my experience at all. (And I am not a Great Author by any stretch!) So at least in my corner, there really is still a chunk of publishing where marketing does everything and and sends you a check .

      • I think you may be the exception rather than the rule. Your publisher seems to be doing more than most do. I’m not sure if it is because you are in children’s or not but in genre fiction (science fiction / fantasy) you get the imprint on your book, some ARC’s to bloggers, and maybe some co-op $’s but once you are 6 weeks out – your time is done and the marketing department has moved on to the next set of books.

  • Ugh. I don’t even want to get published. The whole idea of … no, just no. Even I get this question regardless. At least people seem to understand the ‘can’t (usually) go traditional when you self-publish that work’ issue.

    /I need a lot of practise before I’m convinced I wrote something remotely publishable.

  • First, great article. Second, “amazetesticles” may be my new favorite word. I’m not sure if you are using it properly…but for some reason I think Sam Sykes would be the man to consult.

  • Yeah, the publishing part is the “business” part of writing a book.

    It’s the sales, marketing, branding, distribution, etc… and not everyone is cut out for it. But if you are, then you stand to benefit from taking the “middle person,” the publisher, out of your book publishing transaction.

    Good stuff Chuck.

  • Amen, brother!

    I work a full-time day-job to pay the mortgage, and between the writing and the self-promotion (something all authors have to do these days, regardless of how they publish), that eats up all my “spare” time. I’d certainly consider self-pub if I had a novella or similar that I wanted to put out as a side-project, but for a novel? I’d rather focus on the writing and let the professionals turn my manuscript into an actual book.

  • I should also add in all of this that this is why I don’t buy the assertion that a publisher is a “middle-man.” I suppose in the most technical sense they are (facilitating distribution), but the publisher handles things that are in many cases very difficult for some authors to handle themselves. A publisher provides services and performs functions — at least, a good publisher does.

    — c.

  • I’ve said it for years regarding not just writing and publishing — but anything in my life.

    “Just because I can; doesn’t mean I should!”

    All hail the great Wendig’s Wisdom. I will be sharing this post with those folks who keep haranguing (love that word) me to self-publish. ::stamps foot and breaks out into a Michael Jackson dance :: I’m a writer, not a publisher, Paul.

    Exit Stage Left.

  • Well put, Chuck. And I agree, a good publisher can do wonders for an author, lots of muscle there that a single person can’t flex. Great post.

  • I’d argue it’s almost exactly like shitting pre-constructed Ikea furniture. You don’t have the factory for producing fine oak furniture, nor can you afford to buy all the tools and materials to do it alone, so you go the construct-it-yourself method that still costs money, time, and effort, and produces a reasonably good looking and serviceable product. And you still need a buddy for that heavy lifting. I mean, sure, you could do the whole oak hutch with the beveled glass front thing, but if you’re swimming in that kind of money, why are you not using it to build a fully functioning time machine?

    You can go with a variety of options, each that come with their own costs and bungled attempts to get the finished product to look like the store model and not the paper instruction model with the lil’ nose-face guys telling you which way to hold the damn thing for transport. When you get done dotting your i’s and ü’s, you’re probably still left holding an extra umlaut or funky looking hinged screw thingy. But then, so is traditional publishing when you get right down to brass tacks. Take it from me. I’ve not only constructed a fully functioning armoire from scrap wood in an Afghanistan hooch, I’ve self-published the “right” way.

    And now I’m hungry for some Ikea meatballs, gravy, and delicious lingonberry sauce. Horsemeat and all. Damn you, Wendig!

  • Speaking from experience, there is a lot of money to be made in self-publishing…IN THE RIGHT GENRE! That is key, folks. There are certain genres, eh-hem, that market themselves. If you want to self-publish and don’t want to worry about marketing too much then write in those genres. That is the road I am taking. Under a pen name, of course.

    But for my scif/horror/YA writing I have an agent and I hand those manuscripts over and let the biz do its thing. Why? Because I have self-pubbed a military scifi trilogy and the books are doing only so-so. Even with years of exposure and my own podcast to back them up. My self-pubbed YA novel? Sitting in the sandbox all by its lonesome looking around and saying, “Hey…uh, hey guys…anyone want to play? I’ll let you use the dump truck. And the cool crane. Guys? Anyone?”.

    You have to look at self-publishing like a gold rush. There is only so much gold to be found and when everyone started digging out the hills all that gold got spread out. Or just went away. (Gold=readers, by the way). The days of striking it rich are over for self-publishing. It has all evened out and the odds of success are just the same as they are for trad-pubbing. So go with what your gut says and what you are comfortable with. Want to self-pub? Then do it! Want to trad-pub? Then get thee to an agent or submit to publishers that are open!

    Find your path, follow it, and don’t listen to anyone that tells you their path is better.

  • Here’s a reason to self-publish: Writing a non-fiction book for a tiny niche market. We saw that the publishing housing were marking down their published books to five bucks a copy, and authors would get pennies on the dollar, and the publishers were unlikely to want our stuff anyway. What we really wanted was to make the content of the book available to a wide audience – an audience we already had and knew.

    I want to create things, not sell things. I’d rather someone who knows what they’re doing handle that end. Learning how to do enough to find that person is daunting. I want to be like the princess in Rumplestiltskin, stay up in the tower and be left alone to spin straw into gold, maybe take the occasional stroll down to the royal espresso cart for an americano. I don’t want to be pitching or promoting anything. For me, there’s no such thing as “shameless self-promotion.” All self-promotion is shameful.

    People think graphic design is a matter of taste. Wrong. I don’t care if your Uncle Al likes hot pink – the issue is whether hot pink in this particular instance will do the job. To get quality images, good font sets, and the right software costs real money. I happen to know how to do design a book with a semblance of informed and professional competence, but if I didn’t, I would let someone else do it.

    Formatting an e-book is tedious, time-consuming, and a pain in the ass. Seems to work better without ornaments, tables, or any other kind of special formatting. Did it twice. Never want to do it again.

    The point is: Who can be good at everything? When would you even have time to work?

  • My expectation is that we will eventually see publishers-as-service-bureaus, offering an a la carte menu of provided services — marketing, distribution, editing, design, etc. — that cater to writers along the entire spectrum, from the “hand it to my publisher and let them do everything” traditionalist to the “I only need editing and cover design, I’ll handle the rest” self-pub type.

    Which will be the perfect solution, allowing publishers to compete on offerings, and allowing every type of writer to have their needs met.

    • In that vein, is there a market for the self-publisher’s concierge? An entity that’s good at organizing together the things the author doesn’t want to do. Could be fee based, or maybe share the risk for a slice of the take. Something that sits between traditional publishing and solo self publishing.

  • Leave it to the Great Penmonkey His Own Self to FINALLY say it in a way people might actually LISTEN. Self-Publishing is NOT, necessarily, the Magic Pill that gets us all into the proverbial matrix of Awesome. It is simply another viable option. Options are good, don’t get me wrong. But quite frankly I’d rather spend my time and efforts making my fingers bleed by, yanno, WRITING.

    Also, j’dore your word mashups. They also make my day, and my personal lexicon.

  • Yeah, I have to keep reminding myself of this, because sweet tap-dancing gods do I love self-publishing. I love the control, I love the learning, I love the challenge. And because I think it’s so awesome, I think other people should realize how awesome it is. But not everyone is like me. Every writer is different.

  • You do not need to know how to format, how to edit, how to design covers to self-publish. You can hire people for a flat fee to do that for you. [You do need to know how to pick a company, but that’s basic research. Go somewhere successful self-publishers are, and ask.]

    You don’t even need to know how to market. Write, occasionally set a book to free (particularly effective for trilogies), keep releasing books, and if you’re a good writer you’ll sell. Ignore all the rest of the marketing faff – if there was a magic marketing bullet, everyone would be bestsellers. There’s no guarantee of thousands of sales and lots of money, but you’re certain to sell more of your books than having ten manuscripts on your hard drive.

    Yes, becoming a successful self-publisher is hard because being a successful writer is hard. But self-publishing is not some order of magnitude harder than normal publishing. It’s just a different option. Mix and match it with trade publishing.

    But the one big difference is you can choose to self-publish. You cannot choose to trade publish. You can only choose to submit to publishers/agents and wait.

    • “There’s no guarantee of thousands of sales and lots of money, but you’re certain to sell more of your books than having ten manuscripts on your hard drive.”

      Yes, but that’s a false dichotomy. I can say the same thing, but with traditional publishing — “You can publish with a big publisher, and there’s no guarantee, but you’re certain to sell more than if you wrote 100 novels and threw them in a dark hole somewhere.”

      Self-publishing is hard because it’s publishing. Hiring people to do the tasks lessens the burden, but it still requires you to mitigate and manage those tasks. It takes effort and knowledge and research and time in a direction that are not required for the traditionally-published author. It doesn’t make one better than the other, but it *does* mean that you can’t just say to someone, “WELL DO IT JUST SELF-PUBLISH” and not sound like an a-hole.

      — c.

    • I should also add that, it’s easy to say, “You can hire people to do those things,” and that’s where it gets even riskier for the self-publisher. Because suddenly you’re putting out costs as someone who is, quite likely, not all that wealthy to begin with. So: fees for edits, covers, coding, and that’s before you ever earn a single dollar. And you may quite literally never earn all that back.

      Again: a risk some authors aren’t interested in taking.

      — c.

      • Back in the day before computers took over the library, writers who wanted to be published had to spend a small fortune mailing manuscripts. Manuscripts they’d have to pay someone to edit and then type up (if they wanted to make a good impression). If you want to start a shop you have to buy merchandise even if you don’t know if anyone will buy it. There’s always a cost. Yes, today the traditional publishing route is safer for the author who only has to e-mail the manuscript (unless they request it on paper), but you do pay for it by signing over the bulk of money that will hopefully be earned selling your books. They can expect the larger cut because they’ve put up the money to send the book out…not knowing if anyone would buy it.

        • Back in the day isn’t today.

          Getting BLACKBIRDS published cost me nothing out-of-pocket. Like, literally not one cent.

          My self-published work required cash in. It paid off, so I’m not complaining, but the non-fiction writing stuff is where it was at for me. My Atlanta Burns series paid in via Kickstarter and paid off only when I secured a contract to publish print and digital through Amazon.

          Traditional publishing is an investment of time and effort.

          Self-publishing is an investment of time, effort, and often money.

          That’s not a bad thing. But it is *a thing* just the same and authors need to know that.

          — c.

      • That’s one of the key ingredients here: you may quite literally never earn all that back. When I self-published, I did so very carefully and calculatedly. I didn’t put a novel out there because I wasn’t ready to accept it as a loss from traditional publishing. I put out a novella – something I wouldn’t have gotten published otherwise because of the way traditional publishing is set up.

        Sure, I could have saved it for an anthology or something, but felt it was a fair trade for what it gave me. And what was that? The ability to essentially a self-publishing class. I looked at it from the standpoint that it cost me about what college tuition and books would have cost to learn it that way, but with the added benefits that I A) probably learned a shit ton more doing it this way, and B) still have a product with returns coming on my investment.

        Will I earn back what I put into it? Probably not, especially as I’m not yet willing to abandon traditional querying and put out a bunch more self-published work. It’s a neat story that’s out there for folks to read, and in putting it out, I learned a huge amount about self-publishing, and indeed the publishing industry in general.

        Bottom line: it was an investment in knowledge, not a business gamble to rake in more money, and because of that, it was very much worth the cost.

  • I think it does depend on the book/genre. I self publish my historical romance novels, but I have other stories that I’ll be sending off to traditional publishers. I’m very lucky in that I have a cute Goblin who formats all my e-books and does all the technical website stuff because I’m a techno-idiot. Overall, I’m happy with my choice, but I’ve always been an outsider. If you’re someone who hates being thought weird or you cringe at being labelled a second-class writer because the only people who have approved your writing are your readers…it might not be the path for you.

  • There’s a lot to agree with and a few items I’ll give the “other perspective on.” First lets clear up a math error it’s not 70% verses 25% it’s 70% verses 17.5% (or really 14.9% – because most going the traditional will have to pay an agent where self-publishers don’t) The error comes in % of what? With self-publishing the 70% is on LIST PRICE but with traditional the 25% is on NET PRICE which is – low and behold 70% so the real amount is (25% of 70% which is 17.5% – then take away 15% of that for the agent and you get to 14.9%)

    I think most authors ‘just want to write’ sure, a few really love being the entrepreneur who gets to do everything, but if given the choice there are only a very few who would disagree with this rather obvious statement. The issue becomes…what is better, stretching yourself to learn some skills and get it out there, or kiss away months, or years, of effort as if it never existed? If faced with doing a lot of work I don’t want to in order to get a book I believe in “out there” or resolving myself to just move on to something else I’ll take option a.

    As to what if the book lands with a poop-plop. You assert that it is forever dead in the eyes of the publishers, but this just isn’t true. If you release a book digitally and it fails miserably, then as soon as you hit “unpublish” guess what – it vanishes. No ugly reviews, no terrible rankings, no historical sales data in Bookscan. It becomes non-existent. Now if it failed that bad, it’s probably crap and won’t be picked up anyway but as far as it being an albatross around your neck – you can just cut the cord and it will sink into the deep blue sea.

    • “The issue becomes…what is better, stretching yourself to learn some skills and get it out there, or kiss away months, or years, of effort as if it never existed? If faced with doing a lot of work I don’t want to in order to get a book I believe in “out there” or resolving myself to just move on to something else I’ll take option a.”

      Sure. And yet, it remains an option, and not one that all writers will want to take. Which has to be okay by folks when they do. Further, “what is better” sounds like some kind of guarantee that self-publishing is automatically better. Not at all universally true. Can be true for the right authors and the right books.

      “As to what if the book lands with a poop-plop. You assert that it is forever dead in the eyes of the publishers, but this just isn’t true. If you release a book digitally and it fails miserably, then as soon as you hit “unpublish” guess what – it vanishes. No ugly reviews, no terrible rankings, no historical sales data in Bookscan. It becomes non-existent. Now if it failed that bad, it’s probably crap and won’t be picked up anyway but as far as it being an albatross around your neck – you can just cut the cord and it will sink into the deep blue sea.”

      I don’t quite dig on that. A book gets self-pubbed, it lives on the Internet. Everything lives forever on the Internet. This comment will live forever. (Here’s hoping I don’t say something stupid, then.) A book gets self-pubbed, it often finds a Goodreads account pretty fast — mine did in short order. Pulling a book doesn’t make it disappear entirely, and some publishers will look at that. And will further consider an author duplicitous if she doesn’t mention up front that the book has been already published.

      Re: percentages — even if it’s 10%, 10% of $1000 is still more than 70% of $100. Further, the latter offers no advance against future sales, as traditional publishing does. Again, that’s not a reason to avoid self-publishing, but traditional publishing offers less actual *risk* — and authors need to understand this when making the choice.

      — c.

      • But why are you assuming it’s going to be $1,000 when traditional and $100 for self-publishing? I had $45,000 – $55,000 months when self published and no where near that kind of money with traditional. Don’t get me wrong…I sell well…much better than most, and so for me traditional was the right choice but for someone at the level of most “debut fantasy authors” who get a $5,000 advance they’ll make much more on THAT book if it is self-published. (Assuming the author doesn’t screw up in the packaging (cover, copy, price). Why?

        a) Because it is already vetted as “quality”
        b) They won’t get much int he way of marketing
        c) They can play with price points to drive volume

        So, yes…if they go traditional they don’t have to worry about production, or leaning production…but it DOES come with a price. The issue then becomes is that price worth the time lost and the headache of doing the production?

        If I’m going to earn $5,000 on a book (traditional debut advance and assuming not earning out – which 80% don’t) and if my self money would be $6,000 then by all means I’d go traditional because my time is worth more than that $1,000. But if the difference is $5,000 and $50,000? Well then its a horse of another color.

        Of course there is no real way to know which would ultimately earn more, unless we could run parallel universes. I’m not saying people SHOULD self-publish. Heck I’m traditionally published and have another traditional series coming out this summer. But I’m just saying don’t do a knee jerk reaction and say….Gah no! I won’t consider it…it’s not for me.

        Writing for a living is a business, and you need to seriously look at both and determine realistic P&L’s for each and the intangible things such as the “seal of legitimacy” of traditional. Some say they don’t have time for their day jobs and to self-publish and yet there are many (like me) who used self-publishing as a way of making the day job unnecessary.

        • In certain genres and with certain novels put forth, the possibility to make that level of money goes up — but just the same, a $50k month is not actually a likely outcome. I know plenty of self-published authors who, at the end of a year’s worth of sales, didn’t make as much as the average advance — and this is for books that were *very very good.* So, while I admit that the $100/$1000 is a made up pair of numbers, that doesn’t change the fact that self-publishing means putting more out early for a reduced certainty of money later on. That’s entirely fine, as long as the author understands that risk. And many don’t precisely because of a comment like yours —

          “Holy crap! $50k a month!” That’s what they see it gets their hearts-a-flutter even though the likelihood of that happening is far removed from the reality of the experience. It takes a lot more nuance to write something likely to get those kind of numbers and it takes an understanding of the publishing side of things that some authors just don’t care to suss out. Further, most of the authors I see touting big numbers like that are authors who *also* publish in the traditional space. Which is a whole different thing than just telling someone, “Go self-publish, it’s gonna be holy shit awesome.”

          Self-pub frequently reads like a get-rich-quick scheme.

          And it really, really isn’t. Savvy self-publishers can do well with it.

          And, to go back to the point of the post, not every writer wants to be a publisher.

          — c.

          • Yep. Ridan Publishing, run by Robin Sullivan, took on A.C. Crispin and her Starbridge series. There were reports of non-payment of royalties and finally Jim Hines (among others) had to take it public to get Sullivan to respond to Crispin’s requests for royalties and, finally, a return of all rights. Ridan pretty well imploded after that with many authors asking and getting their books returned with no real response from Robin Sullivan if or when Ridan would return. It was a real rags-to-riches-to-rags story with many people very upset with RS on the KindleBoards when she noted that the royalties involved didn’t amount to all that much – both a violation of the confidentiality between author and publisher and a nasty slap on the face, I think, to Crispin who at the time needed the money for cancer treatment.

            Back to the topic – I wouldn’t call what Michael Sullivan did as “self-publishing”, considering his wife ran the company and he provided the art for most of the books. Maybe co-op publishing, but definitely not self-publishing by my definition. And considering Ridan has seemingly ceased to exist since he went to Orbit…

        • Except you weren’t really self-published. Your wife’s company, Ridan Publishing, took your books on along with other authors and sold them – before it imploded last year sometime and you were taken on by Orbit.

          Technically you were indie-published. For what that’s worth.

  • I would say you’ve summed up my thoughts on the matter perfectly here.

    My life is already insane as it is – it’s hard enough trying to find time to write, how do I find time to be my own publisher, too?

    I know several people who have decided to go the self-publishing route, but for me personally, the fact that while I have a manuscript ready I can be querying and pitching to agents while I simultaneously get to start on another book (instead of prepping for self-publication) is a much better use of my time.

  • What I truly don’t get is that some writers here in the comments don’t seem to see other parts of publishing as Real Work [tm]. Cover art, type setting, editing and marketing all require skill. If you can get those covered somehow on your own? Great, go you.

    However, all those parts require skills (as Chuck also writes in the post). If you lack those skills, you’ll have to hire people to do it for you. If you can afford that investment, good for you.

    Even if you are lucky and people do it for free for you, you’re just lucky you have friends with skills that can afford putting those hours in for you. Doesn’t make it any less real work.

    Sadly, it is more difficult to put hard numbers to skills that friends do for you, or even hard numbers on ‘how many hours do I invest in these skills as self-publisher’.

    /would love to see some numbers on that actually

  • You summed up my thoughts on this far better (and much more colorfully) than I could. I’ll write the books, I’ll help promote the books, but I don’t want to do it all.

    And, yes, that was quite proper use of “amazetesticles.”

  • For the $100/$1000 comparison, you mentioned volume but there would also be a large difference in price. Selfpub books tend to be much, much cheaper than traditional. So while you’re getting 70% per book, you might be selling 50% fewer books for 90% less. In that case it would be more like 70% of $100 vs ~15% of $2000, even worse for selfpub.

  • Most mendacious trope of our contemporary literary situation: “Just write a great book. Everything else will follow.” Next person who says/blogs/convention platform speechifies this gem should rolled in honey and made into baklava. Just saying.

  • Oh Chuck, I’m doing that right now i have finished my first sifi/thriller/alt-earth book the book took me 3 months too write. The publishing part is not new too me or i should say getting the word out about the book. As i have been in business before, yet getting in touch with people and say hey im starting a facebook pre-kickstarter campaign for my book.

    Then figure out how to run that get in touch with reporters, bloggers, etc then wonder why no one returns your emails bank your head on the wall. I can only image what it like once i get the publishing fees….

  • All of the above is very true.

    I suspect it will be LESS true in the future, however. I mean – back when I started writing, nobody knew how to use computers. That was a tech thing – you had to be a serious nerd to have a home computer back in 1980 or so. But somehow, now, most writers have managed to pick up those incredibly difficult computer skills, so that now it’s rare indeed to find a writer still espousing the virtues of her manual typewriter. ;)

    Likewise self publishing.

    Yes, you need to learn how to find your very own editor and cover designer, which means you need to learn what good editing and covers look like. And you probably ought to learn how to format your own ebooks, too (hint: it is roughly the same level of difficulty as exporting a PDF from Word, and my six year old was exporting flawless Epub and Mobi files – two years ago, when she was four).

    Everything else, you have to do anyway. Marketing, promotion, accounting, all that jazz? Guys, I’ve done both the trad route and the indie route. There’s no real difference in the level of complexity of any of those things, whichever path you choose.

    If anything, I found that the indie route allows more time for writing, and less time dealing with publishing hassles.


    There’s no guarantee that your self published book will earn you as much as it would via a regular publishing deal. But then, there’s no guarantee that book would get a regular publishing deal, either. If the average indie book earns say $100 a year, as some folks say – well, do recall that the average submission to a major publisher earns something like a penny. Ever. Because most submitted books are terrible, just like most of the self published books which earn poorly. If your book isn’t ready for prime time, it’s not going to do well. Being ready for prime time doesn’t mean it will automatically win through (how many times was Rowlings rejected?), but those low averages are skewed by all the books out there which just were not ready.

    We’re rocketing toward a future where agents are busily going into publishing themselves or going out of business. Where publishers are actively scanning the bestseller lists for authors of good self published books to pick up. There’s some suggestion that self publishing might even *replace* agents as the first gatekeeper. If that happens – and it might be happening now – in a couple of years you’ll see all the Writer’s Digest articles about “how to self publish so you can get a traditional deal”.

    But even if things don’t pan out that way, the writers coming up through the ranks today are learning ebook self publishing as part of their basic training. Those of us in the old guard may or may not feel warm and cozy about this stuff, just like those of us back in the 80s were iffy about losing our laptops for these computer things.

    But it’s changing, with or without us.

    • My question is, why isn’t it enough that the option for self-publishing exists? As in, why can’t we cheerlead the existence of the option — which did not exist in a notable state ten years ago — instead of having to continue to assert (against all facts) that it is or will become the ONLY option?

      Publishers aren’t going anywhere.

      Individual publishers may come and go. They may merge into giant Mecha Godzillas, they may crumble and break, they may conquer all. But publishing as an industry is going to hang around. In a modified state? Maybe. I can’t read the guts of these pigeons over here.

      The problem with the “WRITERS BETTER LEARN IT OR ELSE” is that there’s no evidence everything is “going” that way. And that’s what I mean by, why can’t it be enough that self-publishing is gaining some prominence as a real second option? Why does it have to be ALL OR NOTHING?

      And by the way, the “guarantees of the traditional deal” *are* that you’ll get paid something IF you manage to secure a publisher. And IF you don’t, you can always shelve the book or try to self-publish.

      And self-publishing as a gatekeeper misunderstands self-publishing in a very big way, I think. The very nature of self-publishing is that is has *no* gates. And if you’re suggesting that it be the gatekeeper for the traditional publishing industry you’ve undersold what self-publishing is or can be, and have once more made it subservient to the industry rather than an equal partner and option to it.

      Do I think authors have value in learning the skills of self-pub? Sure. Do I think it’s worth trying one’s hand at it just to see if it’s suitable? Yes.

      Do i think they should force it if it’s just not something they’re into? Hell no. And do I think the future is a publishing apocalypse where publishers big and small have all exploded under the weight of their own industry, leaving only one option? Hell no, times two.

      — c.

      • I don’t think it’s a matter of whether it’s “enough it exists” or not… I mean, it IS cool that writers now have options. That novel that was roundly rejected can now do something other than occupy drawerspace, which is nice.

        But it’s a little like agents, back in the late 80s and early 90s when publishers first started saying “no unagented submissions”. Writers were saying things like “do I really NEED to learn how to query agents? how to vet agents to know if I have a good one? what if I don’t want an agent?” The answer was generally yes, because that’s the direction the industry was going. By the late 90s most major publishers at least on paper said they required agented submissions.

        It’s not a matter of “writers better learn it or else!” Nobody is holding a gun to a writer’s head. (I hope!) But if you don’t understand your options – and if you are not willing to use those options, should they be the better route for a given work – then you give up enormous control and negotiation power.

        Take a writer who submits a novel, it’s accepted for a low/moderate advance, and the contract has the all-too-common “clauses of death”: the combination of “writer shall not publish or cause to be published any competing work for duration of this agreement” and “this agreement will last for as long as the Work is available in major trade channels.”

        (For those who don’t know, the above is a perpetual non-compete clause for all publishing. Technically, it means the writer needs to ask the publisher permission to post something to his/her blog. In practice, I’ve been told by lawyers that it would likely not hold in court, if you elected to fight it out there. But those are still nasty clauses, and they’re boilerplate in most Big Five contracts today.)

        Suppose the publisher refuses to budge on those terms, as is often the case. If you haven’t educated yourself about self publishing, then it’s their way or no way. If you have, then you have bargaining space. You have power – the power to walk from that bad deal and still earn income from your work.

        As for self publishing and gatekeeping… Yes, self publishing has no gates. But the *market* is an effective gate – extremely effective, in fact. A writer who breaks the top hundred in a genre and makes, say, 10,000 self published sales, has a proven audience. They’re a much better risk for a publisher than a brand new writer who’s never been published before. So every large publisher (and most large agencies) are now *actively* combing the top lists in their genres for writers who might be interested in signing. Nothing is certain – but it’s within the realm of possibility (and after the big year of indies turning hybrid author in 2012, maybe within the realm of probability) that self publishing could become the new first step. Instead of looking for an agent, new writers will be told to self publish some work, build an audience, prove they have a market, and then they might get picked up by a major publisher.

        It’ll never be the *only* way to get a publishing deal, just like getting an agent isn’t the *only* way to get one today (and never was). But I suspect we’re heading toward the time when that will become the dominant paradigm for new writers.

        • This offers a mixed message, though, doesn’t it?

          You suggest the agents are going away, but then talk about vile publishing clauses that an agent would protect you against, *then* suggest that self-publishing is really just a door-opener for that wonderful vile publisher who by the way is going to screw you because now agents have gone away.

          I don’t want to live in that publishing world.

          Thankfully, I don’t think I have to. I don’t smell the ash and char on the wind for agents or publishers as a whole — on an individual level, who knows? Everyone’s going to have to adapt, yes, including writers, and that adaptation *can* come in the form of self-publishing. But the point of the post is that it does not *have* to.

          As a sidenote, I don’t think even the strictest reading of the non-compete clause prevents you from writing a blog post, nor would you have to ask permission — a blog is not a competing product. A competing product (and this is why the clause is present in more non-fiction contracts than fiction contracts, I believe) is a book on the same subject with another publisher. Again, if this clause pops up, a good agent will kick it in the junk and send the contract back to have it struck.

          Further, a clause like that only becomes perpetual if there’s an additional clause that suggests the publisher gains, say, digital rights forever. Again, something a good agent should axe from the contract if it were to rear its ugly head.

          — c.

          • Not really a mixed message at all. Contracts from major publishers are pretty much the most dangerous they’ve been – in my lifetime, anyway. Good agents will almost always favor the publisher’s interest over the writer’s (they have perhaps as many as a dozen publishing contacts, and scores of writers – with hundreds more writers trying to get in their door). Mediocre agents will lack the legal understanding to even spot the bad clauses in the first place (which is why so many professional writers have moved to IP attorneys for contract negotiations, even if they have an agent).

            Don’t want to live in that publishing world? Don’t query agents and don’t submit to major publishers. That’s what the publishing world looks like right now. It’s under stress (not going away, but stressed) from all the change, and it’s reacting to the stress in some very negative ways.

            In a few years, things might be much more stable, and some of this might have gone away. But right now, it’s a very unfriendly place for writers out there. Writers aiming for a major publishing contract need to be sharp as tacks, hire good lawyers, and listen to the lawyer over their agent when a difference of opinion exists.

            As for the clauses – if the clause says “shall not publish any competing work”, then you’re right, blog posts are clear. If it says “shall not publish or cause to be published any work”, then blog posts count too. Watch the language. But blog posts or no, having to ask the publisher before you sell anything to another publisher or self publish anything – for decades – is nasty. This sort of non-compete is often struck down as unreasonable if you take it to court, but that’s expensive.

            The “eternity” clause is simple: the standard language today is that the contract will remain in force for as long as the Work is available for sale in major retail channels. Since the Work includes ebook formats, that means the contract remains in force for duration of copyright, unless the publisher for some reason takes the ebook down. Since ebooks cost more for publishers to take down than to leave published, contracts with such clauses last for a long time. (You can actually recover rights 35 years after signing the contract, under US copyright law – your one “get out of jail free” moment. But if you don’t, those contracts probably last for your life plus 70 years.)

          • @Kevin:

            I gotta ask — where are you getting this? I’m by no means suggesting the publishing industry is an untarnished angel or that every agent is a swift and capable avatar of justice, but you’re describing something that’s the next door neighbor to conspiracy theory.

            To be clear, the definition of a “good agent” is NOT one who favors a publisher over a writer. “Dozens of contracts and scores of writers” is not a bad thing — it’s called their job over the course of a year.

            And again, do you have some kind of evidence for all this? Is there an author testifying out there that he or she had to consult with the publisher to write every blog post? Have you been in the publishing arena and these are your stories? Give some context — where are you getting this stuff? Maybe it’s out there and I’m just not seeing it, so if you can provide some evidence or context, please do.

            — c.

  • Thank you so much for writing this. I often find myself having to defend my choice to seek traditional publication, and in the past I’ve had to explain myself at length (don’t have time, hate spamming people for my stuff, don’t want to pay out of pocket to make it look reasonably professional, etc. etc.). Now I can just point them to this post and say, “I am a writer. If I wanted to go into publishing, I would have just done that.”

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