You Got Some Booksplainin’ To Do: Buckell On Bias In Self-Publishing

Tobias Buckell wrote a very smart and rational post (FEATURING CHARTS) about survivorship bias in self-publishing. Go read it. I’ll wait. I like the post a lot — Buckell frequently tickles my sweet spot in terms of being moderate and looking at the pro’s and con’s of both sides of the publishing fence (as I attempted to do here in this rather lengthy post.) I’d maybe argue that Smashwords isn’t the shining ideal in terms of data — but it’s also the only data we have.

This post generated some very interesting discussion over at Facebook, and one commenter there (who I like) said the following: “…if you have a thousand authors on the traditional path who make zilch, and a thousand authors on the indie path who publish their own book and make just a dollar, you know what? The indies are doing better. Something is better than nothing.”

Now, this is an idea I’ve seen put out there before.

It’s interesting.

But I don’t buy it.

Let’s pull this apart a little bit.

First, traditional authors don’t generally make zilch, though I understand the point — you don’t “choose” to traditionally publish so much as you “choose” to try to traditionally publish, and if you fail, you make no money. The suggestion here then is that indie publishers will at least make a dollar — which is maybe true, but you could just as easily lose money on a self-publishing endeavor presuming you start out right and invest some money (cover, editing, design, marketing, whatever). And generally speaking, those who are actually publishing traditionally are doing so with an advance in hand — usually north of five grand.

Second, that word again that keeps popping up — “better.” Like it’s a tug-of-war and one side wants to win. (Or, more appropriately to how it often feels: like it’s a big ol’ stinky-winky dick-waving contest MY PUBLISHING IS BIGGER THAN YOUR PUBLISHING *waggle waggle waggle*.) Let’s all take a deep breath and say it: neither path is better than the other. They’re two very viable options and different authors will do better walking divergent paths. We don’t all have to march lockstep and drink the fucking Flavor-Aid and pick one cult over another. Embrace publishing agonisticism. Don’t judge. You’re not better. I’m not better. The schoolyard finger-pointing is eye-rollingly tiresome at this point.

Third, the indication that “better” is bound up with “money” — but then at the same time suggesting that a few bucks here and there is “better than nothing.” Bare minimum is not a great selling point for anything and it’s not a very good reason to self-publish. We self-publish for a variety of reasons — control, risk, cutting out middle-men, etc. — but one of them should not be “I really need a roll of quarters for the downstairs laundry.”

Listen, if you have a book, and it’s done, you can try to hold out for the traditional advance or you can take a shot at generating some income now with self-publishing. Neither is wrong. Neither is a guarantee. You may make no money, a moderate amount of money, or enough money to build a house out of actual money (“MY FLOOR IS TILED WITH SUSAN B. ANTHONY DOLLARS, MY CURTAINS ARE STITCHED-TOGETHER BENJAMINS, AND MY JACUZZI SPITS OUT MOLTEN ZINC FROM MELTED PENNIES — wait, don’t get the jacuzzi, it’s just for show”).

But don’t judge others for the path they take. Find what works for you, what suits you, and do it. We should all be very happy that these options exist, by the way — self-publishers should be happy that traditional publishing is still an option. Why? Because if that goes away, the incentive to keep self-publishers happy by companies like Amazon fades away. A rich, diverse playing field means more people are finding success all over.

Look at it another way: some people will want to sell their own lemonade, some people would rather work for a lemonade company, others still would rather formulate their own lemonade recipe and sell that through a lemonade recipe distributor (okay, we’re probably entering the stuff of fiction here — LEMONPUNK, BABY), but you get my point. We wouldn’t want everyone to have to punch a time clock just as we wouldn’t want everyone to have to start their own entrepreneurial businesses. It’s all good. Relax.

Oh, and last point: don’t automatically listen to what somebody tells you as what you “should” do. Think. Process. Weigh the options. Personal anecdote time (meaning, works for me, not for you): I had an easy time getting an agent for Blackbirds but a hard time selling it to a publisher at first. And I heard along the way the cries to self-publish. (And oh did I consider it.) Then, even after I had gotten the deal, the occasional comment persisted — I should’ve self-published, it would’ve earned me more than the standard genre fiction advance. Blah blah blah.

Now, I don’t have any time travel devices handy (Delorean, Police Box, cosmic treadmill, temporal suppository) — but since that time, I’ve sold the rights of the book to a handful of foreign markets (with another undergoing bidding even now) and have sold the film/TV rights (one day I look forward to that announcement because it’s damn exciting). And I’ve made more money on that book and its sequel than you would imagine. I’m still making money on that book. And it was a small genre release that continues to do nice — if not overwhelming — numbers in the marketplace.

The point isn’t that I did that and you should do that, too. The only thing that I did that I hope you’ll emulate is that I looked long and hard at it and made the decision I felt best suited me as a writer and the book I had written. It paid off.

The point is that I’m happy with the choice I made. I’m glad I didn’t pull the trigger and just publish it in the same way I’m glad I didn’t publish any of the five novels I’d written before that one (which is another piece of fucked-up frequently-seen self-publisher advice: “Just press publish! Better to make money than to sit in a drawer somewhere!”). Some turds are better flushed, people. My earlier books were stinkers — unfit for public shaming.

Further, I’m glad I did self-publish my Atlanta Burns series. Because that led me to new audience, new skills, and to new opportunities (Kickstarter, Amazon Children’s).

Let each writer and each writer’s book find its own path.

Examine all sides. Look to the failures and the successes.

Then jump.

The End.

* — be advised, Tobias invented the word “Booksplaining.” Please incorporate it into your publishing slang going forward or you will be violently Tasered THANK YOU GOODBYE.

20 responses to “You Got Some Booksplainin’ To Do: Buckell On Bias In Self-Publishing”

  1. I’m an aspiring writer and I talk about that a lot on my YouTube channel. People ask me all of the time if I’m going to self publish or go the traditional route. This mystifies me a bit. It almost implies that I have a choice… and I don’t, not really. I’ll query when the book is ready and I’ll hope for the best, but Stephen King was rejected around 30 times for Carrie. Stephen Freakin King! Obviously the odds are not in my favor and I’ll probably get rejected. Once I know that my book has no shot in the traditional market, then I will self publish. Then again, I might not get rejected and won’t have to even think about self publishing. My point is, why would I limit myself to one or the other? I will attempt both, if need be. I CAN practice patience, even if it kills me a little.

    About the whole turds thing: I sure hope that if I’m writing total crap that at least ONE of my 5 critique partners will tell me. Cuz I sure plan to tell them 😛

    • zactly what I’m intending to do. I think you made the point in another blog too, Mr. Wendig, that there is no reason to limit yourself to one means of publishing. Also, I’m hoping that if the book is crap, I’ll have enough time to come to my senses (after a year or two of rejections) to realize it and write something better lol.

      • Oh god, I hope it doesn’t take a year or two to get all of my rejects. I’m not sure I could be THAT patient lol.

  2. “Listen, if you have a book, and it’s done, you can try to hold out for the traditional advance or you can take a shot at generating some income now with self-publishing.”


    Look, I don’t care about the advance. I care about the total sum of the money I get from start to finish, or in 5 years to narrow down the window. With self publishing, I make far more money selling less books than traditional publishing due to the royalty rates. And then, for reasons I still haven’t quite figured out, I actually sell *more* books with self publishing than with traditional publishing. As you might guess, more books sold with a higher royalty rate per book ==> bank. So to simplify the benefits of self publishing as “money sooner maybe, but probably not” is a gross understatement and, frankly, exactly the bias Tobias Buckell’s post was talking about.

  3. Ooof…
    I’m editing the first of several books, and haven’t looked at either traditional or independent publishing very hard yet. My first thought is that I don’t know how to do a decent query letter, and maybe I’d better learn that part before I go picking a market. ‘Course, I don’t know how to build my own website-store, either. I know some of my books won’t do well in the traditional market (vampires are getting old) and some won’t do well as independents (300K-word novel brick isn’t going to sell for $1.99 a copy). Not a one is ready to market yet.

    But they will be. When they are, I’ll check into the available publishing options, readers in both markets, up-front costs, agents, editors, how to travel for book signings, and anything else I can think of that will help the books get to the readers who will love them. Or hate them and buy a thousand copies just to burn them. You know, whichever way it works out.

  4. The downside of self publishing is the price. I’ve found an amazing cover artist who has worked with a lot of traditional publishers. Her book covers are absolutely beautiful…and expensive. The price of editors is even more expensive. I’m investing a lot into my series…but I don’t trust a traditional publisher with it. I don’t trust them with my book cover (whitewashed book covers are a huge problem), I don’t trust them to keep my cast of characters diverse.
    One of the reasons I plan on self publishing my YA fantasy series is because I don’t think this series will fit the mold of traditional publishing. Multi-cultural authors and characters don’t seem to be granted passage into the mainstream fiction box; even if they belong there.
    I do think it is important to be well rounded. I think I should be a hybrid author but from what I’ve seen of the traditional publishing world – I’m not sure if I want to be a part of it. Even if I were given a chance.

  5. I just signed with a small press, and the first words out of one person’s mouth was “why didn’t you self-publish”. It kinda made me feel like I’d made it as an author, actually, to be asked that question. :p

  6. Great post. Refreshing to read someone saying ‘think for yourself’. I earn a living as a playwright, selling my plays direct to customers but I intend to traditionally publish the novel I’m working on (and hopefully more after that). Thanks for sharing.

  7. It’s weird. I know I’ll be rejected. I know I probably won’t make a lot of money. I know it’ll be a while that I’ll make a sell.

    But in my head, I still fantasize that I will do really, really well. That my books will be read and loved by a whole lot of people. That fans will write fanfiction and draw fanart and go nuts about the characters on Tumblr.

    Even when I know it’s not really realistic. Even as I read these wonderful blog posts about the realities of publishing.

    Ah well. I suppose as long as I write everyday and I’m willing to risk being disappointed.

    I think the the best advice for writing I got thus far is to just follow your own instinct and what works for you, rather than anyone else says. I have this feeling that my instinct has been telling me all along what to do, but since I’m so inexperience, I feel like I shouldn’t trust it. But now I’m thinking not to trust it would be a very bad move. Who knows.

    Thanks again for another great post and introducing me to Tobias Buckell *follows*

  8. People ask me how I got published sometimes, and the first words out of my mouth are “Do not attempt to duplicate this, dumb luck was a major factor.”

    There is still occasional booksplaining.

    • It’s all booksplaining, I think. Long as we recognize that, we’re okay. It’s when we mistake booksplaining for some kind of gospel that we’re pretty much fuckered!

      — c.

  9. “Some turds are better flushed, people. My earlier books were stinkers – unfit for public shaming.”

    Yes. This.

    When I emerge from my Writing Cave and admit to being a writer, kind friends gush and say stuff like “OHMYGOD when are you going to publish? Where can I buy your book? I can’t wait to read it! Hurry up and finish!” Gah. Hard to explain about the turds.

  10. I think you’re missing the point of the response to the Buckell piece.

    Buckell was specifically trying to make a point about the entire universe of writers. So it’s not really a particularist, “everyone has to find their own way” sort of discussion.

    Buckell had pretty charts where he purported to show that self-publishing is a bad idea statistically because of the large number of people who sell a small number of books.

    The “something is better than nothing” argument is advanced for a simple reason: if Buckell is going to do a statistical analysis of the earnings of all people who attempt self-publishing, you have to compare that to a similar analysis of the earnings of all people who so much as ATTEMPT to get traditionally published.

    Buckell argued that there was survivorship bias in the self-publishing community because not enough attention was being paid to the large number of low earners. And it’s entirely fine to pay attention to those low earners – as long as you pay attention to the equal, or larger, number of $0 earners among “the set of all persons who ever completed a manuscript or wrote an agent query letter”.

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