Writing Vs. Publishing (Or: “No More Half-Measures, Walter”)

I know, December was supposed to be a “no writing talk” month, but it’s my blog and I’ll use it how I want to, goddamnit. *kicks dirt on your shoes*



Digital BookWorld did a recent survey about how much self-published authors make and then Hugh Howey responded and —

Well, Porter Anderson does a nice wrap-up here.

I tend to be somewhere in the middle on all this stuff — hovering in between Howey’s admittedly infectious optimism and any writing-income survey’s overall grimness. I do think this is the best time to be writing and publishing. We have a bounty of options available to us. Opportunity is a fruit hanging fat and juicy on the vine if you’re willing to grab for it.

So I thought I’d take a couple minutes to offer a few thoughts.

a) Writing income surveys are nearly always flawed. For a number of reasons, really. I rarely see them take into account those who are doing it part-time versus full-time. Freelance versus IP ownership. Across different mediums. Across different genres. And, of course, effectively across traditional-, self-, and hybrid-publishing. (And any time I see such a survey I think, “Shit, nobody asked me.” And then I go back to work, making money with words HA HA HA.)

b) Howey’s right-on with the error on how one calculates income from traditional works (which had to be vetted through various stages) and income from self-published works (which are not whittled down by that vetting process and so represents a far larger bulk of work, roughly equivalent to the slush-piles that fail to dwindle due to the varying kept gates of the system). It’s not that we’re comparing apples to oranges: we’re comparing a bushel of apples here to a truckload of apples there. How delicious is the entire lot of apples on all the apple trees versus those that have been hand-picked and taken away from the rest?

c) While I totally share Howey’s excitement over the sheer joy and power of creating stories out of nothing, I think his posts (part one and part two), while very exciting and very interesting, maybe conflate writing and publishing, which has for a long time been one of my overall theoretical problems with not the act of but the culture of self-publishing. (It’s why I prefer the term “author-publisher” because it clearly separates out those two roles, yet keeps them joined by that magical hyphen. A hyphen is like a bridge made out of PURE PUNCTUATION.) Howey says:

How much do knitters like my sister make a year? How much does someone like my wife, who likes to strum a guitar, make in a year? What about my friends who play video games hours upon hours a day? What does your typical gardener make? Or someone who blogs regularly? Or all those people with YouTube channels who are always looking for more subscribers? What about serious home chefs? How much do they make?

Because this is how I look at it: Hundreds of thousands of voracious readers with a dream of writing a novel sat down and did just that. They wrote out of love and passion, just like a kid goes out and dribbles a basketball for hours every day or kicks a soccer ball against a garage wall. Of these hobbyist writers, thousands now make a full-time living from their work. Thousands more pay a huge chunk of their bills from their hobby. These are part time artists who have thousands of fans and hear from readers all over the world. Some of them go on to get offers from agents and publishers and score major deals. All because they are doing something they love.

Even better, this hobby costs nothing. Many of the other hobbies I listed above might cost you thousands of dollars. Everyone has access to a pen and paper. Most people already own a computer for other reasons. It just takes time and imagination. Some of us didn’t set out to become wealthy from doing this . . . it just happened. There are tens of thousands of authors out there now making $20 or $100 a month doing what they would happily do for nothing. In fact, if you told me I had to pay a monthly “writing fee” for the privilege of making stuff up and pounding it into my keyboard, I would do it.

…and abstractly, I’m on board with writers who just want to write. We are free to tell whatever stories we find compelling. Thing is, we’ve always been free to do so. Publishing those stories in a different matter. Publishing is an act of business. It is — to me, at least — a professional endeavor. Writing is craft, storytelling is art, and publishing is business. More to the point, that means publishing isn’t a hobby. If you’re looking for money for your work — which is what publishing and charging money for your work suggests — then you’ve changed the game. You just made it serious. Self-publishing is often viewed as the domain of amateurs frequently because folks treat it like that’s what it is. But I don’t want to sell my shit at a flea market. Do you? Publishing isn’t Craigslist where I’m trying to sell you a jizzed-on couch. I want to sell my work at proper professional venues. I want to take this seriously and, in a perfect world, I want you to take publishing seriously, too. If we’re going to assume that author-publishing is viable and professional, then we damn well better treat it that way.

d) As a result of all this, I worry the “just click publish!” meme takes the reader out of the equation. It puts a great deal of excitement and energy on the part of the writer, which is great. But it fails to take into account the readers who are ostensibly going to pay for this work. A lot of this might be semantics, but I don’t want to subject my readers to my hobby if they have to pay to play. Blogging is one thing. Home cooking is another. I’m not charging anybody for that and so — you don’t like the price of free, hey, get out of my kitchen. (And why are you in my kitchen anyway? *wings a can of Spaghetti-Os at your head*) But once I’m putting something out to YOU, the masses, that should be sacred. We’ve left Hobbytown and entered into Holy Shit I Need To Respect My Audienceopolis. It should be the best version of that story I can muster.

e) Final worry is — and this is possibly just a knee-jerk twinge-in-the-gut feeling, but here it comes just the same — I worry a little about suggesting that a little money for writing is a good thing, like, “Oh, hey, that’s nice, you can buy dinner now and again with that book you wrote.” Or worse, the fact that we should be willing to pay to be allowed to do what we’re doing. That way leads to vanity publishing. That way leads to another ding in the armor of how authors get paid fairly for their work — because, even outside this one nonsense arena of traditional-versus-self, we still need to value writing across film, television, games, comics, and any other storytelling or journalistic medium. Writing is supposed to be worth something. Stories are supposed to have value. Not just to the ones that write them but to the audience beyond. Suggesting that it’s a privilege to write and get a few ducats here and there suggests writing and storytelling deserves to be a hobby instead of an art. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do it to make money.

(Someone in the comments of Howey’s blog said that self-publishing was a lottery ticket, and I can’t get on board with that. Your book isn’t a Willy Wonka golden ticket. It’s not an audition on American Idol. It’s so much more, and so much different, and should be treated as precious — not a cheap piece of paper that will most likely end up in the trash.)

Not much more to add here except the takeaway that I’m finding is:

Acting as author-publisher to your own work is entirely valid and helps to confirm for me why, like Howey says, this is one of the best times to be a writer.

But it won’t be one of the best times to be a writer if we don’t continue to treat the publishing of our stories with seriousness. Not because of the writer, but because of the reader. The reader deserves our very best. As Ron Swanson says: “Never half-ass two things. Whole ass one thing.” (Or, if you’d rather a gem from Mike Ermantraut: “No more half-measures, Walter.”)

Writing a story is for you. But the moment you publish it: it’s for everyone else.

Be professional. Be awesome. Don’t fuck around.

This is a real thing, and if you do want to make money at it — which, by the way, is for absolute real and I know a whole lotta authors who are doing very well for themselves financially — then you need to treat it that way, and not like a hobby. Mindset matters.

If we’re going to ask for efficiency and professionalism in our publishing surveys, then it behooves us to ask for the same across all of publishing, no matter what form that act of publishing takes.

68 responses to “Writing Vs. Publishing (Or: “No More Half-Measures, Walter”)”

  1. Yep. Again, I am hoping for solar flares to wipe out the grid and send all of us back to 1865. No more Amazon, no more self-publishing get rich quikie stuff, a publishing industry that isn’t terrified to look beyond the next twelve months for the next major publishing conflagration or prospective messiah to cure all bookish ills.

    • I’m totally not! I’m excited by all this stuff. I am completely in love with the fact I can publish my own work. I’m in love with the digital revolution. I’m in love with the amazing distribution of the Internet. All this fucking ROCKS. I’m very enthusiastic — just cautiously so, and at the end of the day, all this sweet, sweet freedom shouldn’t absolve anybody of charging money for garbage. And that’s true of anybody — author-publisher, Big Five publisher, whoever.

    • Methinks you kinda missed the point of what makes this a great time to be a writer — the ability of that “grid” to provide many, many options for connecting with your readers.

    • Wow, we are so not on the same page. What I’m looking forward to is more authors quitting their day jobs, readers having more choices, and Amazon and self-publishing has enabled both of those things. I know it is easy to hate Amazon, but the fact is it has done more for authors in it’s short existence than all the publishers combined.

        • * Hear hear! 🙂 I first started writing because I loved reading and wanted to contribute my own stories. I also loved audio books. Then I found the website Podiobooks where self publishing authors were putting their novels out there in audio for free. My new goal was to write a novel and get it on podiobooks. Then the whole eBook revolution came around and now my goal is to get a finished novel good enough to self publish. Then do it again until I die. I’ve written 3 novels and a couple novellas but I’m still mastering my craft and I’m not there yet. Once I feel confident I have a novel that’s amazing and one that people will love to read I can’t wait to self publish it and make the audio book version and I’m so glad I won’t have to wait a year or more to get an agent, then more waiting to land a publishing deal, then another year or more for the thing to get published. When I’m finally ready and have put my sweat into it and believe it deserves to be on digital bookshelves all over the world then I will be hitting that publish button. Along the way I’m getting my million bad words out and learning a ton by writing bad books while trying to write the best book I can. I also love how ACX allows authors to get audiobook versions of their works out there now to all the major players like Amazon, iTunes, and Audible. It’s a brave new world and I’m proud and thrilled to be a citizen of it – as a reader and a writer. I love paper books, but I love having my whole library in my pocket even more.

          • You are a great example of the change in author’s options with the digital revolution waves its disruptive technology wand. ACX…by the way… holy molly are they revolutionizing audio – and people need to really check out the royalty rates you can get from that. I did some calculations and the amount of income potential with them is almost staggering…because I sell well in audio and I get just a tiny-tiny % of that profit – but with ACX I could have earned 50% – 90% rather than 3.5% that is a huge royalty gap.

          • ACX is amazing. I could live off my audiobook earnings alone. It has overtaken my print earnings. Shouldn’t surprise me, either. My wife and stepmother do 90% of their “reading” through their ears. I’m seeing this more and more. And with royalties that ramp up to 80% and beyond, it’s just insane.

  2. Very nice. I’ve stolen your term of author-publisher, and I try to live it. Books are a commodity, and it has to be treated like a business. I’m releasing a novella under my own imprint in January, and it’s been through the wringer; countless drafts, edits, layout, and hell, I even found an illustrator. Ebook first, then a print edition 6 months later.

    Them’s the plans; and I’ll take no one to dinner until the production costs are paid. (to date, appx. $250 bucks.) I think i’ll list it for 1.99 on Kindle, and see what happens. It’s a good story either way.


  3. From a non-commenter: I am grateful to you for taking the time to read all of those links, share them with your audience, and provide your insightful, and entertaining, take on the world as it stands today. Thank you for your time and generosity.

  4. Loved you post. It seems like with the ease of self-publishing a lot of writers just format their first draft and put it out there. And then wonder why nobody reads it… I think whether you are looking to self-publish or go the traditional way, the editing and revision steps should be the same.

  5. It isn’t free to write either. That is a blindness to economics that really bugs me. I love writing. It’s fun. But it takes a great deal of time, and if I don’t get paid, I can’t afford to give away that much of my time NOT helping my family’s bottom line either through work for pay elsewhere or through unpaid domestic labor. As a woman–and a housewife at that–I am highly aware of the value of my time and labor that so many others don’t see. Writing is becoming increasingly exploited labor. I cannot and will not celebrate that, let alone promote it.
    I have been a teacher over my career too, and that is another category of labor exploited terribly because we’re supposed to do it for reasons other than money.
    Well, indeed we do. But just because you happen to love what you are doing doesn’t mean you deserve to starve. Something tells me that no one expects software developers who love their jobs they should do it for the personal reward and give away their products for free.

    • In the context of things, it made sense. It is a free hobby, unlike other hobbies that require a financial investment. When you’re talking about hobbies, one is already assuming that you can afford the time. If you can’t afford the time without pay, it’s no longer a hobby, it’s a job.

      I can’t afford the time to write things that won’t be published and I can’t afford the time to do critiques of every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s short stories and/or novellas — but that’s because it is no longer a hobby for me, it’s my profession. So I have to prioritize the things that get me paid and/or get me further in my professional circles, and I have to prioritize giving myself “off time” to spend with my family and maybe do the laundry. I no longer have time for hobbies, as it turns out, but that’s okay, because I love my profession.

      So, I understand your point, but hobbyist writers and professional writers are not in the same game at all, and you don’t sound like a hobbyist to me (for one, hobbyists don’t tend to have a good grasp on how little professional writers get paid and the many ways we are devalued).

    • Well, it’s “free” in the sense that you don’t have to pay a membership fee or join a league or hire a lighting designer, etc., etc. If you already have a computer, it doesn’t “cost” any more than sitting on the couch watching TV or surfing the internet.

  6. Hey there, Chuck! Your fancy linky-link to Porter Anderson’s wrap up says “Error 403 Forbidden” – I’m super curious about what his wrap up says – is there somewhere else I can view it?

  7. I’m right there with you and Hugh that this IS the best time to be in writing AND publishing because there is so many more choices…and I also agree that success comes from demanding quality in ever aspect of the product you are producing and not just hitting publish and then doing the happy dance.

    The thing that burns me up, is this notion that because authors have a passion to write, and that we would do so even if we weren’t paid (not everyone feels this way but many, including myself, does) that it is somehow okay that we are paid poorly. This of course leads to the notion that anyone who desires a living wage is somehow a sell out and doesn’t’ care about “The Art” or producing quality. Look, I get that not everyone loves their job, and goes off to work everyday dreading it. I feel bad for people in this situation, I really do. I’m fortunate. I wake each morning excited and thrilled that I get to do what I love the most AND get paid to do so. I’m not going to apologize or feel guilty about it, nor am I going to stop fighting for better pay so there can be more writers that get to do what I do. At the end of the day, I don’t care what the surveys say, I care about the fact that we are now, and have been for a long time in a position where the writer plays the biggest part in the creation of the piece, and yet earns the smallest share of the profit.

    • Right, and I’m always worried about any slip or slide toward MORE reason for us to be underpaid or underserved.

      Like, here’s the thing — if we treat writing like a hobby, then we also assume that publishers should pay us like it’s a hobby. Or we offer Amazon an incentive to cut our rates because, hey, aren’t we just in it for the fortune of sharing our work? Who cares about those pesky percentages?

      Hey, I’m in this to get paid. And that means publishers across the spectrum need to be treating this as a profession.

      — c.

  8. “…we still need to value writing” – this worry is my biggest big-picture worry. I am an author-publisher and I feel the pressure to lower the cost of my work (or offer it for free!), because I’m an unknown, because it’s the trend, because eyeballs matter more than sales. And maybe I’m an idiot for not following the trend but I want people to value writing.

    I figure it’s a waiting game but that could be overly optimistic.

    • It is one of my fears as well…and yeah I know exactly what you are talking about. In some respects Amazon (as much as I like them) are leading the charge in this – authors from their imprints are routinely $2.99 – $4.99…plus in the post DOJ model they are putting up loss leaders, like The Way of Kings for $1.99. Sure they are paying Tor and Sanderson their full cut – good for them…but it is putting an expectation in the mind of the reader that a big fat front list book is worth less than a coffee at a restaurant.

      About the only thing I can say is I’m convinced that if you produce good quality work that people love the WILL support you in your efforts. Even if you have to find that support in nontraditional routes such as Kickstarter.

  9. Publishing isn’t Craigslist where I’m trying to sell you a jizzed-on couch, but, I never do a little dance in my heart when I refresh KDP and I see I just sold 3 jizzed-on couches either. Great stuff.

  10. Wonderful post today, so thanks for breaking your vow of no-writer stuff this month.

    I know in times past you’ve done posts inviting people like cover designers, website gurus, and freelance editors to pitch their craft, but maybe it’s time to do that again soonish? I ask because from the author-publisher side, it’s expensive to get up and going. I mean, you want a good cover right? Right. No one wants a cover they made in MS Paint, so the author-publisher needs to bear the brunt of all these upfront costs.

    Which, I know, is part of the point of self publishing. You get to choose these things, but if you’re in a place where you can’t afford the couple hundred to sometimes thousands(?) of dollars it would take to get your book to the place where it can stand toe to toe to what’s been traditionally published, it makes self publishing as difficult as traditional publisher.

    I know that’s part of being a small business, is operating at a cost. And there’s ways to get your work out there making money inexpensively to hopefully reinvest back into your self published works (or use some of the money you make traditional publishing for those hybrid authors, which is my plan). But I’m often scratching my head when people act like it’s just as “easy” to self publish rather than traditionally. As it was so eloquently said, we’re comparing a few nice hand picked apples to an entire store full of rotten and half way decent ones.

  11. Writing a story is for you. But the moment you publish it: it’s for everyone else./ YES.

    Be professional. Be awesome. Don’t fuck around./ also YES

    There is one thing that separates the content creators from the artists- PASSION. The fact that we have choices in publoshinh makes the opportunity to express passion greater and the probability of feeling accomplished more likely.

    My first fiction novel is gonna be available on Amazon and other places on the innernetz come February. I’ve worked harder at this than most jobs in my entire life! Plus it was FUN. Buy it to pay down my expenses, sure, but like it because you’re investing in my passion. That’s priceless and rewarding.

    Glad to see this post and the slew of blissfully happy, mutually insane artists expressing more optimism than grief. 😀

  12. […] I read this article today about how much self-publishing writers make.  Hm.. I haven’t tallied our totals yet, but I can say we made out rather nicely.  I still need to sift through receipts so I can give a solid number when I’m done.  I can say, however, with up-front costs taken into consideration, conventions, tours, etc., we took a loss this year and spent more than what we made.  BUT we didn’t bleed out so much that this is clearly a failure.  What it means is while we experienced the typical startup costs for any business, we still did better than we expected to.  That, paired with my paintings and jobs I take illustrating through the company, we’ve been doing well and we have a strong way of making sure this business stays healthy. […]

  13. Author me can’t wait to get the first book in my series out there. Editing team me sent it back for rewrites after a visit to the (outside) developmental editor, along with some required reading on copyediting. Publisher wife says finish writing and editing at least the next one in the series first.

    Writer me says, fine. Writing is fun anyway. So was hanging out at Kobo head office last week.

    Working hard to get this right.

  14. I totally agree with the attitude that when you publish something you are taking a business action. You are saying to the world that this is something I wish to be paid for. Do people get paid for hobbies? Some do but that doesn’t change the fact that when you hit that publish you are making a business decision and in my opinion your shit better be of business quality. If you expect people to pay for it then it damn well better be something that’s been polished to the point where it’s worth every dollar. This leads in to my biggest pet peeve of the whole self publishing mentality. Not enough self-published authors take it seriously. Apparently when you lower the barrier a lot of crap gets through. Don’t get me wrong, there are a bunch of really talented self-published writers that take themselves and their work seriously but a large portion of the self-published manuscripts out there are first draft button pushers praying (and that’s about all they are doing) to be the next Suzanne Collins or E.L. fucking James. This makes it hard as a reader to get to the good stuff so a lot of them ignore self published all together which is a shame because there are some really talented people out there.

    • David, I couldn’t agree more. I know writers who have published material that they admit is crap, but figure, “What the heck? Better to have it out there making me money, than to have it sitting on my PC earning nothing,” while they work on their magnum opus. I can’t even begin to say what’s wrong with that approach, and they don’t want to hear it. The last thing the world needs is more crap out there, hiding the gems and alienating willing readers. Be. Professional. Always.

    • I think even if you’re a hobbyist, once you put your work up for sale you’re a hobby BUSINESS. Even the IRS recognizes that hobby businesses exist — there’s space in the tax code for them. They’re a hobby in the sense that the proprietor isn’t making a real profit at it and is motivated and rewarded in other ways, but it’s still a business as well, and the transactions and customers are just as serious.

      Plenty of little stores, for instance, are hobby businesses. The owner is retired, or their partner has a well-paid job and is willing to support them, or they have investments or some other stream of income separate from the store. Yet as many of those little stores sell great things at reasonable prices with good customer service as do stores run as a source of income.

      “Hobby” does not and should not mean “bad”. It can mean that you write stories that appeal to a smaller, niche market, though.

      • Re: Making money off a hobby – I am a hobbyist musician who’s made a few bucks off playing in bars, and I’ve even played on a couple of CDs and other original recordings. The difference (as I see it) between that and my writing is that I’m creating something when I write, and I’m copying something when I play (usually); someone else has done the creation. I wouldn’t publish my short stories (and novels and novellas when they’re ready) if I didn’t think they were good and hadn’t had some feedback from someone other than my friends and relatives that my stuff was decent. Whether they are good enough is for the audience to determine, much like the music on the CD’s I played on.

        I think all you can ask of a self publisher is that he or she put out the best material they can, and don’t publish until they’re sure it’s as good as it can get. The determination of whether it’s “good enough” is up to the readers…

    • Yeah, there is a lot of poorly edited self-published stuff…but you know what? It doesn’t bother me in the least because it doesn’t effect my reading habit at all. Those that don’t take care with their books won’t get on my radar. They can exist all they want in the dungeons where they dwell. Finding “good” self-published books is easy. Just look at Amazon in your favorite category and go to “Top Rated.” There are plenty of both self-published and traditionally published books on that list. Look at the sample, and you’ll pretty much know if it is for you or not.

      I’m a big supporter of self-published books, and some of my favorite reads of recent memory started there (or are still there): Wool (Hugh Howey), Blood Song (Anthony Ryan), Dance of Cloaks (David Dalglish), Emeperor’s Edge (Lindsay Buorker). For those that want to find high quality self-published stuff and avoid the dreck – it really isn’t too hard.

      • “Yeah, there is a lot of poorly edited self-published stuff…but you know what? It doesn’t bother me in the least because it doesn’t effect my reading habit at all. Those that don’t take care with their books won’t get on my radar. They can exist all they want in the dungeons where they dwell. Finding “good” self-published books is easy. Just look at Amazon in your favorite category and go to “Top Rated.” There are plenty of both self-published and traditionally published books on that list. Look at the sample, and you’ll pretty much know if it is for you or not.”

        Here’s my only concern with that — it means that if something isn’t Top Rated, it kinda ends up in the slurry with everything else. I’ve seen some really stellar self-published releases (great reads, killer covers, strong authors, edited through and through) that kinda fall by the wayside and in part it seems like this comes down to discoverability. They get lost. Only so much an author can do to actually spread the word about his work — particularly if he’s a new author with a smaller audience — and so we need stronger discoverability. This problem isn’t the fault of the Glurgey Slush Pile on display, but without killer discoverability it does offer the side effect of “too much work to bother sifting through.”

        So: I think it’s easy to find great reads and avoid dreck, but I think it’s very hard to find great undiscovered reads. Hoping Amazon tackles that in future iterations of its search.

        — c.

  15. Great post and great comments. I do take my writing very seriously. I just need to figure out how to distinguish myself from those who don’t. All I want is to get to a point where I can earn a living and pay all of my bills only writing full time. No non-writing work, even if that includes freelance copy writing and developmental editing for other authors. Living in Kansas I can probably squeak by on as little as $20k. That’s easier said than done though.

  16. Self-publishing is a two-edged sword, cutting both ways.

    There’s no doubt self-publishing has given me a unique opportunity to learn and to hone my craft in a way I would not have had if I spent decades in the reject pile, and yet, as you point out, “Writing is supposed to be worth something. Stories are supposed to have value.” Unfortunately, that same model that’s allowed me to publish undervalues stories, so much so it’s tough to sell a hundred thousand word novel for the price of a lousy cup of coffee.

    And you’re absolutely right in saying if it costs anything it should be polished and of a professional quality, and I work bloody hard to that end. I only wish there were some middle ground between the “just click publish” model and the world of professional publishing, as it seems the gap between these is still as broad as it ever was. I’m in limbo betwixt the two.

  17. I wish I had gotten a solid writing routine/habit down before even the concept of publishing hit my awareness.

    I wish I could just write for myself without the notion of it being published or the idea of making money, enough to live off, even existed to me.

    I think if that were so, it wouldn’t be so difficult to write something to “publishing” standards. I feel like it’s a two step process. Write for you, then revise for others. But if you get those mixed up or try to do both at once, it gets all vague and anxiety ridden.

    I just wish I could erase my awareness of publishing for a short while in order to be able to actually finish anything, damnit.

  18. Thank you thank you for this post, Chuck! This is exactly how I feel about publishing my own work; if I didn’t I would’ve already self-pubbed the barf-fest that is the first draft of my current w-i-p. I’m slowly coming round to the idea that getting it ‘fit’ for reader consumption is probably going to take years rather than months – but I would rather do that than put it out there as a ‘oh, that’ll do’ effort to try and rake in the cash. I don’t want any of my potential future readers to just buy it – I want them to love it. In fact, if it came down to a choice being made, I’d rather they got it for free and loved it rather than bought it and didn’t like it…

    (And that’s where the great illusion of my business sense comes crashing down in a pile of flailing limbs, of course – but hey, hug a tree and all that…)

  19. Great article, Chuck. You’re bang on about so many things, especially when it comes to needing a mindset adjustment (so important!). Most of us get into this game for fun, never really believing that our books will find an audience, or if our books are even good enough. But really, the fact that we all have access to that magic publishing button now demands that we look at our work in a whole different way. For one, it is work, it is a business, and we’re not just writing for ourselves anymore, but for the ‘Audienceopolis’ (a great way to put it).

  20. Well said. You nail the key issues. I wonder though whether the rush to self-publish is mostly a passing trend for the hobby writer. Unlike most hobbies, writing (well) takes a lot of intellectual work. Over time, will most of the amateur players fall away into other pursuits, while the more passionate persist and improve, returning the profession (self-pubbed, hybrid, or trad) to “professional” writers? Probably just wishful thinking on my part.

  21. Once again, I find myself agreeing with Chuck Wendig as he sorta disagrees with me. (I seem to have a similar relationship with Chuck that I have with my wife, which makes me very uncomfortable. I’m going to demand that my wife shave her beard in order to create some separation).

    I think we should keep in mind that traditional publishing is not against producing unfinished and unedited manuscripts. I shelved a few of these as a bookseller. One by David Foster Wallace. A curio, sure. Kerouac’s original scroll might be another example. Not quite a jizzed-on couch, granted.

    Alongside my enthusiasm for everyone to publish as they see fit, one will find a steady history of me urging people to take their writing seriously and not be in a rush to publish. I separate out my love of freedom with my subjective wish for the highest quality material. I think everyone has the right to create a website or a blog, even though it costs me money to have access to those things and uses up my electricity to browse them. I don’t want gatekeepers other than readers. So I don’t know what metric we would use to dictate who can and who can’t publish other than to say everyone who wants to should, and we should let the perusers sort them out.

    Someone commenting on this issue brought up Etsy, which I think is a great example. Another is the craft-fair-booth-denizen, who dares put a price tag on the art they produced. I’m not going to begrudge anyone that right. I don’t think Chuck would either. I think we would both agree that people should pour their hearts and souls into their work and do the best damn job they’re capable of. We should take this seriously, as all artists should. We should also take seriously any attempt to curb people’s freedom not only to express themselves but to say that they don’t have the right to ask for a couple bucks in exchange for their work. They should have that right. All the horrible books that are traditionally published do not lessen my enjoyment of books in general. We should worry about poorly crafted novels as much as we worry about garish websites. How much does the proliferation of blogs get in the way of our browsing the internet? Not at all.


      Okay, I’m not your wife. I mean, I pretend to be? In public? I get a lot of free drinks from Howey fans, is all I’m saying.

      Anyway —

      Yeah, totally — professional publishing is rife with some stink-bombs, though I’d suggest that any author-publisher aim not for the worst a traditional publisher can do but aspire instead to equal the best put out by that system.

      And I agree with what you’re saying here for the most part. I’m not looking to slap down limits one what people can or should do in terms of publishing. I’m not worried about CAN so much as I am about SHOULD. I am suggesting they should be mindful of publishing as a separate entity from writing, and tackle that as a professional endeavor — though one still hopefully driven by passion, at least in part — particularly if they’re going to ask for money for that work.

      I mean, listen, a lot of this is attitude-driven, right? And a strong, pervasive attitude carried by a lot of people means something. It can change things — sometimes just by nudging the needle, other times by creating dramatic and unexpected shifts. So, if the attitude starts to become, “Hey, writing is just this fun hobby, it’s not worth more than a couple bucks, you don’t need to edit it or make it look good,” then one might argue there’s still damage to be done to the continuing value of the work that writers and storytellers and other artists do. This maybe sounds a little paranoid and elitist, I can even hear it as I type it, but I also keep coming back to the fact that “photojournalist” as a profession is falling by the wayside. Because of course we all have cameras basically glued to our hands these days and hey, why can’t those article writers just snap a couple quick iPhone shots and be done with it? (I think Chicago has hired back some of their photographers, right?) The attitude there harmed the theoretical value of what they do. Not the true value, mind, because as it turns out you CAN’T just replace these photographers or their work and assume you’ll get the same level of quality.

      Right now I see these two attitudes in self-publishing / author-publishing that don’t reconcile with each other very well. The first attitude is kind of a middle finger to Big Five publishers because they don’t pay enough, they don’t take risks, they offer bad contracts, low percentages, etc.

      But then the second attitude is, “Hey, just click publish, it’s a hobby, a couple bucks for your work is a good thing.”

      Neither of those attitudes are wrong and I understand both — but the latter feeds into the former. If you don’t value your *published* work — by which I mean, you don’t treat it professionally and with the respect it deserves — then how can we ask publishers to respect it? How can we hope that Amazon will continue to value it?

      Also, letting the readers sort that stuff out is nice in theory, but it puts a big burden on the reader. “Here is a large sack of crap, please sort through it to find the pearls.” That may change once discoverability catches up to the sheer heaps and mounds of material becoming available daily, but for now it puts burden on them. One might argue the burden has always been on them, and it’s easy to say, “Well, traditional publishers publish crap, too.” And they do! But a) in far less volume overall and b) because of the curation by gatekeepers you’ll find a far thinner margin of unprofessional and unedited work than you will in the area of author-publishing.

      Trust me, I don’t actually think you’re suggesting people just fling their poo online. Nor am I looking to be a gatekeeper for everything coming through or out the door. But part of what I’m trying to influence here is an attitude, and for my mileage I’d rather be a bit more of a hard-ass and tell folks to respect themselves and their work enough to publish professional material, not to add just one more half-assed half-measure author-published work to the pile with the attitude that “it’s not worth much, quantity over quality, this is just a hobby.” If I’m paying for it, it better not be that writer’s hobby. It better be their job, part-time, full-time or otherwise.

      And now I’mma shut up, because this comment is a blog post ALL its own! Dang.

      — c.

        • My wife hasn’t managed to teach me that lesson yet, plainly. Though she tries vigilantly.

          Let me state for the record that I think your posts are good stuff — this response may seem like a qualified high-five but it’s a high-five just the same. I think we’re at a very interesting time for writers and for publishers, and particularly at the juncture where those two meet. And I think it’s critical that we demand accounting that doesn’t trend and wink and lean toward traditional publishing in a biased way. AND, hey, I’m also for the rah-rah-rah write like a motherfucker put-your-heart-on-the-page storytelling. You help authors realize that potential, and that’s a very good thing.

  22. Some good thoughts here.

    “Writing is craft, storytelling is art, and publishing is business.”

    Although really, I think the order should be Art-Craft-Business. You first use your art-brain to create, then refine it with your craft-brain, then sell it with your business-brain. Yes, I know, some people create/refine in one step, but I’m not one of them.

    I started writing for me. Ok, maybe way back in the depths of my then 18-year old slush-pile-brain, there was the thought of publishing what I wrote, but that isn’t why I *started* writing.

    I agree that if we wannabes are going to be paid professional rates, we better be offering professional product. That is one reason my first novel hasn’t been offered up yet, even free, because I haven’t been able to afford a professional editor to tell me where it needs work.

  23. With so many heavy hitters involved, I probably shouldn’t weight into this discussion. But dammit, I think I should give at least one self-publisher’s perspective.
    I’m self-published and proud of it. I began in the early part of the revolution, back in 2009. I’d never written a complete story in my life and at age 66, I decided to start. So I sat down at my computer and banged out a complete novel from start to finish.
    I used poorly remembered skills from a long ago college English course. Once I had all the typos, punctuation errors, spelling errors, and wrong word choice fixed (with some help), I found Smashwords, created a cover and hit the publish button.
    I never looked back. Now with seven novels under my belt, I’m reading all these blogs as to why I should never have done it. Why I should have waited, going through the agony of seeking the gate keeper’s approval, finding that elusive agent or willing publisher. Well fuck all that! With the time it takes and my age, I could have died with only a pile of rejection slips to show for my efforts.
    I’m in that median for self-published authors, making a little less than $5,000 per year. It’s hell of a lot better than trying to spend rejection slips.
    Many of the comments have skirted the issue, never quite targeting the point. For self-published authors the slush pile is the readers. They either like your work or they don’t. They vote by ignoring your books. For traditionally published authors the slush pile is the forgotten work in the editor’s trash bin. Either way, the result is the same.
    The median income for traditional or hybrid authors is the result of the publisher’s screening process. Only the best survive and they’re paid for it in advance.
    For the aggregate of self-published authors we’re lumped in with the books that never sell, so naturally our median income is less.
    When I started this journey, I found authors that consistently did better than me. I was forever chasing those authors on the best selling lists. At that time I was giving my stuff away, not thinking of making a living at it and so were they. (I didn’t believe that works produced by a hobbyist should be sold.) These authors were fantastic, easily as good or better than traditionally published authors. They had huge followings and despite encouragement from their readers, refused to sell even one of their books. Will you condemn these people? Since they gave away all their books, they had no income, but are still lumped together in the self-publishing category.
    True, when you can get a great read for free, it cheapens the value of other for-sale books but the internet is a great liberator and the publishing world has to figure out how to live with it. Co-opting those writers would have been a good idea. They have a large and loyal reader base but traditional publishers ignored them.
    It’s not our fault. So long as the internet exists we’ll keep publishing. I no longer have anything to do with print books, at seventy years old, preferring E-readers to a cumbersome print copy with small text and pages that refuse to stay in one position. Give me an E-reader and a touch tablet or mouse and I’m happy.
    Despite any protests or advise to the contrary, I’m going to keep growing and improving and when I’m satisfied with the result, I’ll self-publish the work. The rest of the publishing world be damned. It’ll either sell or it won’t. I’ve lost nothing in the process.

    • “I’m self-published and proud of it.”

      Agreed. I hope this becomes more common. I use the word “indie” interchangeably with “self-published,” but I try to stick to the latter. I wear it like a badge of honor. Yes, I do all the work myself. Why wouldn’t I take pride in that? I could easily call myself a “hybrid” or tout my work with Simon & Schuster and Random House, but I end up downplaying any traditional deal and stressing my self-published status. The stigma will change when we stop running from it and embrace it, especially those who are having success. I see part of my responsibility not just to produce the best work possible but to give all self-published works as healthy a reputation as I can. This is the gift Konrath and Eisler and many others have done for me: they made me respectable. I am deeply indebted to them for that. I don’t know if I can add to that, but I’d like to try.

  24. What will a person do for money? The answer to that is so deep and complex you cannot wrap your gray matter around it if you wanted. So pour a few ounces of reality in your writers goblet and take a swig. The supply of writing vastly exceeds the demand of people willing to pay for it. And this in turn, is influenced by all the methods that said authors are willing to execute to get their slice of green. Self-publishing has busted barriers on the author end, but the business side of it has those same authors in a feeding frenzy for whatever scrap of cash they can muster. This blog post is a call to unity is it not? To be steadfast in the pursuit of professionalism. But just as any Joe Schmo with a loaded pecker of 1,000,000 spermatazoa can bring a human being into this world (a human!), so can any schmo put their words into the Inter-web morass of fiction (1200 self-pubbed books a day anyone?). I would love nothing more than to help hold a standard high to unite authors in the cause of professionalism, but it ain’t gonna happen. All the fluff, puff and weasily stuff floating around out there, and the authors tactics to grab limited coinage will, and most certainly must, effect the commercial value of even the best works of literature. In other words, as Ms. Joplin once said many years ago…get it while you can.

    • The point is that in self-publishing these same “fundamentally sub-standard works” are being put “out there” and counted. Yes, they don’t earn anything – because, well they “weren’t worthy” but since they are counted and bring down the numbers of the self-published so should their counterparts be counted.

    • As you say in your forum post, most books submitted to the slush pile are not ready to be consumed as books. The same is true of most books that are self-published. They simply aren’t ready. To count these books in one set and not count them in the other is disingenuous.

      Another way of looking at it: You have 2,000 aspiring authors who just wrapped up their manuscripts and are wondering how best to proceed. This is a real dilemma being faced by real people at this very moment. I hear from them all the time and meet them at conventions. It’s a massive decision, and we need good info on how best to proceed.

      Let’s say half these people decide to go traditional and half decide to self-publish. That’s 1,000 each. 1,000 real writers who are trying to launch their careers based on the best data available. The survey in question then takes TEN of the people who submitted to the traditional machine (the 1% who get out of the slush pile and get published), and it compares their results with the 1,000 people who self-published.

      How in the world is that kind of a result helping anyone make a proper decision? It’s made worse by pulling the hybrids (who are mostly high-earning self-pubbed-first authors) out and removing them from the self-pub list. The data is worse than meaningless; it is harmful.

      We need to compare the 1,000 authors going traditional with the 1,000 authors going self-pubbed. That’s the only comparison that makes sense. It’s the only way to help currently aspiring authors make the best decision possible. I don’t think Chuck disagrees at all with this point; he’s just taking a little umbrage to my celebration of writing as a form of artistic expression and not always as a means of earning a living. Which I don’t begrudge him. He is my bearded better half, after all.

  25. It took a long time for me to be able to say with pride that I am an author-publisher (hey look, there’s that magical hyphen), because it still has such a stigma attached to it, and that stigma sure as hell isn’t going anywhere while there are people who treat self-publishing like a hobby instead of a business. Readers want quality, so give them quality, not thrown together covers and work that isn’t even proofread let alone edited. When I say I am ‘self-published’ I am used to the look in people’s faces, a sort of sad ‘oh gods I wish I hadn’t asked’ look. I know they are imagining art I did myself thrown over some Mary-Sue tale about vampire sex (what is with people who think ‘fantasy’ = ‘porn’?), and when I show them what I really produced they are shocked.

    One day I hope we will reach a point where that negativity isn’t the knee-jerk reaction. All we need is a little more collective pride. No self-publisher should ever EVER settle for ‘it will do’.

  26. “And, frankly a 2% “success” rate (success being making over $100k per year from writing)”

    The quote above indicates exactly the problem. 100k is success?

    What kind of bullshit figure is 100k? The median American makes ~47k a year. To be a success in writing you have to earn more than double the average American? We got some rich assholes doing this study.

    For me, success is anything above minimum wage. Which means, if I earn more than 16k from writing it is a success.

    I guarantee more Americans are in my boat, where all writing has to do is replace 1 minimum wage job to relieve some of the stress. And that threshold for success is incredibly low. And hey — the number they sight for the AVG digital publishing author is 15k-20k (considering this a failure btw). To me, that is success. At 15-20k it means I get to write full time.

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