The Author-Publisher And The Almighty Dollar

If you don’t know the name Brenna Aubrey, you will soon.

Brenna turned down a $120,000 three-book deal with one of the Big Five and instead chose to self-publish her newest, the ironically-named At Any Price. She has reportedly made ~$19,000 in the first month of release, which — well, I don’t know that she’ll earn out at the top of the contract offered, but I know that’s the kind of money that likely has her quietly trembling with a kind of caffeinated, eye-popping excitement.

It’s an exciting time, and one that shows that authors have options they didn’t have ten years ago.

(And further, this might serve as something of a message to publishers — like it or not, I suspect we’re going to see more stories like this over time unless publishers inject a little flexibility into their contracts. Some have already gone to this, to be clear, but others seem bent on keeping things locked down long past necessity. They may pay for that inflexibility in the long run.)

The narrative here, however, will again be how you can make more money as an author-publisher than you can through traditional publishing — it certainly feels that way, doesn’t it?

Here’s my (anecdotal) mileage:

My self-published writing books do pretty well for me. The last one was published about a year-and-a-half ago, and they’re still generating strong steady income. Moreso than my Writer’s Digest release (The Kick-Ass Writer), at least at the front end — sure, that book appears to be selling well, but I won’t see any royalties off that book immediately. Not like I would or could off of self-publishing (which are immediate and robust)

So, right there, that would seem to earn the conclusion, yeah?

Not so fast.

Consider, if you will, my novel, Bait Dog, the second Atlanta Burns story and first Atlanta Burns novel, which I Kickstarted as a two-book deal for $6,857, or roughly $3,400 per book. Bait Dog released and now, in total, has conjured about six grand worth of sales. Which is good money! I’m not complaining — you’re looking at about ten cents per word, which is life-sustaining income if you can keep up the pace and have the time to devote toward publishing your own work.

Now, at the same time, that’s inferior to the money I’ve made with advances from traditional releases. A book like Blackbirds has gone on to sell in various other countries (France, Turkey, Poland, Germany) and has had, erm, other licensing success that I can’t talk about here yet — *shakes fist* — which puts it in very comfortable financial territory for a book most publishers seemed to love but believed they could not sell. (Publishers can be risk averse.)

I was able to leverage the reasonable success and excitement over a book like Bait Dog to a more traditional deal, too — Skyscape Children’s bought the book and will release Shotgun Gravy and Bait Dog as a single volume (with new content and robust edits) called, simply, Atlanta Burns. That and they’ll produce the follow-up, too.

So, again, does self-publishing pay more than traditional publishing?

Are you financially better off becoming an author-publisher?

*shakes the Magic 8-Ball*


Translation: who the fuck knows? Maybe, maybe not.

What about doing both? The so-called “hybrid” approach?

If you believe the numbers put out by Writer’s Digest, hybrid authors — meaning, authors who publish multiple ways to some extent or another — tend to be the ones making the most money. Phil Sexton talks about the results of that survey (sourced from Publisher’s Weekly):

“Hybrid authors are more aggressive and successful,” Sexton said, quoting from the survey results, “and they are more sophisticated and strategic about publishing.” Not surprisingly, hybrid authors were overwhelmingly more involved with social media — not to mention being better paid. They also report an average income from writing of $38,540, while traditionally published authors report $27,758 and the solely self-published report $7,630. Hybrid authors expect to get higher advances than traditionally published authors and expect to get a higher royalty. While 92% of traditionally published authors say they want their next book published that way, 71% of hybrid authors say they are interested in publishing their next book with a conventional house. And finally, asked why they self-published, 41.3% of hybrid authors say “creative control,” and 33% say “ease of the publishing process.” Money (28.9%) and distribution (25.6%) place third and fourth in the responses.

(Confession: I’m in the February 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest talking about the value of a hybridized publishing approach. I have snake oil to sell and as always you should take a long sniff of the potion I’m swirling in front of your nose to see if it’s really for you.)

Hybrid authors get to leverage the relationship of one form of publishing against another — they get to enjoy the advantages of both which in turn mitigates the disadvantages on each side. They also get sports cars and an orangutan butler and the best high-grade designer pharmaceuticals.

What? That’s just me? Whatever.

So, back to it. What pays better?

Self-publishing definitely pays faster than traditional. You will earn money immediately. The question is — how much? Could be from, ohhhh, two bucks to two million. The range is nigh-infinite — whereupon with traditional, you tend to start at five grand at the low-end.

The Brenna Aubrey situation is an interesting one because at one level, it’s a strong thumbs-up for acting as your own publisher. And yet, it’s also a strong case for at least trying the traditional path first — she was willing to take the time to put a book out on submission and was therefore able to get a deal on the table and actually see the numbers they were offering (plus clauses and timeline) before turning it down. And hey, turning down a six-figure book-deal is a good way to generate press and energy for your own self-published release; I don’t say that cynically, I mean, very seriously, it’s a savvy move. A powerful way to distinguish herself amongst the glut of self-published releases (and that glut is woefully real).

All this is a conversation that focused very strongly on money, of course.

And here’s the Shyamalan Twist, because I think that muddles your decision as An Author With A Finished Book. Not to say money isn’t a consideration — publishing is very much a business decision, and undertaking that decision with money in mind is not only smart, but to ignore the financials might actually be considered positively lunkheaded.

I’m just saying — other considerations are afoot, here.

If you’re going to self-publish, do it because:

You like the freedom.

You like the control.

You think you can do this better and faster than traditional publishing.

You want to be a publisher as much as you want to be an author.

You have the time to dedicate to it.

You dig risks.

See, even in financial decisions, personal preference matters. If you were to put together an investment portfolio, one person might tell you that you’re young, so this is a good time for higher-risk, higher-return investment. Another might say to play it safe because slow and steady wins the race. particularly in an economy that just got rocked by a face-punch recession. A third might say, put a little risk here, a little safety there, and get a more diverse portfolio together for a good mix. It’s all about your comfort level.

Publishing’s that way, too.

Both forms of publishing — and the various derivations of each — offer a host of pluses and minuses that go well-beyond the two-dimensional thinking of how This Way is better than That Way and My Publishing can beat up Your Publishing.

Consult your gods, check your gut, and do what feels right.


      • His Subterranean Press deal pales in comparison to the S&S deal. Print-only are the holy grail in the hybrid world. I turned down a five-figure advance on a book and traded it in for a much lower one – but it was print-only and I was more than willing to take a lower advance to keep my audio and ebook rights.

      • I love publishers. I’ve signed over 40 deals with publishers all over the world. The Big 5 in the US are the ones I usually rail against. Though S&S was pretty awesome to offer me the deal they did.

  • So, using a scale of 100 (as I don’t want to pry too much), if you were to rate your Self-Publishing on that scale and your traditional on that scale, where do you think they would be?

  • Excellent post – loved your article in WD as well!

    IMO it all comes down to what *you* think is right for you. I’ve gotten weary of the name-calling between message boards and between factions of writers declaring THIS is the right way or that YOU must be a fool if you choose XXX. You have to choose your path and do what works for you. It might not be right for others but please don’t mock those who don’t choose your way – don’t we have enough enemies (usually in our minds!) already?

    Again, great post. Best of luck to Brenna!!!

  • One thing that kinda confuses me about this whole topic – great blog post, btw – is this:

    I’m a pro writer. My fourth and fifth traditionally published novels are out this year. I’m under contract for two more books. On top of that, I have another three planned to write this year.

    So… I don’t have *time* to be an author-publisher. Those books under contract are under contract to traditional publishing. The other three I have planned to write this year will be written, edited, edited by my agent, and I have every confidence that she will find the right home for them.

    When writing is a job, money HAS to be part of the consideration. Hugh Howey and Brenna Aubrey are outliers, so I’m really never sure what kind of lesson can be taken from their success stories.

    If I had the time to write a whole lot more than I already do, then I might try some author-publishing, but when looking at it in a risk-benefit kinda way, those three as-yet unwritten novels just HAVE to go via my agent, via traditional routes of publication. I may not be offered $120,000 as an advance… but I can pretty much guarantee I won’t earn $19,000 a month by self-publishing.

    The problem then arises when those who have found huge success being author publishers then say anybody can do it. But actually, that’s not true… and I do believe that, in reality, their own success was pretty much random chance. That’s not to say that they didn’t work hard and didn’t write quality content – but I know authors who have author-published, and promoted it as much as humanly possible, in some instances reaching a giant audience… and have sold 10 copies.

    There appears to be no way of controlling these factors with author-publishing. With traditional publishing, while you still can’t predict whether a book will be a bestseller or not, there is at least some kind of structure and control going on.

    • I don’t think it’s purely luck — other factors matter. Quality can matter. Genre can matter. (Some genres do very well in that arena; others do not, and few acolytes of self-publishing seem to acknowledge this as much as they should.) Audience, marketing, all that stuff can contribute. Luck is always a factor — as it is with how well a traditionally published book does, too — but it’s not the only one.

      Just the same, I think it’s important to find those earning a middle level of income as well as those folks who are failing and try to discern some lessons there, too.

      In some ways, this is why there’s safety in approaching traditional first, were one to feel a little averse to risk. Submit first and the book gets tested. It goes through submission and is vetted — if publishers offer low, you can turn it down. If publishers don’t offer at all *but* tell you they loved the book it’s just too strange for them, that’s a sign, too, that the book may still find life if you were to publish it yourself. If publishers uniformly reject it, well, then there’s a question if the book is really up to snuff for readers (then again, if the book’s agent liked it, maybe that’s an argument in favor of its value once again).

      I dunno. What I do know is that it’s a brave new world and a lot of options exist, and those options aren’t even as simple as DO ONE OR THE OTHER. It can be “try both,” even with a single piece of work.

      • Those are all excellent points and examples. But weirdly, the only thing I’m getting out of this is: nobody knows how it works. Brenna Aubrey has gone a particular route and done really well. What does this tell us? Actually, probably nothing. Same with Hugh. Same with a lot of other big hitters. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be examining this whole phenomenon (which is precisely what we are doing), but it feels like a lot of data about not much.

        If one of those books I mentioned I was going to write this year did, for example, get a $120,000 offer from one of the Big Five, there is absolutely no way in hell I would think “Actually, I’ll be better off self-publishing this,” and turn the offer down. Just like I can guarantee there is absolutely no way in hell that book would then earn $19,000 in a month.

        Then again… Brenna’s book did. But then, as you mention, look at the genre – New Adult contemporary romance. Romance and related genres seem to do very well in the author-published world.

        Does that mean we’re a bit stuck if we’re writing SF or fantasy, simple by the very nature of the audience and market?

        • Well, sci-fi — space opera or hard SFF — I think do well. (I dunno if Marko Kloos is around, but maybe he can share some info re: TERMS OF ENLISTMENT.)

          As for nobody knows — well, yes! That’s exactly it. We have ideas. And we can say with some certitude that X offers this advantage, Y offers this advantage, but in terms of actual success? Actual money? We get no guarantees, just varying ways to maximize our chances. Same as someone has to decide whether or not they’re going to be the CEO of a company or start their own. Open a restaurant or open a catering company? Who knows? A lot of it really comes down to personal feelings — which is what this wordy blog post was trying to suggest in its hamfisted way — and what particular methodologies or pathways suit the kind of person you are.

          It’s why demonizing traditional publishing — though it has its faults! — has always struck me as dangerous and assumptive. It fits a lot of people’s time and character. Same with self-publishing! All options are good to have!

          — c.

        • I don’t know much about fantasy, but SF is hot right now. And self-publishers dominate the Amazon SF bestseller list. See A.G. Riddle, B. V. Larson, Hugh Howey…

          I’m self-pubbed, and I’ve got one in the Science Fiction Top-100 right now.

          You aren’t stuck.

          • Good point. Although I got into the SF top *5* with one of my trad published novels, and it sure didn’t earn $18,000 that month.

            Looking back at my posts, it seems like I’m complaining about one side or the other. I’m not, though – my traditionally published novels are doing just well, and I find author-publishing a fascinating opportunity.

          • I’m not sure I would agree that SF Is hot right now – I think it is hot for self-published authors ;-) But both my agent, two other agents I know, and publisher told me that SF is tough sell in traditional publishing atm. Space Operat and Military Sci-fi are still okay but many other types are being passed on regularly. My publisher passed on my time-travel classic sci-fi tale, and while I got a nice five-figure advance from another publisher, I decide to pass on it and instead took a much smaller advance with a company that took only the print rights. To me I really wanted to keep the audio and ebook rights and I was willing to take a smaller advance to do so.

          • Hi Michael,

            When I say “hot,” I mean for readers. There is a lot of unmet reader demand for new voices and stories.

            However, I do think the failure of traditional publishing agents and editors to respond to that demand effectively may indeed be making SF an easier arena for indie writers to dominate.

        • “Just like I can guarantee there is absolutely no way in hell that book would then earn $19,000 in a month.”

          You may think that…and I did too when I was self published and yet I had months where I was earning $45,000 – $55,000 a month. I got my “actual” contract after my sales went wild and that six-figure deal didln’t look nearly as good in those conditions. I ran the numbers and figured I would lose about $200,000 – $250,000 if I signed. But I did so anyway because I thought it would be good for my brand. As it turns out,I had a lot of foreign sales, and really good audio sales, so I did actually make more money traditional, but had that subsidiary money not come in. My prediction would have run just about right.

    • I’m also a pro writer…but I guess I look at things a bit differently. When I write a book I have no idea whether it will be self or traditionally published. It depends on the deal I’m offered. For me, I’d rather go traditional because there is less for me to do. But if the offer isn’t right…I’ll walk away and do it through self. So while we are in similar situations regarding “books not yet written” I say don’t assume those are going to go traditional it might make better sense financially to them self. It really depends on what is being offered.

      I personally don’t get into the “books under contract” scenario. I finish all books in a series – then sell the set. Yeah that’s not the smart way to do it. But I don’t like to be in a situation where I owe someone a book and I have no idea how it will come out and if I’ll write something that I want to sell.

      • Those are good points – although it sounds like you don’t have an agent? Please correct me if I’m wrong. I’m a firm believer in the value of agents, and I really wouldn’t want to do anything without mine.

        The books under contract thing does offer a nice bit of security – I sold one completed book, and then later my editor asked if I had thought about doing more in the same universe. We had a chat, he bought two more on the back of our discussion.

        While that makes me obligated to write these two novels, I don’t see that as a bad thing. I don’t quite follow your final point – I have no idea how the current work-in-progress will come out either, but there are two things: 1, I know how to write novel-length fiction; and 2, writing is a job. I can’t spend three months writing a 100,000 word novel, then say “oh, this didn’t come out well, never mind” and scrap it and start something else.

        Unless I’ve misunderstood what you said?

        • Actually I have 5 agents ;-)

          * Riyria US & foreign
          * Riyria television/movie
          * Hollow World US
          * Hollow World foreign
          * Hollow World television/movie

          I’d rather give up security for freedom. I can’t stand to have anyone tell me what to do when. And in reality, I’m not even giving up much in the way of security…as if a book I write isn’t picked up by the publisher, I’ll just go self and have a high degree of confidence it will do fine. For instance Hollow World brought in $30,000 from it’s Kickstarter. I’ve sold audio rights to it for 2.5 times what the audio rights for Riyria sold for, I’ve sold one foreign deal for it, and I’ll make 100% of the ebook royalty and more than twice as much of the audio royalty.

          We are both in agreement on your last points…(a) knowing how to write novel length fiction and (b) writing as a job. But where we disagree with is what to do if something doesn’t come out the way we want it to. I can…and have…deep sixed that 100,000 word novel because I didn’t think it was “good enough.” I was SO GLAD that it wasn’t under contract because there really was no way to make it “right” and I just won’t put out something that I’m not 1000% pleased with. Am I sorry I’m going to miss that income…sure. But I would be even more upset to have it come out and people complain about how terrible it was. That money lost is not worth the potential hit to my reputation.

          Now in some respects, it’s easier for me to deep-six a novel then it is for you (I stashed away a very large nest egg and haven’t had to hit it yet, in fact it has grown since I went full-time) So I’m not living “book to book” which it sounds like you might be doing. But that’s part of my whole point. Traditional publishing, as it exists now makes authors be in this constant treading water and really hard to get a head. Sure after many books (9 – 10) you might start to pull ahead but the per book income on self makes it oh so much easier to be self-sufficient. ESPECIALLY if you have done some traditional and therefore have a following to tap.

          I agree with Hugh what this woman did was much harder than what I and he did because when faced with a big contract and the decision to sign or walk…we had really good self-publishing money to fall back on. She was flying without a net.

          Bottom line, I know more self-published authors that earn full time income then I do traditionally published ones. It’s hard to earn well in either path, but being hybrid means I can pick and choose at will. I’m pretty happy about that.

  • One tiny finger-shake at you Chuck. In your comparison of average incomes from the three models, you list traditional, hybrid, and self, with a vastly lower income rate for the self publishing route. To be fair, the traditional and hybrid camps have all had their work vetted to be of some threshold quality, while the self-pubbed group includes income earned by those crayon-pushing psychoids who don’t bother with punctuation and think editors are all get-rich-quick artists. And those weirdos make up a disproportionally large component of the selfie population. It would be very interesting to see what the average income was for self publishers who meet some minimum quality assurance threshold, although I concede that this is not readily available data.

    • Well, sure — but there the problem is, how exactly do you create that minimum quality threshold? It’s almost entirely subjective. And it’s also worth noting that some fairly bad self-published releases have gone on to do well — even VERY well. Once in a while I’ll pick something from the Top 20 in a category if it’s cheap or whatever and check it out — and some of it is genuinely awful stuff. Bad formatting, tons of errors, etc. So, the problem is, I don’t know how you really get that kind of data in terms of separating wheat from chaff amongst author-publishers.

      Also: points for the phrase “crayon-pushing psychoids.” Not necessarily in reference to authors, just in the purity of the phrasing! I plan on stealing that.

      — c.

    • If we do that, then to be fair we have to include all the people who submit non-punctuated crayon missives to traditional publishing. Because this discussion is not about gatekeeping, whatever one’s opinion may be of it. It’s about money, and people who want to get it in exchange for writing things.

      This will lower the average income of writers in the tradpub camp rather faster than including Crayola Manifestos, or their digital equivalents, will lower the average income of indiepubs. If you want to talk about who’s more likely to get money for writing things, counting the “zeroes” in the tradpub column will add up really, really fast.

  • There’s a built-in bias to every comparative study I’ve seen of trad-pub earnings versus self-pub earnings. The trad-pub “averages” fail to include all the trad-pub aspirants who never made it past the slush pile and earned zero.

  • I’m only just delving into the world of self-publishing. It’s still all shiny and new enough that I’m thrilled to have about 20 sales under my belt. Not a whole lot of money, especially considering the smaller pay scale of Amazon’s publishing. Certainly not enough to quit my day job and do this full time.

    That’s the dream, of course.

    My (very newbie) experiences: I like the freedom of not having to publish on a schedule, dislike the fact that I have to push my own product. I don’t really have to go far or pay much to find cover designers and editors; I have enough contacts and friends in the industry that I can lean on, or trade editing services with, so I’m fortunate there.

    Success, to me, is incremental. At least right now. I feel successful having sold the handful I have. So far, my publishing income is (I think) far less than $100, but it feels great to have *some* income. At the beginning of a career, it’s awesome. I don’t think further along I’d feel as satisfied as I do now, however, with the finances or the exposure.

  • I write full time now. Started back in August 2013. And the only way I can afford to do this is because I have a ton of self-published titles under a pen name. They are crap in the “put it there, baby!” genre. But they make money. Not enough to live on though, which is why I have contracts with a publisher for four novels. The advances were small, but the turnaround to when they are published is fast. This means I can pay back those small advances quickly and start earning on royalties. And the royalty percentage is great! I used all of this to leverage an eight book deal with another publisher and got the same royalty percentage and advances. But if I still self-published I wouldn’t have time to write everything I need to write. That’s the rub. Money is an unquantifiable element, whether self-publishing or traditional or hybrid. But time? Time is the same for every writer. We all only get 24 hours in our days. It’s up to the individual writer to use that time the best way they can. I use my time to write now and let the publishers sort out the editing/cover design/marketing (to a point)/gladiator battles in the Inrgram warehouse. That’s their job. My job is to write.

    • Short stories aren’t exactly money-makers, so, if after a year you hit $100, you’re in comfy territory (in my mind). That’s less true of a novel, though — that starts to look like flea market money. I know there’s a school of thought that says, “Hey, it’s better than making nothing with a book no publisher would touch,” and I guess that’s an argument, but it’s so close to zero I’m not sure it’s worth it.

      That said, that’s the perspective of me, a professional writer. I might feel differently if I weren’t at all serious about this, but then again, if you’re not serious, why are you publishing at all? (The royal “you,” not the “you that is Maggie.”)

      • YMMV, honestly. I wasn’t expecting to make big bank. Like I said, at this point (the just-starting-out end of the career spectrum) I’m thrilled to death with any sales at all. I’d *like* to quit my day job, but I have to be realistic with mouths to feed and such. I’m nowhere near able to sit down full-time with this as my only job. I’d be more willing to take a risk like that if there weren’t three mini-mes demanding I fill their bellies with cookies and cake.

        It’s a learning experience. I’m just starting up the curve. Can’t wait to get on the more exciting loops and bends, tbqh. :)

        • Oh, no doubt. I just mean, if you have a novel, and you at least take a chance on it with traditional, the advance earned is gonna be a lot more than a hundred bucks. That hundred bucks won’t go very far — but five grand is a different animal.

          Now, that said, some genres do so well in self-publishing, I’d say self-publishing is just as potential a shot IF you’re the kind of person who can do all the appropriate PUBLISHING-FLAVORED tasks.

  • Chuck,
    Great post! I am planning on doing the same (hybrid publishing) after I create more content. I figure a few more books down the road I will start looking at trad publishing. I think it’s a great idea to do both.

  • Also if you really are concerned about control and speed of publishing, then self pub is the way to go. Once you learn the ins and outs of doing it yourself it becomes very easy to do.

    • I’ve been running a small publishing operation (publishing my own work, but also the work of others) for a decade now. I assure you, that even if you’ve learned the “ins and outs”, it’s never “very easy.” At least not if you plan on doing it WELL.

      • I would say that, depending on your operation, it can become quite simple, but simple and easy are not well correlated in this regard. (And lots of others.)

        It’s kind of like how “formulaic” is often used as an insult, which irritates me. I love me a good formulaic space opera, for instance, in that I’m perfectly okay with it following the formula as long as it is implemented well. Of course I know that Flash Rogers will get the girl and prevail over evil Princess Ming, but that she will get away to scheme another day. Not a problem. Just make the journey fun. Writing potboiler space operas (or mysteries, or whatever) is very simple, but it is not easy. At least not to write good ones.

  • The good news about self publishing is you have entire control over your entire writing business. The bad news about self publishing is you have entire control over your entire writing business.

  • Although this has nothing to do with the post, I wanted to let you know I’ve just bought the Kick-Ass Writer after hearing you mention it a couple of times. I’m very excited to read it and I look forward to you sharing more of your kick-ass wisdom :)

  • I don’t think I’m detail oriented enough or have the wherewithal to self publish novels, at least at current. Maybe if I got one under my belt in the trade market, and then carefully built my own team of Avengers after, I’d give it a go. It is important to emphasize (as you do) that everybody has to decide what works best for THEM.

  • Hybrid author here…but one that still has to grovel for copywriting and ghostwriting gigs to pay the bills, so take this post with a grain of salt perhaps. My self ublished titles never sold well until I landed a contract with a small press (Severed). Almost instantly, my self pubbed titles atrting gaining a bit of steam.

    I know this all comes down to the skewed science of landing on “Customers Also brought” lists on Amazon, but I thought it was worth pointing out. I think hybrid is absolutely the way to go and that within 2-3 the market is going to be dominated with them.

    I touch on this briefly in this post:

    • The worry there is that success in the self-pub realm has occasionally relied upon gaming the system. Which is a shame, and short sells the potency of actually being your own author-publisher.

  • Personally, I can see myself ending up a hybrid author because while my novels might benefit from trad pubbing, I can’t see my poetry finding a home there. I’m releasing that myself this month, or one collection anyway, and so far the process has been very easy. Poetry by unknown poets would be homeless without indie publishing, I think.

  • The elephant in the room is the amount of time it takes to get an agent or a publisher. I don’t know about you, Chuck, but most accounts I’ve read report ten years or more.
    A decade of sending queries and collecting rejections just to get a paltry advance that may not earn out.
    By the time ten years are out, if I live that long, as a self-published author and at my current income level, I will have earned that advance more than ten times over..In two years I’ve already earned more than twice any conceivable advance for a new author and i don’t do anything in the way of marketing.
    I’ll stick with self-publishing.
    (BTW, I write in more than one genre, I’m finishing a. mystery/detective at the moment and I have a non-fiction book in the works.)

    • Ten years or more? With one book? That would be absurd. With multiple books — ehh, maybe, but then you gotta ask if the books you’re trying to put out there are actually worth publishing (by you or anyone) or if they’re best reserved as trunk novels.

      BLACKBIRDS took me five years to write.

      Barely no time to get an agent.

      Over a year to get published.

      And it’s been worth it. Financially, emotionally, everything.

      Since publishing that book I’ve published, what, ten books traditionally? And I’m writing a whole lot more now. And this past year was my most successful, financially.

      If you’re including the “years where I actually had to learn to be a writer” in “getting an agent,” fine, but that’s a stretch. You might as well include most of my 37 years on this earth in that journey.

      To be clear, I’m not knocking your choice of self-publishing. If that’s your bag, carry it proudly. But others may want to do differently.

      • Perhaps I’m wrong, if so, feel free to correct me, but from reading your blog I get the impression that BLACKBIRDS is not the first novel you’ve published traditionally.
        Therefore you would have had a track record and an easier path to success and landing an agent.
        I’m talking about the writer who has written multiple books over a long period, submitted them for publication, and been rejected over and over until one of the novels gets accepted. They may have a “trunk full” of novels that have been rejected.
        Once you’re given the nod,by the traditional publishing world, the path to success becomes much smoother.
        From your blog and your clever use of words it’s not surprising you might have achieved success but not everyone is the word-smith you are. We have to learn over time and readers are a good measure of our skills.
        It’s no accident that some writers make a living by writing books on how to write a query letter. If the route to traditional publishing was so easy, then why are there so many articles and books on how to land an agent?
        The nod from an agent or publisher involves more than simple good writing and editing.. Agents and publishers are motivated by money just as we are.
        No matter how well you write, if the infrastructure doesn’t view the result as a valuable property, they’re not going to purchase it so you may as well self-publish it.
        One other thing.
        I’m seventy years old. I began writing at age sixty-six. Do you think i have the screw around waiting for an agent?

        • BLACKBIRDS was my first original novel. DOUBLE DEAD is a work-for-hire (essentially freelance) novel.

          I’m not that much of a wordsmith — but I am a writer and a capable one and most capable writers find a niche, either in traditional or self-publishing.

          If self-publishing is your bag, like I said: go you. No shame, no harm, no foul. But the traditional realm is not to my experience as restrictive or as cruel as people seem to think that it is. It’s wildly imperfect, but it’s full of people who love books and book culture and are trying to make a living in that culture.

          • Just to add my own experience here – I wrote three novels. Each took 6-9 months. Empire State was the third one, which I sold to Angry Robot without an agent. That sale took maybe 6 months from when they asked to see it to them making the offer. They asked to see it because I had made friends with their editor 2 years before on Twitter.

            They also bought the second book I wrote – Seven Wonders. The first one is trunked, permanently – that’s my learning novel. Ain’t nobody gonna see that!

            Although I did it backwards (book contract first), I then got my agent in two hours. Chuck introduced me to her, because I had become friends with Chuck on Twitter and I had some agenty-type questions. We talked by email, she answered my questions, she asked to see what my Angry Robot sale was, so I sent her the manuscript. Two hours later, she sent back a representation contract.

            From that point on, each sale my agent has represented has taken from a couple of weeks to a maybe a couple of months, if that.

            All of which is a roundabout way of me saying – every writer’s path is different. Mine seems to have cut out some of the traditional steps. Some people take ten years to get an agent, and I know people who have an agent but then, after ten years, have yet to have a book sale (although I think that might say more about their agent, actually!).

            Which also applies to author-publishing too – some people find success, some don’t. It’s a good fit for some authors. It’s not for others.

    • Yeah, but some of that time is going to be spent no matter which way you go. If you take into consideration King’s 1,000,000 words that are practice or Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to get proficient there is a lot of initial writing that is thrown away before you get your writing to a level of quality to get out in the world.

      I spend a decade writing 12 novels – 8 of which were “practice.” And yes during many of those years I was trying to get an agent and getting no where – but then again the writing level probably wasn’t at a point where they should have been picked up.

      • “Yeah, but some of that time is going to be spent no matter which way you go. If you take into consideration King’s 1,000,000 words that are practice or Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to get proficient there is a lot of initial writing that is thrown away before you get your writing to a level of quality to get out in the world.

        I spend a decade writing 12 novels – 8 of which were “practice.” And yes during many of those years I was trying to get an agent and getting no where – but then again the writing level probably wasn’t at a point where they should have been picked up.”

        This is why sometimes I tend to seem more cautious about self-publishing — in this JUST CLICK PUBLISH environment, we’re not necessarily encouraging writers to take this kind of time with their work. It’s like, “Hey, it’s done? Publish that sumbitch! Look at all these success stories!” — meanwhile, they’re putting sub-par half-formed material by writers who haven’t really taken the time to learn how to do this thing.

        Which is, honestly, bad for readers. Readers deserve the best we can give them, not a book that’s worth more than a shrug-and-a-thumbs-up.

        — c.

        • Yeah I’ve noticed that about you ;-) And it is a very good point…there are some self-published authors that don’t exercise proper restraint and realize that “can” doesn’t mean “should.” My perspective is I don’t even count those people – their work essentially doesn’t exist. No reader will find it lurking at the bottom of the pile, they won’t get word of mouth sales. It is as invisible as the manuscript that didn’t make it through the query-go-round and is in reality exactly the same level as that stuff not getting picked up in the query go round.

          When I talk about self-publishing I’m always talking about the self-pubber who is a professional. Or to use your term those that really are author-publishers and accept all the rights and responsibilities that go with that. So in my circle of SP I’m dealing with the top tiers…but then again when I’m dealing with traditionally published authors – I’m also dealing with top tiers as they wouldn’t have made it through the query-go-round and the publication process if they didn’t have “the right stuff.”

          I agree 100% with the readers deserve the best we can give them…which is also why I don’t sign contracts for books not yet written. I don’t want to get to get 1/2 way in or worse yet to the end and say – this just isn’t working but because I’m contractually obligated to deliver it – I do the best I can which isn’t the best it could be.

          Both systems have their issues with putting stuff out without the luxury of time. Self because they are impatient, and traditional because they are under deadline.

          • Here’s where this can affect people, though, and here’s why I’m not sold that the glut isn’t a problem — a glut that’s less about sheer number of books (because traditional has that glut, too), but more about the unprofessionality that comes with it.

            I no longer solicit promo space here for self-published authors. (Unless I know the author, or unless they are also a hybrid author and can point to other releases in that space.)


            Any time I open the door to self-pubbers, I get a TIDE of bad stuff. Crappy books, unprofessional emails, people who don’t listen to the (already not that strict) submission guidelines — and they outnumber the good books 10:1. I know I’m not the only person this happens to. Reviewers and other promo sources report the same. And I just don’t have time to deal with picking through the poop trying to look for pearls. This is a very real case of bad apples spoiling the batch.

            And it only continues to make self-publishing look like a joke. HAR HAR YOU DON’T NEED TO DO IT RIGHT JUST WRITE IT AND PUBLISH IT YOU MIGHT MAKE TONS OF MONEY SOMETHING SOMETHING LOTTERY TICKET. And meanwhile respectable author-publishers have to try to counter that tide.

            (Now, to be clear, I’ve never gotten a vibe from you that this should be anything other than a professional, kick-ass endeavor. I’m not pointing any fingers at you — I’m just talking about why I’m not sold that the unprofessional glut isn’t an issue.)

            — c.

        • Readers deserve the best we can give them, not a book that’s worth more than a shrug-and-a-thumbs-up.

          I know you didn’t mean it this way, but I read that and I immediately go right to “Then nobody should ever publish a book, ever, because there is no book which is the ‘best’ we can write.”

          There is a difference between “the best I can do ever” and “the best I can do right now.” Admittedly, sometimes the best I can do right now is just plumb flat straight (Or is that straight flat plumb? I can never remember the order. Bad flatbilly! No biscuits!) not good enough. And those go in the trunk. But just because the thing isn’t the best I can do ever doesn’t mean it might not please some people and astonish the rest. If it’s not in crayon, you know how to use a comma, and “continuity” means more to you than not peeing your pants at inappropriate times, you should probably consider taking your shot.

          • There exists a wide gulf between “the best we can give them” and “perfection,” though.

            I aspire to more than just “not in crayon, knows comma use.”

        • As Michael said, the oft-cited “tsunami of crap” from self-publishing is largely invisible to readers. Those books sink without a trace. A hundred million more crappy books could be released tomorrow and they would also sink without a trace.

          Drawing an analogy from the mobile game-and-app world, we’ve passed the “fart app” stage of self-publishing in books, too.

          Right now, 20-25% of the best-selling, best-reviewed books by any reader-focused metric (Amazon bestseller lists, Goodreads scores, fan counts etc.) are self-published. That number is only going to grow.

          I feel your pain, Chuck. I can imagine the inbox bombardment you get from eager self-pubbers who haven’t done their homework, haven’t honed their craft, haven’t hired a great editor, a superb cover designer, etc.

          But I don’t think many *readers* are seeing or buying those indifferently-self-published books anymore.

          The “tsunami of crap” is really only a problem for bloggers like you.

          And, because of guilt-by-association, it’s an annoyance for the emerging generation of indie writers who chose not to bother with the agent/trad-pub route, but who are every bit as “pro” as their trad-pub counterparts.

          • That’s not it at all. You’re missing the larger problem. If I am an author with a book that is NOT crap, it’s hard to distinguish myself — because I CAN’T get on blogs like this one. Do you see? Authors with strong, capable self-published books are shut out of a lot of review or promo outlets *because* those outlets have closed doors to ALL self-published authors.

            It’s not a problem for me as a blogger. It doesn’t hurt me. What do I care if I don’t post your self-published promo page? It’s actually a whole lot EASIER for me as a blogger to dismiss an entire class of published authors — less work, less worry.

            It’s a problem for me as a sometimes self-published writer.

            And readers *totally* see the difference. I don’t buy that. I was talking about this with an aunt of mine a while back — she was surfing Amazon and found some cheaper self-pub books that looks professional. And she read them and thought they were terrible. Error-riddled and poor story and whatever. She *became* aware of it because of these books — some of which were showing up on Top 20 lists at that site.

            I’ve seen way too many good self-published books fall by the wayside because they have fewer outlets to distinguish themselves, to stand out, to promote, to be reviewed, to be interviewed. It’s not a problem for the bloggers, it’s a problem for the writers. Discoverability is already hard enough for writers of every stripe. This just doubles down.

          • I think we’re mostly saying the same thing.

            Because of the “tsunami of crap” perception, it’s true that strong, capable self-published books are often kept out of *industry* review and promo outlets.

            It means simply means that we have to leap a higher bar to get discovered… But there are some serious advantages that indies have over their trad-pub brethren that can help offset that, too.

            Chuck, I didn’t say that readers don’t see the difference between crap and quality. They do. They totally do. If we put out crap, they’ll tear us to fucking pieces in twelve seconds flat, whether we’re indie or trad-published. Crap is crap.

            What I meant is that readers aren’t seeing those crappy books period anymore, because the Amazon, etc. ranking algorithms bury them so deep so fast. But per your counterexample, perhaps the problem is a bigger issue for some categories of books than others.

            Still, it’s instructive that your aunt neither knew nor cared that the book was self-published until she realized they were crap, and asked, “Who would publish such a POS?”

            So, unfortunately, most of the time readers find out about self-publishing, it’s because the self-published book they read was bad.

            But I’m pretty sure we’ll see that change in 2014.

          • “What I meant is that readers aren’t seeing those crappy books period anymore, because the Amazon, etc. ranking algorithms bury them so deep so fast. But per your counterexample, perhaps the problem is a bigger issue for some categories of books than others.”

            Maybe? Problem is, a lot of good books get buried this way, too. In my experience the Amazon algorithms are more an enemy than a friend these days.

            — c.

          • But hasn’t that always been true about books and writing, even in the days before Amazon?

            The impression I get is that plenty of good books have alway stalled in the trad-pub slush piles and querying processes, too.

  • I’m a screenwriter. I have almost very little control over whether a screenplay of mine becomes a film. It takes a lot of money and a lot of people saying “yes” to make that happen.

    I started writing a novel because I wanted a faster route to an audience. The last thing I want to deal with is more gatekeepers. I am still writing my trilogy, still on the first book, but I will publish it myself because I don’t want to wait for anyone else’s permission.

  • I feel like the best approach would be to start off in traditional publishing so that you can build your audience before moving to self-publishing, if you want to self-publish at all. I’m mostly saying this because personally, I just don’t trust self-published books. I know it’s not fair to judge a book before I read it, but buying a book can be a risk as well. Admittedly, most ebooks are pretty cheap, but I’m poor, so five dollars wasted on a piece of shit book is five dollars that I could have used to buy something useful. Like caffeine pills.

    • It’s been my experience as both a reader and a writer that–as long as a particular book is well written, well-edited, and professionally packaged–most readers outside the industry don’t notice whether it’s self-published or Big-5 published. And more importantly, they don’t care.

      • I notice… Trad published ebooks are more expensive, rarely lendable, and can be found at my library… So I buy mostly self-published books, get my trad published books either as eARCs, borrow from libraries, borrow from friends, or when they go on major sale by retailer discounting LOL. But outside of romance & SFF fans who have favorite publishers I agree the average reader doesn’t have a clue & given so many bestseller list include self-published books it is mattering less & less.

        • Fun story.

          I don’t think anyone here is arguing that who the publisher is, or if a book is self-published or not, matters to readers.

          Harlequin and yellow-spined DAW are the rare exception of a publisher brand that readers even notice or are aware of.

          If I polled my readers about who my publisher was, they would probably scratch their heads and say, “I dunno. Hatchet Penguin or Random & Shoestore or somebody?”

          Even bookstores don’t care about publisher branding. I’ve got Ingram-distributed hardbacks and trade paperbacks on the shelves of Barnes & Noble stores that have no publisher logo on the spine at all.

          The author is the brand. The publisher is just a packaging company nobody outside the industry cares about.

    • I agree with you…but sometimes that’s just not possible. My Riyria books were turned down by all the various houses, picked up by a small press (that essentially went under) so when I got the rights back, I could continue to shop it around, or self-publish. I chose self-publishing and it was there that I found and built my audience….then…when it came time to knock on New York doors again, the series got a much different reception. 14 publishers got the manuscript, 7 expressed immediate interest, and one made a pre-emptive deal to stem the auction. What changed? The books were essentially the same that had been rejected before, but they were now vetted by readers and that gave the project a lot more weight with the publishers..

      • Publishers don’t like to admit it, but books which are approved by readers are more likely to be accepted by publishers than books which are accepted by publishers are to be accepted by readers.

        This is not slamming publishers. It’s just a statement of how the world works. Publishers aren’t stupid (usually.) If people have already expressed an interest in buying it, that is huge. Whereas it’s self-evident that just because a publisher thought it was good enough to publish doesn’t mean that readers are guaranteed to buy it.

  • It’s no secret that I was within inches of walking from a six-figure contract for the exact same reasons that this author was…issues over non-compete and when and how I could release other books. After nearly six months we finally got a contract that was defanged to the point where I could put pen to paper. And my second contract had to be equally carefully constructed to allow for self-publishing possibilities. Publishers are going to start adjusting their business practices in this regard or more authors will slip through their fingers. But…given that there is a huge supply of author wannabes waiting in the wings to fill the small numbers of slots, maybe they won’t have to change…just find an author who is willing to concede to their demands….but it won’t be me ;-)

    • Yeah, so far my agent has been able to defang all the toxic boilerplate stuff — and it saddens and amazes me that the boilerplate bullshit is still in there, though I guess there’s a business argument that those things are there as easy targets so you don’t go after other more lucrative concerns. But if she’s ever unable to cut that stuff free, I’ll walk away from a contract, too (I mean, unless they’re offering me Lifechanging Money — then they can own my ass for the duration!).

      That’s one of the things I love most about self-publishing: the existence of the option. It’s another door. Another chance. Another way forward when the other way is blocked. Not just as a default second option — I mean as an equal and interesting choice.

  • Thanks for an interesting post (and discussion in comments). Traditional publishing and self publishing is a hot topic at the moment in South Africa, where I’m from. I’m a manuscript developer, writer, coordinator of a literary festival and also give writing courses. (I keep telling the young ones to buy your books on writing – and shock them totally first time I refer to one of your many 25 “rules”. *evil laugh*) In South Africa we don’t have literary agents. Writers submit their manuscripts to publishers on their own. No one to check your contract and fight for a better deal. But no one to take a share of between 10 – 15% royalties. (As a manuscript developer I help wannabe writers to get their manuscripts and stories ready for submission. Although a lot don’t submit after they receive my report. Wonder why?) We have about 5 publishing houses that focus on Afrikaans books. But because the choice between publishers isn’t that big, a lot of writers won’t ever get published the traditional way. For example: they (traditional publishers) don’t publish any science fiction or fantasy in Afrikaans. So you have to go the self publish way for that. The problem with that, of course, is that we don’t have as many readers in Afrikaans as you have, so writers must have a seriously strong following on social network. I’m still waiting on someone to make it BIG TIME as a Afrikaans self published author.

  • This is a really interesting post and after writing a massive essay in the comments I deleted it and changed tactics. So, now I’ve made it into Thursday’s blog post instead.

    In a nutshell though, I think if you’re hybrid you have:

    1. More fans from more diverse places who are less likely to care – all those areas you have access to as a trad author but which are barred to self publishers, some review sites, some national press, some book shops.
    2. The endorsement of the establishment without the financial constraints.
    3. You can sidestep the prejudice against self published authors.

    Hybrid is certainly where I want to be eventually. Watch this space….. for a very long time… phnark.



  • Thanks for this post, Chuck. I’m bookmarking it, so that I can refer back to it when the time comes for me to approach this subject without hyperventilating and thinking about becoming a meerkat farmer instead.

    My first full-length novel (as in, I actually got to the END of this one – woohoo!) is still in the rewriting/fixing stage. I sort of get the feeling, from various circles, that I *should* be making decisions about things like getting an agent, querying publishers versus self-publishing and all that malarkey round about now… but it seems way too early for me to even be THINKING about those things while I don’t yet have a product I’m anywhere near happy with. I feel like I’m still learning How To Write A Novel That’s Not Crap, and I’d have thought passing that part of the course was something of a must before moving on to the Advanced Novel-Flogging part of the curriculum.

    Do I have to be more business-brained about this? Should I really be giving all this stuff serious consideration even now, like a lot of people are telling me?

  • I’m pretty new to romance writing, a complete beginner now that I’m retired from teaching here in Glasgow,
    It seems kind of scary all this contract stuff but the idea of a really big offer like that? For a first book?

    I’m not trying to cause offense but I’ve really been thinking about this and I’m conflicted…what evidence is there that Brenna Aubrey was made such on offer? Could this just be a clever PR exercise to sell her book?

  • Actually, she didn’t do it for the press. While she was reviewing the contract to make the decision and weigh the benefits versus the risks she had Courtney Milan on the phone going over the contract with her. According to what Brenna said on the self-pub loop the main reason she turned it down was the non-compete clause. Her secondary issues with the contract were price points and the payment schedule but she was willing to deal with the schedule if other things fell into place. Brenna mentioned that she wants to become a hybrid author if and when there’s a contract that she can accept as the right contract for her. Personally, I’d love to traditionally publish my work but I wasn’t willing to put my writing career on hold by continuing to submit and wait or hear answers like, “We’d be interested if you changed x, y, and z,” only to spend a shitload of time making those changes with no guarantees and just another rejection. I’m not a fast writer. I know that about myself and I’m okay with that. It takes however long it takes to build your skill level and speed. Quality is my first consideration and goal. Once both toddlers are in school I’ll write manuscripts to submit to New York and continue to self-publish others. I’m not making a ton of money or even enough to be comfortably mid-list. If I’m being honest… this past year was a loss. I have a ten year business plan for writing. There is no one true path for how to become a successful author. Everyone gets there in their own way and their own time. I don’t think what she did was lunkheaded. Without any of us really seeing the details of the contract we can only go by her commentary and anecdotal information. I agree with you that it’s wonderful that authors now have options we didn’t have years ago and that publishers may end up losing out by their own inflexible mindset where contracts are concerned. Another recent point is Stephanie Laurens but granted she has a huge following and well established brand before she decided to walk. Brenna did what she thought was best for her career as a writer. End of story.

  • Oh, and one more thing. Just a tiny bit of reality since we’re talking money when really (and I know you’ve voiced this sentiment too) it’s about the love of books. Reading them. Writing them. It’s awesome. That’s why you do it. It’s the only reason you do it because there are no guarantees and it’s been said more times than I can count: there are easier and faster ways to make a buck. Let’s face it… the $100K deal for a debuting author is like a rare bird from Africa on the endangered species list. Coo-coo-ca-choo. So if you’re in it for the money, don’t quit your day job and know that you might make more at McDonald’s. Just saying. Here’s a better picture of what it really looks like to be a traditionally published debuting author: Most writers already know this is the scenario that most debuting authors are handed but I wanted to post it anyway because I dislike when information is censored. It’s still available via webcache but unfortunately the author had to take it down per her publisher’s request. A writer’s gotta do what a writer’s gotta do. If they run the numbers and think they can do better more power to them. It all boils down to personal choice whether we’re talking about $5K, $10K, or $100K. Ultimately, an author needs to know what the fine print means and be comfortable with what they are sacrificing or giving up in exchange for their contract as well as what they stand to gain by signing on the dotted line.

  • Two points to make here:

    1. I think we will have a lot of interesting data over the next five years when you look at the royalty amount for a traditionally-published book vs. the five year income a self-published book may make. In some cases, the traditionally-published book may earn out more, but over time, I think if you are an established hybrid writer, you’re going to start to get better long-term earnings with your self-published endeavors. We all know that marketing, print runs, etc. tend to be much shorter in the traditional model. So while Breanna Aubrey may have earned $19,000 he first month, how about at the end of her first year? Five years? I think a book doing that well, over time will out-earn the royalty that was offered.

    2. I agree that being traditionally published first makes sense as it does raise your “brand” (i.e. your name) to an accepted standard above the sea of drivel in self-publishing. Unfortunately, with the draconian contracts, new writers are hesitant to even bother with traditional publishers. I suppose you could consider your first few books as loss leaders, losing most of your rights, but that’s hardly an attractive option. Especially if you write in the current “hot” genres.

    • Hi Judy,

      I question whether being traditionally published actually raises any capable writer’s “brand” in the eyes of readers. It has been my experience that as long as a self-published book is written, edited, and presented as professionally as any traditionally-published book, the vast majority of readers won’t notice that it’s self-published. Or even care. It only seems to matter to people who work in the publishing industry.

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