Reminder: In Publishing, There Is No Debate

So, I guess someone hosted a debate about blah blah blah, Is Amazon Your Friend or Is Amazon Your Enemy or something-something mumble-mumble Which Flavor Of Publishing Is Most Bestest. (I think Laura Hazard Owen said it best with: “Four brave white men decide future of publishing.” A headline that had me literally laugh out loud.)

I didn’t watch the debate because I have more important things to do. Like write books. Or horse around on Twitter. Or eat my own hands to bloody stumps.

I cannot and will not comment on the actual points of the debate but rather, instead, focus on the existence of the debate in the first place for a brief little reminder I like to call:


What I mean is:

Some folks would like you to believe in a completely false dichotomy that forces you to choose sides as an author regarding how you will (or hope to) publish your work. This argument will be expressed as being something so plain, it might as well be a pair of ruby red testicles dangling from the end of your nose — it’s just that unavoidably obvious. They will characterize this in an almost cartoonish, buffoonish way. One side is evil, exploitative, and callous. The other side is beneficent, sacred, heroic. One side is the censorious Empire. One side is the plucky Rebellion. And the sides move: the coins flip depending on who’s tossing them up in the air. The sides will be belligerent about this point, making you feel the fool for choosing one side or the other. Individuals from each tribe or army or guild (those words said with an eye-roll so dizzying it might as well be an amusement park ride) will choose proxies for their crusade — some company or corporation, or perhaps some mouthpiece or martyr. The rhetoric will be full of bad logic and injections of shame. They’ll lambast the successes on the other side as outliers while championing their own as heroes embracing good old-fashioned common sense. They’ll tell you how the water in that other well is poisoned and hope you don’t notice how many people are drinking from it and not only not dying but, in fact, quenching their thirst completely.

And when the debate seems over…

You’ll either feel pleased you chose the right banner to carry.

Or you’ll feel silly that you chose the wrong path and now are doomed, doomed, doomed.

But, I will say again:

It’s an illusion. A rub. A bit of chicanery and legerdemain.

No debate exists.

No sides exist.

All that exists are options.

Options that allow you a surprising amount of flexibility in how you choose to write your work and reach your audience. It’s not just traditional publishing and self-publishing — it’s those two broken down even finer. Big publishers, small publishers, digital publishers, Amazon, Smashwords, Payhip, blogs, Wattpad, Createspace, Lulu, White Glove, agents, no agents, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, B&N, blogs, podcasts, fanfiction, Oyster, Scribd, Kindle Unlimited, and on, and on, and on. Many of these options are literally new to the last decade or so — most, the product of a disruptive Internet, a glorious digital monster who is the true Godzilla in all of this, pulverizing institutions into rubble and forcing diversity and evolution where none before existed.

The thing is, when you’re asked to pick sides in this, you’re quietly also being asked to take one whole set of options and shovel them into a furnace and burn them. Further, once you have chosen your side, you will find that other battles are fought within your given tribe — oh, sure, self-publish, but how dare you not be exclusive with Amazon. Ah, yes, of course, it’s good you traditionally published, but why would you choose a publisher who is going to ask more than nine dollars for your e-book? It all gets shuttled from chute to chute, the path narrowing as you go.

And narrow paths are antithetical to the point.

Narrow paths are bad for authors. That is the Old Way.


We want wide paths and myriad options.

Those that ask you to choose a side in this fake debate not only want fewer options for the writing world, but further, are often themselves selling something. They’re salespeople and politicians, shilling for a side because they gain if that side does well. Or they’re emotionally invested because they feel burned somehow — and they refuse to see how what happened to them is not emblematic of what happens to everybody. Sure, some people have been abused by huge publishers. Some have been destroyed by Amazon or Kindle Unlimited. And the reverse is also true: you’ll often hear how each side has changed lives and given hope where none existed before, which is true! But it’ll be framed as if the other side could’ve never given you that and has never before ever, ever, ever, done anything nice, and also, it kicks kittens into woodchippers just for the craven thrill. Because many folks have had their lives made by traditional publishing. Many have had it made by self-publishing. Some have been given a fresh chance through Kickstarter, or social media, or some scrappy small publisher you’ve never heard of before. Lots of writers find a different, comfortable fit across this wonderfully weird, diverse landscape.

A landscape that, as noted, has never before been this weird or this diverse.

(Never mind the fact that each option plays off each other, competing and keeping things flexible — all these forms of publishing big and small act as counterweights to one another.)

The only debate is for you, as an author, how you’ll write and publish your work. And that debate is not one with hard and fast sides — it’s one with a spectrum of colors, and one that will rage on, ideally, not once in your career but from book to book to book. Nuance exists, you see. Gasp. I know! How mad! Ah, but you see: each book may have a different fit. Your career may change skins like a chameleon. The environment will shift, too, and you with it.

But we need our options to be present, and flexible, and limber as a lubed-up, liquor-fed gymnast.

So: embrace options.

Don’t shout anybody down.

Be smart about your own career, but don’t assume that what’s smart for you is automatically what’s smart for everyone else.  Recognize that not everybody will make your choice, nor do they have to — and hell, that’s not a bug, that’s a goddamn feature.

Keep the doors open, keep the rhetoric kind, keep the air moving through this once stale room.

Reject the war, the battle, the tribalism, the debate.

You don’t need to choose sides.

You can, in fact, choose all sides.

How cool is that?


    • That came off a little selfish, so I’ll qualify with the opinion that “being ruthless” is often worse for your career than building community and making connections with other people. Better for the soul too, if you’re the sort to have one.

      (I sold my for a 10% higher daily word-count. Best deal I could get, ragged as it was.)

  • Absolutely. For the past year, I’ve made it a point to avoid picking sides or arguing things I had no control over. People think my quote in the NY Times was picking a side, but it was just an observation on reality– there is a glut of content. It’s there. We can’t change it. It will grow deeper. Deal with it. Have a business plan that works in the face of reality and based on one’s own unique position as an author.

    One size NEVER fits all for an author’s career. And no event or change is all good or all bad. It’s all nuanced. Stay informed, then make decisions based on one’s own unique position and goals.

    • …”there is a glut of content. It’s there. We can’t change it. It will grow deeper. Deal with it. Have a business plan that works in the face of reality and based on one’s own unique position as an author.”

      Yeah, that x1000. I’m floored when I see authors deny this fairly obvious idea that there’s a LOT OF CONTENT and you have to find a way to be seen through and above it.

    • However, there is such a thing as honorable behavior. For instance, buying reviews is lying, period, when they’re interspersed in a document that also contains uncompromised content. Anyone who buys a Kirkus review or hires one of the review whores off of Fiverr, for instance, is not only someone I would NEVER read, I’d also not leave them alone in a room with my car keys.

      Exploiting social connections as “sales opportunities” is also UNACCEPTABLE. I left a major writers organization recently because one of the “elder” members exploited her connections to get a marketing email for her daughter’s self-published book sent out to the membership. (The group currently does not deal with self-published writers, and the book being sold was in an entirely different genre than that dealt with by the group.) This is SLEAZY, exploitative behavior. Ditto spamming message boards and comment streams, or hitting up people at civic or hobby meetings that have nothing to do with your stupid damn book, etc. etc.

      Being an exploitative and/or lying asshole is NEVER OK. “Being an asshole” is not a marketing plan.

      • Just want to point out here that (unless things have changed) the Kirkus Reviews are a “take your chance” deal where no review goodness is promised. You pay your enormous money ($500 at last recall) and submit the books, which may get bashed to pieces. I’ve used the service twice for my lit-fic authors (I’m a small press publisher.) In one case, the review was so vile I never mentioned it anywhere; in the other, the review was pleasantly appealing, though worded in Kirkuses’ trademarked way so that a pull-out quote was nearly impossible. Regardless, it wasn’t a case of buying a good review. It was paying for a legitimate honest review.

    • Well, and what’s vital is, when you choose all sides, sometimes the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of particular paths are undone by the other ways to go. Things like money, control, timing — doing ALL THE THINGS helps to cover all the bases. It’s really quite cool.

      • One of the major advantages we have as indies is our flexibility and response time. We’re not beholden to anyone else’s marketing policies, so when the wind changes we can instantly react and change with it.

        Of course, learning what to do to best capitalize on a shifting marketplace is a skill in and of itself.

  • I especially love it when it’s a zero-sum game between only two options: self-publishing and New York mainstream publishing. Forget the fact that there are small presses, regional presses, mid-sized presses, boutique presses, and every other press in between the two extremes.

  • January 16, 2015 at 12:57 PM // Reply

    Hi Chuck,
    Thank you for pointing out how crazy the debate last night was. I did watch it. It seems both sides made it “is Amazon good for publishers?” instead of the original question of “Is Amazon good for *readers*?” One side did occasionally try half-heartedly to bring the subject back to readers, but I think both sides were having too much fun going on about publishers.
    4 white guys decide the fate of publishing really is a great title for what happened last night.

  • And, while writers (about whom this is all about, apparently) are doing all those optiony things, READERS are saying “Fuck it,” and buying another Stephen King, because they’ve been burned too many times by “indie” crap, and are beyond sick of all the effing “marketing” time wasters, presumption, childish narcissism, mind games, and outright bullshit.

    “The thing is, when you’re asked to pick sides in this, you’re quietly also being asked to take one whole set of options and shovel them into a furnace and burn them.”

    You say that like it’s a bad thing. Rejecting any option that does not include uncompromised (that means not paid by you, writers), third party GATEKEEPERS is a way of showing respect for readers. Again, yet again, again, again, again, anyone who wants to sell their writing to strangers (people who are not following them religiously on Fritter or whatever) must work with existing gatekeepers. Anything else is a waste of everyone’s time and money.

    • I see you’ve chosen a side.

      I have a personal friend who is an A-list trad published author, he’s made millions in the last ten years. I knew him before he was successful, and I know how damned hard he worked getting to where he is. He thought, like you (apparently) that all self-pubbed work was shitty first draft with crappy self-drawn covers. I told him I found that rather insulting since I am self-published.

      My latest book had three editors (covering different areas: one for the usual copy-edits, one developmental, and another for the culture-specific details), and a cover by a major movie concept artist. I paid good money for those things. I only associate with self-published authors who take their product seriously, and that’s most of us.

      I didn’t lose a friend over this, because he’s not an idiot. He realised he’s being fed a line by vested interests who would like to maintain the status quo. The quo hasn’t been status for years.

      If you do not want the hassle involved in self-publishing (i.e. running a business) that’s fine. That’s your choice.

      But let’s get this straight: What readers care about is good books. Ask any reader the name of the publisher of the last book they read? 99.9% won’t have a clue. And you know what? It isn’t important.

      (Just don’t think for one tiny second that only a trad publisher can produce a good book.)

  • It’s interesting how there are similarities between the digital boom (self-produced books) and traditional publishing and comic books in the 90s. The first writing I ever got paid for was in independent comics. There was a bit of an us vs. them thing going on, but it didn’t pick up until there was a bit of a self publishing boom. If you self published, you were raging against the system. If you took a successful self published book to an established company, you were a sell out. Some rose up as the voice of self-publishing — a handful of people doing so rather loudly (like at least one of the participants in last night’s thing).

    In the end, none of it really mattered. Some indie publishers have kept it going; most have not. The bigger companies…all are still going. (Hell, Marvel came out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy despite those taking a particular side said, “See, the establishment is coming down!”) Creators found a happy medium between working for established companies and doing their own thing. It seems very similar to the arguments about traditional vs. self published authors right now. The first things I read by you were self-produced and independent. I’ve bought your traditionally published books. Good comic books were good comic books no matter who published them, and the same goes for novels right now. Picking sides seems silly, and it’s usually those benefiting from a particular side who shout the loudest about rallying behind them and doing as they do.

    • This: “Good comic books were good comic books no matter who published them, and the same goes for novels right now.”
      I understand a reader’s prerogative to choose books that have been vetted by the “gatekeepers”, but it is true there are good books to be found everywhere. Crap, likewise.

  • Hybrid, hybrid, hybrid. I take as many options as will have me.

    The inability of some people to act like sane adult human beings does not mean we should root out and destroy any platforms that do not have objective gatekeepers, either.

    • Nice idea but some trad contracts forbid the author from doing anything. I know this because I’ve talked to one who has such a contract. (It also forbids him to do any marketing of his books. Seriously. Yes, it’s insane. but it’s in the contract.)

      • That’s not common. Right of first refusal on related titles, yes, or even right of first refusal on any work produced in a certain time frame, but an outright ban on publishing with someone else? I’m also betting the “no marketing” clause is unusual, since it’e the first time I’ve heard of such a thing.

        • You can say that but I’m talking A-list, 12 books published etc etc. I was just as surprised as you – dumbfounded in fact. So, maybe we know less than we think we do.

          • Still not that common. I’ve known a number of people much higher on the food chain than myself (and had a bunch of relatives who worked in publishing and dealt with contracts), and that’s a new one on me. And weird, unless he has a long history of making enemies and alienating people.

  • My day has been made, Mr. Wendig. Thank you: “Those that ask you to choose a side in this fake debate not only want fewer options for the writing world, but further, are often themselves selling something. They’re salespeople and politicians, shilling for a side because they gain if that side does well. Or they’re emotionally invested because they feel burned somehow — and they refuse to see how what happened to them is not emblematic of what happens to everybody.”

  • I just received an email from Amazon that they’ve dumped more money into the Kindle Unlimited fund and are giving “bonuses” to high unit-movers. Oh yay. This does nothing for me but shows they’re at least marginally aware of the criticism of the program.

    I’m still getting the hell out of that program as soon as my time is up and expanding to Kobo, B&N, etc. Options!

  • Several years ago (in a pre-Kindle world), an aspiring author asked if I’d considered the impact that the rising cost of paper might have on the number and length of novels published each year. She was concerned that global economic forces would make getting published even harder. With my outside voice, I told her that I’d never given that issue a thought because I was already overwhelmed by the challenges of simply writing a good sentence. With my inside voice, I said (to myself): There’s another person I won’t have to compete with for shelf space. Debates about traditional vs. non-traditional publishing make me feel much the same.

  • This is close to how I feel about the shouting that ensues of which social media platform is the bestest ever and how those other ones are dying and also uncool because of Reasons, chief among them being whoever expressed this opinion is cool and not there so obviously where they are is cooler. Yeah.

    I’ma damned well post on the interwebs where I feel like posting on the interwebs tyvm. I’ma publish (one day I swear!) where I want to danged well want to publish, and most of that decision is going to be based on where my audience is. If that makes them and me uncool, well I’ve got 40 years of practice at that. I’ll own it.

  • Publishing is difficult enough without limiting possible platforms because of a pretend war. But I will do so once I discover which one is the toothbrush with the stray hair sticking out of its bristles. Deal-breaker.

  • Shoot. I’m an independent author, but I’m an indie because I don’t have the damn patience to submit something to a publisher and wait six months for someone to send me a quarter-page of paper telling me they don’t want it. I have the computer skills to put my stuff in front of people (see what I did there?) and if I have the WRITING skills to keep them coming back, the traditional publishers will come after me sooner or later. And if they don’t? I’ll keep publishing myself until I get tired of it. It’s crazy to ascribe a moral value to this. I want people to read my books. I will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Simple.

  • Way cool! And terrifying, as I face a decision of which way to travel with book 1. (Clutches manuscript to chest as beads of sweat roll down my face and make the long drop into cleavage)

  • Indie publishing has come a long way from the bad old days of the “vanity press” publishers that charged a hefty fee for publishing your book, and then had the audacity to keep 50% of the revenues in spite of the fact that they also expected the author to do all the marketing, promotion, and even delivery of the final product to the stores, with zero assistance from them. Thank heavens those days are over and authors now have some real choices open to them.

    • You think that’s just vanity publishing? There’s no difference between how much work you have to do in marketing whether you’re trad published or self-published. The only authors that get a marketing budget nowadays are the huge sellers. (Even my friend who is A-list doesn’t get one – he’s still not big enough.)

      It was funny, I was on a panel a couple of months back with a bunch of traditionally published authors and someone in the audience brought this up, said to me “But don’t you have to do all the marketing yourself?” So I turned to the other five panellists and said “Hey guys, how much marketing do you have to do?” Answers ranged from “Loads” to “All of it”.

      And trad publishers take a lot more than 50%. One wonders what for.

      I’m all in favour of “no debate” but I think people should be accurately informed about the truth of traditional publishing rather than looking through rose-tinted spectacles. Then they can make an informed decision.

      Frankly I don’t know why anyone goes trad published to be honest. The only reason I’ve heard recently is that they want to be a “proper” author. And if that isn’t vanity, I don’t know what is.

      • “Frankly I don’t know why anyone goes trad published to be honest. The only reason I’ve heard recently is that they want to be a “proper” author. And if that isn’t vanity, I don’t know what is.”

        That’s very dismissive. I assure you: plenty, plenty of reason to go in part or in full down the traditional path. My response to this (which I’ve deleted much of) is blooming so big, I think it’ll deserve its own post as a response, if that’s all right. Look for that maybe later today or tomorrow.

        — c.

          • The most accurate statement of my viewpoint would be: “I personally can see very little benefit for someone who is serious about being published to pursue traditional publishing because the negatives that I perceive far outweigh any benefits (of which I have trouble seeing any).”

            Negatives include: (a) Years chasing agents/publishers because it’s not only about having a great book, it’s whether you hit the right person at exactly the right time and you might never hit it just right; (b) If you get the contract, its years before the book comes out; (c) Only allowed to produce one book per year; (d) restrictive contracts (my A-list pal is *not allowed* to promote except on FB, Twitter and his blog (he is *not* allowed to create a mailing list of fans) other restrictions apply; (e) poor royalties on ebooks (trad publishers are raking it in on over-priced ebooks and not passing the money on to authors; (f) loss of artistic control (if they think it would be better a different way, you have to change it); (g) no marketing budget; (h) book goes the shelves sale after a few months; (i) long delays in production of paperback and ebook (because they make more money out of hardbacks – even though tests by Hugh Howey has demonstrated no loss of income producing all formats simultaneously); (j) Two book deals – fail to sell and you’re out; (k) loss of rights to your books;

            Benefits: (a) Book on shelves for a couple of months? I have bookshops wanting to sell my physical books. (b) Professional editing? I have that; (c) Professional covers? I have those. (d) Global distribution? I have that. (d) Translation? I can get that (Babelcube website – yes that’s real human translation); (e) Film rights? Hire an entertainment lawyer for that one deal; (f) Audio books? (Go to ACX) (g) Advances! (Yeah, right, don’t give up the day job); (h) … um …?

            The one thing I learned from my A-list friend is that he was clueless about the true state of the indie market, which presumably represents the state of most people in the traditional publishing world, since he most definitely is not a fool.

            Do I think there is a lot of indie crap? Yes, of course there is. However I don’t associate with indie authors who think publishing their vomit draft with a cover drawn by their dog is a good idea. Most of use care about what we do. (And what reader checks the publisher? Only the totally anal ones.)

            Ultimately, of course, it is the individual author’s decision.

          • ‘restrictive contracts (my A-list pal is *not allowed* to promote except on FB, Twitter and his blog (he is *not* allowed to create a mailing list of fans) other restrictions apply’

            Whoa, what? Your A-List pal has a D-List agent. I can’t imagine the value of a clause like this inside a contract. It’s so absurd I almost don’t believe it — it’s not like those social media networks are bound to the publisher, so what’s the value in saying, “No, you can’t promote on someone else’s blog?” It’s so counterintuitive I don’t know a) why that clause even would exist or b) why anyone would ever sign that contract. I’ve seen awful, shit-ass boilerplate contracts that don’t even dare to stipulate such weirdness.

            Not saying it’s not there, but I am saying he should not have signed that contract.

            — c.

          • I don’t think he ought to have either except of course the renewal would have been a few years ago. The reason given is that “it might conflict with their marketing”. Except, of course, they aren’t doing any.

            The other issue which doesn’t get mentioned – until you did – was that there are other places in between. So yes, not everything I say about trad publishing applies to the smaller guys. But I’m not bothered about them.

            I am most certainly bothered by what I see as the criminality of the big publishers coupled with the ignorance of people who think they are the only solution. And to that extent we are in agreement 🙂

            But I stand by my sound-bite 🙂 Trad publishing is the new vanity publishing.

            My friend the A-lister could be raking it in as an indie. Instead he’s desperately putting together a pitch for a book to convince them to renew his contract. With much reduced advance. And yes I have had long conversations with him about changing, or even negotiating better (“Hey, you’re reducing my advance so let’s loosen up some of these clauses so we all win.”).

            But at the present time it seems he, like many others, can’t get the idea out of their heads that if you’re not with a “proper” publisher you’re somehow not a “proper” author.

            (My background briefly: 20 years as a magazine editor and journo. I know which end of a sentence gets the big letter and which gets the dot.)

  • It’s so easy to get sucked into the mess. I’ve agonized for hours over what to do, and in the end chose to keep it simple and write the next book. I can always change my mind later. Great article!

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