Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

You Tell Me: Self-Publishing -- Wave of the Future or Just a Sideshow?

In anticipation of tomorrow's post, which should be about self-publishing and an author's career path (unless I forget), I'd like to hear your thoughts on self-publishing.

Andrew Sullivan wasn't the first and surely won't be the last to assert that POD (in this context I believe Andrew is referring to POD as self-publishing mechanism rather than the printing method that is also used by mainstream publishers, although I don't speak conservative pundit-ese) will eventually replace the old-fashioned publisher and distribution model that has prevailed for the last hundred and some odd years.

Due to the Internet, which allows people to discover small and hidden-away books that in days of yore needed to get into a bookstore to sell, some people see the potential for self-publishing to reap the YouTube effect -- little known authors can all of a sudden catch on through word of virtual mouth and become big in a major way. Or people will still depend on those old fashioned and yawn-inducing nuts and bolts things like marketing budgets, bookstores, sales forces, distribution, imprint cache and professional editing offered by mainstream publishing.

So what do you think -- will self-publishing make inroads into the territory once reserved for mainstream publishing or will it always be an also-ran for lack of the distribution and big-ness of the mainstream publishers?

The future hangs in the balance. Or it doesn't. You decide.


original bran fan said...

If everyone self-publishes, then the bookstore will become a giant slush pile. I shudder.

I wrote three novels before any of them were taken by an agent. I was tempted to self-publish. I am glad I did not. The reason those first three novels were not picked up is because they weren't good. In fact, they were very bad.

Scott said...

It kind of goes hand-in-hand with yesterday's discussion. If the big publishing houses, with their quality control mechanisms and all their filters to weed out crap and stuff that won't sell (presumably because it doesn't have enough appleal to enough people), still put out a lot of garbage, what kind of product do you get when people can put out whatever they've written, without any kind of quality assurance?

For the time being, I'm skeptical of self-published books, except in cases where they are being produced for a highly specialized market that doesn't include enough buyers to make traditional publishing worth the cost and effort.

I'm sure there are excellent self-published books that deserve more attention than they get. But I'm betting the crap:quality ratio is much higher on the crap side than it is in traditional publishing.

All opinion of course. The only self-published books I've read are specialty books. Unless you count the novel by a very smart guy I know who published it himself because publishers wanted too many changes and it was perfect the way he wrote it. I couldn't get through the first chapter. That might have tainted my opinion more than is really fair.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Sorry, Nathan.

I've been closely watching the distribution model for the music industry change as online marketing bypasses the record company gatekeepers.

There's a lot of good music out there that wasn't getting signed. There was a lot of YICK!, sure, but new mechanisms sprang up to filter the most popular indie songs.

Here's how it will happen for books:

1. Borders and B&N will invest in a faster, more reliable version of the Espresso book machine.

2. Folks will only use it to get obscure, out of print titles at first.

3. Then more content will be available from the publishing companies via the broadband pipe to the machine.

4. Then the publishers will figure out that it's cheaper to put two sample books on the front table and let book buyers print one out if they want to buy it, rather than deal with remainders.

5. Small presses will get their books searchable on the Espresso machine.

6. Joe's bait shop and POD publishing house will get their books searchable on the Espresso machine.

7. The NYT Best Seller list becomes less and less relevant as Blogger lists and trusted internet sites begin to rank books by popularity, not by marketing dollars.

8. The agent and publisher's role as gatekeepers of the worthy will diminish as online marketing goes Darwinian.

Nathan Bransford said...


Not saying you're wrong, but I'm most curious about #7. Music isn't quite the same thing. It takes about 10 seconds or at most 3 minutes for people to tell if they like a song or not. You can listen to a full album in an hour. It's realistic for a site like Pitchfork to review just about every major Indie record out there and quite a few more.

So how would people hear about good books? Given the length of time it takes to read a book (six hours at best) it seems like there are constraints on the book experience that are unique to books.

I don't doubt that some filtering mechanism could exist, but what do you think it would look like?

A Paperback Writer said...

I was always under the impression that self-publishing (except in cases like family histories that are only meant for a very small audience) equaled a dementor's kiss: the soul was sucked out of the would-be author and no publisher or agent would touch the hollow shell again.
However, Mslexia magazine (see has an article on self-publishing this month.
I'm still very wary of it. I keep hoping to do things the more traditional way, but to those who can make self-publishing work for them, well, hey, go for it.

Brian said...

I suspect the answer to this is directly tied to the other angst-du-jour question: will online book sales phase out brick and mortar bookstores?

C.J. said...

ooh, music industry vs. book industry? i've got to get in on this. well, i really enjoyed dwight's matter of fact prediction, there are two main differences in the industries though:
1 - with music swapping/sharing and whatnot, musicians can still survive on concert ticket sales (smaller bands are happy to see their stuff passed around just to generate buzz for their shows), but, as of yet, paid book-signing gigs are hard to come by.
2 - the indie music scene is so critic driven that a band who's on top of their game can (and pretty much must) tweak their sound to suit pitchfork. a band can take their stuff into the studio, then say, oh, i bet pitchfork would find this more interesting if we stripped the guitars out. granted it's no easy task, but it's easier than shoe-horning your soul searching novel about butterfly wranglers into a heist story with an albino villan.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

CJ, what? Bands can't survive on ticket sales; most of that revenue goes to the costs of the production.

It's a simple truth: the only tours that make money are the ones that sell out night after night. It's one of the reasons outdoor ampitheaters are/were so popular -- it cut down on production costs 'cause a band didn't have to design their own stage and haul it around (or in the case of some bands, make TWO stages and piggyback them from show to show).

As for books... I can see there becoming a bigger niche for the self-published. Hell, I'm tempted to self-publish just because I'll be able to release merchandise (among other things) without having to get approval from someone who's paid for the rights to print my book. It's full control of my empire (and since I write about rock bands, merch is a natural extension of the books).

What it is NOT, at this time at least, is worldwide domination and bookstore shelf space. Not without a hella lot of work.

Which is why I still remain tempted while I pursue more traditional avenues.

Dave said...

Sometime in the future, possibly 5 years hence, I will publish some of the short stories I write. There's a small market out there and I don't want to get involved in marketing right now. I especially don't want to become a slave to rewrites. I tried that already and I don't enjoy it. I enjoy what I write and that is why I write.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

C.J.You're talking piracy. I'm talking legit sales.

The illogical human need for the tactile book-in-hand experience will keep us from the iBook gadget model anytime soon.

The Espresso machine is a single interface by which book consumers can get anything we want from a central distribution point. (See also iTunes.)

brian: The espresso machine won't replace brick and mortar. It will become the cornerstone of a brick and mortar store. It will also mark the return of the independent bookseller, as anyone with a machine can compete with the Big Box stores.

Nathan: For whatever reasons, readers are so damn tribal about their genre preference as it stands, it won't take two weeks for the Speculative Fiction guys to converge around somebody's website, probably Cory Doctrow, and whatever personality will say "Here's the top 10 Sci-fi/fantasy books you should buy from the Espresso machine."

That morphs into a site that ranks the top 100/500 Sci-fi books sold through the Espresso machine with a link to a marketing description of each.

Now extrapolate that for your Franzen Literati tribe, your Janet Evanovich Mystery tribe, your Gothic tribe, etc.

A newbie author only needs to market their crappy POD book into the consciousness of an influential trusted personality.

The personality gets it in the rankings.

The ranking sites become the marketing tool by which a novel succeeds or fails.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Oh, and don't forget the power of incestuous intermarketing between similar authors vying for attention.

(The podcasting model: I'll play the promo for your obscure podcast if you'll play the promo for mine.)

Heidi the Hick said...

Okay. I'm sorry to keep dragging on the music biz/ book biz comparison, but I have to, because the music biz is, believe it or not the machine that feeds the family around here.

My husband is a recording engineer, and a very good one, in fact, award winning, which basically means we can afford groceries! He's still working because people still want to make music, even if labels no longer feel like taking a chance on them.

Many independent (footing the bill themselves) artists don't want to pay a producer for the task of guiding the recording. I see the producer as an editor. The job is to talk the artist out of self-indulgent bad decisions, essentially. An editor really does the same thing, right? As a writer, one of the hardest lessons I've had to teach myself is what to cut. From what I've seen, an album turns out better when someone's been there to make suggestions. I may think my book is good but I'm prepared that an editor will find a few more things that could be improved.

In our modern world, any jerk with a computer can make a record or a book. That's what rejection letters are for. I could have slapped my book up on Lulu but I'm choosing not to. I don't really trust self published fiction, simply because I know how easy it is to write crap.

Keep in mind, though, that I'm 36. I grew up buying 45s at Kmart. To me, discs and books are real and E things are not. Having said that, I think the internet is an amazingly efficient tool for networking and marketing.

I'd like to think that the old models of selling entertainment will change and pass on, and that there's room for books and zip files and something for everyone.

Anonymous said...

Some people say, "Wait a minute, there's good stuff being self-published too!" That is true. What it is not is well-distributed. A dear friend wrote a very good book, got impatient, and self-published. She's sold 300 copies in 18 months. This book is good enough to be published/widely distributed by the big guys. Alas, it never will be. My friend has settled for selling 300 copies when she could have sold 30,000. Don't let this happen to you.

The novel Eragon was originally self-published. Did you buy one of the self-published copies? No, you did not. Because you never heard of it until it was picked up by a big publisher.

C.J. said...

susan: that's really depressing - i was under the impression that going to concerts was the best way to support a band that you enjoy. is there a better way? honestly, i'm curious - i only know what people tell me.
dwight: yes, i was talking about illegal distribution of music, but don't you think that the same thing would happen with electronic texts if they were much more popular?

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...


It spits out a real damn book! Bound and with cover art.

Take a look.

ilyakogan said...

I think what we are going to see is writers selling short stories or individual chapters of a novel iTunes like.

Look at what Caitlin Kiernan is doing with her Sirenia Digest. Her idea is that you have a subscription and she churns up half a dozen of short stories every few months...

Not only it will bring the short stories back it will provide a more stable model of income for writers.

So, short stories first and then once a writer establishes a platform using this format then if s/he desires a full size novel she can sell it using whatever technology you want, traditional publishing, POD, e-book, who cares...

I did an unscientific poll among the people I know and it turns out that quite a lot of them would love to have a website where they can read and rate a 5kw+ stories during their lunch hour or instead of working. :)

One of them even said that he would shell about 10$ a month to be able to do so... I think that ad-driven revenue is a better model but this is minutia, whatever the source of the revenue is, it will be in site's operator's interests to share that revenue with most popular contributers.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Ibid "incestuous marketing through Web sites and word of mouth."

Nathan, I take it back. You're position as a gatekeeper remains ensconsed. Only five years from now it will be as a trusted blogger and not a slushpile slogger.

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't know, something tells me I won't be quitting my day job any time soon. An agent is much more than a slush-pile steward or a gate-keeper, in fact that's probably the least important thing an agent does. As long as there are content creators who need advisors and advocates and experts on their side there will be agents.

We're not going anywhere (cue ominous music).

A.S. Peterson said...


The best way to support an indie musician (or any musician for that matter) is to purchase their music from their merch table at a show or directly off their website. A CD bought at Best Buy nets the artist 50 cents if he's lucky. The same CD bought at the concert or off the website nets him $10-15 depending on what they sell them for, those CDs only cost the artist about $5 each.

Merch tables are one of the big reasons that indie musicians can eat.

Conduit said...

I think Dwight makes some very good points, and the model he describes, or at least something along those lines, may be where we end up.

Beware, this may be a long post...

There are currently two extremes in publishing: the traditional publishing houses, and the POD/vanity presses. Each has its own inherent benefit and its own inherent problem, and I'll take them one by one...

Traditional Publishing

Because TP (as it is henceforth known) is a business, as Nathan's previous post eloquently illustrated, it works both for and against readers and writers. On the one hand, it weeds out all the crap (okay, I know that's subjective, and many will argue that it puts out plenty of crap anyway) before we ever get to see it. Editorial Darwinism sees to it that all the unreadable dross never finds its way in front of us. Now, you might argue that it puts out plenty of low quality material, but what it does put out is at least readable and polished. In other words, like food, some may be trashy garbage while some may be nutritious and tasty fare, but the vast majority of it is at least fit for consumption.

The down side of TP is that because it's largely driven by the need for profit, many novels will never see the light of day simply because their market is too niche to merit the investment, or some bean counter can't make the numbers add up, or an editor is suffering from constipation that day. In other words, the gatekeepers thwart the author and cheat the reader of a potentially great book.


The advantage, of course, is that authors can bypass the gatekeepers and go straight to the reader. Theoretically, a POD book could get such great word of mouth that readers will flock to it and it'll become a hit (though you might argue that if it was good enough to do that, a TP would have picked it up).

The downside is no gatekeepers to filter out the crap, which is why I've yet to see a POD novel sample that was anything more than mediocre, and most are dire. The reader has no way of knowing what's good and what isn't, and those rare gems will most likely be lost among the drivel. Also, a POD author isn't going to have TP's publicity department behind him of her, either.

The Espresso Model

This is where I think the two worlds become bridged. The print-while-you-wait thing means that TPs have to risk much, much less money in getting a book out there, so the bean counters have to do a lot less counting. Authors with something more original to say, or with work that doesn't pigeon-hole so neatly, stand a better chance of getting into readers' hands. The TPs can still do the weeding for us, but they can be a lot more liberal about what they allow to flower. Plus, they can put their marketing clout behind those books. With such a different way of buying books, and presumably better ways of seeing who buys what, even niche books could be most effectively marketed, ensuring good quality writing gets to those who most want to read it.

But here's another aspect of this whole Espresso idea: it'll hurt online sales in a major way.

I work in web design, and have built many ecommerce sites. The one thing that drives purchases of smaller items like books, CDs and DVDs is availability. Not price.

If you can leave work at lunch hour, go round the corner and pick up that book you really want and take it home today, you're probably willing to pay an extra dollar or two rather than wait two or three days or more for it to arrive in the mail. The key reason we buy something like that online is because of availability - Amazon stocks what our local bookstores don't.

BUT - if you could go round the corner and buy any book, and I mean any (remembering that with this system out-of-print no longer applies), even if it cost two dollars more, and have it in your hands within minutes, why would you order it online and wait three days?

This is going to be a big factor.

Conduit said...

To take sides on the future-need-for-agents issue - I think guys like Nathan will still be there, guiding writers to their markets, even if the traditional publishing model gives way to the Espresso one. If anything, they'll be more essential as more writers my be able to make money at it, and therefore need that expert help.

Nathan Bransford said...


That's a very smart post, and thanks for taking the time. I agree with your take.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Okay. Let's say I'm Random House. (You can call me Randy).

Why on God's Green Earth would I offer an advance to an author if we were distributing our books via Espresso machine?

The advance is gone. Negotiation is out the window.

Mrs. Authorchick, you get $2.21 every time somebody clicks your icon on the Espresso machine. Here's the audit. Your book made $9,108. Here's your check for $804.44. Don't like it? Market your book harder, toots.

Flat business model. What are you going to do to earn 15% of Mrs. Authorchick's 804.44, Nathan? Edit? Market? Schmooze Cory Doctorow over lunch to mention her book to his minions? Talk me into better placement of the sample copy on the table at Barnes and Noble?

Sorry, I'm a little obsessive about this topic. That machine scares the crap out of me.

Nathan Bransford said...


Er, author tells Randy to kiss off and goes to another publisher who gives her an advance.

There isn't a monopolistic business who can dictate terms to any author. They can try, but the author doesn't have to take it.

L.C.McCabe said...


I think it depends a lot on the author and on the book in question. It appears that unless you are an established writer and have the full weight of a large NY publishing house's publicity department behind you, that it is truly incumbent upon the author to go out and shake the trees or their book is liable to become remaindered before they turn around.

Joe Konrath opines about that regularly on his blog and insists that writers give up the idea that they can simply just write good books and success will follow.

Fiction writers need to actively sell themselves as a brand and develop a loyal fanbase. Nonfiction writers need to establish and continue to cultivate their expertise or "platform."

So it comes down to whether or not publishers will recognize the value of individual titles that might not be huge best sellers, but ones that would still make a profit. Many times they won't take the gamble because the market for that book for them is not considered to be worth their time.

However, if the author is committed to their project then they can either continue pounding their head on brick walls or take matters into their own hand.

I know of several self-published success stories amongst my literary friends. The big difference is that because they controlled every aspect of their book, they get to keep a larger share of the profits and they don't have to wait months on end for royalty statements.

One of my friends has written several Harry Potter companion books, analyzing them for serious readers. His first book on this subject was self-published and he sold five thousand copies in less than a year. His second book had a slightly different focus and was published by an imprint of Tyndale Publishing and sold around 50,000 copies.

He chose on a subsequent book to go back to self-publishing in order to maintain more control over the creative process. This time using POD technology, so he did not have to worry about boxes of unsold books being stored anyplace.

He now has a well trafficked blog and has been a guest speaker at many Harry Potter symposiums.

He told me yesterday that his latest book is frequently in the top 1000 books sold on Amazon, and his older book via Tyndale is frequently in the top 5,000.

My friend's name? John Granger. His blog is at

Another benefit for John is that because he is using POD technology is that he can update his book to take any changes into account.

So, like anything in life, It. All. Depends.

It is an option that writers should consider before giving up and shoving a manuscript into a drawer to gather dust. However, it is not an easy path for success.

Then again, to paraphrase Jimmy Duggan, "If writing wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great."



Nathan Bransford said...


Definitely goes to show that there are rules to every exception!

Thanks for sharing the stories.

Kimber An said...

I couldn't possibly predict. People seek publication for so many different reasons.

I only know I want to walk into Barnes & Noble and pick my novel off a shelf one day. I'm not interested in pursuing any form of publication which doesn't lead to that.

Not sure why. Maybe it's the thrill of picking up a brand new book in a humongous bookstore I thought I'd died and gone to, opening up the pages and smelling the new book smell and getting lost in another world.

It sure isn't the money. I know I'm not J. K. Rowling. Most published authors can't quit their day jobs.

Jenny said...

I have sold 17,000 copies of three different self-published titles, each costing between $25 and $40.

I could do this because I'd already had two niche bestsellers published by mainstream presses and featured by specialty book clubs, so my name was known in my field as was the quality of my writing.

I self-published my books not because I couldn't find a publisher, but because I didn't need a publisher. I knew I'd sell far fewer books than the publisher could, but since I kept so much more of the profits, I came out way ahead.

I was writing about entrepreneurial business, so it made sense to publish entrepreneurially. But even with all that behind me, I would NOT recommend self publishing to anyone in today's market for books

I published my books a decade ago, when Borders was still carrying a lot of small press books --which they no longer do. Back then the online booksellers were just starting out and--here's a concept--mostly sold books and people paid a lot more attention to online bookstore reviews, bestseller lists, etc. The online world was smaller and more select and a bulletin board on a single topic could easily draw everyone online interested in that topic.

Those days are gone. The emergence of the blogoshpere has so fractured the dialogue on specialty topics that it has become much tougher to market online now than it was back then.

The ease of self-publishing is a curse too. The image of self-published books has always been problematic, but in the past you at least had to have enough capital to pay for a print run, which limited the number of people who could self-publish.

Now any idiot with access to can "publish" a book without putting out a cent. The resulting torrent of self published books makes it that much tougher for any self-published author to be taken seriously.

Almost all the articles you see that promote the wonders of POD and self-publishing are the result of marketing efforts by companies that sell POD services. If there's one author out of 20,000 who has sold more than 1,000 books at, you can be sure he or she will get a glowing write up. You won't read about the other 19,000.

I have some ideas about how publishing might want to change to respond to the changes in the readership, but they are more about moving the book back into the realm of the luxury specialty item that it was in the distant past and abandoning the dream that books will ever be a mass market product again.

More selectivity by publishers, fewer and better books pitched to the niche audience of devoted readers who still buy books, not more books seems to me to be the wave of the future.

Tom Burchfield said...

Myself, I feel that things will stay pretty much status quo. I can see POD coming true sometime in the future, but still think we'll need folks like Nathan and the folks at Big Publishing to serve as some kind of support network. (For example, I'm a fairly good self-promoter, but I'll still need the resources of a big company to back me up and point me in the right direction. It's a big big world out there and a strong voice can easily become just another squeak in the crowd.

What does worry me most is the fate of the book and reading in general because of competition from some of the new forms of media: gaming and the like. While books, whether fiction or nonfiction, will always be the superior platform for those seeking qualities like depth, meaning and nuance, I get the anxious feeling that more and more people are just looking for something to hook up to that gives 'em a blunt and simple buzz. Meaning? Genuine emotion? Ah well . . . whatever . . . .

Other Lisa said...

I have to say, this is one of the most interesting comment threads I've read lately. Thanks, all.

Anonymous said...

I picture self-published authors as being much like the artists (paint or pencil) on the street corner.

Pedestrians stop and look at the work they like, maybe buy a print.

They pass by the stuff they don't.

Either way, the artist is standing their with his or her raw work, offering it up when a gallery won't give them a show.

(Granted, as has been said, books take longer to get a feel for, but if those books are sent out for reviews from respected reviewers, and said reviewers have good things to say, that ups the value of the book, scrapes away some of the 'self-published' tint of oft-assumed suck, and - with luck - starts a gathering of deserved attention.)

Hell - agents and publishers can't catch them ALL.

Whether self or POD publishing will ever beat out traditional methods... I doubt it.

marcus said...

Back then the online booksellers were just starting out and--here's a concept--mostly sold books and people paid a lot more attention to online bookstore reviews, bestseller lists, etc.

This touches on the "industry" as being business-oriented rather than as having an interest in the actual product, a blog from yesterday (or the day before).

An example of Barnes and Noble doing just that:

A friend of mine sent his POD book to B&N's small press department, hoping they would consider it for their local store.

(The book had received decent reviews, was selling well online, and was incredibly relevant.)

My friend received a rejection letter with the following reasons given:

"Cover art not appealing enough and no blurbs from famous writers." (that's not word for word)

They didn't read the book.

If this is indicative of the publishing industry's priorities, it's no wonder people eventually opt for self-publishing.

Gerri said...

I see several categories of PoD, and they've each got different issues.

PoD is always going to be good for cookbooks, poetry, family chapbooks, and other such fun little publications. Those types have limited appeal, and minimal copies are usually a good idea.

Textbooks, however, are a bit more tricky. (The academic in me peeks out.) The problem with textbooks on the buyer end is that they're so friggin expensive, and the prices are just going up up up. That's why the used textbook business does so well, and it's a large part of why the publishers keep bringing out new editions. PoD would eliminate much of the storage fees and such, and pretty much eliminate the resale business, too, since no one is going to want to buy back a PoD, more than likely. It'll encourage students to hold onto their books for reference (not a bad thing!), and it'll highly reduce the vast disappointment when that $200 textbook gets bought back for $10.

However, textbooks need to be peer reviewed before they go out on the market, so the big process behind getting the book to print will still remain intact. The other problem that would need to be solved is the huge amounts of printing that would have to happen in August/September and January as well as smaller spikes in the summer.

Other speciality non-fiction books run into some of the same problems as textbooks. The information needs to be vetted before being used as source material. Many theses and dissertations already find their way into PoD/self-publishing. I have no problem with these types of speciality information books being self-published as long as there's proof that professionals in the field have done fact-checking.

Opinion books are also just fine being self-published. Anyone who wonders, go look at Wil Wheaton. And then buy his books. You can order them directly from him. *grin* But he did work with an editor during the process.

However, self-publishing new fiction is a huge red flag that stops the field, and then makes me black flag the author. There's a reason 5% of what is submitted goes on, and the other 95% immediately go on to be shredded. Unlike non-fiction books, fiction books can be written by anyone who picks up a pen and puts words on the page. Not is--can be. The few and far between actually learn from their writings and move on through the process until someone else vindicates the story by putting their stamp of approval on it and putting it through the publishing process.

But it's the 95% I don't want to wade through. Ye gods, all I have to do is look at my father for an example. Don't get me wrong. I love my father. But after he retired, he started writing novels. *shudder* He was an awesome storyteller. He wrote several novels before he passed away. He was passionate about writing and making sure these ideas got onto paper.

Unfortunately. *shudder* They're not good writing. No matter how hard I tried to explain to him the concept of show, don't tell, he never grasped how to take the information he put into one little paragraph and make the whole thing come to life page after page after page. These stories have a great core. They're inspiring enough that my uncle actually took the novels, edited them, and tried to sell them. They're still not good novels. I love my dad, and I love some of the ideas behind what he was writing, but in order to get these books published, I'd have to do a page-one rewrite. I've got too many ideas of my own to write his books, too!

My father is the reason I'm scared of new self-published fiction. I _know_ how bad it can get. And I know it can be even worse than what my dad wrote. *cringe* We really, really don't need that kind of writing clogging up the system.

OTOH, backlist self-publishing is good. *purr* I'm still irked at myself for not getting in on some of Michael Moorcock's republishing. But I'm not worried about buying backlist works. I know they've been vetted and edited by people who know what they're doing, but that for a variety of reasons have gone out of print.

Self-publishing, IMO, will always be a niche. The niche may widen, but until self-publishing can offer a reliable product, people are going to go with process.

Jenny said...


You know what was the worst thing that ever happened to one of my self-published books? Barnes & Noble loved it!

They stocked a copy in every one of their stores and in the college bookstores they manage. Then all the copies that didn't sell through within a few months got sent back to me for full credit. Bruised, torn, scratched, dented. Each book cost about $4 to print and many hundreds of them went to the dump. What a nightmare!

But that's how bookstores work, folks and its one reason that publishing is such a difficult business. If the publisher won't take returns the bookstores won't stock your book.

But wake up. Buyers from bookstores chains NEVER read your book. They get hundreds of new books to review every month and there is no way they could read them all. They look at the cover and flip through the pages, which is what 99% of people who come into the store will do, too.

If the book doesn't look like it will appeal to the person who picks it up, it probably won't sell. And if no one ever heard of you and you don't have a well known publisher's colophon on the spine, why would anyone plunk down money to read what you wrote?

Heck, even if you DO get published, your friends and relations will all expect you to give them copies for FREE.

It would be wonderful fun to publish books if we didn't have to get people to pay us all that money for them. But we do. And we have to do it in a world where libraries hand new books out for free and the computer is full of great stuff, like these blogs, you can read for all day long, too.

About the only good thing about POD is that you can now "publish" a book no one will read without wasting a lot of paper.

But if your reason for publishing is that you do want people to read it, you want the most impressive publisher possible to publish it with back cover blurbs from Joan Didion, J.K. Rowling, The Dalai Lama, Sting, the Pope, and William Shakespeare. And maybe then someone will fork over the bucks it takes to buy it.

Jenny said...


You know what was the worst thing that ever happened to one of my self-published books? Barnes & Noble loved it!

They stocked a copy in every one of their stores and in the college bookstores they manage. Then all the copies that didn't sell through within a few months got sent back to me for full credit. Bruised, torn, scratched, dented. Each book cost about $4 to print and many hundreds of them went to the dump. What a nightmare!

But that's how bookstores work, folks and its one reason that publishing is such a difficult business. If the publisher won't take returns the bookstores won't stock your book.

But wake up. Buyers from bookstores chains NEVER read your book. They get hundreds of new books to review every month and there is no way they could read them all. They look at the cover and flip through the pages, which is what 99% of people who come into the store will do, too.

If the book doesn't look like it will appeal to the person who picks it up, it probably won't sell. And if no one ever heard of you and you don't have a well known publisher's colophon on the spine, why would anyone plunk down money to read what you wrote?

Heck, even if you DO get published, your friends and relations will all expect you to give them copies for FREE.

It would be wonderful fun to publish books if we didn't have to get people to pay us all that money for them. But we do. And we have to do it in a world where libraries hand new books out for free and the computer is full of great stuff, like these blogs, you can read for all day long, too.

About the only good thing about POD is that you can now "publish" a book no one will read without wasting a lot of paper.

But if your reason for publishing is that you do want people to read it, you want the most impressive publisher possible to publish it with back cover blurbs from Joan Didion, J.K. Rowling, The Dalai Lama, Sting, the Pope, and William Shakespeare. And maybe then someone will fork over the bucks it takes to buy it.

Ryan said...

People have been yammering on about self-publishing being "the way of the future" for quite a while now; one would think that it would begin to show that it was if that were the case.

Maya Reynolds said...

S-P-E-C-U-L-A-T-I-O-N and a long post:

If, for the sake of simplicity, we ignore the agent and the wholesaler for a moment, there are four parts to the publishing equation: the author, the manufacturer (publisher), the retailer and the reader.

Traditional publishers became the gatekeepers not because they had great taste, but BECAUSE they controlled the means of manufacture. Print-on-demand changes that dynamic. The traditional publisher is no longer the eye of the needle through which everything must pass.

The reality of this hasn't quite sunk in yet, but the publisher will need to bring something different (more) to the table to maintain his hegemony and that gatekeeper role.

First it was the independent bookseller who was under siege from the chain bookstores. Now it's the chain bookstores' turn. They're under attack from Internet retailers and the discount outlets. Bookstores need to reinvent themselves or die. I think they'll do it at the expense of the publisher and the so-called vanity presses.

It boils down to economics and consumer choice. It won't happen overnight, but what's to stop a chain like Border's from offering midlist writers double the current royalty and prominent bookstore placement? Do you think Border's would find takers among writers whose publishers don't spend a lot to promote them?

How do you think traditional publishers got into the erotic romance market when they suddenly realized it was hot? They looked at which writers were selling and then offered them deals. Don't you think bookstores can identify the up-and-coming writers?

A bookchain could slap a book on their website with an offer of a five-day shipping turnaround and a discount. Or if the reader wanted the book immediately, he could order it online, pay a slightly higher price for it with a credit card and, by the time he drove to his neighborhood bookstore, it would be printed and waiting at the front desk for pickup.

B&N is experimenting with a form of social networking on their website. I think the problem is that they are trying too hard to control the readers.

Social networking is all about viral communication. In order for viral marketing to work, you have to be prepared to let it flow unfettered.

If a retailer could trust the process enough, it could create a social networking site online where readers (members?) could wander the halls, stopping into chat rooms to listen to authors speak, visit bookclub meetings or simply browse the virtual shelves.

Having said all this, I think my predictions are:

1) An end to the consolidation trend that has dominated publishing for the past 40 years. Niche markets will lead to fragmentation, new imprints and new houses who know their readers, know their genre and know how to market to those readers.

2) Additional consumer choice. Readers will have access to physical books, electronic books, audio books and downloadable rentals.

3) Continued growth in social networking.

4) Shorter books, anthologies and flash fiction will continue to grow in popularity because our time is at a premium. It's no accident that graphic books are so popular.

This was fun. Thank you, Nathan.

Maya Reynolds said...

Gerri: I just did a lengthy post on the subject of textbook publishing on August 6th. Here's a part of it:

In June, 2006, Congressman Howard McKeon (R-CA) and Congressman David Wu (D-OR) asked the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (ACSFA) to conduct a further study of the cost of college textbooks, including recommendations on what could be done to make textbooks more affordable.

The report was released in May, 2007.

The ACSFA report concluded that treating both the symptoms and the underlying cause of the problem requires a dual approach:

"In the short term, steps must be taken to increase affordability for all students, but especially for those from low- and moderate-income families.

"In the long term, a supply-driven, producer-centric market must be transformed into a demand-driven, college- and student-centric market."

The report listed eight categories of solutions. Included among them was utilize 21st century technology (electronic textbooks, no-cost online textbooks, open educational resources and print-on-demand services).

The ACFSA report had this to say:

"Print on demand is another technological innovation that can be used to reduce the price of textbooks by utilizing a machine to digitally download, print, bind and cover a textbook within a matter of minutes. Many print-on-demand machines can easily print 200 to 300 textbooks in one day, each of which costs only a few dollars.

"The technology is often used by publishers to print small batches of textbooks because it is usually cheaper than traditional printing processes. Colleges and bookstores can purchase these machines to print course materials available in print-on-demand format, or those available in the public domain.

"The University of Texas Co-Op Bookstore [in Austin] has a print-on-demand machine that is used to print course packs and textbooks with content consisting of materials in the public domain. Students pay only for the cost of printing the materials, typically just a few dollars. Another example comes from the University of Queensland in Australia, which has received permission from publishers to use portions of proprietary materials for a fee."

I actually think the textbook market will change faster than other parts of the publishing market because the dynamics are so freaking out of whack (or to put it more formally, it's a "supply-driven, producer-centric market). {grin}

Kristen said...

It would probably take a 50% increase in the quality of self-published work and many, many rich self-published authors (who can afford promotion, marketing, and known distributors stores are more likely to deal with) to threaten traditional publishers.

Maya Reynolds said...

Kristen: Excuse me if you were not referring to my post. If you were referring to my post, you've missed my point.

I wasn't talking about self-published writers. I was talking about bookstores raiding current traditionally published writers.

Although Borders has made noises about offering publishing services to self-pubbed people, I think they would do better to approach midlist writers who aren't getting a lot from their publisher.

I believe that the lines between publisher and retailer are going to blur. The American Booksellers Association has been reporting a sales slump for nearly a year. Bookstores need to reinvent themselves. It will be interesting to see which path they choose to take.

Kristen said...

Maya -

No, not referring to yours. Just an isolated thought. :)


Maya Reynolds said...

Kristen: Excuse my post :)

I agree with you. Judging from the emails I've read, most (certainly not all) self-published writers rush to publish without taking enough time to learn the industry or their craft.

Stephen Parrish said...

I agree with what Maya Reynolds has posted on this subject in recent months.

Although I can't predict the future of self publishing (it allows too much crap to find its way into print), I'm sure POD technology represents the future of the publishing industry. EBMs can be placed anywhere, including shopping malls, libraries, and coffee shops. Prices will lower as publishers no longer have to predict in advance how many copies will sell; the number of copies sold will more or less equal the number of copies printed.

I don't see why the future of traditional publishers and literary agents would be threatened by POD technology in any way.

Andrew said...

It's going to change, but I don't think it's going to topple. The Espresso machine will reduce the publisher's role as a producer, but increase the role as writing advisor, promoter and gatekeeper. Editors have their jobs because they're good at seeing the potential in manuscripts and bringing it out. I don't think the literary world would be better if we fired all the editors and let authors print the first drafts of their books whenever they felt like it. I'm certainly glad I waited for editorial feedback from an experienced publisher before foisting my draft off on a buying public.

Publishers will also become more important as brands. Digging through thousands of possible books to read on an Espresso machine, we'll choose between one book and another based on the brand.

Self-publishing and POD will work best when customers know what they're looking for and go out to get it. We'll still make spur-of-the-moment decisions based on browsing, so bookstores will still want to stock browsable copies. Even if there's only one browsable copy per bookstore, that's thousands of copies.

And perhaps as competition from Espresso heats up, traditional publishers will try ways to make the hard copy more valuable. Like the music companies that have included extras with CDs or in-store promotions to boost hard-copy sales, they'll make cover art more intricate and book design more specific, so that you'll want the publishing-house version and not the POD version.

Josephine Damian said...

There are plenty of badly written/edited books being traditionally published - the last thing we need is more trees dying to support the self-indulgent ramblings of self-published authors who wouldn't know story telling basics if it bit them in the a--.

Not only would I never review a self-published book, I'll never buy one and I sure as hell won't waste a minute of my life reading one.

Get thee to an editor, I tell these so-called writers who are too lazy to their learn craft.

(OK, Josie D., don't be shy, tell us how you really feel.)

Anonymous said...

To continue the thought that someone had about the book Eragon--originally self-published but not widely distributed until it was traditionally published.

My kids are currently watching the omnibus edition of every "Schoolhouse Rock" song ever published. It is widely available on DVD. Why? Because it is "published" and distributed by the Disney company. (Buena vista entertainment)

Jenny said...

There's one other significant point about POD as an option for traditional booksellers, publishers etc that seems to have been ignored.

POD publishing is MUCH more expensive per unit. The book I could print for $2 at a traditional bookpress in a run of 2,000 could cost me something like $8 via POD.

With wholesalers like Ingram now demanding 60% from small presses (and distributors even more) that doesn't leave enough to make POD make much sense.

One of the mainstream publishers who published my biggest bestseller put it out in POD form when they sold out their last printing. But to earn anything from the POD version they had to raise the price dramatically. So over a year they sold a grand total of 5 books that way! This is a book that sold something north of 60,000 copies.

I took a different approach and sell my out of print books in PDF download form off my own web site. I've sold hundreds of copies that way because the unit cost to me is just the PayPal cut so I can cut the price rather than raise it.

The erotica that have been sold so successfully online were in download form, not POD form, and part of the appeal was that you didn't have to hand a lurid book to some teenaged clerk but could buy it privately.

Confusing the factors that made for success in the erotica market with a publishing strategy of use to the publishing business in general is a sorry mistake!

Maya Reynolds said...

Jenny: Clearly you don't write erotic romance and, therefore, know nothing about the market.

Yes, it began online. Then traditional publishers realized how well it was selling and began their own lines. Because they were starting from scratch, they approached writers who had been published only in e-book format and offered them print deals.

The interesting thing to me is that many erotic romance writers now move easily back and forth between e-books and print books, signing contracts in both mediums.

Suggest you visit your local bookstore and check the erotic romance imprints :)

Anonymous said...

Josie D., I think you're making too many assumptions.

While it's very true that anyone CAN self publish, it doesn't - by any means - follow that all self-published work is not worthy of publication.

However, it's easy to understand why big-name reviewers stay away from self-published titles. They would simply be overwhelmed.

AG said...

I’m choosing the POD route for a poetry book, it’s great. I really like I also love photography and tinkering with layout. All of this has absolutely no commercial potential, so self publishing is the way to go.

As in music, POD will bring more exciting things to market; consumers are already steering away from the MSM. I will have no worries about remainders and I’ll be marketing to a close circle of friends who already like my work and to my blog readers. As I grow, my little poetry book will still be available. I’ll also be able to offer an eBook.

Royalties, allows me to set royalties and figure out how much I want to make. So instead of getting a dollar a book through tradition means, I’ll be getting $4.00. I think I’ll benefit a lot more from a lower price point and want to make my little book accessible.

I’m still going to work really hard on my novel and getting it to a real brick and mortar publishing house. When this happens, my little poetry book will still be out in the world and still be accessible to people.

Then Beats chose this route, chapbooks were the means for them to communicate and gather a following, POD is becoming the same. Not all self published books will be brilliant, but it’s a great way to have a diverse voice out there. It’s really up to the consumer.

Writers will have to develop other skill sets but they’ll also have more choice and options and a stronger position to negotiate from.

I’m not investing all my proverbial bask of books into one concept or one novel and really do want to have a diverse and varied body of work.

That’s what POD means to me.

April Groves said...

I am very curious about a couple of things - and please understand that I am not in the industry and am just learning.

1 - I have seen some horrifically published books - both self and otherwise. Does the cost of self publication and lack of advance money provide the same type of "weeding" that traditionally occur or do I over estimate the expense?

2 - Don't many self published authors employ an editor? Does this change the way traditionalists feel about self published books?

I am not sold on either idea. I can tell you that the biggest hang up I have is the agent process. Maybe I am just confused about how the business should work.

As a person that works with clients based on commission, I work with clients through the process. I was hoping I would find a literary agent of the same train of thought. A person who felt that working through the process was part of the job. I find it interesting that the agent of fictional work requires a full manuscript prior to offering any assistance.

I am fond of the query process that accompanies non fiction work. I think it is fair to evaluate an idea and a concept to determine if two people are right to work together.

While I don't know that self publishing is the answer, I do think the agent acquiring process may be uncomfortable to some people. I for one would prefer to feel like I am working with my agent instead accepting a favor from him.

Nathan Bransford said...


Just a small clarification -- agents require full manuscripts for fiction because publishers require full manuscripts from first time novelists. Every agent I know is interested in growing an author and helping them achieve as much success as possible, however, this does not usually extend to taking a partial manuscript and helping the author finish it. That's the author's job.

We can help an author who has a great manuscript, but except in rare instances it's virtually impossible for us to be able to invest the time necessary in steering a partial manuscript to fruition when there's no guarantee we're going to like it enough to represent it in the end.

Ben in PDX said...

The biggest thing is that you expect/want people to buy your book. People think "I'll just advertise it on the internet, and then everyone will buy it." I don't think so. Getting people to part from their money is harder than you think, and not having the validation of a major publisher or a known bookstore is a huge red flag.

Jenny said...

Sorry, the previous comment got scrambled. Here's a second try.


What a snotty comment!

Yes, I "clearly" don't write erotic romance but I do write historical romance--I've completed two novels--and I spent several years active in the RWA and even helped get a new chapter off the ground. So I learned quite a lot about how the erotica genre got started and matured.


You have that right! It is so hard to sell books that the numbers that would make a hardback book a New York Times Bestseller can be low enough that they would be condsidered a failure if they were the sales numbers for a music CD. And keep in mind that the free download thing has really lowered CD sales too!

I had one friend whose book hit the NYTimes top 10 list without selling even 100,000 copies.

Amy Lane said...

I see self-publishing as a place for Horatio Algier myths to grow...

Some of the stats I've seen on traditionally published novels are pretty horrific--something like 85% of first time writers don't sell out their first printing? If a writer doesn't sell 500 books in a year, his agent drops him?

With stats like these, hitting the NYT best seller list is actually harder to hit than the lottery. At least if you self-publish, your friends might get a chance to see your work... and if you sell a first printing (or something close...) the bigger publishing houses are suddenly very very interested.

My first self-published novel was not adequately proofread--I've been reading comments here, and I know that yes, in some circles I would be crucified--with lemon juice in the whip-slashes and spike holes, I'm sure. But people loved the story--and now I can oversee re-editing the copy. And it's sold out a modestly sized printing--or would have, if it hadn't been POD.

To those of us out of the loop--those of us who just humker down and write and love what we do--publishing is like a big party on the other side of a six-foot thick wall of plexiglass.

You're not going to let us join the party--hell, you laugh at our clothes, our hair, and our funny accents.

But, dammit, we can throw our own damn party--and it may not be as glitzy, but the beer is tasty, plentiful, and free.

Maya Reynolds said...

Jenny: I'm sorry you felt my response was snotty. It was not intended that way. I sincerely meant that if you could say the erotica sold so successfully were in download form online, you needed to check your local bookstore where erotic romance fills multiple shelves.

For the record, I am one of the founders of Passionate Ink, the erotic romance chapter of RWA. I was also the first membership chair who was nearly overwhelmed by the four hundred applications for new membership we received within three weeks of opening our virtual doors.



Anonymous said...

Espresso Machines are rare for the moment as, say, photocopiers once were. I expect the home version of the Espresso Machine will be available eventually. Following closely will be the torrent pirates and books will join CD's and DVD's as free comestibles.
Honestly, what are we talking about: the short distance between a 3 in 1 home office machine and collated pages, a paper cutter and glue.
If you are still a writer, you won't be in it for the money.

Nanette said...

Yes, the traditional publishers makes sure that non-readable sludge isn't put in the bookstores. But they also are very short-sighted and prejudicial. There are so many memoirs in bookstores - many of which have the same theme or story. Yet when someone comes along with a well-written unique story, they said, "I can't sell it." How is this possible, when one of the chapters was nominated for a Pushcart, one chapter was in a good lit journal, and one chapter won a non-fiction prize? So the writing must be good. Also, all memoirs are basically for a niche audience, so why would a well-written memoir about some things that haven't been written about in detail and from real experience be shunned? And a writer who already has a following in another genre COULD sell a lot of books. I think traditional publishers are afraid of controversy from a writer who is not famous. Therefore, that writer, if turned down forever, should self-publish. At least what they have to say, and I mean, HAVE TO say, will be said, and read by at least 1,000 people.

I know two authors who have written memoirs and got traditionally published, and both had connections.

Farm said...

I only read about half way down, so excuse me if I am repeating something.

Everybody clearly has a lot of different opinions about the legitimacy of and potential for growth for self-publishing. I don't think that self-publishing will ever overtake traditional publishing. I think that self-publishing will eventually come full circle. I think that self-publishers will have their day the same way 80's hair bands had theirs. Then, after everybody and their brother has self-published and the market becomes inundated with exceptionally poor writing, traditional publishing will reclaim its throne as /the/ primary mode of publishing. What do I think will happen to traditional publishing when self-publishing is at its peak? I think that traditional publishing will be even more prestigious and elitist than it is now.

Take a look at what the internet has done for business in general. A high school girl became a millionaire /just/ from creating backgrounds for people's MySpace pages and I don't have to tell you about the Google, YouTube and MySpace guys. The singer Lilly Allen launched her own singing career using MySpace. Clearly the internet has changed the way business is done. However, the internet in all its glory has not done for authors what it has done for so many other industries.

The publishing business as a whole has certainly benefited from the internet and technology, but individual authors have not seen /as/ much success as individuals from other professions. Authors will always have to overcome the instant gratification barriers. You don't have to be smart in any sense of the word to enjoy movies, music and television and you don't need to have any patience. You do with books.

Most people are only really good at one or two things. Self-publishing only really works when the two things a person is really good at are writing /and/ marketing. You could be the next Faulkner, Hemingway or McCarthy, but if you don't have the marketing skills (on top of the time and money necessary to do it) then your book isn't likely to make the waves that your daydreams allow you to believe that it might.

While there are some self-publishing success stories you have to take into account the considerable time, money and effort that is required of the author. Two of the biggest self-publishing success stories, James Redfield and Christopher Paolini, laid down some serious groundwork in order to eventually be picked up by traditional publishers. When it comes to Paolini you have to consider the luck factor of Carl Hiassen pitching his book to Knopf.

And let's not forget that many self-published authors probably got turned down at the query stage for the simple fact that they didn't do their research to find out what a great query letter looked like. Many of them probably didn't do more than one revision (if any), didn't have their manuscript professionally edited, submitted to agents that didn't specialize in their genre and based their "talent" and potential for success on the opinions of their loved ones; people that aren't likely to rip into you like Simon from American Idol. If there's one thing that American Idol auditions has taught America is that people don't have the heart and/or don't have "the ear" (or eye) for what's actually considered good in a given industry. Friends and family are /not/ great measurements of talent. My parents aren't mathematicians, so they're not going to be able to tell me if my math equation that covers two white boards is correct, but they sure will be impressed. Novice authors need to stop basing their expectations on the praise from their parents and girlfriends.

I think that the word "possible" is used too optimistically when it comes to describing the potential of self-publishing. Anything is "possible," but if the two things that you are really good at is writing and basketball then it is probably best if you leave the marketing and publicity to the pros.

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