Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Rejection Letter of the Future Will Be Silence (And Why This is a Good Thing)

Originally published at The Huffington Post

One of the more challenging aspects of being a literary agent is dealing with the incredible deluge of submissions that pour in every single day, twenty four hours a day, from all corners of the globe and for every type of project imaginable. I don't keep precise stats on the number I receive (it's hard enough just to answer them all), but in any given year I receive somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 query letters from aspiring authors. Out of those tens of thousands I reject all but a tiny handful of them and take on perhaps three to five clients a year.

Contrary to the myth that an agent is sitting at a desk cackling as they read the submissions from the supposedly untalented masses, I loathe sending rejection letters. Loathe loathe loathe. Not because it's tedious, but because honestly: who am I to be telling someone they're not worthy of publication?

Well... who am I? I'm a literary agent, and my job hinges on having a good batting average at the sorting process and pulling gems from the virtual pile. I have to use my knowledge of the industry and hopefully some skill to find what will ultimately sell to a publisher.

But as I search for the diamonds, every day I have to pass on the life's work of cancer survivors and abuse victims and war heroes and many more people who spent hours upon hours of their life writing a novel in the faint hope that it would someday find publication. I don't enjoy sending these rejection letters, and I never forget that on the other end of the letter there's a person out there whose day I'm probably ruining and whose dreams I'm chipping away at. What makes these books unworthy, other than the fact that it simply wouldn't be profitable to publish them in print?

The lack of commercial viability of 99% of the books written every year necessitates all this rejection. I can only take on the books I think I can sell to publishers, and aspiring authors receive this judgment in the form of a rejection letter. But the very nature of commercial viability in the publishing world is changing quickly with the transition to e-books, and I think it's ultimately a change for the better.

The Print Funnel

In the print era, there was a good reason to create a funneling process rife with rejection: making a book and getting it to readers is a costly process. It requires extensive and expensive infrastructure (production, printing, warehousing, shipping, retail) and realistically there were only a finite number of books a publisher could publish and still have a chance at making a profit.

All the other books that, rightly or wrongly, were viewed unworthy: they disappeared into drawers, never to see the light of day. While many of the vanished manuscripts were likely passed on for good reasons, who knows what masterpieces and gems were lost to bad guesses?

Luckily, the e-book era is changing all of that. Anyone can upload their work to the Kindle or iBooks or insert e-book store here and make their work available, and thousands of authors are currently doing just that.

Contrary to another publishing myth, I'm not an agent that's opposed to self-publishing, nor do I see it as anything close to a mortal threat to the world of literature and publishing. People fret as a swarm of books hit the market, many of poor quality, but I don't see any reason to fear the deluge at all.

Let's face it, folks: the deluge is already here.

The Digital Deluge

Walk into any large suburban bookstore and you'll find tens of thousands of books to choose from, more than you could possibly read in an entire lifetime. Head on over to your friendly neighborhood online superstore and you'll find hundreds of thousands more. We're already faced with (literally) millions of options when it comes to choosing a book. And guess what: faced with all that choice we are still able to find the ones we want to read.

No one sits around thinking, "You know what the problem with the Internet is? Too many web pages." Would you even notice if suddenly there were a million more sites on the Internet? How would you even know? We all benefit from the seemingly infinite scope of the Internet and we've devised a means of navigating the greatest concentration of information and knowledge the world has ever seen.

So what's the big deal if a few hundred thousand more books hit the digital stores every year? We will find a way to find the books we want to read, just as surely as we're able to find the restaurants we eat at and the movies we want to see and the shoes we want to buy out of the many, many available options.

Infinite Choice Instantaneously

I grew up in a tiny farming town, and for me a fun afternoon consisted of standing in a rice field and shooting things with a BB gun. I didn't have a friendly neighborhood bookstore to peruse, and as this was pre-Internet I certainly didn't have a lot of choice in what I was able to read. My choices were basically limited to what was stocked at our small-but-awesome library and whatever I was able to wrangle from the small-and-not-awesome mall bookstore over 30 miles away.

Not only did my experience growing up give me the skill to shoot dirt clods with the best of them, it also gave me a tremendous appreciation for the importance of choice (because let's face it, nothing gives you an appreciation for choice like not having any). I probably would have bankrupted my parents if I had regular access to a Barnes & Noble growing up, but I would have loved it!!

And now we have even more choice than a big bookstore. Instantaneous access to every book you could ever want to read: how could this possibly be construed as a bad thing?

The Sound of Silence

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, notes that we're moving from an era where we filtered and then published to one where we'll publish and then filter. And no one would be happier than me to hand the filtering reins over to the reading public, who will surely be better at judging which books should rise to the top than the best guesses of a handful of publishing professionals.

I don't see this transition as the demise of traditional publishing or agenting. Roles will change, but there are still some fundamental elements that will remain. There's more that goes into a book than just writing it, and publishers will still be the best-equipped to maintain the editorial quality, production value, and marketing heft that will still be necessary for the biggest books. Authors will still need experienced advocates to navigate this landscape, place subsidiary rights (i.e. translation, film, audio, etc.), and negotiate on their behalf.

What's changing is that the funnel is in the process of inverting - from a top down publishing process to one that's bottom up.

Yes, many (if not most) of the books that will see publication in the new era will only be read by a handful of people. Rather than a rejection letter from an agent, authors will be met with the silence of a handful of sales. And that's okay!! Even if a book is only purchased by a few friends and family members -- what's the harm?

Meanwhile, the public will have the ultimate ability to find the books they want to read, will be unconstrained by the tastes of the publishing industry, and whether you want to read experimental literary fiction or a potboiler mystery: you'll be able to find it. Out of the vastness of books published the best books will emerge, driven to popularity by passionate readers.

Sure beats shooting dirt clods.

Photo by Isabelle + Stephane Gallay via Creative Commons


Kathryn said...

Nathan, thank you for your honest words. It's good to get some perspective from the other end of my... email world (? Is it a world? You know what I mean...)...

Interesting thoughts on publish than filter... I wonder what the future will bring for books.



ryan field said...

You nailed this one.

Mira said...

This is an absolutely brilliant post.

I have more to say, but I'm stuck reeling at the idea of you shooting things with a BB gun. You didn't shoot living things, did you? That was why you kept saying dirt cloud over and over, right?

No roosters were harmed by young Nathan. Yes, I know adjusting to testosterone is a challenge, but....not....roosters. I'm sure of it.

hannah said...

This is literally the best article I've ever read on the future of publishing.

Nathan Bransford said...


No chickens (or any birds actually) were harmed in my BB gun exploits.

Nathan Bransford said...

Wow, thanks so much, Hannah!

Remilda Graystone said...

I agree with Hannah. This was a great post, and I completely agree, especially when you pointed out whether we'd notice if a million more sites were added to the internet.

Thomas Taylor said...

I recently asked my agent if she ever got the time to read for pleasure. the look on her face made me regret asking such a stupid question.

Bane of Anubis said...

Great post/article... reminds me, once again, of why I wish I were an extrovert, or at least had some innate self-marketing skills.

Scott said...

Excellent stuff, Nathan.

swampfox said...

Great take. I agree.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Wow Nathan, how did you get ROck Paper Tiger here!!


Candyland said...

Excellent post! I agree with Hannah for sure. (And what if I like shooting dirt clods?)

bettielee said...

I agree with what you're saying about the reversal of the filter in the digital age, but I think the day you're talking about is far, far off. Of all my reader friends, none of us have an ereader. Too expensive. Maybe ebooks are the wave of the future, but for now, buying an ereader and then buying books to read on it are out of many readers reach.

Courtney said...

Wow, great article. One other potential upshot is that vanity presses will go away and those vets and cancer survivors you mentioned won't get fleeced trying to get their book out.

Josin L. McQuein said...

And now that anyone can upload anything they want and stick a pricetag on it, people will have to rely on the publishers they know and trust even more to float about the flood.

If anything, it seems like the lesser known/small presses have more to worry about than the big boys because the lack of recognition in consumers who are going to tire of the hunt & peck game through what amounts to a digital slush pile will mean their titles get lumped in with the self-published masses.

Which of course means that there will still be massive competition for spots with the big publishers, which will require agents to get potential authors in the front door, and the self-publishing flood will end up something like the direct-to-DVD movie rack at Blockbuster. Maybe worth a risk, since it's cheaper, but your average consumer would rather buy a name brand.

Nathan Bransford said...


Wish I could take credit, but that was all the good people at Soho!

Augustina Peach said...

Posts like this make it harder than ever for me to decide what to do with my manuscript. I have the stereotypical devil and angel on my shoulders. On the one hand, I realize that my story, as historical fiction about a not-so-popular time period, is going to have an extremely tough time in the publishing game, even if I'm able to edit it into publishable quality. Your argument is very convincing as to why I should quit struggling and just put the story out there to sink or swim in the market. After all, I like my day job and don't want to quit; I just want to write these stories on the side.


I don't want my work out there, with my name on it, with my friends and former students reading it, unless it is good enough to be published. The only way I can find that out is by trying to get published, in which case the silence mentioned in your title is frustrating. Does silence mean the book stinks? Or does it mean it won't sell? Should I keep editing until someone accepts it, or should I say it's ready and concentrate on some other story?

It seems to me there is a piece missing in this developing funnel, and that is the editor. I wish there was someone who could read what I've written and give me a professional's view of where the strengths and weaknesses of the story are. I wonder if that sort of role will develop in this new model of publishing. Freelance editor? Self-publishing agent?

margosita said...

I think that the assumption you're making is that self-selection is an infinitely good thing. And that people will have the knowledge and experience to pick great books.

So while I mostly agree with you, there is something to be said about people not being able to continually choose only books that speak to their own biases. I worry that people's reading will become even more insular than it already is, if there is absolutely no kind of filter on what is available and where and how it's available or "out there."

heidi said...

I'm probably echoing what everyone else has already said, but it seems worth repeating: thank you for this fantastic article. Not only is your take interesting (and comforting!) but it's also nice to know that there is a genuine human being on the other end. Much appreciated :)

Anonymous said...

Well, it IS wonderful placement!!

VERY COOL for you and your client!

Anonymous said...

I'm not too excited about this gigantic digital slush pile. However far I have to travel, I'll find a bookstore and buy my books there....

a-r-williams said...

Great post, Nathan!

Some things will change, some will stay the same.

Writers will still need to craft the best story that is in them.

Editing and polishing will still be important.

Finding a way to get your name out there and marketing yourself will be more important than ever.

readingkidsbooks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda Borenstadt said...

Woo-hoo! Good post. It's nice to read a positive opinion on electronic publishing from an actual agent. The writers I know are always squabbling about it.

Rick Daley said...

Adaptability is a key to survival.

Anonymous said...

In the future there won't be a need for agents, we'll sort it out for ourselves.

Throughtout economic history the 'middlemen' have been slowly declining and with self publishing going the way it's going - Literary Agents are next.

Make some noise while you still can...

Maya said...

Maybe my dreams haven't been completely crushed yet, but the truth is I *like* the filter.

As a consumer, I am assured that someone out there thought that the book was worth investing in and that the writing is up to some standards.

As an author, if and when I ever get published, I'll know that someone believed in me. I'm not necessarily writing in a genre that my friends or family would like, but at least it is a genre that I know other people out there read. I don't think it would have a chance of reaching them in the age of "digital deluge".

Laura said...

I guess what confuses me about this whole process is that we are told to write a kick-ass query. Send kick-ass query to agent(s), hopefully they request more...

But what you're saying is that a kick-ass query isn't necessarily key. It's all very subjective and I think how you feel on any given day, will dictate what you request, etc.

I understand being picky, but sometimes I think agents are really sitting at desk blowing raspberries at computer screen! :)

You think being an agent is daunting, try being the writer who wants to be published! :)

Remus Shepherd said...

I don't know, Nathan. I'm unconvinced.

I see two big problems with the 'long tail' -- the model where a lot of people produce things that only sell a little.

One is obscurity. Despite the efforts of critics and the tweetosphere, a good work may not get noticed. Without a vocal advocate telling people about a novel, there is almost zero chance that word about that novel will get out. You can see that happening now in various other online media, such as images and videos. And if agents and publishers can't handle the tsunami of submissions, there is no way that critics (a smaller pool) will be able to review everything.

This forces the author to be an advocate for their own work, but that puts demands on them that are outside of and sometimes contrary to their job as an author. They should be producing new stories, not designing advertising campaigns.

The second problem I see is a lack of any mechanisms by which a creator can hone their skills. So someone releases a novel and it sells to a dozen people. Maybe they get feedback, maybe not, and maybe only they'll get their friends gushing over whatever they write. They have no publisher giving them helpful directions, no agent to bounce ideas off of, and no market large enough to truly measure their work's performance. What do they do? They write another novel, with the exact same mindset and skillset, and release that under the same conditions. They'll never get better, they'll never grow as a writer, and they'll never get any useful, honest feedback to tell them when they're doing something right or wrong. They will be amateur writers -- forever.

This future you're describing is a world of obscurity and mediocrity. No sir, I'm just not sold on it yet.

Nathan Bransford said...


Agents aren't middle men, they're advisors who help authors get themselves the best deal possible. They existed when publishers still took direct submissions from authors, and they'll exist after they're no longer used as the first stage in the funneling process.

Do you think JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer could handle all of their affairs by themselves or would want to? The foreign rights deals and the movie deal and the audio deals and the tie-ins and the graphic novel editions and etc. etc. etc. They don't need an agent to submit their work to publishers, but note that they still have agents.

February Grace said...

OMG I knew it!

Nathan Bransford really is Luke Skywalker, ladies and gentlemen! He used to bulls-eye whomp rats in his T16 back home, I knew it...

Okay, so maybe it was dirt clods. No actual whomp rats were harmed in his bbgun exploits either I'm sure.

But the Force is strong in this one...his youth on Tatooine and the picture on this blog close the case for me.

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't know, gems are discovered out of nowhere all the time. Just look at Shit My Dad Says. The guy started by Tweeting to his friends, and now has a million-plus followers, a #1 NY Times Bestseller, and a TV pilot. THE SHACK was self-published and came out of nowhere.

The process by which something catches on is changing, but viral is viral. All that changes is that the medium is even smoother and more instantaneous than it used to be, and the key players greasing the buzz wheels are changing.

I also don't think top authors will just drop their work into the public without having it critiqued. But there are lots of ways to go about that outside of a publisher.

Nathan Bransford said...


I will say what I think will change is the myth that authors can write a book, send it off to their publisher and have it take off through no non-writing activity or self-promotion of their own. I don't think that ever was true, as I've written before, but even if it was it's certainly not true now.

February Grace said...

oh, and I forgot to add in addition to mad Force skills, Mr., Bransford apparently does really well at this literary gig.

Honestly and seriously I'm so sad right reading this and I'm not even sure just why.

I really, really appreciate you saying how few new clients you take on in a year.

Up against the amount of submissions you receive it really helps put things in perspective. Thank you for this, truly.

My head is's amazing you send responses to submissions at all anymore even rejections. And it really says something special about the kind of person you are that it still bothers you even now to send them.

Mark Terry said...

"There's more that goes into a book than just writing it, and publishers will still be the best-equipped to maintain the editorial quality, production value, and marketing heft that will still be necessary for the biggest books."

Although I essentially agree with this statement--my current publisher certainly holds up their end on this--it seems to me that for it to be completely true publishers would actually have to provide "marketing heft" to all of their authors, not just some of them, and based on some of the amazing typos and continuity errors I've read in a number of bestselling authors over the last 10 years, the same applies to editing.

I'm not just being snarky about this, either. For my last publisher, with my second novel, they sent out 3--yes, count them, 3!--ARCs and otherwise did nothing to market the book (with expected results). I'd like to think I was an exception, but I know better.

Nathan Bransford said...


No doubt - I think this will be one of the shifts. The major publishers will only publish the books (and authors will only go with the publishers) when they can provide marketing heft and the broad range of services they're best at when they're really on. Otherwise there will be a spectrum of options for authors outside of publishers.

tnt-tek said...

The future maybe the silent rejection letter but there's no way that's going to be a good thing.

Books are not television pilots, they're not abstract ambient albums, they're not blogs or youtube videos. There is a reason that books have not been widely replaced by technology and there is a reason that publishing companies continue to do business when it's easy as pie (and fairly cheap) to run off 5000 copies of "My Summer at Aunt Frida's Emu Farm."

The role of the rejection letter is to serve as a hurdle to those submitting to a shared cultural experience. The gatekeepers of those institutions (right or wrong) collaborate to create lasting visions of the world in our time and place.

The upheaval and "memenization" of the literary process is a more culturally profound act than making last weeks Grey's Anatomy available on the internet. When everyone is shouting, no one gets heard.

How could a library hope to function in a world where any dope with a lulu account gets wide distribution? How can we vet actual scholarship from hackery? Viral media and convergence might work with a 500 word blog post or a three minute video but I can't see how it will work with full length fiction.

I'm far from a luddite but there has to be a way that authors and editors can interact in some meaningful way to maintain some semblance of quality control.

You may very well be right, but I sure as hell hope not.

Nathan Bransford said...


We do it the same way we navigate several billion web pages on the Internet and a thousand restaurants in a city and, yes, the same way we navigate a bookstore with 100,000 titles. Is having 1,000,000 choices functionally that different of an experience than 100,000?

Janet Johnson said...

I had never thought of it like this. It's not often I can say my opinion shifted after reading an article.

GREAT post. What is the harm? None.

Anne R. Allen said...

Brilliant. The "long tail" theory lives. I hope this goes viral in the publishingosphere, Mr. B.

Books will be like blogs. Some will be the Huffington Post and some will be, um, like mine.

The money will be made perhaps, not by publishers, but iTunes-type websites that sort and coordinate all these ebooks.

Imagine, Augustina Peach, if there were a specific category on a central site for your historical period. You could be a star in that particular firmament. "I'm very big with the fifth century crowd."

Change isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Chuck H. said...

Well, crap. And I was hopin' to be another Youngblood Hawke.

Mary McDonald said...

I jumped on the e-publishing bandwagon last week. It's fun, exciting and a little bit scary.

It's great to see an article from someone in the industry who is honest about the probable future of publishing.

I predict that in a few years, there will be more respect given to independent authors similar to how indie movies and music have made inroads into mainstream film and music. We'll have our own 'Sundance' of sorts.

Chris said...

You're right on the money with this post.

Note the new model. King's newest ebook, Blockade Billy, is Kindle only at present.

And like 'UR' previously, both Kindle editions are published by Storyville LLC, which I assume is his own company.

E-publish ... then P-publish.

Ty said...

This article and the above responses suggest to me a step forward in "literary Darwinism."

The bottleneck before e-publishing took off was getting your manuscript passed an agent/editor/publisher and into the hands of the masses. That bottleneck seems to less restrictive these days, though as Mr. Bransford mentioned, no less essential.

I see a widening of the proving ground, a stage for unpublished authors similar to the local improvs for stand-up comics or seedy dive bars for garage bands. Get your stuff in front of enough people and someone is bound to take notice. If it's marketable, it should rise to the next level.

It seems to me that we authors can now pay our dues by getting our material out to the public without relying on the traditional channels. Daunting, yes. Terrifying, absolutely. But these are the people we ultimately want to reach.

Oh and Mr. Bransford, the next time I get pissed at a rejection letter, I'll remember that there is a human doing the best they can on the other side of the computer screen. Nice post.

tnt-tek said...


It's not the finding content that will be difficult. My argument is if all the authors that queried you daily knew they'd have a even shot at the pie if they just self-published, they would. Salable or not. Edited or not (probably not).

The institution of writing is an art form that is crafted, not wielded. It is most often a collaborative art form. The gatekeepers and QA are essential to the process of publishing quality work.

There are exceptions to this rule. Self-published authors are occasionally lucky enough to become successful by their own devices. But if the rules change like you say, we are in for a whitewash of the entire profession. To many aspiring authors, this is probably good news. For all of us who love books, this is a travesty.

Nathan Bransford said...


"The gatekeepers and QA are essential to the process of publishing quality work."

Gatekeepers definitely ensure a certain degree of quality control, but if you remove the gatekeepers it doesn't mean that suddenly nothing but bad work will be published. The good stuff will still be published, along with works that may not have been commercially viable in the past but which will find its audience, and stuff that never should have been published and will (probably) not be read by hardly anyone.

I absolutely expect that the best work will still be edited in some form, whether by a publisher (who I fully expect to still exist) or by one of the thousands of freelance editors out there.

But most importantly: shouldn't readers be the ones who decide what they should get to read, and not have their choices constrained in advance? Anyone who wants the quality control of a publisher will still have that option: only buy books published by publishers! But people who don't care about that will have the option of reading books outside of what has been published in the past. I just don't see how more choice is a bad thing for books.

Mira said...

I'm relieved to hear that our feathered friends were safe from young Nathan.

Of course they were. I should have known.

February Grace - I share your struggle. I think we all grapple with that here. I eventually decided that if blog buddies was all it turned out to be, well, okay. That's pretty good. I have so much fun here and learn so much.

Take this post for example. Okay, here's what I especially liked about this post.

You laid to rest this myth that the digital deluge is a bad thing.

You pointed out that bottom up rather than top down has benefits - i.e. masterpieces not accidentally lost.

You pointed out that low sales are easier on the writer - and also on kind, empathic agents - than the rejection letter.

You used the word cackling.

Does it get any better than this? Awesome article.

Bob Mayer said...

I agree with this. It's inevitable. People forget that when POD first became a viable option, hundreds of thousands of writers jumped on that. There were some diamonds discovered. But in 2004 out of 1.2 million titles available, 950,000 sold less than 99 copies. The good news is, the big problem those POD books faced was distribution. Try getting your POD self-published book in a B&N. But eBooks level the playing field considerably.
We've put up 20 books, mostly my backlist (including titles that were bestsellers) at Who Dares Wins publishing. It's been an interesting experience. We learn something every day. We just learned that serializing a book, which I thought would be a good idea (let's go back to Dickens) is not a good idea. We're pulling the serial and making it one book and releasing it.
The are two factors that will delineate success and failure:
1. Quality content.
2. Quality promotion.
Both have to go hand in hand.

Having taught writing for over 20 years, having seen tens of thousands of queries and manuscripts, much as an agent has, I agree that out of so many, one can count on one hand those that are well written, well constructed, and have commercial appeal.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Excellent article, especially the paragraph in the last section about the role trade publishers will still play. They will be important for quality control, branding, and hopefully will take a bigger step in marketing the books they do take on (although, as you say, author participation will still be vital). I'm definitely going to repeat some of these arguments--I thought the one about not noticing if a million new web pages appeared was brilliant!

Stephen Prosapio said...

This is an awesome piece. As was said "brilliant." It very logically spells out what one very likely version of the future will look like. I agree. Digital books will be a great equalizer. There will be several (many many more than agents/publishers believe) that will rise from rejected obscurity to the midlist. Less talented writers (and marketers) will have their moment in the sun; their friends will get to read their work and those writers will see that going from obscurity to Oprah isn't as easy as they may think.

I personally think that this is ebook revolution is going to happen at a *much* faster rate than most people today currently think. When it comes to technology, we are adopting and moving on at a much more rapid clip than we were in the past. Look at how quickly emails virtually replaced faxes over just a year or two period back in the 90s. I don't think books will completely be replaced, but 7 years from now I wouldn't be surprised if more than 50% of all books sold are ebooks.

Bane of Anubis said...

shouldn't readers be the ones who decide what they should get to read, and not have their choices constrained in advance? Anyone who wants the quality control of a publisher will still have that option: only buy books published by publishers! But people who don't care about that will have the option of reading books outside of what has been published in the past. I just don't see how more choice is a bad thing for books.

Hells yeah. So what happens to agents? Do they have to put on the Talent Scout hat more frequently and go fish the expanding ocean?

Anonymous said...

The big misconception expressed by the commentors here is that the publishing industry is looking for "quality" writing. This couldn't be farther from the truth. The want books that sell. Period. If they also happen to be of high quality, then great! But that's secondary to the main goal.

Also, many newbs see the physical bookstores as some sort of holy grail, an irrefutable stamp of quality. In reality, the brick & mortar stores are themselves nothing more than a physical slushpile, with new books given a few weeks to succeed, before being returned to the publisher for a refund, to replaced by some other book that will get their few weeks to prove they can sell. Doesn't matter how "good" they are.

So self-publshing, small press publishing, big 6 publishing--it's all the same--will it sell? that's literally all that matters. WILL IT SELL? Doesn't matter what the source of it is, or it's quality. WILL IT SELL? If the answer is no, then they fade into obscurity. If they do sell, then they garner increasing attention and corresondingly more favorable deals (whether they be small press, trad press, e-book only or whatever).

The whole "getting published" brass ring is just newb talk that shows a lack of understanding about what really matters: SELLING!

You can get published all you want, but unless onoe of them sells, it means nothing. Your work will be met with the same silence if it doesn't sell whether coming from big 6 or

Think about how to sell, not about where you'd like to be "published."

Josin L. McQuein said...

Anon -

You may be met with the same silence if you fail with a Big6 book or Lulu, but you'll fail with money in the bank from a commercial publisher's advance over nothing to show for your work.

Commercial publishers pay for quality, what they consider quality may not fit your definition, but that doesn't matter. They put their name and their reputation behind something they expect to sell. Vanity publishers don't do that, if anything they detract from your sales because their reputation has the opposite effect.

Self-publishing doesn't have the vanity stigma, but you're flying without a ground crew.

Give an average reader a choice between the same genre and approximate size book from a commercial publisher, a vanity press, and a self-publisher, and most will take the cheaper&trusted commercial book.

Kelly Wittmann said...

Oh, Nathan, this was so refreshing to read after all the doom and gloom lately. Thank you very much!

D. G. Hudson said...

Funny, but this post actually cheered me up.

And -- shooting dirt clods is a lot better than shooting a lot of other things. Perhaps your small town upbringing accounts for your generosity and patience with all your readers of this blog.

Better to think you can ride that wave than to fear its height. I believe in being flexible in most things -- the world is constantly changing.

Although I still don't think I'll like the "sounds of silence".

mark mitchell said...

This is a great post and thread of comments. Thank you for sharing your professional insight!


AndrewDugas said...

Let's not muddle things, Nathan!

You said:

"Not because it's tedious, but because honestly: who am I to be telling someone they're not worthy of publication?"

But really, you're telling them that they're not worthy of ***your representation***.

You're a salesman and you know what YOU can sell best. In real estate, some agents are better at condos, others Craftsman homes.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, I'm really just giving my opinion. But how I phrased it in the post is often how it's perceived.

AndrewDugas said...


Of course. The best rejections I've received from agents are those where the agent simply says that don't feel strongly enough about the work to successfully advocate for it; maybe someone else will.

Lovin' the blog. Also great insights to be found.

Josin L. McQuein said...

That's still 5,10,15,whatever-thousand more than you'll likely see - period - from a self-published book. Plus, with the commercial deal, you get a real editor, and a real artist to design the cover. You're not responsible for typos made at the editing stage. You get placement in catalogs and a chance at advance reviews before the book hits shelves. The big publishers get their books on shelves. Self or vanity published books don't without some serious begging on the author's part, and any promotion/marketing is done after the fact. You're MONTHS behind the curve.

There's A LOT to commercial publishing that has nothing to do with the author or book specifically, but is about services designed to make the book appeal to the consumer audience.

The readers know and expect these services, which is why they can be relatively certain that money spent on a commercial book won't be a total waste, even if the book isnt' their taste.

Typos and errors are HUGE problem with vanity or self published titles, as is grammar and the fact that most of those books aren't something anyone would want to read. Having someone vet the titles before hand alleviates much of that risk on the consumer's end.

D.J. Morel said...

Loved this post! Wish I had written it, as it so nicely sumps up my thinking on the rise of ebooks. In the not too distant future, we'll publish the whole dang slush pile. The cream will rise to the top. Paper is precious. It'll be saved for books that have already proven themselves to be worthy of it. Paper books will get a lot nicer too--meaning they can be pricier--a lot of collector's and full-color editions.

I'm going to give a few more years to trying to find a traditional publisher before seriously thinking about self publishing. But in the meantime, knowing that this backdoor option is out there helps me keep writing. There is no longer the fear that all this effort and lost sleep will amount to nothing more than boxes of paper. (Assuming my heirs aren't like Emily Dickinson's and willing to keep sending my work out after I kick it.) If it comes to it, I can take my work direct to readers and see what they think of it. If they greet me with a great big yawn, I can throw out the boxes of paper and save my heirs the trouble… but I'll probably still keep writing.

tnt-tek said...

"But people who don't care about that will have the option of reading books outside of what has been published in the past. I just don't see how more choice is a bad thing for books."

The choice, according to your piece, is going to be settling for self-publishing. There's an old meme the says only 200 people in the world make a living writing fiction. I can see that actually coming to pass as the traditional publisher ratchet down on the few writers in their stables who can turn a profit, adding only incrementally to keep the coffers full.

Everyone else will be force to duke it out in that universe of mediocrity without the benefit of knowing whether or not they stink! The number of choices are irrelevant. This will bring about a drastic slimming of the number of writers who will be able to write for a living. The profession will be dominated by amateurs because the have the same access! There will be no dividing line between the "probably well written" and "steaming pile of horse crap".

I understand your point, I really do. I think we just disagree on whether or not it will be a good thing. I personally wear my rejections as a badge of honor. They are the trophies of my growth as a writer. I'm not writing Faulkner but this is my art and I like that the rules for success require you to pay your dues. As an agent, I know you see this every day. The purple, passive voice, adverb laden manuscripts that are raining down from the sky as vanity and self-publishing operations grow. A name on the spine tells me, this is an investment. Someone put in the effort to make this the best product possible (note; doesn't mean it will be good).

Art Rosch said...

This is an interesting post, Nathan.I wrote a blog entry titled "The Writer's Stampede". I think it expresses what a lot of writers experience. To quote myself: I feel like I've just walked into Disneyland on a day when a big publisher has announced that it will chose one writer in the park at random for a three book contract with a half million dollar advance. The crowd is stifling! I 'm overwhelmed. At least I got my ticket validated when I parked my dragon.

You go. I read you every day and at least once a week you touch a nerve.

Art Rosch

pensees said...

Beautiful post, Nathan. I was touched, particularly by your compassion for the cancer survivors or war heros who have the courage and strength to write about their experiences. I admire your ability to change perspective, and to put yourself in their shoes. Nicely done.

Other Lisa said...

You know, it's very interesting, because now that I'm having this whole "published" experience, my perspective is changing somewhat.

I've really been struck by the synergistic relationship between the indie bookstores I've visited, writers and readers. That seems like a really obvious thing to say, but experiencing it first-hand has just been different. I am going to go out on a limb and say that bookstores that are able to engender and build community, both in their actual physical communities and in virtual ones, will survive -- the bookstores that host authors, where readers come to meet writers, where books are given special handling, signed, sent out to loyal customers who want that special treatment -- sure this is a smaller, specialized audience, but when selling over 5000 copies of a hardback is considered a success, it is really meaningful. I wonder if smart indie stores are the ones who will survive better than the Borders and mega-chains -- supermarkets and big box stores suck up all the blockbusters anyway.

Second, and I say this as a total non-suck-up -- my publisher is awesome. Bookstore owners and managers love Soho. They love "the brand." They have readers who come in looking for Soho stuff because they've managed to create a coherent brand identity and a reliable marker of quality.

So I actually think a small, nimble publisher with real vision that is still big enough to put some real support behind its books and authors can and will succeed in this new world.

And now I'm off to a mystery book club and the day after tomorrow, to another wonderful independent bookstore.

Magdalena Munro said...

What a wonderful post,especially since I received a rejection yesterday. It's much worse having your proposal/MS rejected than a query letter and I cried like a baby. Thanks for this uplifting post.

Being a recruiter for so many years with desirable organizations, I too have to "reject" hundreds of candidates daily and also hate that part of my job and can relate.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

tnt-tek writes... "When everyone is shouting, no one gets heard." PLEASE, oh PLEASE, tell that to the Ladies of THE VIEW!

Josin L McQuein... writes, "You're flying without a ground crew." Josin, you're assuming all ground crews are equal, vis-a-vis the publishing biz... ain't so, never been so, and will forever remain so!

I am amazed at the number of writers here who *need/desire/obsess over/* someone granting an Imprimatur to their work, as if that 'someone' is the custodian of quality or, God forbid, high culture!

The future??? I see a hybrid of agent/entertainment lawyer/editor hired on a consulting or permanent basis by authors. The more hits - SALES - this hybrid shepards, the better their reputation and desirability, thus drawing more authors and collaterally serving as a *vetting* authority for the reading public.

The big 6 will eat each other until they're down to a few, then they'll cherry pick what emerges from the upside down funnel and make a *real* book of it until all the newborns of today, who grew up reading nothing but ebooks, say, "Why do I want that?" (15-20 yrs). And then, Puff the magic print publisher will be no more.

I believe we're moving from an era of words to an era of pictures, videos, film, photography or any electronic gizmo that instantly captures dramatic moments and puts them out for worldwide consumption. After all... a picture is worth a thousand words!

I'm not a seer, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn... once!

And remember... cream ALWAYS rises to the top, whether it's sitting at a conglomerate dairy, or under someone's three sided tired old barn!

Haste yee back ;-)

T. Anne said...

I'm enjoying the comments almost as much as I enjoyed the post. That being said, I don't want my novels, 'my paper children', slipping into oblivion down the Amazon trail. I want what I write to matter. I would like my novels to own prime real estate at B&N, Borders, Amazon, and big box stores. Am I delusional? Probably. But I think it's safe to assume most writers are to a degree. You'd have to be when faced with the odds. Silent or not, rejection isn't what I'm after.

Anonymous said...

"hen they'll cherry pick what emerges from the upside down funnel and make a *real* book of it"

That's already happening. "Sh*t my Dad says" was cherry picked from the internet (chosen by the readers first, then a publisher jumped on it), as are a growing number of books from Amazon (Boyd Morrison is a good example).

The upside-down funnel will work for the publishing industry . . . they'll simply use Kindle as their slush pile vetting device, take the bestsellers, and make contract offers to those authors. That's what AmazonEncore is doing.

When do you think we'll start seeing books in B&N with the banner "Kindle Bestseller!" blazoned across the cover?

Oh wait. That's Boyd Morrison's book . . .

Josin L. McQuein said...

Cream only rises to the top until someone stirs it in with the rest of the coffee.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Nathan - I've been trolling through your first pages critiques and they are a real service to aspiring writers. So thank you for that.

Also: you are brilliant, as usual, with this post, and your keen analysis of the state of the industry and where it's heading. I think there will be (already is) a bridge between the "unwashed masses" of self-publication (which I think become more respectable every day - I love the analogy with Indie movies!), and the big publishing houses (which is what agents are interested in selling to). The small presses, a version of a professional "Indie" publishing company, will become more important, providing independent channels for quality books in our direct-to-consumer age. What these Indie Presses will look like will keep evolving as well.

My 2 cents. :)

Nathan Bransford said...

I agree with Other Lisa that the types of bookstores and publishers she mentioned are poised to survive into the new era - they've made themselves vital.

Anonymous said...

"I would like my novels to own prime real estate at B&N, Borders, Amazon, and big box stores."

Really?! Borders very nearly went under just last year, after all! That's where you want your children's destiny?! Not me. I want mine to be wherever is the place people go to buy books at that moment--I will constantly work to make sure they're there rather than holding on to decades old stereotypes about where and how people buy books. I have no loyalty to any particular selling platform, only to the book itself. That goes for e-platforms too. What's hot now might not be 2 years from now.

LTM said...

As painful as the query process is for me, I can only imagine how it is for you agent-types with hearts. I empathize completely with the whole "How do you know? How do you choose?"

And the very idea of 300 unread emails in my inbox gives me the itch... I don't know how you guys don't burn out faster than you do.

Still I hope something of the old process remains. I like the idea of quality control, and I would def. want someone kowledgeable at my back.

we live in interesting times~

Mystery Robin said...

I think it's really interesting that when the printing press was invented many people thought it would destroy civilization because it suddenly became so cheap and easy to have a book published. ;)
"The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name; others for the sake of mere gain."
-Martin Luther, 1569 (Leader of the Protestant Reformation a little more than a hundred years following the invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg.)

"The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information by throwing in the reader's way piles of lumber in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful lumber."
-Edgar Allan Poe, 1845

Karen McQuestion said...

Great post, Nathan!

kim said...

Thank you for writing beautifully what many have been intuiting.

Dan said...

This is probably true. I'm not sure it's such a good thing for authors, though. A winnowing of submitted manuscripts by agents and other gatekeepers makes the quality of the work the barrier to entry into the marketplace.

When readers do the winnowing you have to persuade people to read the manuscript for them to find out if it's good or not. This is going to lead to several developments that aren't necessarily favorable to authors.

1. The price of a book is going to come way down. Authors can tolerate a lot of this, as self-published e-books pay much higher royalties than conventional books. But a reduction in the perceived value of content is bad for the market. And with so many potential authors fighting for attention, the price could ultimately reach zero, as authors give away work in hopes of gaining attention they can parley into paying opportunities.

2. Meanwhile where attention is scarce and at a premium, people will start charging others to generate it. Amazon and other companies which e-publish lots of authors who generate few sales, will probably start looking to exploit the authors as a profit center.

Authors might end up paying for some online version of co-op, where you appear higher in people's searches or are featured more prominently on the web page.

If self-publishing replaces a sizable chunk of what is currently published conventionally, authors may have to go out-of-pocket for editorial. Freelance publicists will definitely be pitching services to authors.

The current rule that authors do not pay for publication and that money flows to the author will change to an entrepreneurial model where authors are expected to invest money to try to reach an audience.

3. Whatever the mechanism is for generating reader attention, it will be corrupted. This has happened on every author "display site," where "popular" books get that way through back-channel vote-trading and glad-handing. I've heard that there's similar fishiness among the Amazon "top reviewer" ranks.

The fact that nobody has figured out a way to use "crowd-sourcing" to sift slush yet indicates that it's problematic.

And the fact that so many nominees for big awards are not bestsellers indicates that popularity isn't the best measure of quality.

Claudie said...

This is a great post, Nathan, and so uplifting!

My main concern with the deluge is not the infinite number of low-quality that may suddenly hit the online bookstores' shelves, but the "public should decide what is good". My apologies to the masses, but I often find your choices to be far below my preferences.

But then I realised... I already know this. Despite all the hype about it, I know better than to pick and read certain of the latest trends (note that I will not name the books here), because I find the writing to be supbar. So if I can tell this now, why wouldn't I be able to do it later?

I will continue to believe that serious writers, who seek to improve their craft and bring their stories into the best for they can manage, will continue to edit over and over before they publish, whether via self-publication or by seeking representation. They will go to workshops, they will ask for critiques, and they will work hard on their novels.

I want to hope that despite the risk, opening the floodgates will not lead to a dumbing-down of the available products, and that the gems will still come through.

Henry Baum said...

Really like this sentiment: No one sits around thinking, "You know what the problem with the Internet is? Too many web pages."

There's a major difference though: the internet is free. If you come upon a god-awful blog, you can just move on. If you buy a god-awful book, that's money you've lost. There's only so much money people can spend.

So that's what gets people annoyed - the loss of a possible sale. No way around this really. People will just have to get used to it, and readers will have to get more savvy about knowing what something is before they shell out $.

LTM said...

As a book lover, what I WILL miss: Holding a copy of my *printed* novel. Hope not to miss that~

Amanda Sablan said...

The rejection letter of the future definitely sounds better!

Here's a little advice for us unpublished writers: Who's to say that just because one agent passed over your work that another agent will do the same? Some of the time a writer is rejected because their project "wasn't right" for a particular agent, not necessarily because they completely stink at crafting a well-written story. So do not despair! I did at first a bit; but then I got a response from someone who requested a partial. All it takes is perseverance and a willingness to swallow your pride.

Nathan Bransford said...


That's a very nice summary of the flipside of this new era. I agree that everything you said is a potential challenge.


True about the comparison between e-books and the Internet, and I think we'll see more and more demand for previewing books before buying. Luckily e-books make this pretty easy, or should anyway.

tnt-tek said...

There's quite a few little problems that pop up when the ebook is pushed as the future of the medium.

1. Data attrition - There are a huge number of old to ancient texts that survive in book form. When the book is reduced to data on a playback device, how does that text propagate through the centuries? Obviously the formats will become obsolete at some point. With no physical presense, how does the work survive the author?

2. Casual readers - Why would someone who reads only occasionally purchase an expensive playback device to do so? This automatically excludes them from the mountain of choice that's being developed and cuts lesser known authors off from that audience.

3. Author interaction - A majority ebook economy kills promotional events like book signings. It limits the ability for special editions and different form factors that allow the author to gain additional income.

Stephen Prosapio said...

Finally read through the comments and Other Lisa's stands out. I was thinking the exact thing last week. No offense to B&N and Borders, but 20 years from now do you think people will be going to places like that for books? I doubt they'll be around. Replaced by ebooks and Amazon cheap books.

Sure people will still enjoy "The Bookstore" experience, but they'll want to go to a place that KNOWS books. I was in Borders a couple of weeks ago...Gods love em, I do shop there on occasion, but this story tells all.

I overhear a woman asking a worker there if they carry "Any Stephen King books about writing."

Of course my ears perk up since that's one of the top 5 books mentioned as THE book on writing (on this blog and elsewhere). The Borders worker trudges over to the computer to find out. HUH??? You work in a bookstore and you don't know the answer to that question? He's THE writer of this generation. You gotta know if he's written a book on writing.

I told the customer that "On Writing" is the only book King's written about writing and it's the only one she needed to buy.

My agent suggested I start reading debut suspense novels. How do I find those? People working in Indy bookstores will know...

Nathan Bransford said...


Data attrition is a problem that has existed for centuries - what survived from the Library of Alexandria? We've always dealt with that - it's not like paper is permanent. I'm sure we'll be able to save what we want to save out of the data pile.

Casual readers: just look at the iPad. Multi-functional devices are the future way to reach casual devices.

Author interaction: look around! (well, figuratively not literally). The Internet is allowing for author/reader interaction on an unprecedented scale.

Josin L. McQuein said...

I don't think Borders or B&N will disappear, but simply change. Rather than having rows and stacks for most genres, there will be kiosks for browsing. (Not kids books, though. I think those will outlast any of the others because they're cheap gifts and easily replaced / doodled on.)

Things like the espresso machine might pop up with more frequency in stores, where you see a book you want, and you can print it on the spot. It would cut down on shelf space and inventory, and be especially helpful for things like school required reading.

T. Anne said...

Anon @5:00. Nevertheless I find no solace in sinking.

B&N and Borders will most likely still be here on the net. The last place I held an actual book was at Costco. That being said, I buy 99.9% of my books online from Amazon and over 80% are for my e-reader. Have you visited their websites? You can get might nice real estate there as well.

Anonymous said...

Borders is on their lasts legs (ie loan) right now. They almost went under last year. This is it for them if they din't succeed in the next couple years.

February Grace said...

I find myself thinking now about how iTunes revolutionized the way that people buy whole albums of music. No more do we have to take the disc home, no clue what any song but the single played on the top 40 station sounds like and then discover we could've paid 1.00for one song and been happy rather than 13.00 and been unhappy because most of the content was not what we wanted.

Chapter samples? Absolutely. Maybe the first few pages of each, even, I could imagine that helping people decide whether or not an author's style was something they really wanted to download and pay for.

Maybe it's a good thing, as anyone who bought a one-hit wonder cd and is now using it as a frisbee on the weekends knows.

Bands can now tell which of their songs are most popular by downloads right away- and when bands release a long awaited album that disappoints, boy do they know it. People won't even buy whole cds by bands they've loved for years anymore without samples first. Why should books be any different?

The question is, are we ready as writers to stand back and really let the public decide our fate entirely?

Somehow, that idea scares me a lot less than the thought of potentially drowning at the bottom of the slush pile- and I've barely put a toe into that water yet.

Maybe someone whose never put their work up on the web before and gotten instant (positive) reader feedback would be terrified of this and yes the public can be fickle. But they can also be really, incredibly loyal if they love you...

tnt-tek said...

There are any number of scenarios that will probably all come true. It just makes me sad and angry to come up in such a time. Whether or not it is the future, the author becomes minimized in this scenario.

I cannot come to grips with a future that includes authors twittering and blogging as their sole interactions with readers. A future where the only way to come across new work is to carry around an iPad. And no paper isn't indestructible but it's at least a viable medium over time. How many people would be able to playback a betamax tape if they came across one? How about an 8-track? How much luck do you think they would've had with the Dead Sea Scrolls if they had been wrapped in Adobe Digital Editions DRM.

It make absolutely no sense to me. The book is a perfect vehicle. It's compact, it is its own playback device, they can be shared. Hell, everyone in your house can have one simultaneously for less than $1000!

I don't mean to sound bitter about it but the death of the book has been prophesied since the dawn of the computer age and I don't see it coming any time soon. I will take a generation or more for any large scale movement away from the physical book printed by traditional publishers.

Thanks for putting up with me in your comments, it was nice to vent.

John N said...

A keeper post.

"...from an era where we filtered and then published to one where we'll publish and then filter."

In journalism, this concerns me, but in fiction it fascinates me as much as the visual arts on the Internet. What new middlewomen/men will emerge and which will vanish?

February Grace said...

As long as there are people who can afford to have their favorite stories bound into books, people will have books.

I don't think that 'death of the paper' book is in any way imminent. After all, Captain Picard has them on Star Trek three hundred years into the future if you believe Roddenberry's view of things to come and Star Trek actually led to the invention of the cell phone and if you think of it, the Kindle. It looks just like a PADD. Books are here to stay. They may become harder to obtain in printed format but they won't go away as long as readers want them.

I think that there are some of us as afraid of others having success in a public arena as there are those of us who are afraid we'll never make it beyond the slush to get our work really, actually read by someone who might like it if they had time to consider it.

I really appreciated the quotes Mystery Robin posted about what was said centuries ago about the possibility of too many books. Thank you for putting those into this discussion, they made me smile.

It might just be the INFJ in me but I'm reading a lot of fear in the comments here. Fear of losing that 'stamp' from a 'real publisher' that says your work is 'good enough'.

Fear of never seeing your work reach your potential readers at all because of the limited amounts of books that publishers/agents/the industry at large supports because it's what they believe will sell.

I just have to think that more options in this case must be better than less. That's because I've gone through the bookstores and so many of the big sellers leave me cold but there are books I've read by other struggling authors that I've loved and not been able to forget.

I'd love to have the chance to decide for myself what I want to read- even if others decide that what I write isn't their cup of tea.

I feel a lot better, hours after reading the initial post than I did before. Thanks again Mr. Bransford for all the work you put into it and to everyone who has commented. Fascinating.

Tabitha Maine said...

The discussion within the comments was as informative as the original post-sweet!

Davy DeGreeff said...

My problem with this theory: the majority of people on this planet are morons. Granted, a good majority of that majority don't exactly make leisure time reading books, but a few of them slip into the reading demographic, and those are the ones that would ruin this situation. They would make books like the TWILIGHT series huge every year, and we would never be able to rediscover books that went unappreciated in their time, like THE GREAT GATSBY. There would be no retrospect, there would only be a concentration on what was happening now.

Art Rosch said...

Eleven Things An Unpublished Novelist Feels

Art Rosch
Copyright 2010

1.I am a genius unique in the annals of mankind. Most of the reading audience is not advanced enough to perceive the layered depth of my work
2.If my books are published they will change lives.
3. I’m a committed artist. My work transcends genre. Agents and editors are too conventional to see the boundary-shattering nature of my work.
4.My life experience has been so unusual and difficult that I have special credibility in writing about the human condition.
5.I’m getting older and all these rejection slips are coming from agents who are my kids’ age.
6.Who do they think they ARE!?
7.While I may not be published in my lifetime, my works will reach the world posthumously. This is a good thing for the world but doesn’t do shit for me.
8.I often succumb to self-pity and apathy but I bounce back with increased defiance.
9.I know the odds against writing a best seller are astronomical. A series of apparent coincidences will bring my writing before the world.
10.The seven hundred agents who rejected me without reading a single page will write and ask to represent future projects.
11. Ninety nine percent of the people in the world believe that they belong to the one percent that’s superior to the other ninety nine percent. I am in the REAL one percent.

Art Rosch

Terry Stonecrop said...

I'm almost speechless, which for me, is almost never! Your heart was in this one.

I grew up in a city. But my darling father taught me to shoot boxes off wooden horses in the basement, and even in the backyard, with BB guns, so I relate.

I suspect you may well be right. The cream rises to the top, or something like that. Let's hope we all have the cream that rises.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Those aren't the words of the unpublished, they're the words of someone with Golden Word Syndrome.

A writer, unpublished or not, will do whatever it takes to make their writing up to par, not expect the bar to change to suit their level.

tnt-tek said...

I'm feeling inspired by this discussion to write a story about a dystopian future where book stores have become kiosks. Where libraries have gone extinct. Where erotic Harry Potter rip-offs and vampire slash novels outnumber significant releases by 100 to 1. I envision a protagonist, an old writer, who sits alone with huge cache of paper books, some of the last on earth. A man who remembers when people used to compete to land on a bookshelf and now can only hope to take up a slot on someone's kindle.

Aimee said...

I'm one of those who isn't liking this electronic publishing future. I like my paper books. I like the query system. I think it all works the best this way. With the electronic stuff, I feel like there will be a lot of people who wrote less-than-mediocre books getting their novels published.
I liked this post. It was very honest. But I just don't like the sound of what's to come...

Nathan Bransford said...


Well, one of the things that Clay Shirky points out in HERE COMES EVERYBODY is that 50 years after the printing press was invented, Johannes Trithemius published an impassioned defense of the scribal tradition. Only he published it via the printing press.

Kaitlyne said...

I don't know. The idea of anyone being able to upload a book and expect people to buy it and then only those of us with sales will get anywhere freaks me out--and not so much as a writer but as a reader.

I want a gatekeeper there making sure the stuff I read isn't just pure crap, which, by your admission 99% of what's out there isn't publishable.

As a writer, I'd like to be able to actually make money at this one day. I write because I love to write, but this is more than just a fun hobby for me. This is something I put a lot of effort and work into. I do that with the intent that I might one day be able to have a commercial product that I can sell. The thought of only ever being able to sell a handful of books is freaky and certainly not worth the investment. If that was all I'd ever accomplish, I'd probably stop bothering to spend months editing when I finish something and just move on. The handful of people who would read it can read the version I print out on my printer because obviously they'll just be friends and family anyway.

Really, though, the whole concept of ebooks meaning anyone has a chance has me worried that we'll lose readers in general. I wouldn't keep reading if almost everything I found was terrible. I'd limit myself to only things someone recommended or a few writers I knew I could trust.

I think if anything it's more disabling to a new writer. It's like the concept of self-publishing, to me. There's a reason why most self-published books don't sell much, and a reason why a lot of readers don't like to read them.

I think, if anything, we'll find people becoming *more* dependent on publishers and even less likely to buy random ebooks.

As for the internet/too many websites concept...actually I do say things like that. ;) People ask me why I don't often read blogs and my reason is because ninety percent of them aren't any good. They're boring or poorly written. The only blogs I read are industry related or by professionals. I'm one of those people who inwardly cringes every time someone says, "Oh, I started a new blog! You should come read it."

I wouldn't say it's a problem of there being too many, but a problem of most of them not being worth reading. I apologize to blog writers out there, but it's true. So yeah, there are definitely people out there who actively avoid certain things on the internet because of experiences with them. Unless I see it linked on the site of someone I trust to have good taste, I won't bother opening it.

In any case, I just hope I can get into the business before any of the stuff you mention happens.

I agree with the silence issue, but I still haven't seen an argument about the bottom-up method that makes me feel anything but dread about it.

dakotags said...

People who are worried that a deluge of self published, badly written books will overwhelm and possibly obscure better, professionally edited books are overreacting. When you log onto Amazon to shop for ebooks, the titles you find right away are the same titles you'd see prominently displayed in a Barnes and Noble. That is, the books published by the biggies and being pushed with the most marketing money behind them. People who have the chutzpah and energy to market their own books now have a real shot at it and those of us who need the backing of editors and agents can still go the traditional route with the same possible success as always.

Café Lopez said...

Terrific post - it's great to see someone in the industry embracing this change. What concerns me is the negativity many of us e-publisher are facing. The purported simplicity of e-publishing is diluting our credibility. People need to understand that there are two types of self-publishers: vanity authors and enterprise authors. The latter treat the process as the entrepreneurial venture that it is, and are thus more likely to succeed. I very much look forward to the day that happens.

darksculptures said...

So what happens when the lights go out? What are you going to read then? EMP anyone?

Or -

What happens when you are taxed or charged for every hour of your electronic devises because the carbon footprint of a self-published writer has become too big?

Just adding to tnt-tk's thought. I'm crawling back in my cave now.

Great discussion. I think there are too many uncertainties about what is going to happen to the industry for a writer to try and second quess anyone's move. But, I do know that what ever trend the industry is driving, it will profit them more than the writer.

Jil said...

You mention the printing press as a great change, but really wasn't the manuscript still on paper - just easier to read?

In my library I have books once owned by my grandfather, a few by great grandparents, with their signatures in the front. What will my Great grandchildren have of mine without paper?

Wouldn't self publishing be limited to only those with money to pay for it? Hey, isn't that what's happening in politics?

Michaelbrent Collings said...

Very cool thoughts and comments. I like the vision of the future you present. ;o)

Steve said...

You said:

No one sits around thinking, "You know what the problem with the Internet is? Too many web pages."

I say:

Quite the contrary. I think about that A LOT. It's precisely the problem indicated by phrases such as "drinking from a firehose", "Finding a needle in a needlestack". "everybody will be famous to 15 people", etc.

I call it the problem of finite human bandwidth. Think also signal to noise ratio. The bigger the Internet, the more places for the good stuff to hide.

You said:

Would you even notice if suddenly there were a million more sites on the Internet? How would you even know?

I say:

Not sure if the number is a million, but at some point search engine software will begin to fail to scale.

You say:

We all benefit from the seemingly infinite scope of the Internet and we've devised a means of navigating the greatest concentration of information and knowledge the world has ever seen.

I say:

Remember Sturgeon's Law. Who could deny that 90 percent of the Internet is crud?

Just a counterpoint,

Steve said...

On another subject -

You said:

But as I search for the diamonds, every day I have to pass on the life's work of cancer survivors and abuse victims and war heroes and many more people who spent hours upon hours of their life writing a novel in the faint hope that it would someday find publication. I don't enjoy sending these rejection letters, and I never forget that on the other end of the letter there's a person out there whose day I'm probably ruining and whose dreams I'm chipping away at. What makes these books unworthy, other than the fact that it simply wouldn't be profitable to publish them in print?

I say:

Perhaps I'm misinterpreting here, but as I read between the lines in this and the immediate surrounding paragraphs, I seem to detect that you're not entirely happy with what you're doing. How long before you reinvent the profession of "agent" as a facilitator for a writer's self-publishing / e-publishing efforts?

Or am I imagining things?


treeoflife said...

Very good post Nathan, I loved reading it.

The thing that jumped out at me was the enormous plethora of queries you get every year! Absolutely mind-boggling.

My question is how many of these 15 - 20k are serious attempts, and how many are people who just hammered out a 50k nanowrimo kinda thing and forwarded the unedited, raw draft straight to you with nary a proper query?

MB Dabney said...

Well-reasoned and well-stated. Thanks.

Marilyn Peake said...

Brilliant article. I love that, as a reader, I have such a huge selection of books to choose from in today's world. I purchase books from a wide array of publishers: large publishing houses, indie presses and self-publishing. I’ve learned how to evaluate which books are probably going to be good, by looking at excerpts, reviews, awards, etc.

Francine said...


Great article and, personal statement echoing all those who've gone before on this theme!

I don't envy you your job, nor have I sought a lit agent on my return to writing (after a break)for the very reasoning behind your statement: "elusive diamond in a desert"

I'd probably do better sending my ms to a sheikh, he might actually pick it up and at least read it!

Seriously. Every author out here thinks their novel "a diamond in a desert!" and yeah, there are some gems out here. One sees them all the time entered in blogfests, on writer sites and blogs.

Have to admit I'm fascinated by the industry in general from all sides of the grinding mill. That said, there's less pain involved in rejecting than being rejected! ;)


Elie said...

Interesting post and comments.

Dan's comment makes me think that eventually only the very wealthy will be authors. Becoming an author already requires investment. In this vision of the future, you will have to pay more for success: the more you can afford to spend to promote your work, and the more you can afford to gamble that this promotion will lead to success, the more you can afford to pay for independent editing .. etc. Then there is the expense of the technology for writers and readers and the total dependence on electronics ..

BTW, I'm confused re. self publishing and self-internet-publishing leading to mainstream publication, as I've heard that this can adversely affect the possibility of the work being taken on by a publisher or agent, and is usually prohibited for work entered in writing competitions.
Apologies if this is covered somewhere on the blog already.

Anonymous said...

Jumping on the Negative Nancy bandwagon here... but all I get out of this is that the future of publishing is going to look a lot like Authonomy.

My main concern (like a lot of others here) is quality. Critique groups are great, but advice is easy to ignore and a lot of writers (myself included) have larger-than-justified egos which can only be cowed when faced with an onslaught of cold, hard form rejections.

In this future where the most popular books will be written by tech-savvy, people-friendly entrepreneurs there won't be any drive to improve the writing itself- rather the focus will be on marketing skills and image.

Without that extra push from a respected third-party (agents, publishers etc) I fear a lot of writers will become complacent and self-satisfied with their craft.

(But thank you for writing this post, Nathan! Discussions like these are important to have IMO.)

Dan Holloway said...

An interesting post, Nathan, that moves in a strange arc from the rejection process to the changing nature of publishing. I agree with pretty much al of what you say, except for the role of publishers - do you really think they will still be "one stop" houses? I would have thought it much more likely the skills you mention will fragment and form clusters of specialised expertise. That would seem to be the kind of lean, flexible model that the speed of the new era demands, with authors able to commission an editor and cover designer simultaneously, for example, and in each case to choose the one best suited to them rather than the best one in a particular publisher?

faith said...

Nathan,brilliant article, one of your best as it puts it all into a 'nutshell'. It's honest, far thinking and takes some of the scare out of the mania for all things electronic.
I recently queried you ( The Assassin's Village) and despite you saying the project was not what you represent,I'm not deterred - there are alternatives out there self-pub etc,etc.
Faith Mortimer

jongibbs said...

Great post, Nathan.

I wonder though, if the agent/publishing process will chsnge for the better.

I'm all for smaller publishers taking less of a chance on a lot more authors by offering eBook contracts first, followed by a print contract if it does well (something I've benefited from).

However, I don't think it's all silver-lining - at least, not quite. There are an awful lot of less than scrupulous people out there, who'll be trying to take advantage of folks.

I believe we'll see a huge increase in the number of 'Pay us and we'll publish your work on the net' scams.

Metropolista said...

As a self-published author, I see one big missing piece of the puzzle: moolah, connections, and know-how on sales, marketing, and distribution. I wrote a good book, I went through all of the hoops, I had it edited and printed, I listed it on Amazon, I threw a launch party. Plenty of people I didn't know before have given me great feedback on the book. But it still didn't break even. Five years later, now that eBooks are more of an option, the cost of entry is lower, but the problem is still the same - getting the word out. That's why this time around I'm steeling myself for the long, dark rejection process.

But thanks to your article I think I'll sign up for an internet marketing class, too. Your insights are always valuable - thanks for the superb blog. -Bethany

Anonymous said...

Great post, Mr. Bransford!

Considering my chances at publication *at all* are practically zero, I didn't hold off on ePublishers when I first started querying. I know that flies in the face of agents who adamently oppose ePublishing, but they should try toiling away on this side of the Slushpile for a few years.

As for form rejection letters, I LOVE THEM! Anything is better than not knowing what happened to my query or requested material. I absolutely hate a form rejection on a Requested Full because it takes an enormous amount of work and emotional energy to get that far, but I'll happily take it over no response at all.

Steven Till said...

This may have been addressed already, but say if an author chooses to digitally self-publish his/her book first for e-readers, and the book has success in that format, would a traditional publisher ever pick it up for print publication?

MJR said...

I read unsolicited mss for a few years--it's very depressing rejecting mss. Rejecting all those people feels terrible--no way I'd ever do that again. So I see where Nathan is coming from, about how these people will have opportunities to get their works in print. I think the problem is that 99% of people have no perspective on their writing. I don't think hiring a freelance editor is the answer either. I hired a well-known freelance editor (industry insider) to give me an overview of my mss. He gave me a totally softball critique--said it was great blah blah. My friends gave me better critiques. He was just doing a job, not putting his reputation on line as an editor at a publishing house would. Same experience when the last five of my children's books were farmed out to an outside editorial service--practically no revision required, while I had to completely rewrite several of the first books in the series when the inhouse editor was working on them. So I don't think epublishing or self-publishing is the answer--at least for quality work.

John Jack said...

Gazing into a crystal ball, scrying, foreseeing the future in the present, what is it about editing and reviewing that will change in the marketplace due to technology?

Freelance editors presently employed in the U.S. roughly 130,000, twelve percent self-employed freelancers. Government growth projections remain flat over a ten-year forecast. I disagree. Freelance editors providing editing services for emerging writers will grow by twenty percent.

Authors and writers presently reporting writing as the main source of income, 150,000. 25,000 expected increase over a ten-year forecast. Review writers are included in Bureau of Labor Statistics.

My predictions don't agree with BLS in either regard. I expect growth of twenty percent, mostly from dual income source writers keeping their day jobs and developing writing careers.

I'm a freelance editor. Here's the thing. Most writers, all writers in my opinion, want or need an editor and are willing to pay for the service. Nondiscretionary editing for mechanical issues, like spelling and punctuation and grammar, averages about $0.50 per Standard Manuscript Format page, known as light copyediting. For that matter, I need a copyeditor for my writing too.

Medium copyediting does the nondiscretionary things and fact checking and touches on big picture structure and aesthetics filtering and legal concerns. Rates vary widely from $1.00 a page up to several dollars per page.

Heavy copyediting does all the light and medium things and scrutinizes structure and aesthetics at the tiniest level. Rates vary widely from $0.35 per word into dollars per word.

Conscientious freelance editors don't make changes. We offer suggestions.

An emerging type of editor is the developmental editor. Developmental editors don't rewrite manuscripts or even write them in the first place. We offer suggestions for enhancing structure and aesthetics. I'm but an apprentice in that regard. However, the writing trends I see most often are unsettled voices, overt author surrogates, and unreconcilled plots.

That's the nitty-gritties of editing.

Reviews. First of all, most readers make up their own minds about what they'll read or won't. In many instances, it's a nonconscious process of selection. Marketplace conventions "code" covers, blurbs, jacket flap synopses, front matter, back matter to appeal to target audience brackets. Savvy book buyers seek out secondary discourse, reviews, blog commentary, Google Books and Amazon and B&N book sampling before purchase.

The growth area up and coming for promotional reviewers is in online reviewing and commentary. Good reviewers generate promotional buzz. Excellent reviewers write enticing pitches, bracket content for target audiences' interests, and report on accesses and sources. Promotional reviewers don't bad mouth like a restaurant critic panning the local bistro. But they don't sugar coat a sow's ear either.

I foresee promotional reviewing emerging as a new art form due to technology.

I foresee freelance developmental editing emerging as a new art form due to technology.

I foresee some heavy hitting online review and editor personalities emerging as superstar celebrities, the way film and sports and entertainment cultures celebrate superstardom.

I foresee more people reading, more people writing, more people reviewing, and more people editing, and all turning a worthy profit as well as enjoying the rewarding satisfactions of contributing to the arts.

Fawn Neun said...

You're being aggressively reasonable again, Nathan. Stop it--the other agents will start talking about you.

Publishing is beginning to follow the music industry. And there's a lot of crap being peddled by their gatekeeper system as well. Sony kill dreams and Universal buries them. Musicians are getting better feedback directly from their audience. Even if it's only 40 people in a gutted church. A couple of those gigs, and soon they have a 1,000. They sell direct to the fans, online. Word of mouth spreads. They make an experience of it, they provide artist/audience interaction.

Criminey, look at Amanda Palmer and how much her career has taken off in the last two years. She's not rolling in dough, but she's undoubtedly successful.

Konrath may be the AFP of the book world.

And I agree with someone else here who noted the errors, bad editing, half-hearted distribution, and passive aggressive marketing--the big houses are no longer your assurance of quality.

Lisa said...

I appreciate the article, but like many others, am still unsure of what to do with my own manuscript. Maybe I should go over it one more time, then try this digital publishing thing.

I found one posted comment here offensive. The commenter doubted that, "people will have the knowledge and experience to pick great books," and "there is something to be said about people not being able to continually choose only books that speak to their own biases. I worry that people's reading will become even more insular than it already is."

Holy Cow. That type of thinking is truly scary. Not only does it carry the 'superior' tone of one who feels elite and believes he knows better than the 'masses,' it brings to mind the "insular" thinking of oppressive dictatorships who have little understanding of the freedom and independence we cherish in America. It is a lack respect for those that think and feel differently on issues. I sure hope this person is never in a position to decide what the rest of us can and can't read.

Fortunately, his statement was also naive. We already have, as you noted, a wealth of reading material at our disposal and the freedom to choose what we wish from it. The lack of digital material does not diminish our ability to read what we want to read.

The one thing that confused me about the article itself, though, was that you were "standing in a rice field." From what I know about rice fields - frequently referred to as "rice paddies," I'm having a hard time picturing that, much less shooting at dirt clods. Perhaps there is a method of growing rice I haven't heard about.

Now I have to decide if that bit of knowledge was overlooked due to lack of available books on modern rice agriculture, or my own insular tendencies to avoid boring reading material.

Susan Schaab said...

A very cogent argument. I, for one, appreciate the insight. Even though I have a technology background, I’m having difficulty embracing the idea of the digital book. I don’t think I could enjoy reading an entire novel from an electronic display of bytes but apparently, as usual, I am in the minority. My debut thriller novel, rejected by many of the best agents, was shortlisted for a Debut Dagger by the Crime Writers’ Association and won first prize in the Genre Fiction Category of one of Writer’s Digest international contests, among other awards. I’m wondering now whether it should be released as an e-book. Many people have told me that it would make a great movie and has a timely plot: identity theft. Would an e-book release help to get the attention of a film agent?

Anonymous said...

c. 1450. Very, very early publishing industry conference.

"No, really, Hans. We'll no longer be constrained by anything when it comes to print media--seriously! Anything and everything in print, now that we don't have to funnel everything through those pesky monks and their slow copying skills. No more gatekeepers, no more rejections. This printing press thing is crazy-awesome!"

Well, almost how it went down.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Fascinating post, thank you. Thanks also to Mystery Robin for those interesting quotes by Martin Luther and Edgar Allan Poe.

Nathan Bransford said...


Ha - I wasn't usually standing literally in the field, but on the small levees that separate fields (we call them checks). Because yes, while it's growing rice fields are flooded. And since it's extremely dry in Northern California during the summer there are lots of huge dirt clods.

Jen said...

Any thoughts on where this will leave literary fiction?? Most of the self-published works that seem to make it "big" appear to be more genre oriented. Plus, lit fiction writers, I think, are more wedded to the notion of traditional publishing as a marker of quality--and I think lit fiction writers "need" that approval more, based on the hoops they jump through to try to get short stories published in literary journals, many decent ones which now charge submission fees.

So psychologically I think just putting your work out there will be harder for the literary fiction writer (who has probably been over his work a million times and is unlikely to have the sorts of errors people still assume self-publsihed works have) because he needs outward approval. Couple with the smaller audience to begin with for lit fiction, I'm just wondering how this will go...

Magdalena Munro said...

Second (and last post) on this thread:

I am surprised by the number of people that think the quality of books/writing will take a downward spiral come the deluge of self publishing. No offense to Nathan or other literary agents, but I have long felt that the publishing industry in the US often caters to the lowest common denominator (as does television and the film industry) because, sadly, the lowest common denominator sells.

How many people even read Ulysses any more? I am not trying to sound like a snob but the greats are greats for a reason and I'm curious if anyone that's been on a bestseller list in the last 5-10 years will be compared to the greats in a few generations. Maybe, but probably not.

For me, I choose to read/buy books that are short listed for the Booker or other similar awards as I trust the judges (vs. literary agents which have to represent works that will SELL) that don't care about capitalism as much as they do about quality. Sorry for the rant and I hope I didn't offend anyone!

Jen J. said...

I've been reading your blog for several months now, so, first of all, thank you for being so open and for sharing your knowledge and words advice for those of us learning how to navigate the world of professional publishing. For someone who is accustomed to the world of peer-reviewed scientific publishing, even with months of reading and research under my belt, I know I still have a lot to learn and I very much appreciate your insights.

This post in particular really helps to put the position of any agent into perspective. With electronic submissions, there isn't even the cost of a stamp to dissuade an author from querying a plethora of agents, but 20,000 letters a year for one agent is more than I ever envisioned. It's rather mind boggling actually (good heavens, how do you have time to do anything but read queries???). I can't even begin to imagine how difficult it must be to find that diamond in the rough and how many manuscripts come close but are just not quite what you're looking for. Even those that are close will get that much-loathed rejection letter.

As the digital deluge grows, I think the role of the agent and, in fact, the role of everyone in the 'print funnel' will be to separate the wheat from the chaff. Variety is a wonderful thing and the digital age will allow those who can't pursue their dreams in the traditional manner to still produce and share their work on the global stage with those who are interested. But now, more than ever, the 'traditional' industry will have a more selective role and will be instrumental in bringing forward the best of the best.

Thank you for a very thought provoking post...

Yat-Yee said...

Your calm and hopeful tone is so welcomed in this discussion. Thank you.

J. M. Strother said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. As trusted filters develop, be they review sites, sales stats, etc, readers will come to find ways to sift through the noise of all the available titles flooding the market and find the real gems. Writers will have more direct access to markets and readers. Roles will certainly change, for everyone involved. It will be interesting to see how it all evolves.

John Jack said...

Just by way of a side note.

Before copyright laws had some force of law behind them protecting writers' interests, literary agents were copyright pirates.

Publish a popular book through serial publication first, then through a bookmaker, and before the first production run is even off the presses the darn thing is wending its way to all corners of the globe. Literary agents were first in line at new releases, if not pirating from the galleys or piecing together serial publications. That was a hundred years or so ago and had been going on since Guttenberg. Cultural evolution in practice as a consequence of the spread of technology.

maven said...

Very good article that will be debated longer than you think, since there are emotion-laded opinions on both sides. E-publishing and self-publishing satisfy the growing need of people to share their writing, and since none of us can be objective about our own work, we could make the mistake of presenting material before it's ready.

Ermo said...

Nathan -

This change bothers me on two levels.

First, there's something to being published that confirms that "you made it." It's like taking that first Major League at bat. All that work and all that time has paid off and you've been recognized by professionals in the field. More than that, a finite few get to that level so you will always have that satisfaction regardless of the success of your book.

Second, I don't really trust "the masses." The masses have already taken over music. It's getting increasingly harder to turn on the radio and NOT hear somebody associated with American Idol or some other fabricated art producer. I'd hate to see the literary world dominated by generic books. Maybe it already is. Maybe I'm old fashioned. I just like to know that the art I'm reading was created by somebody with a passion and an idea rather than a corporation with $$ sign goals.

John Wiswell said...

This post makes a lot of sense, Nathan. Your most interesting point is what traditional publishing workers will still provide in the new digital publishing landscape. I'd love for you to expand that paragraph into a full article some day - it's something that needs expounding from people in the know, like yourself.

Floundering said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
brianw said...


I'm looking for some advice. I have the first of four novels in a YA Fantasy series finished. I have put it through the hands of some really talented people, and I think it is good, and extremely marketable. That being said, I would really like to get it in the hands of an agent, because I'm sure a true professional could do amazing things with it and my MS would be so much better.

This is my first novel, and I have no credentials. I have yet to hear a positive response from an agent (0 for 9 so far).

Do you recommend self-publishing or continuing in the traditional route?

Part of me feels like I would be selling my dreams short if I publish myself. And call me old-fashioned, but I've dreamed of holding an actual, physical copy of my book in my hands, complete with my name on it.

Advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for this blog and opening up the clouded world of the publishing industry to regular schmucks like me.

Anonymous said...

I think now is a time of great change and your follow up comments helped me to understand more plainly what wasn't expressed in the article about your personal approach. It's always a good time to become a better writer and navigator of the rich spectrum of life experiences aye, that never changes.

Nathan Bransford said...


Since at this point 95% of the market is still print, and the best way of reaching the most people via print is via a traditional publisher, and since the best way to reach a traditional publisher is via an agent, I would still advise people to try and find an agent first.

Times are changing though, and there are authors who have had great experiences self-publishing electronically. So I think it's up to everyone, and don't forget about this post on whether you should self-publish.

Marjorie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marjorie said...

The big money is still in traditional publishing. Sarah Silverman received a 2 million dollar advance for her book, "The Bedwetter."

If an author just wants to write and share his work without thought to profit, many avenues are available: create a blog and post the book, self-publish, and in the summer of 2010... perhaps consider "pubit." All of these other options, in my opinion, will generate small financial gain.

And the traditional market has changed. Look at the NY Times list of bestsellers. You have two books that are listed: "Skinny Italian," (I love love love Teresa Giudice), and "Sh*t My Dad Says." I think I can correctly conclude the first book was co-authored? Maybe not.

"Sh*t My Dad Says!" I don't know... It is marketing genius. It gives the public what they want, I suppose. Times sure have changed. Years ago, that crap would have been used for toilet paper. It is the sort of note-passing stuff that used to get kids sent to the principal's office. It is the stuff that would make a Bill Paley turn in his grave. I showed some of that to my friend and he said, "This is proof the end is near."

I taught grade 6 and my students could write more creative, impressive, and imaginative work. I do not like referencing the material of other authors, but it was necessary to make a point regarding this topic.

Jack Kerouac layered his work with profound themes. J.D. Salinger knew the art of true wit. And Charles Dickens? He never would stand a chance today.

Yes, indeed. Publishing has changed because what is published seems to be determined not by quality but by what will sell. So authors should be happy they have these other options. At least it gets the job done. It gets the work out there.

But in the end, it's sort of sad, huh?

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't know, it seems to me that books like SHIT MY DAD SAYS have always always been published. We remember the classics from every era, but it's not like those were the only books published, and in most cases they weren't the most popular either.

Cara Holman said...

Nathan—I found this blog post heartening. It is very important to delineate between those who write and market books as a business concern, and those who write primary as a means of self-expression and connection with others. As a writer, and yes, a cancer survivor with a story to tell, I would be perfectly satisfied if I ever published a book that sold thousands, hundreds, heck— even tens of copies. Success is in the eyes of the beholder. What might be a piddling number of sales for a large, profit-driven publishing house, sure doesn’t sound like silence to me!

The Red Angel said...

Really great post with a lot of speculation and insight about the future of publishing. People say that the printing industry's going down in the dumps. Maybe so, but publishing and literature itself is certainly here to stay. :D


ray said...

Very nice, Nathan. Your sensitivity and caring show, and that's why we like you.

Ray Rhamey

eddd said...

This makes sense... but there's one glitch in the "filtering". Even if you have a brilliant book, it can be very hard to generate sales equivalent to those for an awful book pushed by a publisher: and there's no guarantee that a publisher will pick up a book that has poked its head above the water level. I've sold 4,000 books since September, almost all at primary schools, all through my own efforts. But I can't persuade any publisher or any agent to represent me...!


I had a neighbor in Baton Rouge 30-something years ago who used his air rifle to shoot stinging caterpillars on the trunks of his trees. These buggers have prickly, pronged stingers that cover the top and sides of their whole bodies. A stinging, burning sensation occurs at each point these little spears come in contact with your skin, occurrences which by design almost always happen in multiples. Many people wrap foil around the bottom of their trees to make it hard for the little pests to climb up them. I think John used the air rifle method for its therapeutic benefits. I can see how dirt clods can provide education and entertainment, as well as therapy. It is no wonder that you are so normal and well adjusted except, of course, for your monkey fetish.


I really liked your post. It was very informative. Equilibrium will prevail. Writers can get their work out there by mainstream or otherwise, and readers will have broader choices. The Wild West lives.

Anonymous said...

re: Agents aren't middle men

yes, hadn't thought of that, point taken

Bernard S. Jansen said...

"...on the other end of the letter there's a person out there whose day I'm probably ruining..."

I don't want to make this any harder for you Nathan, but I'm certain it's more than just the writer's day that's ruined by a rejection letter. Short story rejections ruin my day. I imagine a novel rejection would ruin my week, or even month.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, surfing the wave of internet free-for-all economics. I hate to be the wet blanket at this beach party, but will our reading lists soon be filled with the literary equivalent of viral YouTube videos?

Say goodbye to Moby Dick, Fahrenheit 451, and Beloved. Say hello to Mr. Hands and The Dramatic Prairie Dog.

To me, it looks like publishing is suffering the same fate as New Orleans: inadequate levees in the face of a huge storm surge. The problem with the "surf the storm surge" laissez-faire approach is that eventually you still end up with a giant, stinking, polluted, unliveable disaster zone that will have to be either cleaned up or abandoned.

(And, in this analogy, online booksellers who are enabling unfiltered self-publishing play the role of BP's fountain of toxic muck... enjoy your beach reading!)

Victorine said...

Great post, Nathan. I totally agree with you. As an Indie author who just put my book up on the Kindle near the end of April, I can say I'm super pleased with the results. I've sold over 300 ebooks so far, which means instead of my book sitting gathering edust on my hard drive, it's getting read and enjoyed. That's why I wrote it. And for those who wonder how to know if your book is good enough? Join, the other writers there will tell you what you need to change. My book is totally different now from my first draft because of the great advice from the writers there.

Ulysses said...

... yes, but does it beat shooting books?

Orlando said...

After I finished what I believe could be a novel, I began doing research on how to get it published and found self publishing as an option. However, I also found that agents frown on this, which is why I'm so surprised to find this article in your blog.

I've found, from my research, that they do provide training and equipment for you to market your books. They also provide editing assistance and much more if all their package information is true. It all depends on what you pay for. And like everything else you do have to shop around and make sure you get the best deal available.

Just so that I understand, are you suggesting that if we can't get an agent that why consider self publishing? Please confirm if this is what you're saying.

Anonymous said...

That many thousands of authors are currently uploading their books onto Kindle or iBooks, or self-publishing, means that many thousands have faith in the new system, and are happy with it. Seeing their work ‘out there,’ regardless of the quality, is sufficient for them, and rewards the vanity, if not the bank balance, and there's nothing wrong with that
Agents must be rubbing their hands in glee as we siphon ourselves off into this digital ocean, and praying that many thousands more of us will, like lemmings disappear over the edge of the cliff into oblivion. This way, at least only those of us unknowns who are true believers in the value of the review process will continue to submit our work to them. I say ‘unknowns,’ because I do think that going the digital/self-publishing route when you are an established author would seem an excellent way to go—anonymity not being a problem, and trading on previous acclaim, a definite plus.
For myself, an unknown, I was forever(?) put off everything but the traditional route, when approached at a craft fair by some poor schmuck sticking his self-published book under my nose, expecting me to buy it. I’m a writer, not a rep—not even for myself, and the idea of going out and cold selling, or expecting my relatives and friends to read, let alone buy my work, is abhorrent to me. Those who ask can, and have read my own printed-out copies (one copy of each) of my novels—all five of them thus far (I’m a compulsive novelist)—but that’s as far as I’ll go on my own behalf. I work very hard to produce what I hope is an exciting, polished page turner that I hope someone will like to read, but as someone else said here, we are incapable of critiquing our own books objectively, and at the moment, despite papering my walls with rejection slips, I am unwilling to take that leap of faith without a professional setting his or her stamp of approval on it.

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